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The History of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and Eduard Korthals

The History of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and Eduard Korthals

A historic image of a wirehaired pointing griffon.

First official stud book, first international club, the history of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and its founder Eduard Karel Korthals is complex.

One of the most interesting – and frustrating – challenges I faced when writing my book Pointing Dogs Volume One: The Continentals was trying to come up with a reasonably accurate profile of the wirehaired pointing griffon. Despite the fact that the sporting literature from the late 19th century contains a wealth of information on the breed and that a good number of books have been written about it since then, I had a hard time coming up with a coherent summary of the breed’s development and its current situation.

What I discovered was that the wirehaired pointing griffon was created mainly in Germany by a Dutchman working under the patronage of an Anglophile German prince. Today, there is still a remnant population in Germany and even a small club for the breed there. But France has the largest population of griffons and the largest and most influential griffon club. It is also considered by the Fédération cynologique internationale (FCI) to be the parent country of the breed. The first griffon to make its way to North America was imported in 1887 and listed as “Russian Setter” by the AKC. More were brought over after the turn of the century and the breed eventually attracted a small but devoted following among North American hunters, particularly in Québec and the American Midwest. 

READ: The Etymology of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Today, it is not difficult to find a well-bred, hard-hunting griffon in Europe or North America – if you do your homework.  But, as I found out when I wrote the chapter on the breed, any homework on the griffon involves familiarizing yourself with the various types within the breed, the myriad of clubs representing it, and the sometimes quite different breeding directions followed by individual breeders.

So no wonder it took me such a long time to write the griffon chapter! Not only did I have to translate references from German, French, Dutch and English sources but I had to cut through the spin each one put on their version of the events that lead to the creation of the breed and how it should look and perform today. Heck, even the name of the breed took me an entire page to explain!: 

Eduard Karel Korthals Development of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Few specifics are known about the early development of many of the continental pointing breeds. But when it comes to the wirehaired pointing griffon a surprising amount of information is available about the breed and its creator, a young Dutch sportsman named Eduard Karel Korthals.

References to griffin-like dogs can be found as far back as the mid-16th century, but development of the wirehaired pointing griffon began in the Netherlands in the 1870s when Korthals set his sights on creating an all-purpose breed of gundog. The son of a wealthy Dutchman, Korthals developed a strong interest in the art and science of breeding livestock while growing up near Haarlem in the Netherlands.

In 1873 at age 22, he left his homeland to further his breeding projects at the estate of a wealthy patron named Prince Albrecht of Solms-Braunfels in Germany. By 1881 he was working full-time on the breed that would eventually take his name.

Eduard Karel Korthals the founder of the wirehaired pointing griffon
Eduard Karel Korthals the founder of the wirehaired pointing griffon

Korthals dreamed of creating a gundog that possessed the best qualities of English setters and English pointers, a keen desire for retrieving on land and in water, as well as an excellent ability to track wounded game. He was not alone in this desire; others had similar goals and were also attempting to create their own versions of a rough-haired, all- around hunting dog.

Pudelpointer breeders used pudels and pointers. It is not clear exactly what Stichelhaar breeders were using, but Korthals seems to have used just about anything he could get his hands on. His handwritten kennel book shows that between 1863 and 1876 he purchased 20 dogs including griffons, spaniels, a retriever, a three-quarter English pointer, a German spaniel, a Barbet, a Braque Français, a German shorthaired pointer, and two pointer-German-shorthair mixes.

Eventually, by judicious crosses of those dogs and many others, he developed his own strain of wire-haired pointing dog that would eventually make him famous around the world. But success did not come easily. Korthals was a Dutchman living in Germany, developing an international breed of gun dog with a French sounding name. And all this was at a time when political tensions were still running high after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. So there were plenty of naysayers around ready to dismiss his dogs as mongrels, mutts or worse. One German writer wrote that:

“We will leave the griffons and the water spaniels unnoticed, otherwise we would have to pay attention to the pig as well, because that animal is also trained for hunting poultry.”

Eventually, two sides formed within the rough-haired dog breeding community. On one side, nationalistic supporters of the German breeds believed that their dogs were the only true rough-haired pointing dogs and that Korthals’ griffons were nothing more than impure “mutts.” On the other side were internationalists who believed that all the rough-haired breeds, pudelpointers, Stichelhaars, griffons and Spinoni were in fact one family, with various strains reflecting the personal preferences of their breeders. For a while, the international “one-big-family” opinion held sway. But when some breeders began to cross their rough-haired dogs to German shorthaired pointers, unity was lost and the breeds were declared separate and independent.

