Superior Pointers - Fine Bird Dogs - Elhew Pointers


There appears to be a growing number of breeders offering “Elhew bred pointers”, or even “Elhew pointers”, which actually derive a large portion of their genetics from non-Elhew sources. Some of these breedings are motivated purely by commercial considerations, and are an attempt to capitalize on the name recognition and reputation of Bob Wehle’s famed Elhew Kennels to sell puppies. Other breedings are a sincere attempt by the originator to improve, in a single generation, on the gentleman’s shooting dog bloodline to which master breeder Bob Wehle dedicated a lifetime. It is these latter breedings which merit discussion.

The potential for the outcross of a pure Elhew dog to a non-Elhew dog to result in an “improved” bird dog, depends upon one’s definition of “improvement”. If the goal is to breed an exceptional natural bird dog with sound, pleasing, functional, athletic conformation and the temperament and intelligence to be easily developed by a novice into a classy, foot handled, gun dog, then such outcrosses would seem to be counter productive. The result, as one might logically expect, is instead the predictable dilution of one or more of the aforementioned desirable qualities. The continuous improvement of these signature Elhew characteristics can, it would seem, be best accomplished by selectively breeding exceptional pure Elhew dogs who already possess them. The nature of any such potential incremental improvement of Bob Wehle’s 66 year line breeding program from complementary pure Elhew matings will be evolutionary, and not revolutionary. To expect an Elhew outcross to result in a quantum leap in terms of performance is unrealistic and, as the master breeder himself would say, “like capturing lightning in a bottle”.

When a homogeneous pure Elhew dog is bred to a heterogeneous non-Elhew dog, the result is not like mixing equal parts of red and yellow paint to get orange. Due to the large number of genes contributed by both parents, and the exponentially larger number of potential gene combinations, the offspring from such litters routinely exhibit a lack of uniformity often rivaling that seen in a litter with multiple sires. Conformation, temperament, and performance characteristics are unpredictable in individual puppies from such unions, and are ultimately ascertained only after many months of observation and fieldwork. This is why Bob Wehle rejected three-fourths of the painstakingly designed but relatively infrequent out-crosses which he made over 66 years, and carefully added only a few select, thoroughly vetted individuals – usually through the female side – to the Elhew gene pool.

Breeders outcrossing pure Elhew dogs with non-Elhew dogs often cite the creation of “hybrid vigor” as justification for their breeding initiatives. Hybrid vigor, however, is defined as a potential result of breeding two genetically pure, not closely related animals. Since the Elhew pointer is the only closely bred, genetically pure bloodline known to pointing dogs, the potential benefit of F1 hybridization is not applicable to, and not characteristic of, the offspring of Elhew outcrosses. Whether such unions produce a dog exhibiting desired- by the breeder- characteristics, and the extent to which such characteristics are present, is unpredictable and a matter of pure chance. It constitutes a roll of the dice, so to speak.

Proponents of Elhew outcrosses also often rationalize their breeding initiatives by noting that Bob Wehle occasionally bred outside of Elhew kennels, and speculating that he did so to “freshen” or “add vitality” to the Elhew bloodline. Mr. Wehle’s explanation, which he articulated on numerous occasions, was that his outcrosses were primarily intended to enhance intelligence- particularly as manifested by learning capacity, and the ability to find birds. In his perpetual quest for an even better bird dog, he understood that intelligence was a quality of which one could never obtain too much. He cautioned, however, that "outcrossing tends to lessen the quality of the totem or strain, particularly if of an unselective nature." The successful outcross in the late 60’s and early 70’s to nine time champion Red Water Rex was also made to correct undershot bites, and to improve pointing style and intensity, as Elhew dogs of this era often lacked character around game. As Mr. Wehle observed in Snakefoot, The Making of a Champion: “The purpose of outcrossing at Elhew Kennels has always been the search for that outstanding dog- something better than what we had- and looking for ‘sports’ with which to accomplish this. As the family has improved, this has become harder and harder to do”.

