2019: The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) Celebrates 50 Years
How did a German immigrant lead the founding of NAVHDA in Canada?
In 1969, 6 dogs were entered in the first NAVHDA test, and by 2019 the total was 57,374. The three most common breeds have been German Shorthair, German Wirehair and Griffon, the least common German Rough-haired Pointer, Blue Picardy Spaniel and Burgos Pointer.
Instead of field trials, NAVHDA holds field tests where each dog is evaluated according to a transparent upland and water-work standard. The tests evaluate the dogs’ performances in searching and tracking on both land and water, steadiness and retrieving. Since the dogs are evaluated according to a standard, rather than competing against each other, all dogs could earn 100% or a Prize I, or all the dogs could finish the test without a Prize. This non-competitive approach fosters camaraderie, which is further enhanced by participation in NAVHDA sanctioned training clinics and by willingness of chapter members to share know-how on chapter training days. Structured more like a federation, NAVHDA provides the central authority elected by members in 85 chapters throughout Canada and the U.S. Currently, there is 1 chapter in Nova Scotia, 1 in New Brunswick, 4 in Quebec, 3 in Ontario, 1 in Saskatchewan and 2 in Alberta (https://www.navhda.org/).
Of the 30 breeds of hunting dogs thus far entered in NAVHDA, 75% originated in Continental Europe, 25% in the United Kingdom and none in North America. Craig Koshyk makes a further distinction between the so-called Continental or Versatile breeds from east (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic and Germany) and west ( France, Spain) of the river Rhine, in his excellent book ‘Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals.’ (2011, Dog Willing Publications, Winnipeg). East of the Rhine, field-, water-, and ‘forest’ work (e.g. blood tracking, voice on trail), are valued. Broad versatility is expected from dogs because hunters in Austria and Germany lease whole hunting districts from the municipal government and hunt all of the game species present.
North American dog cultures before the ‘versatiles’ arrived
Versatile hunting dogs came to prominence after revolutions in Central Europe in the late 1700s to mid- 1800s. Hunting once again became the right of citizens, who preferred one multi-task/family dog. Countries in the British Isles managed to avoid revolutions. U.K. countries today provide liberal access to land for hikers and mushroom collectors, however, hunting rights are still largely tied to land ownership.
North American hunters struggled too, less with hunting rights but rather with trying to decide what roles their dogs should play and how to organize the huntingdog enterprise in Canada and the United States. Actually, Canadian First Nations had seven types (breeds) of dogs already, six of which could multi-task including guarding, hauling, and hunting big and small game. However, First Nations at the time of European settlement were necessarily too concerned about their own survival to worry about dog breeds. The last Tahltan Bear Dog was registered by the Canadian Kennel Club in 1951 and only the Canadian Eskimo Dog or Kimmiq survives today.
The idea of a “pure” breed arose first in Europe in the mid-1800s. In continental Europe breed standards were defined after 1850 and breed clubs were formed. Officially incorporated breed clubs “owned the standard,” like any other intellectual property. Breed clubs were audited and responsible for breed maintenance.
According to Vero Shaw (1881, The classic encyclopedia of the dog, Bonanza Books and Crown Publ., New York), British breeders watched with interest the successes across the Channel in creating new breeds, particularly east of the Rhine. The breeders’ recipe for success was evidence-based testing, and coordinated breeding by hunter members of breed clubs toward clearly articulated and practical hunting goals. A dog’s pedigree, like a person’s birth certificate, issued by nationally and internationally authorized breed clubs, became central to professional breed management. This approach is successful still today and leads to thousands of dogs exported within and outside of Europe.
Describing the scenario pre-1900, H.L. Betten writes: “Aside from beagles and to a much more limited extent, foxhounds and basset hounds, the term, gun dog, has been confined to setters, pointers, griffons, and spaniels. Prior to 1875 American gun dogs were more or less a conglomeration of strains and often of breeds. At that time, with only rare exceptions, no serious effort was made to tabulate the genealogy of gun dogs or to maintain breeds with absolute purity, either at home or abroad. It was often deemed sufficient to know that such and such a dog was by Sir Somebody’s excellent dog out of Lord So-and-So’s good bitch. Here in America the mere fact that a gun dog was imported from abroad was often considered a certificate of quality and excellence without delving into the matter of heritage.”
