When I was a kid, I moved between two different dog and bird-hunting worlds. In one of those worlds were family members who were deeply into gun dogs: I shot my first game birds over well-bred, formally trained English setters. On the flip side, I also hunted with young friends—farm kids—whose families considered it a waste of money to own dogs strictly for hunting.
My friends' dogs were working stiffs, all medium-sized, nondescript mutts with shortish coats, curled tails, sharp muzzles and upright ears. They were taught little more than their names—one of them, I remember, was called simply “Dog”—and to ignore poultry and livestock when they weren't protecting or herding them. What they knew about hunting, they learned by trial and error, but for my friends they knew enough. In their own oddball fashions, these untutored mutts treed squirrels, ran rabbits, rousted pheasants and grouse, and fetched the occasional duck. And all of us, kids and dogs alike, had a grand time.
Yes, as a boy I lived in two hunting worlds, both classically American in their own way. Perhaps I'm overly romanticizing pieces of the past, but in truth I'd be hard pressed to say which world and, in particular, which type of dog—mutt or purebred—I loved the most. And I'm not alone in still having a special feeling for the “brown dogs” of my youth.
These days, such dogs are called “mixed breeds,” a term thought to be kinder than mutt, cur, feist and mongrel. In spite of being too politically correct, the mixed-breed descriptor tells us a bit about a dog; not much, it's true, but more than mutt, cur or feist. (Cur and feist, also spelled fice or fyce, now refer to specific types of dogs.) What “mixed breed” says is that a particular dog is the genetic blend of two or more breeds, and if that dog is bred to another, even a purebred, the result will still be a mixed breed. What the mixed-breed label doesn't tell us is what kinds of dogs are involved in the genetic makeup of any given animal.
Mixed-breed dogs that hunt run the gamut of diversity, from the relatively straightforward pointer-English setter crosses—commonly called “droppers”—to animals that look enough like Labradors, springer spaniels or setters to identify their breeding as primarily gun dog. I've hunted behind a fair number of such dogs, and when given normal training they generally earned their chow, some of them quite competently. Breed a good pointer to an equally good setter and you might end up with a pretty good dropper. Same thing with a Brittany-setter cross or a Lab-spaniel mix. (Note: Such breedings are rarely deliberate.)
But to me these crossbreeds don't represent the honest-to-God mixed breeds, the true mutts, those marvels of genetic diversity that result from generations of random breeding by free-roaming dogs. Most of the mixed breeds that have been pressed into service as gun dogs are of this type. And as much as not, once they figure out what's expected of them, they do a passable job of moving game.
As a case in point, one of the most productive dogs over which I've shot pheasants was a ranch mutt, a working stock dog of undefinable lineage. I've hunted roosters behind a variety of gun dogs that were first-rate, but for sheer ability to put pheasants in the air within gun range and the brains to learn from each bird he worked, I've seldom met the likes of this ranch mutt.
In a similar vein, I, too, have owned a mixed-breed stock dog, a pet whose only function was to ride in my truck and keep me company. Early on, I knew this pup, Blue, was brainy—stock dogs are the top rung of the canine intellectual ladder—but I didn't realize how brainy until she was a year old.
I was following my English setter along overgrown ditch banks bordering sugar beet fields when Blue showed up at my side—how she got there is another story—intently watching the setter work, then point and retrieve a rooster I flushed. On the next point, Blue moved in with me and flushed the bird herself. Right or wrong, I was intrigued and said to hell with the rules: I took her with me on several more hunts to let her watch my dogs, including retrievers, work birds. Then I hunted her alone. By the end of that season, my mixed-breed stock dog could hold her own as a pheasant flusher with my two young Labradors. Simply by watching—I did nothing to guide her—Blue had quickly learned the rudiments of working pheasants, progressed beyond them and added her own forms of herding-dog finesse to the job.
Now does all of this mean we should trade in our pointers, flushers and retrievers in favor of mixed breeds? Of course not. Clever as they might be, mutts labor under disadvantages. Gun dogs are bred to hunt birds—in top dogs the desire for birds and the drive to find them are hardwired into their brains. Not so with non-hunting breeds and the mixes that result from them. Terriers, common ingredients in mutts, often retain a strong drive to come to grips—literally—with prey; a necessary trait for their original purpose and useful for flushing, but woe to the bird some of them get their mouths around. Then there's a discriminating nose that directs dogs to game. Hound mixtures usually have decent noses, but others do not. And if you want your birds pointed, you might as well forget it with mutts unless there's breeding for the pointing instinct close to the surface.
Sure, you can teach an intelligent mixed breed to hunt—you might even shoot a fair amount of game over it. But the question is, if you have other options do you really want to spend considerable time training a dog with little innate bird desire, likely a mediocre nose and often limited inclination to retrieve game fit for the table? It's true that it might learn the basics quickly—my stock dog, Blue, is a case in point—but why put yourself through the effort of actually training a dog that on its best day won't perform with the style of a real gun dog?
It's better, I think, to appreciate mixed breeds for what they are and for what they've added to some of our lives. They might be working stiffs—generalists without specific sporting talents—but mutts tend to be fundamentally solid dogs that have earned their place among us.
Perhaps their unfashionable but irrepressible natures, along with the memories they've provided for so many of us, especially in our youth, are why otherwise hardcore gun-dog purists retain a soft spot for that most American of dogs—the mutt.