Reflections on the microcosm of Polish Hunting Spaniels

Last weekend we attended our first ever dog show with Grace – and not just any dog show but a national exhibition of Polish Hunting Spaniels… in Poland. Before Grace we never considered showing a dog, and to be honest, it still isn’t something I’m particularly keen on but we had promised her breeder that we’d bring her back sometime and promise is a promise!

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Perhaps the 2000km road trip was a little bit crazy, but it was great to see so many dogs of this breed and the variety in appearance as well as temperament. I learned a lot, and can now put some of Grace’s behaviour into perspective – what is her breed, what is her kennel/parentage, what’s her and what is our influence. I met Grace’s mum Szajba again, along with her brother Lalus, both of whom are cuddle monsters just like Grace. Not all PSMs I saw were like that but I suspect it depends on their background (e.g. hunting) and their upbringing/training methods that come with that, as well as having a temperament that is suited to that job. (Grace, on the other hand, is more of a “delicate flower” and much too sensitive for a full-on life outdoors.)

Some musings follow…

On the benefits of breeding and dog shows

Lots of people are against dog breeding but seeing a microcosm like this make me appreciate what good, thoughtful breeding can achieve. By microcosm I mean that there are only c. 350 dogs of this breed in existence, so to see 36 at the same time is actually a 10% sample – possibly a biased one because most people don’t show their dogs, but I still think it’s rare to see 1/10 of the entire breed’s dogs in the same place at the same time – and a third of the dogs there this weekend have originated in the same kennel as your dog.

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose dog shows and purebred dogs – the shows themselves are stressful environments for many dogs, and dog breeding has a poor track record of making good choices (e.g. brachycephalic breeds, the deformities in breeds like German shepherds). On the other hand, purebred dogs and kennel clubs can be a force for good, too. For example, I learned this weekend that in Poland the KC actively recommends that people buy pedigree dogs because at least that way you can control the quality and helps to get rid of puppy mills because they control the minimum ages and number of litters a female dog is allowed to have. So, as always, there are many shades of grey.

There is a longer article brewing in my mind about why we chose to have a pedigree dog, but that is for another time!

On the breed’s scientific origins

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Dr Krzywiński with a capercaillie

I only learned this weekend that the main person, Dr Andrzej Krzywiński, who has created the breed is not just any kind of scientist but actually a specialist in genetics, and in addition to this dog breed, he has also reintroduced extinct species such as capercaillie and lynx into Poland (now the population of lynx is c. 300) as well as being involved in dog-wolf hybrid studies.

Just think of him as a real life Dr Jurassic Park, minus the deadly dinosaurs.

My knowledge of dog genetics is very modest indeed, so on the long drive to Poland I did some reading and learned two things:

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Dr Andrzej Krzywiński with a PSM and wolves

1. Dog behavioural genetics is incredibly complicated. Science has only recently made advances in understanding this area, even though the genetics of appearance and partially diseases has been better understood. Therefore, engineering a new dog breed with very specific behavioural traits and abilities is a challenging task – and exponentially so when you consider that much of this scientific knowledge was not available 30 years ago when Dr Krzywiński started creating the PSM. (For perspective, 30 years ago we didn’t even have DVD-player, had only just invented text messages and Dolly the cloned sheep was in 1996.)

2. Only slightly crazy people would even dream of undertaking such a monumental task. Creating a new breed is a project that takes decades of careful work and requires an enormous amount of patience and dedication.

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In this case, the basis was pictures and descriptions of a dog breed from before 1940s (now 80 years ago!) and even 30 years ago few people with any real knowledge of the breed would have been alive. The resemblance is so uncanny that I’ve even seen a picture of a dog from the 40s that could just as well be Grace (left).

On progress and momentum

The breed itself has only been recognised by the Polish kennel club for 2 years, and since the first show that had 4 dogs in May 2017, the progress has been pretty impressive as the breed is now recognised by 8 other countries. Everyone at the event was genuinely in love with this breed, and there is a huge amount of enthusiasm to promote it in the best possible way.

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Example of the pictures used to recreate PSMs

It’s certainly interesting and exciting to be a part of this project because I think the intentions of everyone involved are genuine: to create a great hunting dog breed that is also a suitable as a family pet, and combine the best features of the older gundog breeds. Although there are many gundog breeds in Europe, there isn’t one quite like PSM in mainland Europe. In the UK, the closest equivalent is the working cocker (as far as I can see!) and more broadly PSMs are close to field spaniels, another rare breed. Unlike these breeds, PSMs currently have no known faults, or in other words the careful breeding so far is producing healthy dogs which is something to be proud of!

I think it’s safe to say we are now too deep in the PSM vortex to turn back – little did we know a year ago we weren’t just getting a puppy but also joining a community and a movement!

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Picture credits:

  1. http://www.fog.com.pl/urodzony-by-byc-wolnym/
  2. http://www.klubspaniela.pl/polski-spaniel-mysliwski/
  3. A picture of a magazine article, original unknown
  4. https://www.psm.net.pl/historia.html

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