The Canadian Kennel Club was formed in 1887 and the American Kennel Club in 1884. For hunting breeds, the push and pull was mainly between market hunters, the true meat dogs, and field-trial-for-sport aficionados. In the end, neither of the two divided camps fully got their way. Dog registries took the easy way out and registered dogs of a type by pedigree alone. They ignored whether a market hunter’s dog would hunt grouse and enter water for ducks; or whether a guard dog was shy of people. For market hunters, the added dilemma was unsustainable game harvest. It led to declining game populations. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was championed by Canada in 1916, signed by the U.S. in 1919 and Mexico in 1936. The Act put an end to market hunting and ultimately diminished the market hunters’ dogs.
Versatile Dogs Arrive in North America
Apart from Griffons and the rare other versatile specimen, the main arrival of versatiles had to wait until the 2nd World War and the subsequent Allied occupation of Germany. Versatile dogs were called wonder dogs yet the breed club mechanism that created them and was needed to maintain them was unfamiliar.
Sigbot (Bodo) Winterhelt arrived in North America during this tumultuous period in hunting dog development. Born in Mainz, Germany, Bodo and his wife emigrated to Canada in 1954 and settled in southern Ontario. Bodo had ample dog and hunting experience, first with a hunting terrier, then Small Munsterlanders and finally his beloved Pudelpointers.
After working first in tobacco fields, Bodo met keen dog people in Ontario field trials. His acquaintances soon recognised Bodo’s experience with hunting dogs, his leadership qualities and work ethic. He was invited to work as a veterinary assistant with Dr. Alan Secord, apparently related to Laura Secord of War-of-1812 fame. Then, as manager of the Nicholson Island hunt club, Bodo was in a perfect position to show what versatile dogs can be. The hunt club’s well heeled and well-connected members helped spread the good word.
Bodo imported his first Pudelpointer in 1956, Cati vom Waldhof. After mixed successes, which every longtime breeder of working dogs will know, Bodo and his Pudelpointers began to turn heads in field trial circles. As much as Bodo loved to watch the exquisite field manners of English Pointers and Setters, he knew full well that a dog fully multi-tasking under the gun needed more behavioural flexibility. This new type of dog was not better or worse, it was simply different.
As manager of a hunt club Bodo needed multiple dogs and started to breed Pudelpointers. He did not rest on the successes of his own Winterhelle Kennel, but soon invited other serious hunter-breeders to join in advancing the Pudelpointer. A 4-page invitation mailed from Welland, Ontario at the time, described the breed and invited others to join the newly created Pudelpointer Club of Canada, and later, of North America.
The reputation of Bodo’s Pudelpointers spread. The market hunters of the previous century would have been pleased. The versatile culture deviated from the fieldtrial culture in at least two ways: 1) the versatile breeding strategy must address many more characteristics and keep these in a functional balance, 2) a need for diversity in the gene pool became important turning away from the notion of champions and an over-reliance on a few popular sires/dams.
Lacking a community of versatile-dog aficionados initially, Bodo maintained his connection with Ontario field trialers. He entered his Pudelpointers in shooting dog stakes. One dog’s performance in particular, Winterhelle’s Komet, was widely acclaimed. Bodo felt that Komet did more to advance the unique, and heretofore unknown, versatile dog culture in North America than any other dog or workshop. Creating the Pudelpointer Club of Canada and inviting others to share in the breed’s successes was not purely out of Bodo’s generosity. He devoted enormous energies to promote all versatile dogs and invite their owners throughout North America to build a breeder community he could in time himself rely on. This widespread engagement also meant precious time away from home and family.
Building Institutional Support for the Versatiles
The goal of Bodo Winterhelt and his collaborators was to adapt the successful breed club model that lead to the creation of versatile dogs in Europe. Coordinated breeding was to be based on proven hunting performance recorded on club-certified pedigrees. Instead of singling out certain features such as a retriever taking a line or a pointer ranging widely and pointing steadily with a 12 o’clock tail, performance for a versatile dog meant performance in virtually all aspects of the hunt that would be experienced in a given hunting season. To assist with this process a testing organization was needed that, while independent, was able to support and respond to the needs of breed clubs.
This breed-club model gained substantial support in Canada. It was beneficial to livestock breeding also and was embraced by the Animal Pedigree Act of Canada. Since the Act was proclaimed in 1985, it helped Canadian breed associations manage their breeds in a state-ofthe- art manner. Canadian livestock breeders earned an excellent reputation well beyond our borders.