Some practitioners of outcrossing, and advocates of heterogeneous breeding, suggest that breeding exclusively within a bloodline will eventually diminish the phenotype. This phenomenon, known as inbreeding depression, can result from non-selective, indiscriminate line breeding. Random breeding within a homogeneous bloodline (or genetically isolated population) can eventually lead to inbreeding depression. Selective breeding of superior, complementary individuals within a homogeneous bloodline, ultimately results in the accelerated improvement of the phenotype. This outcome has been repeatedly demonstrated in every domestic species to which this breeding strategy has been applied. Bob Wehle noted, on multiple occasions, that the maintenance and continuous improvement of his bloodline required more than simply matching prefixes or pedigrees. In a 1998 American Field article, he observed that "breeding potential champions is more sophisticated than simply matching up names on paper. It involves careful analysis of both parents from puppyhood on, learning all of their qualities both good and bad, then carefully selecting matings with the compatability to produce the desired results, constantly breeding the very best to the very best." It is, therefore, the knowledgeable, conscientious, thoughtful custodians of the Elhew bloodline, and not the commercially motivated "market breeders" Mr. Wehle regularly decried, who will perpetuate his incomparable legacy.

The Elhew Pointer, which dedicated custodians of the bloodline are committed to both preserving and continuously improving, is the culmination of 66 years of thoughtful line breeding and inbreeding by Bob Wehle of only superior, complimentary sires and dams. Every litter produced at Elhew Kennels was ruthlessly culled to ensure that there were no recurring performance-compromising genetic defects introduced to the gene pool. Every individual dog retained for breeding was extensively studied and critically evaluated by this accomplished student of genetics to verify their potential for improving his unique gentleman’s shooting dog bloodline. As Bob Wehle observed in 2002 shortly before his death, “The family has now become so pure there is no longer need to seek outside blood. All the undesirable genes have been removed from the totem, so we can now breed very closely without having to worry about unwanted qualities surfacing of any kind.” Mr. Wehle additionally noted that “with the blood we have in the kennels right now, I can breed a better dog than Snakefoot”.

With regard to the future of his unique bloodline, and of the pointer breed, Bob Wehle observes in Snakefoot, The Making of a Champion, that “In spite of how strong a gene pool can be, if heterogeneous breeding is practiced- that is outcrossing- the benefits of this gene pool can be lost in a generation or two. The future of the breed will depend on the quality of the breeding programs involved. If heterogeneous breeding is to prevail, the breed will diminish in overall quality. It’s just a question of time. On the other hand, if breeders will stay within a family regardless of how large or small the kennel is, there will always be some nice dogs.”

There is, however, one breeding objective which has proven to benefit from an infusion of Elhew genes into non-Elhew “blood”. The outcrossing of an Elhew dog with a wider ranging horseback field trial dog- preferably of all age lineage- has proven to be a successful formula for producing championship caliber horseback shooting dogs, and even the occasional outstanding all age dog. The Elhew genetics appear to enhance intelligence, as manifested in bird finding and learning ability, while tempering boldness and independence in a manner which improves compliance and handling response to tolerable- for horseback field trial dogs- levels. A prime example of this phenomenon is the multiple breedings of champion Rockacre Blackhawk to Elhew Katie Lee, which have produced several outstanding horseback shooting dog champions. Elhew Fibber McGee, from two breedings to Silverwood granddaughter Magic Carpet, has produced six accomplished horseback shooting dogs with multiple wins in championship competition. To date, Elhew Fibber McGee's get - primarily from horseback field trial bred, non-Elhew females - have sixty-seven championship wins. Top Crude and Sinbad are examples of horseback all age champions with significant Elhew “blood”.

Forty years ago, field trial hall of fame trainer/handler Bill Rayl expressed concern that “we are breeding the brains out of our bird dogs”. Bill feared that excessive emphasis on range and independence, without commensurate attention to bird finding/pointing ability and handling compliance, could eventually diminish the overall quality of field trial pointers. Some might consider this observation prophetic. Bill also believed that the best horseback field trial dogs came from breeding what he termed “cutting edge” dogs to “leveling” dogs. He specifically advocated breeding bold, independent, strong willed, horseback all age dogs to exceptional plantation gun dogs. This appears to be the breeding strategy employed to produce champions Highway Man, Endurance, Evolution, and other notable Bill Rayl performers. The outcrossing of pure Elhew dogs with horseback all age dogs would seem to be a very similar breeding strategy to the philosophy so successfully advocated by this accomplished breeder, trainer, and handler.

If, therefore, a prospective puppy buyer’s objective is to own a competitive, major circuit, horseback field trial dog, and he is willing to evaluate multiple prospects to identify individuals with desired characteristics, an Elhew outcross merits serious consideration. A pure Elhew dog of Snakefoot x Fearless Bud daughter lineage may also be a good candidate. If, however, one’s goal is to own a personable, sound, well-made, gun dog with uncommon natural ability which can be developed by a novice, comfortably hunted from foot in any cover, and is a compliant, civilized, family companion, a pure Elhew prospect is the most logical choice.