By Colleen Yarger, George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Library Collections and Emily Reeb, Clarice & Robert H. Smith Education Coordinator
As many of you may know, on Thursday, December 15, 2022, the NSLM will be hosting a round table discussion on bird dogs (also known as gun dogs). With a wonderful group of panelists assembled, we’ll consult these experts on a range of topics from the history of bird dogs to the breeds, their training, field trialing, and more!
If you want to begin your own investigation into this broad and diverse topic, here is a top–10 list compiled from our F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room covering the years 1800–1950, and both sides of the Atlantic, to get you started:
#1 Kunopaedia: a practical essay on breaking or training the English spaniel or pointer with Instructions for attaining the art of shooting flying in which the latter is reduced to rule and the former inculcated on principle
By William Dobson, 1817
In life, William Dobson was a prodigious trainer of English Spaniels and Pointers. So great was his knowledge that a friend requested he write down his method for others (namely himself) from which to learn. From this the Kunopædia project commenced; but, remained unfinished at the time of Dobson’s death.
Published posthumously, only a few sections: On Confirming Point, &c., and On Blinking, contain a degree of polish and finesse Dobson intended. The remainder of the text existed, to use the author’s language, as “sketches,” and put into a semblance of order by an outside editor.
Dobson’s self-deprecating modesty of his writing easily conveys to readers that this man had not given a great deal of thought about how to turn his accumulation of experiences into a scientific method of instruction. Despite the text’s unevenness in finish, the Kunopædia encapsulates the age grappling with the consequences of the Enlightenment and the desire to rationalize and treat scientifically all known subjects – even the training of dogs.
#2 The Suffolk Sportsman Shewing the Nature of the various kinds of dogs in use for the gun and net
by Reverend B. Symonds of Kelsale, Suffolk, 1825
Little is known about Symonds and his motivation for writing this text, but, similarly to Dobson, his statements indicate that he had compiled this text largely from his own experiences. Where Dobson’s text fell short in terms of organization and progressive method of instruction, Symonds hailed his text as having the most “rational and perfect method of training and breaking” bird dogs. This, he combined with the most useful instructions to young sportsmen for speedily acquiring the art of shooting and also other matters of great nicety and utility in the sporting way.
#3 The Sportsman’s Vade Mecum
By Dinks and edited by Frank Forester, 1850
The Latin phrase vade mecum most literally translates to mean come with me. Easily totable, this 62-page handbook contains a short synopsis of the most concerning subjects for the sportsman: from breeding, raising, and training of young bird dogs to medicinal treatments for certain ailments. Dinks writes this treatise “expressly for the use of young sportsmen,” citing his own desire for one concise and all-encompassing handbook when he began working with dogs.
#4 The Setter with notices of the most eminent breeds now extant; instructions on how to breed, rear, and break; dog shows, field trials, general management, etc.
by Edward Laverack ; with two colored illustrations from photographs by
J. Eastham of Manchester, 1872
“‘Rome was not built in a day,’ neither is the knowledge of any animal.” (pg. xi)
Because Dinks, and the authors before him provided the general knowledge necessary for a young sportsman to understand bird dogs, Laverack identified more specific gaps in the literature that needed filling. This pithy text aims to set out in the most succinct manner possible Laverack’s observations of Setters amassed over the course of four decades. The author relies on his vast accumulated knowledge of training his Setters and not, as he puts it, on ‘hearsay and theory.’ This experience working with Setters includes their training, management, and exhibition.
#5 The Spaniel and its Training
by F.H.F. Mercer, 1890
“As a rule, a spaniel is brimming over with life and spirits; and loves nothing better than to fly helter-skelter through marsh and mire, over the fields and through the woods” (pg. 13).
Mercer set out to fill a void in the body of literature on Spaniels, that of how to train them. Geared to, as the author puts it, “the novices in spanieldom,” Mercer made the esoteric accessible. Chapters become lessons, that progressively build upon each other. The text culminates in detailed descriptions of the breed standards of the English and American Spaniel Clubs.
#6 Fetch and Carry: A Treatise on Retrieving
by Bernard Waters, 1895
“In all kinds of wingshooting, whether on land or water, a retriever is a necessity, if the spirit of true sport, or even its form be maintained” (pg. 26).
Just five years after Mercer published his treatise on training Spaniels, Waters provides its counterpart for Retrievers. Believing that previous authors have treated retrieving as an “incidental education,” Waters claims it is actually the foremost topic to cover. This treatise is precise and thorough; providing not only the most recent training theories and practices of the day, but also step-by-step instructions on how to perform each training method.
#7 Bird Dogs: Their History and Achievements
by A.F. Hochwalt, 1922
“My hope is that the bird dog lover, looking for the salient features in the various families, will find the beacon lights standing out before him in a way that he may readily find that which he is seeking” (pg. 7).
With writers such as Laverick and Waters filling the gaps in the knowledge for individual breeds, Hochalt in this particular text, decides to take a step back and re-distill all of this new knowledge and create an updated “epitome of bird dog history.” He explores their past in the context of recent developments in sporting culture, including the increased concern for environmental conservation and the popularity of field trialing.
by Patrick R. Chalmers with illustrations by R. Ward Binks, 1931
“For what makes more enjoyment of a day’s shooting than the Gun Dog? Indeed, to judge by the infinity of books about shooting-dogs, you’d say that the gun existed mainly for the dog” (pg. ix).
In this beautifully marbled book, Irish writer and poet, Chalmers, provides a succinct introduction to the variety of bird dog breeds including Retrievers, Spaniels, Setters, and Pointers. Intermixed with personal anecdotes, each chapter describes the breed’s history, physical attributes, and skills in the field; along with a poem about the breed by Chalmers himself and watercolor illustrations by R. Ward Binks. In the Museum’s collection are 44 watercolors by Binks bequeathed by Elizabeth D. Clark in 2017.
#9 The Practical Education of the Bird Dog for hunting and for field trials
by J. A. Sanchez Antunano, 1934
“The essence of my method is to encourage the dog’s natural aptness and avail myself of this during training.”
Antunano provides a much-needed update to the bird dog training manual of the time. By combining the “old country methods” and the most contemporaneous American methods, he promotes rather strict training procedures for the purposes of both rough shooting and field trials. Moving from phase to phase, even the novice trainer would be able to build upon each lesson and follow succinct instructions with photographs as a reference.
#10 Elias Vail Trains Gun Dogs covering the pointing breeds, the spaniels and non-slip retrievers
by Ella B. Moffit, 1937
Noticing a “complete lack of useful works” on training gun dogs, Moffit records the training methods of the prominent bird dog trainer Elias Vail. Focusing specifically on the training of Spaniels and Retrievers, Moffit believes that Vail can create not only better bird dogs but better owners and handlers for both rough shooting and field trials.
If you are interested in seeing these books in person, please contact the Clarice and Robert H. Smith Education Coordinator Emily Reeb to arrange a tour!
And if you would like to register for Steady to Wing and Shot: A Round Table Discussion on Bird Dogs on December 15, at 6pm please click here!