Picture the slopes of the Italian Alps, long ago. Imagine the aristocracy out on their horses with their hunting companions in the flat, grassy fields below. They will go home at the end of the day, tired and laughing, to enjoy a feast with their friends. Further up the mountains, you will find a different type of hunter, one who hunts for dinner, not for sport. The mountainsides are steeper and more treacherous.
The underbrush is dense and thorny, and the winters are hard. Game can be scarce and the birds are wild, wild, wild. Here, the people are poor and must scratch a living in this rocky terrain. If they cannot fill the pot by hunting, their family will go hungry. These are peasants, and here you find the Spinone working beside them.
Today, there is a grocery store in every town and most of us hunt more for sport than for necessity. We can drive out to the Dakotas to cross those broad acres, bring our blinds to the water to wait for ducks, or head into the woods to seek the wild Grouse and the elusive Woodcock, the queen of the woods, as we please. Still, we work to preserve the Spinone breed, even though we no longer rely on it to feed our families.
The many characteristics that identify the Spinone Italiano in the show ring and in the field reflect its great history. These dogs are unique among the Sporting breeds, and we work hard to make sure that they remain a Spinone!
In other articles, we have introduced the Spinone Italiano as a puzzle. Here, we’re going to address the parts of the puzzle from the point of view of their function. As breeders, we strive to maintain the health and temperament of our breed, and hope that the results in the Conformation ring help us maintain the breed’s all-important type, which is what makes it so instantly recognizable as a Spinone.
Why Is the Spinone’s Head So Distinctive?
Hunting in those mountainous areas requires both air scent and ground scent. The Spinone, with his muzzle pointing down, can ground scent and air scent easily while looking ahead in the rugged terrain. He will find the birds that other breeds run right over. His large bulbous, spongy nose serves an obvious purpose. His long, triangular ears, with a small insertion point, hang from eye level or slightly below and fit very close to his flat cheeks to help him harness that scent. Some say that there may be scenthounds among his ancestors.
His oval-shaped skull with lateral sloping sides and prominent occipital crest is distinctive; with the minimal stop, long muzzle, front-facing rounded eyes and flat cheeks, and of course, the divergent planes, it forms the quintessential Spinone head. The Spinone’s neck is thick and conical, and relatively short, to support this long (4/10 of the height at the withers), well-sculpted headpiece as he trots, runs, and swims.
His Body – What Does Geography Have to Do with It?
The Spinone Italiano has to be sure-footed, sturdy, and substantial to move through the terrain in which the breed was developed. The Spinone was often the only dog, so he had to be truly versatile. He could be used for carting as well as to hunt the mountainsides—we see this today in his strong front assembly. His almost-level underline supports the trotting gait that is typical for the Spinone. He hunts within gun range, checking in with his master frequently. While he may occasionally gallop between scents, he is fundamentally a trotter.
The Spinone Italiano has to be sure-footed, sturdy, and substantial to move through the terrain in which the breed was developed.
The Spinone’s flexible, two-part topline and a solid loin can twist and turn and navigate thick thorn bushes and dense cover while he locates game for his master. The widely spaced scapulae add to his flexibility. His sloping croup helps with the steep climbs and descents he must make. The tail flows smoothly from his back, and is held down or out. There is no need to flag a distant handler with an upright tail; he’s right there. The hocks are long. BIG feet, combined with flexible pasterns and elbows, let the Spinone handle steep terrain, large rocks and rubble, and deadfall. In marshes, they help him swim through muddy waters with a minimum of splashing. His well-sprung ribs house deep lungs and give him stamina for his job. The Spinone was built for rough terrain!
In extreme temperatures on land and water, his unusually thick skin and single, harsh coat protect him so that he is undeterred in his quest to find game and retrieve it. A longtime Italian breeder once described him as fatto per la palude, made for the swamp.
Why So Gentle?
After that very long day of fulfilling his purpose and bringing home food for his family, he joins his family and their friends and their children. His kindness and gentleness are necessary for the social environment in which he lives. His soft, gentle, and melting expression reflect the temperament that is so cherished by his family, his breeder, and his native country.
There he is—the Spinone.
The Show Ring
When we put the Spinone in the show ring, in that small, flat space, he looks very different from the other Sporting breeds. Many Sporting dogs were bred to work in flat, grassy fields (think England); some are more versatile, but, still, they were not bred for this specific region in Italy where the peasants hunted. Most pointing breeds in the Sporting ring are gallopers, not trotters. Their heads, carried on upright necks, narrow build, short croups, long thighs, and short hocks support this movement. Next to these other breeds, the Spinone stands out—he moves no less beautifully, but not in the same way as other Sporting breeds.
The Spinone’s loose, elastic, sure-footed movement is very different from the animated, head-high trot of other Sporting dogs. The connection of the Spinone to the earth is palpable in its movement, which is breathtaking to the true Spinone aficionado. The movement of a Spinone strung up on its lead with its head high, and with the lighter bone, tuck-up, and short hock of other breeds, may seem more familiar and look less out of place in the Group ring, but this is not the breed type we are striving to preserve. A softer coat might be more pleasant to touch, but it will never be found on the thick skin that is needed for the Spinone to do its job.
We are at risk of losing our way with our dear old friend, the Spinone, but we can find our way back. To protect and preserve the breed, we must remember how and why it got here in the first place. There are many crucial and distinct elements that tie this puzzle of a dog together, each of them necessary to make a whole Spinone. The Spinone is truly a masterpiece, and deserves the time and depth of study required to understand him.