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Dog Willing – Craig Koshyk the Dog Historian of a Generation

Dog Willing – Craig Koshyk the Dog Historian of a Generation

The history of hunting dogs is preserved in the iconic Pointing Dog volumes thanks to the lifelong dedication of dog historian and author Craig Koshyk.

This film is Presented by Eukanuba Sporting Dog

“We need a name for this place. Every special hunting spot is given a name, and this one is no exception.”

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Leaning back on our elbows, the four of us pondered the assignment. It was a cold, gusty November afternoon on the South Dakota prairie, but we had found a perfect resting spot on a leeward slope dotted with junipers. The sun warmed our spirits as we gazed across the expanse and reflected on the day. A lake sparkled under the sunshine in the distance, and thousands of sandhill cranes cackled overhead, punctuating the sky with checkmarks of migrating flocks from one horizon to the other.

“Sandhill Hill,” someone quipped. It stuck. Sandhill Hill it was and shall forever be known.

The circumstances that had led the four of us to perch on Sandhill Hill pointed toward either utter insanity or wholehearted devotion. My husband and I had traveled from Washington to South Dakota for the annual gathering of the North American Deutsch Langhaar club. Craig Koshyk and Lisa Trottier had traveled from Manitoba to take photographs of setters on a South Dakota ranch for Craig’s latest book. A few logistical gymnastics later, our eastbound path intersected with their southbound path right there on Sandhill Hill.

Craig Koshyk tells the story of dog breeds to a crowd

In true prairie fashion, frigid 30 mph northerly winds blew out the previous day’s sweltering heat. Craig and Lisa had quite literally brought Manitoba with them. We hunted our rare German dogs alongside their rare French dogs and marveled at their similarities, witnessing indisputable evidence that the world is a little smaller than we tend to think. Public land doesn’t give up pheasants easily. Still, we’d shot two beautiful roosters that morning, and—more importantly to us—our younger dogs executed impressive tracks and recoveries of the wounded birds. For dog people like us, that represented the absolute pinnacle of our hobby. Then, we basked in the late autumn sun under the raucous calls of the cranes and let the stories flow.

Engaging in conversation with Craig is a bit like indulging in the world’s most fascinating choose-your-own-adventure story. The plot possibilities are endless. Do you want to ask about that European village he just mentioned? Turn to page 34. Ask him to repeat that odd dog breed name that went over your head by turning to page 77. Otherwise, flip the page to see what happens next.

Craig formed his bottomless well of stories and anecdotes over a lifetime of choosing adventure and experience over staying comfortable at home. “When Lisa and I first got together, we promised each other that we would fill our lives and minds with experiences rather than filling our apartment with stuff,” Craig said. Over 36 years later, they have held true to this promise. They have traveled around the world together, often under the guise of researching and photographing hunting dog breeds in their native lands. Along the way, those travels led to genuine connections with fellow dog lovers in every corner of the world.

I often quip that I enjoy spending time with dog people because none of us are people people. We tend to be quite comfortable around dogs but awkward around other humans, which is socially acceptable when you’re all wired that way. But Craig stands out as a stark exception to this rule: he truly, deeply loves people and the intricate details of human culture. For Craig, the study of dogs is a unique window into the minds and hearts of humans. After all, modern dog breeds are entirely manmade and based upon the preferences, needs, and even whims of the people who created them. As Craig pointed out, “dogs are a reflection of the culture where they originated. You can’t understand the dogs without understanding the people who created them.” Craig talks about the “tapestry” of human culture and how the story of dogs is interwoven among the threads.

Although Craig is now known as one of the world’s leading experts on pointing dogs and their history, he didn’t initially set out to achieve such lofty ambitions. Rather, he just wanted to know a little bit more about his own dog.

“I’ve always been interested in dogs and would read every article in Field and Stream and Outdoor Life that featured a dog, but I didn’t really know much about the different types and breeds, other than that I wanted one of each! When we finally got our first dog, I became keenly interested in finding out all I could about him, his breed, and all the other pointing breeds,” he said.

Craig began his quest to learn more about his dog at the local library. He assumed he would quickly satisfy his curiosity and move on to other pursuits, but what he found only left him wanting more.

“Sure, there were lots of books with the breed standard in them and maybe a few lines about the breed’s history, but none of them went into any detail about how they hunt, what they hunt, etc.,” said Craig. “The more I read, the more I realized that a lot of material was written by folks who had clearly never actually seen or hunted over the breeds they were writing about. So as my frustration rose, so too did my determination to write a book about pointing dogs based on real-life observations and interviews with folks that know their breed inside and out.”