In 1888 a club was formed for the wirehaired pointing griffon. It was international in scope with German, French, Dutch and Belgian members. A stud book was created with records kept in German, French and Dutch. With its publication in 1888, the wirehaired pointing griffon became the first breed to have an official stud book and the first to be represented by an international club.

Throughout the 1880s and into the 1890s, Korthals continued to develop his breed and was instrumental in establishing the first formal testing system for versatile hunting dogs. His dogs proved to be outstanding performers in these tests and soon gained an enthusiastic following in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Tragically, just as he was winning the highest praises of the sporting dog press, Korthals developed cancer of the larynx. He died of the disease on July 4, 1896. He was only 44.

The Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Moves to France

In the years following Korthals’ death, a group of followers continued to breed dogs according to the standard established in 1897. Independent breed clubs were formed in Belgium and in France, but the stud book for the breed remained in Germany until the First World War. After the war, separate stud books were established in France and Belgium, while in Germany the wirehaired pointing griffon joined the pudelpointer and the Stichelhaar in a club representing all three breeds.

A wirehaired pointing griffon in a field trial in 1913
A wirehaired pointing griffon in a field trial in France in 1913

World War Two had severely reduced the Griffon population in Europe, especially in Germany. But by the end of the 1950s there were signs of a comeback, most notably in France where the wirehaired pointing griffon was well on its way to becoming one of the most popular gun dog breeds among French hunters. German, Belgian, Dutch and American breeders continued to breed wirehaired pointing griffons as well, but in very limited numbers. In 1951 the French club added the word “Korthals” to the official name and declared itself the breed’s parent club.

Today the wirehaired pointing griffon remains much as it was when Korthals first developed it: a robust, all-around bird dog, well adapted to hunting in the field, forest and water. The breed enjoys a loyal following among hunters throughout much of Europe and North America. In terms of numbers, France is home to the largest population. French breeders annually produce over 2000 wirehaired pointing griffons and their club, Club Français du Griffon d’Arrêt à Poil Dur Korthals, is by far the largest of the half-dozen wirehaired pointing griffon clubs in the world.

Elsewhere in Europe, the breed faces stiff competition from the other wire-haired breeds. In Germany, for example, there are fewer than 100 wirehaired pointing griffons whelped each year compared to over 3,000 German wirehaired pointers. In the United States and Canada the breed has a small but devoted following, with approximately 350 wirehaired pointing griffon pups whelped in those countries each year.

Eduard Korthals developed the wirehaired pointing griffon by systematically crossing a variety of breeds and types to create his own strain of all-around gun dog. Once his breed was established and its standard set, his followers sought to adhere as closely as possible to the founder’s original vision. For the most part they succeeded. I am sure that if Korthals were here today, he would easily recognize many of the modern dogs that carry his name. But I am equally certain that he would be surprised to see how many different types can now be found within the breed.

In order to find out how the breed ended up with such a variety, we need to follow the twists and turns in the wirehaired pointing griffon’s development after the death of Korthals in the three main areas where breeders continued to develop it: Germany, France and North America.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons in Germany

The vast majority of Korthals’ work was done in Germany while he was under the patronage of Prince Albrecht of Solms-Braunfels, one the most influential personalities on the German gun dog scene of the time. Yet Korthals’ dogs never really achieved the level of acceptance among German hunters that he had hoped for. It is now clear that they fell victim to two powerful forces: competition and nationalism.

As Korthals was working on his breed, there were other gundog breeds under development in Germany which were promoted as being more “Germanic” than the wirehaired pointing griffon with its French sounding name and international background. Korthals was also accused of using “foreign blood,” something he always denied. In 1888 he wrote, “From the beginning up to today, i.e. 18 years, I have bred only with griffons without the aid of a foreign breed.”

After the death of its creator, and in the years leading up to the First World War, the wirehaired pointing griffon became increasingly marginalized in Germany. Many of its supporters joined the German wirehaired pointer movement, taking some of their best dogs with them. By the 1930s there were practically no wirehaired pointing griffons left in Germany.

