Story and photos by Ben Brettingten
One hunter’s honest thoughts on going from a versatile breed to pure pointers
Breed loyalty has always been a staple for as long as hunters have pursued their respective quarry, and it will most likely continue to be this way. But is the grass greener on the other side? What’s it like climbing over the fence, and switching from versatile dogs to a pointer?
“We’re not getting another dog!” The bell had rung signaling the start of the bout. I had my strategy dialed and was cautiously optimistic about my chances. After winning the opening two rounds and faltering in the third, my wife’s opposition was proving to be quite steadfast. After bowing to some serious demands, the horse-trading was complete, and in a few months a pointer would be joining my kennel of drahthaars.
I’m about to make a divisive statement, and it’s often met with opposition: A versatile dog is good at everything, but not exceptional in any one discipline.
Where things got interesting is when I started talking to my friends about getting a pointer, and not another drahthaar, which was so beloved by many within my hunting circle. In a few conversations, I was even met with a Germanic superiority complex. If you’re not familiar with the Deutsch drahthaar, it’s a versatile dog used to hunt anything furred, feathered or otherwise.
I’m about to make a divisive statement, and it’s often met with opposition: A versatile dog is good at everything, but not exceptional in any one discipline. This is my reasoning — If I was strictly a coon hunter, a versatile dog couldn’t hold a candle to treeing walkers, blueticks, or black and tans. The same goes for waterfowl and Labs, or bird hunting with pointers or setters. There’s a reason why they are called specialty breeds. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google “Kennel Blindness.”
If you’re not familiar with the Deutsch drahthaar, it’s a versatile dog used to hunt anything furred, feathered or otherwise.
I don’t want to get into a breed debate, but here we go anyway: I’ve never seen a drahthaar, German wirehaired pointer, pudelpointer, or Müsterlander do what a pointer or setter can do in search of birds on the vast prairies. And if you’re sitting there ready to punch me through the page, saying “but you haven’t seen my dog,” I won’t help the situation by responding with, “I’ve heard this statement dozens of times, and I still don’t believe you.”
Of course, the breed of dog you get depends on your style of hunting, but my point is there are only three or perhaps four pointing breeds you need in terms of pure performance: pointers, setters, a versatile dog (DD, GSP, GWP), and the rest are, in my opinion, vanity breeds. It is my belief that, on average, one of the aforementioned breeds tend to be significantly better in the field than the majority of vanity breeds out there.
Now this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptional dogs in these breeds, but looking at it as a whole, I believe the pure performance bar is lower. If you love the way a particular breed looks, or have a sentimental connection, and aren’t looking for a Ferrari or F-350, it’s all good. I completely understand, it’s just not for me. Now that I’ve alienated a fair number of readers, I will tell you my story of how I came to believe that.
There’s a reason why they are called specialty breeds. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google “Kennel Blindness.”
When looking for the right dog years ago, the goal was to find one breed that could be serviceable for hunting ducks and birds, and blood-tracking deer. That’s how I landed on my first drahthaar. At the time, I was living in Mississippi and taking 3- to 4-week-long trips out west to chase birds, supplemented with local jaunts chasing woodcock and quail. However, the vast majority of my hunting revolved around ducks and deer. After a few trips west and realizing it didn’t take long to burn up a dog running them 8 hours a day for a week, I went ahead and added another drahthaar to the kennel.
After five years in the deep South, the opportunity arose to move north back to Minnesota. Here the game was about to change. Now I was only a short drive from sharpies, Huns, and pheasants on the prairie, and grouse in the big woods. I had seen enough pointers run quail in Texas and Arizona to know it was a different kind of dog, and very well suited for what I wanted to hunt and the way I wanted to hunt them.
The goal for my new pointer was to excel in the open plains of the West and compliment the closer-ranging drahts in the grouse woods. Having only had versatile dogs, I was very curious to see the differences firsthand between the breeds and the training process.
So what did I find? What are the differences and similarities between the two types?
Well, the first thing I discovered was that the bad reputation pointers have received — most likely from people regurgitating information they have heard off the internet or second-hand from others — was wrong, particularly the misnomer of pointers being unaffectionate robots.
From the dogs I had been around, this hadn’t been the case, as they had been eager for a pat on the head, or scratch on the back. After bringing home my new pointer, Amos, I confirmed it certainly wasn’t the case. He’s just as likely to goof around at the house or snuggle up next to me on the couch. However, just like the drahts, when it was time for business, affection was the last thing on his mind.