With that newfound determination, Craig’s life took a detour into what would become an all-consuming project stretching over the next twenty years. He and Lisa embarked on countless trips across North America and Europe, photographing dogs and interviewing experts to learn about the continental pointing breeds from the people who knew them best. He translated historical texts from a variety of languages, both modern and antique. He used his remarkable ability to connect with people and contagious enthusiasm for dogs to dig into the authentic stories and truths about each breed.

Craig Koshyk with his wife Lisa Trottier and their Blue Picardy Spaniel

Ten years later, Pointing Dogs Volume One: The Continentals was born. For many people, myself included, this book served as a window into a world of pointing dogs we hadn’t even imagined. Sure, everyone has heard of a German Shorthaired Pointer, but what about a Stabyhund or a Pachón Navarro? My own interest in my dog breed of choice was born within the pages of this book, thanks to Craig’s insatiable curiosity and his pact with Lisa to pursue experience over material goods.

There’s a certain amount of confidence needed to title your ten-years-in-the making tome “Volume One,” but there was never any question in Craig’s mind that Volume Two would eventually follow. It was disingenuous to only write about the continental European dogs without covering the British and Irish breeds—Pointers
and the various setters—whose genes have been used to create and improve countless other breeds throughout history. Pointing Dogs Volume Two: The British and Irish Breeds crosses the English Channel to discover the real stories of the Pointer, English Setter, Gordon Setter, Irish Red and White Setter, and the Irish Setter from people who have dedicated their lives to them. Craig then followed those breeds around the world to understand how they hunted, tested, and competed in countries outside of their homelands. Once again, ten years after starting the journey, he put the last words on paper for what is bound to be another cornerstone of canine literature and knowledge.

Recall that Craig only set out to write these books because he couldn’t find the book he was looking for at the library. At his core, he is a teacher through and through. His passion for sharing his knowledge bubbles up out of that deep well of experience like an artesian spring. Unsurprisingly, he was once a math and science teacher before opening a photography school in Winnipeg, eventually “retiring” from the school to pursue writing, photography, music, speaking, and studying; he’s a venerable renaissance man in the modern world. Through it all, the desire to teach others remains a critical thread in the very fabric of his being.

Craig approaches life as a student, always curious and inquisitive, which is why any conversation with him takes breathtaking twists and turns. I’ve had the immense pleasure of cohosting the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast with him, which has given me a frontrow seat to engage with one of my heroes within the dog world. I often joke that my role is to wind him up and point him in a particular direction, then watch him roll along until our time is up. But every hero has their own heroes to whom they look up, so I wanted to know more about Craig’s inspiration. I recently asked Craig where he would go if he could travel through time and space. His answer—and itinerary—was immediate.

“First stop, Gaston Phebus’s realm in what is now Southern France circa 1380. Then I’d head to Prince Albrecht vom Solms Braunfels’s castle in Germany in the 1880s so I could see his massive kennel full of Pointers and Setters and meet Eduard Korthals, who worked there while creating the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.

The thought of Craig wandering the French countryside in the fourteenth century makes a lot of sense to me. He’d meet people and make connections regardless of a language or cultural barrier. He’d spot a dog across the valley and make a beeline to find out what it was and what its owner was like. He’d speak the universal language of dogs and get the firsthand experience he has always craved. Craig would be equally at home in a late nineteenth-century castle, admiring the ostentatious kennels and asking the keepers about the dogs. He’d zero in on the person who spoke the least but had accumulated the most practical knowledge of the dogs.

Craig Koshyk meets some setters in a field for his book

Luckily for us in the twenty-first century, Craig exists here in the modern era and remains devoted to chronicling the story of our hunting dogs before anything more is lost to the passage of time. With Pointing Dogs Volume Two nearing completion, he has his sights set on the next project.

“I have several more books in mind,” said Craig, “I am not sure in which order they will come, but I want to do one on retrievers and water dogs, one on flushing spaniels, and one on hounds. I’d also like to do a book on terriers and dachshunds, and maybe even Nordic spitz and Asian hunting dogs.”

Ever the student, he’ll undoubtedly lose himself in those projects and emerge with volumes of research to condense and distill into books that stand the test of time. Future generations tasked with carrying our dog breeds forward will have an invaluable touchstone on which to base their work. As Craig observed, “Our hunting dogs and the systems we use to breed, train, and test them are at an inflection point. Massive changes have already occurred, and more will come. But I am a firm believer in the youth of today and trust that they will take our gun dog breeds into a new era of enlightenment.”

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