In 1960, Bodo and his collaborators held the first versatile dog test on Nicholson Island. A test in 1965 near Goodwood, ON, lead to sufficient follow-up to form the All-Purpose Gun Dog Association. It held its first test in a format to become a “Utility” test. Three judges, Bodo, Ed Bailey and Jerry Knap, evaluated the six dogs entered.
A joint test held in 1969 in California between the All-Purpose Gun Dog Association and the Griffon Club of America boosted interest and membership in the Association significantly. Later in 1969, the name was changed from All-Purpose Gun Dog Association to the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association. Actually, NAVHDA is 59 years old by practice, and 50 by name.
Bodo, naturally did not start NAVHDA or the versatile-dog culture totally on his own. In addition to Dr. Alan Secord and the Nicholson Island hunt club members there were many others. Douglas Hume was an early acquaintance and Bodo remained forever grateful for Hume’s organizational and writing skills. Hume and Winterhelt compiled the first version of the NAVHDA “Aims, Programs and Test Rules.” It, incidentally, included a section on blood tracking – a dog-use first illegal and only recently recognized by 38 States and 4 Provinces for its enormous big game conservation benefits. Other key participants then and soon thereafter were: George Adolph, Silke Alberts, Rolf Benseler, Phil Desjardine, John Kegel, Alyson Knap, Rudi Lorra, Joe Nadeker, Jack Throckmorton, Don Smith, Floyd Shikovski and Johnny Shulkey.
Prof. Ed Bailey was key to forming NAVHDA. Before his retirement, Ed taught Animal Behaviour at the University of Guelph. He was able to take the goals and methods of the German Jagdgebrauchshundverband (JGHV), combine it with Bodo’s know-how, and together with his wife Joan lead the compilation of the so-called NAVHDA Green Book, “The training and care of the versatile hunting dog.” (Sigbot Winterhelt and Edward D. Bailey, 1974, www.navhda.org)
The Green Book has survived basically in its original form. Attempts to reprint a revised version that includes today’s high-tech dog training tools has been resisted by Bodo and Ed. As useful as such tools can be, their uses are described in other venues. More importantly, they are sometimes used as substitutes for sound training and breeding.
Ed Bailey has left us with some key insights by combining his scientific background with practical needs in the kennel and in the field. He continues to inform hunters to this day through insightful articles in Gun Dog Magazine. For instance, Ed tells us that a versatile dog is not a once-in-while pointer, retriever or tracker. It is one that shifts consistently from one task to another at the instant the situation demands it. For a dog in an energetic search mode to stop suddenly and point, and to ‘hunt-dead’ or track calmly right after the shot, are at least three distinct motivations. The ability of a dog to switch tasks rapidly and as the situation demands it comprise the hallmark attributes of a versatile dog, according to Ed. Achieving the right balance between these tasks is the challenge for a versatile-dog breeder. It is more than can be achieved by a mere cross between a pointing and retrieving specialist.
Another key perspective is for field judges to try and discern what a dog is, and not merely record what it does. From a sport perspective, what a basketball player or field-trial dog does in the moment counts above all. One often acknowledges the luck involved in sport. What a dog is, goes to its genetic makeup and reflects its potential to pass on desirable traits, – very helpful for breeders. Hence judging successful dog-handler teams (e.g. training and obedience) is different from judging a dog’s ability insofar as it may reflect heritable potential (e.g. accurately marking a fall).
In sport, time limits are closely observed. When the unforeseeable interferes, it is attributed to bad luck. Whereas, when measuring breeding potential as a service for breeders, a test ends when judges have seen enough to be confident in their evaluation. The role of luck is minimized as much as possible.
The Rise of NAVHDA
In addition to Bodo and his colleagues, there was one other group rarely given due credit for advancing NAVHDA, — the so-called Griffoniers. The Griffon was already known as a hunting dog in North America in the 1880s. Wanting to maintain the qualities of the dogs they so valued, the Griffoniers had no other venue to evaluate their dogs other than field trials. Griffons did not always live up to field trial expectations, nor should they have. In his frequent reports and acclaim of field trial champions, A.F. Hochwalt (1922, “Bird dogs: Their history and achievements.” Sportsman’s Digest, Cincinnati, Ohio) tried politely to give Griffons their due as mixed bag hunters excelling after the shot.