» Prey Drive
There were differences, however. One of the most significant was prey drive, and how it manifested itself in the training process. The drahts came out of the womb hell-bent on killing most living things. Squirrels, birds, raccoons, you name it, and it was their sole goal in life to get it into their mouth. While their natural desire to point was solid, it wasn’t the easiest process steadying them as they wanted to kill just as badly as I did. On the other hand, you have Amos. He had a great foundation put on him and loved finding and chasing birds after they flew. Within six months and no efforts to steady him on birds, his mindset shifted strictly to finding and standing them. He couldn’t care less about retrieving, and as soon as the birds went up, Amos was more concerned about finding the next covey.
For the pointer, his intelligence lies in his innate ability or instinct to flat out find birds and put himself into “birdy” areas.
Another main difference between the two is obedience, and I believe that has to do with my mindset and the testing system for drahthaars. There’s a set timeline for dogs being tested under the system and the training is very obedience focused. I have spent an equal amount of time training Amos as I had spent with the drahts, but 99 percent of the effort goes into three areas: going with you, coming to you, and standing still. Amos is a year old right now, and I trust him significantly more than Herb or Annie to stand a bird for 30 minutes. However, at a year old, I could put Herb into a down-stay for no reason, and he wouldn’t move a muscle until released. Yes, you can train a pointer to be just as obedient, but it didn’t come as easily as with the drahthaars.
However, just like the drahts, when it was time for business, affection was the last thing on his mind.
I also believe there are multiple different types of intelligence at play between the breeds. The ability for the German dogs to adapt from blood tracking instantly over to bird work and understand what is expected out of them is quite impressive. For the pointer, his intelligence lies in his innate ability or instinct to flat out find birds and put himself into “birdy” areas. As I mentioned, I believe there is also obedience intelligence, and the drahthaars excel in that realm.
» Heat tolerance
Heat and cold tolerance are also inherent differences between the two. Both drahthaars really don’t start to care about the temperature until the mercury hits -30 degrees F, and only because the snow sticks to their paws. Amos, the pointer, doesn’t care for temps less than -10 degrees F but on the flip side, can run for hours at 80 degrees. The drahthaars start to get hot when it hits 60 degrees. The same coat makes them less heat tolerant make up for it when busting cover. The drahts can continuously power through, with their coats holding up better to abuse. With a coat less thick, sometimes lacking coverage, a hard long run in the cattails will show on the pointer.
» Range and Stamina
The hunting pace, stamina, and range are also distinctly different between the versatile dogs and pointers. Both my drahthaars hunt at a steady pace, working the cover methodically. An average pace in quail country hovers around 7-10 mph, a speed at which they can maintain for hours, and a nod to intelligence and experience.
The pointer is a different story altogether, with an average pace of 12-15 mph, with the type of cover dictating speed. He can maintain this speed for just as long as the drahts, and therefore puts on about 30 to 40 percent more miles.
The range is also dramatically different, which is to be expected. When my male drahthaar really punches out he might be at 200 yards, and mostly due to my training, wants to come back and hunt closer. Their “pocket” seems to be 30-70 yards, which is perfect for what I initially used them for: hunting wary pheasants.
The pointer is a different story altogether, with an average pace of 12-15 mph, with the type of cover dictating speed.
Again — comparing that to Amos, who with one trill on the whistle will go upwards of 1,000 yards if the conditions are conducive. On a normal quail hunt, his “pocket” is between 200 and 500 yards. A lot of this I believe comes down to body type and mindset. Pointers are going to be slimmer and lighter-boned dogs, like a cornerback better suited for covering a lot of ground at a high rate of speed. The drahthaars would be akin to a linebacker, athletic in their own right, exceling at hammering out at the line of scrimmage. In my experience, between the ears, pointers are more independent and don’t have the desire to work as closely as a drahthaar.
At the end of the day, it came down to picking the right breed and breeding for my objectives. I wouldn’t expect a linebacker to be better suited at guarding a wide receiver, just as I wouldn’t expect a cornerback or safety to be as good at grinding it out at the line of scrimmage. I’ll most likely always have a versatile breed and a pointer or setter in my string because it works for me. If another breed suits your fancy, it works if you work it.
Ben Brettingen is a regional manager for OnX Hunt and an avid upland hunter.
This story originally appeared in the 2022 Summer Issue of the Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!