by John Jeanneney (April 2006 for Full Cry)
At least two breeds of German origin have been imported into the United States specifically for tracking wounded deer. Wirehaired dachshunds from Germany came into the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Much more recently Bavarian Mountain Hounds, which were developed as tracking specialists, have been arriving in response to the legalizations and expansion of blood tracking into many new states.
I was in right in the middle of the first invasion of wirehaired dachshunds, so I had an inside view on what went on. Back in the early days of Deer Search we had some pretty good tracking dogs, and some of us began breeding puppies without much understanding of what we were doing. Within three or four generations the breeding program was going down hill. Very good dogs were occasionally being produced, but the majority did not show much aptitude for tracking. In my own litters I found only about 20% that pleased me. It’s curious, but not completely surprising that almost none of the wirehaired dachshunds tracking successfully today trace back to those imported wires of the sixties and seventies. Those were the original dogs responsible for launching wounded deer tracking in the Northeast. What went wrong? Why was it necessary to take a fresh start with new imports in the 1990s?
At the beginning we were dealing with a small gene pool of standard wirehaired dachshunds that were separate and distinct from any wires that came down from lines that had been in the United States or England for a long time. They were really two different types of dogs although all were registered as “dachshunds” by the AKC.
There were two outstanding bitches, my Clary vom Moosbach and Don Hickman’s Adelheide von Spurlaut. These two bitches were as much co-founders of Deer Search as Don and I were. They put wirehaired dachshunds on the map, at least in our small area of eastern New York State, and they demonstrated to skeptical observers, and the Fish and Wildlife people, that good dogs were capable of finding deer that could not be found by any other means.
Clary and Addie were products of random outcrosses to German studs belonging to a German war bride, who was widowed a few years after she came to live in the United States. It is mostly luck that both of these bitches were outstanding; they were naturals, and educated their owner/handlers in the art of tracking wounded deer. The problem was that Clary and Addie were never able to produce many offspring that were in their league in terms of ability. As is often the case with out-crossed dogs, the second and third generations did not have a concentration of the genes, which had made their parents great. Breeding the descendants of Clary with the descendants of Addie did not seem to produce a high percentage of good dogs either.
The breeders in Deer Search all went through a period of outcrossing to any wires from Germany that they could find. Our naïve thinking at the time was, “If it’s German, it’s got to be good.” Of course, many of the German dogs that we located around the country had been purchased as pets from German breeders who were trying to get rid of them to Americans who did not know any better. Generally, what was lacking in many of these pet dogs was a strong desire to track, combined with the calm steady temperament and patience needed to work out old, cold lines. Correct double coats tended to deteriorate from tough and wiry to soft and fluffy. Curiously, the size of the dogs went up as the quality was coming down. After two generations, almost of them were well over the 9 kilo (20 pound) German standard.
A myth prevailed within Deer Search that bitches were much better trackers than males. This seemed to be based on good evidence and experience, but almost no one tried seriously to evaluate or develop males. For the backyard breeders the male in a breeding really didn’t matter much. The best stud was simply the one closest in distance to your own house. Why not? Breeding dogs should be as simple as breeding rabbits.
By 1990 there were more than 75 German wirehaired dachshunds either tracking and running some rabbits or living in pet homes. Most of them were related, some pretty closely. Every dog, like every human, carries some undesirable recessive genes. Problems arise when the same undesirable genes come together from each of the parents of the litter. If the gene pool is small, the chances of that happening are greater. You get puppies, which actually have the defect because they got it from each of their recessive carrier parents.
In the case of the German wire colony in America a deadly genetic malady, osteogenesis imperfecta (O.I.), appeared. Puppies that manifested this disease had brittle bones because the collagen that held the bone material together had a molecular defect. Puppy teeth, when they came through the gums, were a translucent pink instead of a healthy white.
Translucent teeth are one of the symptoms of osteogenesis imperfecta.
These pups were usually incapable of living to maturity, and they were put down young as soon as a diagnosis was certain. As luck would have it, the recessive gene for O.I. came in from four or five different dogs imported from Germany. At the time, the Germans did not recognize the disease; they simply put down unthrifty puppies, which kept the disease under control. In recent years the Germans have taken serious steps to eliminate the breeding of dogs who have proved to be carriers of O.I. There is no way of eliminating all the carriers of O.I. because there is not way of identifying them until a DNA test is developed. However, in the United States puppies affected by the disease seldom appeared once we understood how it was transmitted.