Joan Bailey was a key player both in the early days of NAVHDA and in the Griffon Club of America. Still a prolific writer, Joan has worked to educate and facilitate a close working relationship between Griffoniers and the early NAVHDA (e.g. Bailey, Joan, 1996. “Griffon gun dog supreme: The history and the story of how to improve a breed,” Swan Valley Press, Hillsboro, Oregon).
NAVHDA’s evolution was not without growing pains. A Natural Ability Test was added later as a stepping stone. It measures the ability of dam and sire to pass on valuable hunting traits and the partial potential of a dog too young to show its full ability. Then, to encourage owners to keep testing within NAVHDA, an intermediate test was added, the Utility Preparatory Test. This test never gained much acceptance because it did not provide a better tool for breeders. Handlers preferred the higher reputation of the Utility Test.
In the early days of NAVHDA, as Bodo recalls, it was hard to find a dog of any breed that could pass a Utility Test. Thirty years later, so many dogs passed this test such that a yet more demanding version for the “finished” versatile dog was created, the Invitational Test. This was for dogs that could pass a Utility Test in the highest prize category and could then be invited to advance to the Invitational. These trends are a testament that performance-based breeding actually works. Some dog writers predicted that NAVHDA would never seriously grow because it expects too much of its dogs and handlers. Too many conflicting tasks are expected in the Utility Test, it was said, such that too few hunters will rise to the challenge. This was proven wrong.
Bodo often acknowledged the high demand made of dogs in the 15 facets examined in a Utility Test. He said “A Prize III dog is a good hunting dog, a Prize II dog is a very good hunting dog, and a Prize I dog is a very good hunting dog on a good day.”
The Revised NAVHDA
With NAVHDA’s growth, came growing pains. Against the backdrop of how versatile dogs arrived in North America, how they were first misunderstood, how Bodo and his colleagues built capacity and a versatile dog culture, there were several changes post Bodo’s leadership that substantially changed NAVHDA’s character.
In the 1980s, NAVHDA’s finances were so weak it could not afford a newsletter and its test results were appended to an existing regional newsletter. To bolster NAVHDA’s finances a dog registry mandatory for test entrants was created. This became one of the most divisive decisions in the organization.
Instead of producing a pedigree to certify that parents had satisfied the breed’s form and working standard, NAVHDA fell back into the old mode of simply copying parentage. Likely, the old market hunters turned over in their graves. Bodo Winterhelt resigned from NAVHDA once the registry was finalized in 1997.
The NAVHDA registry had been started in Ontario, but was forced to move to the United States to prevent charges under the Animal Pedigree Act of Canada. The registry violated the one-breed, one-registry requirement of the Act, among others. The registry moved to Chicago and with it the NAVHDA Office was created.
The revised NAVHDA has become an efficient business machine. In the early days, officers paid high travel costs out of their own pocket. Now office staff is paid and officers are reimbursed. This came at a cost of shifting emphasis away from a service to breeders and hunters. NAVHDA now has a symbiotic relationship with four “sponsors” who look toward NAVHDA to help promote their products. From these sponsors, whose products NAVHDA supports on an exclusive basis, NAVHDA receives various amounts of financial support. This business relationship has helped NAVHDA’s bottom line, but it has also introduced a conflict of interest. Should NAVHDA structure itself to attract as many dog owners as possible to maximize marketing, or should it staunchly serve its smaller hunter-breeder clientele?
NAVHDA also returned to the old champion mentality with the Invitational Test. Dogs that pass have the VC designation added to their name for Versatile Champion. Whereas the original NAVHDA prided itself on the almost universal participation by hunters training their own dogs, professional trainers today not only help train dogs but many also handle the dog in both Invitational and Utility tests.
With the erosion of NAVHDA’s former strength to help hunters train dogs and to assist breeders, many breeders started anew and built alternative breed associations and testing organizations. How this unfolded may be another story.
Despite the considerable disappointment to Bodo and many others for the turn of events in today’s NAVHDA, he said he would do it again, and much the same way. The achievement by Bodo and his colleagues to develope a mature culture around the once-misunderstood wonder dogs from the Continent is enormous. Wonder dogs they may have been but wonder soon turned to disappointment when too few understood how to evaluate, train and maintain these dogs’ characteristics.
Bodo died at age 92 after a short stint in a care home in Bandon, Oregon. The versatile dog culture may have eventually come to North America anyway, but with Bodo’s help it came earlier and in a very capable way. This significant contribution shall remain Bodo Winterhelt’s enduring legacy.
By Joe Schmutz