An unusual sight on British shoots, the spinone is a methodical and gentle breed. David Tomlinson wonders why it isn’t seen more often
The Italian spinone – Spinone Italiano – has been present here in Britain for almost the same time as the Brittany: the dogs first appeared at the Game Fair exactly 40 years ago, while they were first exhibited at Crufts in 1983. They soon gained an enthusiastic following in the show ring and as pets, but in the shooting field they have always been an unusual sight.
Spotting the Spinone Italiano
I’ve come across them a number of times. One of my early encounters was on a training day for Weimaraners and spinoni (the plural takes an i, not an s) in the Cambridgeshire Fens nearly 20 years ago. The dogs were working on red-legged partridges in sugar beet, and I was photographing them. I noted at the time that “trying to take photographs of dogs hunting in sugar beet is a challenge, but it did highlight the different hunting styles of the two different breeds. While the more athletic Weimaraners were fast and stylish, the spins were slower, more methodical and less exciting to watch. My photographs reflected this: despite the dull weather I did get some fine action shots of the German dogs, but didn’t do nearly as well with the Italians.”
I added that “I would have liked to have seen the spins show a greater turn of speed, but they are not galloping dogs. They have evolved over centuries to pace themselves carefully so that they can keep hunting all day. They are also at their best where birds are few. I suspect that there were rather too many partridges for them to put on their top performance.”
Spinone Italiano enthusiasts will assure you that they are not galloping dogs, but when hunting they have a distinctive trotting gait which not only allows them to cover a lot of ground, but also conserves their energy. I believe that in Italian trials, a galloping spinone is liable to be disqualified. Of course, they do occasionally break into a gallop, but their characteristic pace is their distinctive trot.
It is, perhaps, because they lack the more eye-catching pace and style of the German pointers and Hungarian vizslas that they have never become more popular here, but their hard, thick coat makes them tough and able to face the thickest of brambles or the harshest of conditions. And unlike many HPRs, most like water and are strong swimmers. They are also natural retrievers. For anyone looking for a strong rough-shooting dog, they are a breed to consider.
It’s more than a year since I last mentioned these dogs in this column but my piece on Italian gundogs prompted reader Allan Rattray to write to me. “In the article you refer to the spinone as being a rarity in the shooting field,” Allan noted, adding that “I must confess that I have never met anyone else who works their spinoni; however, I know that some are worked. I consider myself a bit of a rarity too; I have worked spinoni for more than 30 years. We got our first one, a bitch, in the late 1980s, and she, like the other nine that followed her, have been family pets, but have also worked throughout the shooting season. I’m in the unusual position of having a long-term insight into the working capabilities of this HPR breed over more than three decades.”
Allan told me that he usually handles two spinoni at a time, though on occasions he has had three. He shoots in a small syndicate in south- west Scotland where they stand one, walk one: his dogs are equally happy standing or beating, adapting well to both. I wasn’t surprised to hear that his spinoni are favourites with the other Guns on his shoot, for these Italian dogs have real character, their raffish looks and easy temperaments making them entertaining companions.
Allan insists that they have exceptional noses, as they “will point game missed by spaniels, even if the game is sitting tight”. He also emphasises that though “they do not appear to be fast dogs, they will cover a vast area of ground on a shoot day”.
Allan currently works a six-year- old dog, Luca, and an energetic two-year-old bitch, Rita. He admits that he still has some training issues to iron out with Rita, but she is proving herself to be a reliable HPR on the shoot. Allan emphasises that he’s not a professional gundog trainer, but he reckons that if he can train a spinone, anyone with common sense can do the same. He did add that though they are gentle dogs, they can be single-minded. “To get the very best from a spinone, this should always be borne in mind.”
Read our list of the best slip leads for training.