SO, YOU’VE DECIDED TO BUY A SPINONE…
It’s an exciting time! You’ve already spent several months (or even years) searching the Internet, joining e-groups and Breed Clubs, talking to breeders and owners, and trying to establish exactly what the Spinone Italiano is all about.
Yes, it’s a minefield! The information available is varied and can be confusing. How important in reality are the show wins, field test results, health-tests and records that many breeders aspire to?
Surely a champion sire, with many awards in conformation, is a guarantee that your pup will be ‘handsome’ and a good representation of its breed? A pedigree with lots of ‘red’ means the blood will be ‘blue, right? It would seem obvious that test results are in place for a very good reason? And the field – well, that is all about an unbiased evaluation of a given dog’s aptitude for the job it was bred to do and will have some bearing on the next generation?
If only life was that simple! You still have some research to do to reach the point where you begin a long-term relationship with your own personal ‘breeder and mentor’ and more-importantly, the moment you’ve been longing for – the day you pick up your new puppy!
So, where exactly do you start?
My advice would be to first re-examine your print-outs of websites, articles, breed standards and publications. Do you have an accurate and true impression of this lovely breed? Do you understand that its function and history determines its temperament and anatomy?
Its original purpose, as a peasant’s hunting dog, was to ‘fill the pot’ for the family: a powerfully-boned, untiring, methodical and successful game-finder, capable of working challenging and varied terrain in all parts of Italy. His wiry coat and thick skin protected him in cold water and in heavy cover.
As a trotting breed, his conformation, desire and intelligence contribute to his style in the field, and to this day the Spinone is known for his excellent game-finding ability, even within the hunting circles that prefer to own and hunt the galloping breeds. His wide-open nostrils and large, spongy nose and long, low-set ears certainly play a part in his heightened olfactory capabilities, while his large, round well-padded front feet, with well-pronounced digits and widely-placed shoulder blades and his broken topline assist his manoeuvrability through heavy cover, steep mountainsides and marshland.
The Spinone is particularly admired by many for his patient, docile and sociable nature. Patience to wait for his walk or dinner; patience to ‘chill’ while his family is away from home or distracted by other pursuits; patience and self-containment, enabling him to rest and chew a bone a while and not always be the ‘centre of attention’.
The Spinone’s docile nature is endearing and a pleasure to live alongside. He understands the need to be gentle around children, those that are frail or disabled and smaller animals; his nature is soft, gentle and kind. Spinoni with the correct temperament have few problems living within a pack – in fact, they interact and play together in harmony.
Coupled with his social-networking skills, the demeanour of the Spinone often attracts new friends (human and canine) while on walks, in-training and in the community.
All of the traits above are important and help us to determine the true Spinone, but by far the most important, is the deep and meaningful, but soft and gentle eye, the ‘almost human’ expression of the Spinone. It is a hard heart that does not succumb to the scrutiny and beauty of the melting, almost-round, widely-placed eyes – set to look forward, straight at you, it would seem, with little prominence in the brow - this is the essential ingredient and it should not be compromised. Harsh, stern, goggly, excessive white, drooping lids – none of these are acceptable in the true Spinone.
Do your potential breeder’s dogs - those that are to parent your potential puppy - match the outline of the Spinone above? Do they both exhibit the correct expression, demeanour and physical characteristics that make the Spinone unique?
This is the first box for you to tick!
Over-excitable or excessively-timid temperament is not correct for the Spinone and can be difficult for a new dog-owner to live with.
Parents that have long, soft coats may well produce puppies with the same difficult-to-maintain jackets. Perhaps you plan to live an outside life, with your dog as part of the family? Think twice about the ‘prettiest, most glamorous’ of the pups, unless you have time to spend with a de-matting tool and a slicker! Soft, fluffy and excessively long coats, often with a thin skin and undercoat, are difficult to maintain and give little protection from the elements – even for the pet dog.
Parents that have a sly, timid or aggressive expression, or possess a greyhound-shaped body and long, spindly limbs will likely produce pups that match them.
‘Looks aren’t everything’ I hear you say! In the case of the Spinone, the look (the type) is parcelled together with a number of its other characteristics and from my experience, many of the most typical dogs in this lovely breed pretty much possess ‘it all’! They have the lovely eye, strong body, wiry coat, friendly but patient nature and the biddability to work with their owners. They are great family pets too! Sometimes a compromise has to be made with physical characteristics – that is true – but always consider how that will affect the lifestyle of both you and your dog.
So, before you start to tick boxes for show and field wins, health-testing and more, it is essential that the sire and dam are true Spinoni – that they match the essential ingredients above. The first step is to find the dogs that look and behave in a Spinone-way and in the process find a breeder that will support you as a new owner – a breeder that fills you with confidence that he or she understands the breeder’s role and recognises the responsibility to produce puppies that are true to their breed – to rear them dutifully and always be a crutch for new puppy-owners whenever it is required.
With a lifespan of twelve years or more, it is likely that you, as the new owner, will pick up the phone many times for a chat and some guidance. You should feel reassured that your breeder will be interested and helpful, however small your concern may be. You will probably need help with rearing - with feeding, general care, exercise and socialisation. You may need to contact your breeder with news of health or behavioural concerns. Does he or she have the experience to answer your queries? Choose your breeder carefully.
