Poodles as working dogs? Can it ever happen?
There’d be some leg-pulling if you took a poodle to a shoot but these intelligent canines were the first water dogs, says David Tomlinson
Is there such a thing as poodles as working dogs? Legends are often based on rumours, and rumours are seldom based on facts, so I’ve never been quite sure whether the legend of Alex, the red-bearded Scotsman, is true. According to the story, Alex was a familiar figure on driven shoots on the Welsh borders, wearing a kilt complete with sporran and carrying a 16-bore Stephen Grant hammergun that had reputedly once belonged to King Edward VII.
Alex was always accompanied by his black retriever, Dougal. Now Dougal was no ordinary gundog: invariably described as a giant poodle, he looked all the more impressive because he featured a so-called lion clip.
The lion clip — a completely shaven body, except for the joints and what might be called the mane — is reputed to have evolved when poodles were working gundogs, used primarily for retrieving ducks. It was thought that when their dense, curly coats became soaked, it impaired their ability to swim, hence the clip. The untrimmed areas were left to protect the dog. Like the story of Alex, I’m not sure this is factually correct — poodles have waterproof coats — but it makes a good read.
History of poodles as working dogs
As far as ‘hunting poodles’ go in the UK, there are very few. Across the pond, however, they are a little more common. I imagine that some of you reading this will have seen the episode of Duck Dynasty, an American reality series that follows the duck hunting Robertson family, where Uncle Si gets himself a poodle. He is roundly mocked until the dog comes up trumps while out dove hunting.
Even Uncle Si is impressed by its retrieves, but not so long ago poodles as working dogs were popular in the field. In his book, Gundogs, Their Past, Their Performance and Their Prospects, respected canine historian David Hancock notes that “anyone looking for a water retriever with instinctive skills, inherited prowess, a truly waterproof coat and freedom from faulty genes should look at the standard poodle”.
He did add that if you do take on a poodle as a gundog, you should be prepared for the ignorant comments of “one-generation sportsmen”, unaware of the poodle’s sporting heritage. Genotype One of the reasons why Hancock admired the standard poodle was because the breed comes from what he describes as a disease-free genotype. Sadly, modern standard poodles are hardly disease free, with eye disorders and hip dysplasia the most common problems. But they suffer from far fewer of the hereditary complaints that plague labradors, for example. They are also unusually long-lived for such a large breed.
Nine out of 10 people will tell you that the poodle has French origins but, according to the Kennel Club, its home is in Germany, where it was bred as a water retriever. Interestingly, the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the umbrella organisation for the leading European kennel clubs (though not our own), believes that the breed descends from the French barbet. Dogs that look suspiciously like poodles appear in the drawings of German artist Albrecht Dürer, as well as Dutch artist Rembrandt and Spain’s Goya. They were certainly familiar dogs in the courts of the French kings. Whatever its nationality, Hancock believed that the standard poodle is the “living example of the ancient water dog” and that its blood is behind that of many contemporary breeds. These include our own curlycoated retriever, the Wetterhoun of the Netherlands, Portuguese and Spanish water dogs, the Italian lagotto Romagnolo, and both Irish and American water spaniels. The German for poodle is pudel and the German pudelpointer is a versatile HPR produced originally by crossing hunting poodles with English pointers. Unlike the pudel, the pudelpointer remains a popular shooting dog in Germany, but it has never become established here.
Quite why the poodle (or pudel) lost favour as a hunting dog is a mystery and none of the authorities on the breed can offer a satisfactory answer. We do know that in the 19th century it became a popular circus dog and a status symbol of the wealthy. It seems that by the 20th century few people still worked poodles, but they became increasingly popular as pets, particularly as smaller varieties became established.
Today the poodle is classified by both British and American Kennel Clubs as utility/non-sporting, which seems a little unfair on a breed with far more sporting ancestry than most. What everyone does agree on is that the poodle is an exceptionally intelligent dog. According to the American Kennel Club, only the border collie is brighter.
This intelligence makes the poodle highly trainable, though this is not necessarily a great advantage for a gundog. One professional gundog trainer I spoke to told me he has twice attempted to train standard poodles as working dogs but neither was particularly successful. “I found that they were exceptionally quick to learn,” he said, “but that they would soon become bored. They would retrieve competently, would sit on the peg and stop on the whistle, but they always gave the impression that such behaviour was a little beneath them, and that there were other more important things they would rather be doing.”
However, you can hardly damn an entire breed on the performance of only two dogs and there are enough people who have trained poodles as gundogs to suggest that this is a breed with real ability. It isn’t only Uncle Si who takes a poodle hunting in the US. They are relatively common there among duck hunters and for the past 30 years breeders have been selecting the best retrieving dogs and those with the strongest hunting traits. The poodle is having a bit of a Stateside moment.
According to Upland Gundog, a North American website devoted to shooting dogs, standard poodles make great hunting animals. “If a dog has both intelligence and biddability, the sky is the limit to what you and a poodle can accomplish,” it says. “The breed is highly intelligent, versatile and deliberate in the way it works, using the wind and terrain to its advantage.”
The article says that poodles show “high levels of drive and athleticism while working a field, letting their nose guide them, with methodical quartering and excellent bird-finding ability. Because they are invariably strong swimmers, they also make a great choice for waterfowl hunting.”
In the UK, I suspect poodles will remain rarities in the shooting field. In all my time, I’ve never seen one working. The Editor of this magazine had one for a while but he tells me the dog was very gun-shy and showed little interest in game. I have, however, seen labradoodles — first crosses between working-bred labradors and standard poodles — acquit themselves with credit, which is hardly surprising when you consider their parentage.
Cockerpoos have potential as shooting dogs, too, though they are generally a cross with a miniature poodle and a cocker. (Read more on cockerpoos as gundogs.) I’ve never met an English springer crossed with a standard poodle — a sproodle? — but that would be an interesting mix.
For anyone who fancies a project with a difference, training a standard poodle to the gun has potential. I would rate a poodle as much the best bet of all the non-gundog breeds for such a job. Standard poodles are, however, a relatively scarce breed here, with around 1,000 puppies registered annually. To put the figure in context, it’s about the same as for the flatcoated retriever. Prices for puppies are high, in the £2,000 to £2,500 category, but that’s not much different from the current cost of a working-bred labrador puppy.
The other alternative would be to import a working-bred poodle from the US, because you would be benefiting from the years of selective breeding that have gone into producing proper hunting poodles. I’m not sure, though, whether I would recommend working such a dog in a traditional clip.
That said, wiping a labrador owner’s eye, on a blind retrieve, with your apricot poodle in a fancy clip would be a moment of triumph.