This genetic problem did not seriously compromise the “old gene pool” of German wires in America. From a hunter/tracker’s point of view the weaknesses in temperament and “hunt” were more disturbing. Dogs in the third and fourth generation after the great founding bitches often had to be coaxed to track and sometimes they just didn’t want to do it. Desire, especially early desire, is strongly determined by genetics, and it just wasn’t there in many cases. I can remember working a veteran dog right behind a young underachiever. The idea was to get the young dog to track out of competitiveness, so that the old veteran wouldn’t have a chance to take over. Today, we don’t have to play these kinds of games.
Some of us sent bitches back to Germany to be bred to well advertised stud dogs with many tracking titles. We also formed a partnership to purchase a well-known and much-used German stud, whose owner subsequently had been challenged concerning the true pedigree of that dog. None of these steps really turned the situation around for us, although one son of the famous stud from Germany produced consistently well when bred to a certain bitch. This son, named Cato, was, 2½ times the weight of his little German sire and he did not track very well himself! However, bred to the right bitch, Cato produced some excellent dogs.
What we learned from our many experiences is that a great stud dog may or may not produce well from a certain bitch. It not just a matter of comparing strong working pedigrees, and putting the best together in a new litter. Breeding the “best” of what we had to the “best” that we could find, did not necessarily work. We found that you had to keep trying until you found what did work. That doesn’t sound very scientific, but it was much more effective than a theoretically perfect breeding on paper.
Our experience with one of our own bitches, a German import Gerte vom Dornenfeld, is typical of what we learned. Gerte came to America as the old German gene pool was dwindling. She was very intelligent and had an excellent nose; her weakness was a certain lack of toughness and drive. To preserve her good qualities and to improve on her weakness we bred her to two different studs of the old gene pool. The offspring were not as good as she was. Then my wife Jolanta, who is a trained geneticist, heard about a Czech-born wire owned by an old Czech tanner on Vancouver Island off the Pacific Coast of Canada. The Staccato kennel, from which “Zalud” came, was well known for producing very hard dogs for tracking and for underground work on the big East European foxes. We bred Gerte to Zalud, and this bitch, who had never produced anything special, produced the best litter we had bred up to that time. The pups became tough but careful workers very focused on the scent line. We shipped Gerte out a year later for a second breeding, which also produced well. The Zalud/Gerte breedings marked the transition from the old gene pool, which was dieing out, to the new, more successful dachshund gene pool that is expanding today.
Gerte was one of the key dachshunds of the genetic transition in the ‘90s. She bayed these two red foxes underground and then tracked the wounded buck, all in four hours.
The problems that we had could not all be blamed on our ignorance and backyard breeding practices. Underlying the history of breeding mistakes were personal tragedies that curtailed promising breeding experiments. For example the death of Don Hickman ended the activities of one of the most active and dedicated Deer Search breeders. There was no one to replace him. Don was also a superb handler, who could get more out of a dog than anyone else.
For tracking dog people there is something to be learned from this story of mistakes and bad luck with the first gene pool. It can happen again when small numbers of a European breed are imported and then interbred. At the beginning of this article we mentioned the Bavarian Mountain Hound. The new American breeders of this great hound seem a lot smarter than the tracking dachshund people were twenty years ago. But no doubt they will face problems similar to what we experienced. Here are some suggestions:
- Don’t believe that all dogs of a certain breed, or from a certain foreign country, are good ones. Unless you have excellent connections, you will not have the opportunity to buy the best. - You can get lucky with intelligent outcrosses, but it is hard to carry your good fortune into the following generations.
- Be aware of the pedigrees, the faults and the strengths of the dogs you use in your breeding program. This is especially important for minimizing the appearance of genetic defects. It will also give you a better chance of introducing the working qualities you are looking for.
- Never breed two dogs that have the same physical or psychological weaknesses.
- The best stud dog is not necessarily the one who lives closest to you.
In wirehaired dachshunds, it was the old gene pool that helped introduce the idea in America that a dachshund could be more than a companion dog and couch potato. As a group, these dogs did not entirely live up to their early promise. There were always some very useful dogs, but the percentage of good ones was not what we wanted. However, much was learned, and probably I was the one who learned the most. We’ll continue this story of tracking dachshunds in another installment.