Understanding the value of awards from the various conformation and field events held is a challenge for the new owner. Suffice to say that a show win relates to one judge’s opinion on a given day and sadly for this breed, considered to be a minority, that in the main has small entries in the show ring. It can be judged by those that have no interest in, or have little understanding of, the finer points of the Spinone. Of course, there are the exceptions and I remain positive that extensive Breed Education will be considered essential for those that aspire to judge this unique and unusual Sporting Breed as times goes on. Meanwhile, we should consider how valuable the champion title is in determining the overall quality of a Spinone.
How close to the original purpose of the Spinone are the field tests being run today? The result is only as valid as the suitability of the test competition to this particular breed. Natural aptitude for a hunt/point/retriever cannot be determined by a dog’s achievement in other disciplines. Of course, an award in Rally, Obedience or Assistance Work shows biddability and intelligence, but only field tests that demand the HPR elements and the ability to swim and retrieve from water challenge the breed’s inherent hunting desire and pointing skills.
Some disciplines do not appear to flatter the Spinone – a breed that for centuries has, with minimal training, naturally worked with its owner to hunt, point and retrieve game. With that in mind, it may be that a number of the award-winners in this breed are simply not very typical of the breed they represent. It may also be that excessive emphasis on hunting denies the ‘complete’ Spinone – does not aspire to the correct temperament, demeanor and conformation.
In fact, excessive emphasis on any one element of a breed denies the ‘complete dog’ – its physical and mental capabilities and its aptitude to fulfil its role as companion, showdog and hunter.
Last but not least are the tests available to breeders, some of which relate to conditions that are considered to be solely or partially inherited.
The most simple to determine, as far as the Spinone is concerned, is Cerebellar Ataxia – a neurological disease that afflicted Spinoni during the 90s. Only a carrier mated with a carrier will produce affected offspring and a dog’s status is now easily determined by a DNA Test at the Animal Health Trust in England. A carrier mated with a clear dog will not produce pups suffering with the disease, but some offspring will be carriers, showing no outwards signs of their status. Both sire and dam of a litter should hold the CA Status Certificate.
Most new owners have heard of Hip Dysplasia and understand that a scoring/testing scheme has been in place for a number of years. Spinoni breeding stock should have previously been x-rayed and assessed by the regulating body (OFA, Penn or KC/BVA).
Nevertheless, there is not a breeder standing that can guarantee puppies born to tested parents will be free of HD. Unfortunately, the mode of inheritance for this disease is not straightforward, with other factors being involved in addition to polygenic heritability. As a new owner, HD results should be available from the breeder for inspection. Low/medium scores (or excellent/good grades) are desirable, but unaffected dogs are regularly born to parents with higher grading with little effect to the offspring. Unfortunately, no absolutes can be determined with this condition. What is important is that breeders use the schemes available, so that they are informed and more able to plan breedings knowledgeably.
Eye-diseases are prevalent in many breeds, but the Spinone has recorded very few cases since its introduction and at this time is not linked with any particular problem. Many breeders CERF-test their dogs as a matter of course and this may well help to prevent a problem taking hold in the future.
Elbow Dysplasia is also now considered to be a disease that can affect the Spinone. In its infancy for this breed in the UK (but not for a number of other breeds), a number of degenerative joint problems have come to light. ED also has a ‘non specific’ polygenic mode of inheritance, but carries some heritability as far as experts are concerned. Assessment is recommended, but the situation is similar to HD (but with far less research having been carried out in canines than in the case of HD) in that heritability is not an absolute.
Other screenings that breeders have available to them are thyroid and heart-testing. Neither conditions are considered to be breed-specific to the Spinone, but it is always useful to collate health information for breeding stock prior to a mating, particularly as rearing a litter is a challenging time physically for the pregnant bitch.
At this time there are no specific heart conditions linked with this breed, but once again, it is wise to be aware of a dog’s status in case of unexpected surgery when a general anaesthetic may need to be adminstered.
Spinoni that suffer from seizures are a more regular occurrence in recent years and it is essential that no affected dog is bred. As a polygenic disorder, it is very difficult for breeders to determine when a case will crop up, but caring and responsible breeders research the pedigrees of their breeding animals and plan matings to help prevent producing puppies that may later suffer with a seizure disorder.
So, we can see that CA, HD and to some degree, ED may have some effect on the next generation and certainly in the case of CA a DNA Test provides valuable status information. As a long-term breeder that has supported health-screening where it is available and may affect the next generation, I would advise that new owners consider the various tests in their place - as useful information for the breeder that may be planning several generations ahead – but that they do not place undue emphasis on results that may have little affect on the health of their new puppy.
More important than the test results is your trust in the breeder, that he/she has researched pedigrees carefully and has taken every precaution to prevent the puppies from suffering an inherited disorder. After all, Mother Nature can play tricks on us all when we least expect it! Good breeders generally study their breed with a passion and make every effort to produce well-adjusted and typical puppies for themselves and their owners.
Take your time. Study where you can - and follow your instincts when it comes to choosing your breeder and future mentor. The effort will be worth it! Good luck!
Chard, Somerset, England