Hunting with the "Off Brands"
Fred Jagow with his American Water Spaniel

Fred Jagow (Mr. 16 gauge)


Off brands. It is a term generally used to describe a product that is not as popular or well received as others, but is just as suitable for use and, on some occasions, can exceed the qualities of the product it is replacing.They are usually less expensive because they don't have fancy packaging or a greedy corporate conglomerate behind them.

Off brands can be found in just about every type of goods available: firearms, breakfast cereal, automobile tires, ammunition, gasoline clothing.......the list can go on forever.

You can even include gun dogs as well, although a better title would probably be "off breeds" rather than "off brands". The idea is the same, however. There are dozens upon dozens of hunting breeds out there, yet only a handful seem to be well known or well used. While Labrador retrievers, English Springer spaniels, English setters, and German shorthair pointers may be the most popular, there are a host of other hunting breeds that will fit the bill, and sometimes do it better than the more well known breeds.

My first dog was an "off breed". He was an American water spaniel, and I became interested in the breed after I had some difficulty locating a local breeder of English Springer spaniels. I became somewhat disillusioned when litter after litter was either "show stock" or "pet stock", meaning none of the parents hunted. To make matters worse, it seemed that the breeders didn't know the difference. I asked one breeder if his litter was from hunting stock. "Sure", he replied, "They're a hunting breed". I asked a few more questions, like what type of shotgun he preferred, where he hunted, ect. I became quickly obvious that not only did his dogs not hunt, but neither did he.

I'm primarily a waterfowl hunter, with some occasional upland hunting (rough shooting) thrown in. At that time, I was hunting out of a very unstable 15 foot canoe, so I wanted a smaller dog (which is why I was looking for a ESS). However, I also wanted a dog with as little white on it's coat as possible, as I wanted the dog to be hidden from the keen eyes of passing wildfowl. Just by chance, I happened to read an article on the American water spaniel in a magazine, and it seemed that this was the breed I was looking for: a dog of small stature that was completely brown in color and whose coat could protect it from the elements while fowling. Having never seen a live dog, I did a lot of research into the breed (remember: these were pre-internet days), including looking for breeders. I found a whole three! Since I never saw the breed at any of the dog shows I went to, I assumed that most, if not all, of these dogs were of working, "hunting" stock. I wasn't disappointed.

I got my pup and he was everything that I had hoped for, and then some! He was a retrieving fool at 10 weeks of age, learned quickly, and loved to flush birds. His low profile and dark color help him blend in, even in the slightest cover. He would sit quietly between my legs while I paddled the canoe in the marsh, and he still left plenty of room for the decoys. In a similar trip with a companions larger and somewhat unruly Labrador didn't go quite as well; October marsh water can be quite invigorating, especially if one gets submerged in it!

So should you choose an "off breed" for your next hunting companion? The answer is a firm "maybe". The purpose of this article is not to espouse the virtues of off breeds over more popular, traditional breeds such as the Labrador or English Springer spaniel, but rather to let the reader know that there are other options in the hunting dog world other than the well known standards. If one has never trained a dog before, then a biddable Lab might just be the right dog for you.

The first step in deciding whether an "off breed" is for you or not is to sit down and make a SPECIFIC list of what you want the perfect dog to be: color, size, temperament, what type of hunting conditions it should handle, what type of game it will be hunting and in what proportions, ect. You also need to take a look at other conditions as well: Where will the dog live? (home with a large yard, or small apartment?) Who will take care of the dog? Are there any children in the equation? Not just your own kids, but nieces, nephews, grandkids, neighbor's kids, ect. Use this list as a doesn't make much sense to get a cocker spaniel if you are primarily a goose shooter; by the same token, it doesn't make much sense to get a male Chesapeake Bay Retriever if you hunt primarily snipe and woodcock and live in a small apartment.

While I have yet to see a sporting breed that didn't like children, there are some breeds that tend to do better with older children as opposed to toddlers. Keep this in mind while researching your selection.

Next, check out one of the various books on dog breeds. Most have a good photo or two, along with a small list of information relative to the breed's origin, temperament, size, color, and associated physical ailments (such as hip dysplasia or entropion). After using these sources to narrow your choices down to a few breeds, start looking for more detailed information on the breeds you have chosen. They may have had books written on them, although with the more obscure breeds, this probably won't be an option. Others might require a fair amount of research in the library looking up old resources. You can get additional information from the breed's club and internet sources. I would caution you to be aware that it is the responsibility of the breed club to promote the breed, so everything said here will probably be more in a positive light than a negative one. Check with the breed clubs to see if they have a list of breeders, and then go and visit them if possible. Sometimes the breed clubs will sponsor field trials or "fun trials" where people with an interest in the dogs will get together for some fun. It is a good place not only to view dogs, but to ask questions as well. You can actually see the dogs work, as well as get an idea of their physical appearance and capabilities.

The next step after you decide on a breed is to find a breeder....not always an easy thing. Two things to keep in mind is that because some of these dogs are somewhat rare, the cost can be a little higher and they will have a smaller gene pool, which means that diseases like hip dyslplasia, entropion, ect, ,might be more prevalent with that particular breed than another. It is a wise idea that when you put down a deposit for a pup that you get a guarantee that if any of these conditions shows up in the first year you can get your money back or a replacement pup. Most consciences breeders will want to make sure that they know of poor genetics in their stock, and will do what is necessary to correct any flaws.

For a lot of people, one of the more popular breeds will do just fine. After all, they are popular for a reason. However, there are a lot of good hunting breeds out there that are less well known and are just as deserving of a "hunting home". It would be a shame to loose some of these breeds to obscurity because of a lack of knowledge. They add a nice change to the hunting scene, and for people such as myself who find Labrador retrievers just to "vanilla", even the chocolate ones, it's nice to have a variety. After all, variety is the spice of life!

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