Surprisingly, after the Second World War the original breed club was re-formed in West Germany where a few diehard breeders had managed to keep their lines alive. In East Germany the breed was completely absorbed into German wirehaired pointer lines. Today in reunified Germany wirehaired pointing griffon breeders produce approximately 80 pups per year.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons in France

In France, after the death of Korthals, the people who continued his work tried to follow his vision and did their best to keep their lines “pure”—at least at first. In the 1920s, perhaps motivated by the increasing competition from English pointers and setters, some breeders attempted to “regenerate” their lines by crossing to the English breeds. Former president of the Club Français du Griffon d’Arrêt à Poil Dur Korthals in France, Jacques Carpentier, wrote about this period in his book Le Griffon d’Arrêt de Korthals, published in 1998. He claims that in 1925, as breeders became increasingly worried about the state of the breed and especially concerned about its inability to compete with other breeds in trials, French dog expert Ronan de Kermadec “set fire to the powder by advocating a cross to the pointer”.

Apparently a number of prominent club members agreed with de Kermadec’s suggestions and crossed pointers and setters into some lines. Carpentier mentions that a certain Colonel Dommanget was involved in the case of a “dark pseudo-griffon, named Homer” from pointer lines that was exported to the U.S. and used there for breeding. But “the results of the offspring were terrible, and at the time undoubtedly brought a hard knock to American griffons.”

Wirehaired pointing griffon in a dog show in France, 1923.
Wirehaired pointing griffon in a dog show in France, 1923.

It is not clear just how much crossbreeding actually occurred in France in the 1920s and ’30s. In all likelihood there was some, but with the onset of the Second World War dog breeding of any kind came to a near standstill.

Interest in the breed was rekindled after the war. The Griffon population in France continued to expand throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and by the 1970s it was one of the most popular gundogs in the country. In the late 1990s rumblings about “unorthodox” breeding practices were heard once again. Soon complaints were being circulated via private letter and e-mail. Eventually, they were voiced at club meetings. In 2008 the debate spilled into the open.

A group called the “Circle for the Defense of the Korthals Griffon” was formed and its members leveled shocking accusations at some of the country’s most high-profile breeders. Led by Jacques Carpentier, the group claims that increasing numbers of wirehaired pointing griffons are being bred well outside of the breed standard in terms of performance and appearance. They contend it is due mainly to wholesale crosses, mainly to English setters, in some of the most prominent griffon lines in the country.

Beyond just sounding an alarm, the Circle’s main goal is said to be the promotion and defense of what it calls “authentic” Korthals griffons. They contend that griffons from “clean” lines still correspond very closely to Korthals’ original vision in terms of performance and overall appearance. The supposedly crossbred dogs, on the other hand, are said to have a different look. Some have very light or long coats and some even have tan points above the eyes. Some are said to also have a different hunting style, running almost as fast and far as English setters and English pointers.

On the other side of the debate members of the Club Français du Griffon d’Arrêt à Poil Dur Korthals, including the current board of directors, vehemently deny the accusations. They refuse to accept that there has been any deliberate crossbreeding and claim that the increase in speed and range seen in some of the wirehaired pointing griffon’s lines has come only from selective breeding. They contend that the oddly colored coats are simply throwbacks to the founding breeds used by Korthals and others, and even now are bound to occur from time to time.

Whatever the truth of the matter—my guess is that it is probably somewhere in the middle—the fact remains that the French produce many of the best wirehaired pointing griffons in the world today.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in North America and Beyond

The first wirehaired pointing griffons arrived in North America in 1887, and despite being far away from the German and French influences they became the subject of much controversy in America. Between 1983 and 1986 the breed went through some fundamental breeding shifts that involved the introduction of “foreign” blood and resulted in the splitting of its North American club.

The Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America (WPGCA) formally split into the American Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Association (AWPGA) which is now the breed’s parent club in the AKC. The results of the “foreign” blood experiment was the introduction of the Cesky Fousek (Bohemian wirehaired pointing griffon), a breed from the Czech Republic. Eventually the originally club was renamed the Cesky Fousek North America. Both are respectable organizations and breeds.

READ: The Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Controversy in North America

But beyond the dogs themselves, my research into the history and development of the wirehaired pointing griffon has opened my eyes to the fact that dog breeds are really just the physical manifestation of the ideologies, hopes and dreams of the people who breed them. Today, for better or worse, the Griffon is in the hands of several different groups each of which is following a slightly different path. The fact that good, solid gundogs can still be found within most of those groups is testament to the vitality of the breed and the vision of its founder, Eduard Korthals.

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