Spurlaut In Dachshunds - Part 1

by Jolanta Jeanneney

for DCA Newsletter March 2005

 

As the first storm of the new year was blanketing fields with heavy, wet snow, I had a chance to sit by our warm stove and read the latest issue of Full Cry. I have my favorite columns in this magazine and one of them is by Richard McDuffie from South Carolina, who this time wrote in his closing paragraph: “I can’t say I ever enjoyed a squirrel hunt. I think the reason is that squirrel dogs only bark when treed. If I had only silent trailing coon dogs, I would have felt the same. It was the chase – the dog against the coon – that excited me about coon hunting through the years. If my dogs had been silent, I would have quit 50 years ago. I never kept a silent dog longer than to find out he was silent. That said, it is not a slap at any breed or individual dog that is silent. It is just a statement of my own preference.” McDuffie articulated well my own feelings and preferences, not about coon dogs, but about dachshunds. Because what I love the most is to watch and hear dachshunds trail rabbits. I have a deep appreciation for other types of hunting that our versatile breed can be used for, but nothing excites me and sends a shiver down my spine more than a sight and sound of dachshund pursuing a rabbit.

 

My convictions that the dachshund should vocalize on rabbits were tested not so long ago when we bred our wirehair dachshund Vamba, Gita’s daughter, with hope of keeping a female pup out of the breeding. Vamba is a quick rabbit hunter with a very strong voice, who opens easily, day in, day out, whenever she comes across rabbit scent. We bred her to Falko, a son out of Larry Gohlke’s Lolly, the small, responsive and biddable male, who opens …sometimes. Our goal was to reduce the size, improve biddability and maintain voicing ability. From the litter of six we kept one female, Isa, whose temperament was hard to match. I had high hopes for this pup with a great coat, but quite quickly realized that her talent for field work was lacking. She was given countless opportunities to work rabbits, and with exposure to game, her desire to trail rabbits has grown strong. But even though Isa was a vocal dog around the house, she was mute on rabbits.  In addition, her style of trailing rabbits was different from what we are used to and what is desirable. Sometimes she would keep her nose to the ground, but often she would bound along like a gazelle, or a cartoon character, bouncing up with all four feet off the ground, while looking far ahead. Still I loved Isa dearly for her character and personality and was willing to wait, hoping that she would improve with age. Also Isa provided me with a learning opportunity because she was so different in the field than most our dachshunds. Sometimes you learn the most from unexpected new situations, and this was one of them.

 

Just about when she was to turn two years old, Isa surprised me by giving quite a few yelps on a rabbit. At the time she was by herself in the enclosed field and her voice sounded strong. I could hardly believe my ears; to be sure that she did not open just on the sight of a rabbit, next evening I let her out there when it was dark. Again, she opened, not a lot, but she certainly was not mute. For the next four months she accompanied me every time I took other dogs to the beagle club. I watched her closely. Yes, occasionally she would voice, but there was a huge difference between her and other dogs who open easily while following rabbits for a long distance. Her few barks were far from being useful in the field, and her inability to share with me her excitement of the chase left me disappointed. I would wander around the grounds looking for her as she was hunting silently most of the time; I could not locate her easily and the thrill of our hunt without a gun was completely gone. Finally, when the right home came along, I decided to let her go with a very heavy heart. It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make, but a right one. Now, without Isa, we are down to eleven dachshunds, and all of them voice on rabbits.

 

This innate ability of the dachshund to voice on the scent track of live game is called in German “spurlaut” (spur=scent track, laut=sound). In English a spurlaut dog is called an open trailer or we say that a dog gives tongue.

 

I think that nobody will argue with the point of view that the voicing ability is essential for the dachshund used by hunters who take small game with a gun. The spurlaut dachshund makes the hunt safer and more enjoyable. John Jeanneney presented the following scenario in his article Some Dachshunds Need to Sing. A Reflection on Spurlaut . “Desiring a more versatile and obedient hound than a beagle, a hunter tries a dachshund. A dachshund flushes a rabbit in an overgrown field, gives a few yelps on the sight chase and then drives the rabbit silently. The dog gives the hunter no guidance, no idea where to take his stand and wait for a shot. Even if the hunter does see the rabbit he wonders where his dog is and dares not shoot.”

 

But there are some risks involved with spurlaut dachshunds running freely through a coyote territory and these days coyotes are omnipresent. It happened to Teddy Moritz on several occasions when the sound of the vocalizing dachshunds running rabbits in the natural habitat attracted coyotes. The encounter of a mini dachshund and coyotes can have a disastrous outcome. So, as Teddy says, “it is a tough decision whether to breed for a lot of mouth on the track. In this country, where coyotes can be a very deadly threat to a small dog, perhaps spurlaut isn't as desirable as it is in countries where there are no coyotes.” It should be pointed out that falconers use the miniature dachshund as a part of the hunting team – he is supposed to jump and run the rabbit so the hawk has more opportunities to catch the cottontail. Since the hawk in the tree can easily see the moving rabbit, dachshunds do not need to voice to indicate the direction of chase.

 

The spurlaut trait is genetically controlled and the dog who does not have a gene for spurlaut is going to stay mute even though he may be a hunting maniac with a lot of hunting drive. A dog without a gene for spurlaut is going to be silent even though he might be chasing rabbits every day of his life. Nevertheless, this is not a simple black and white situation. Some dachshunds do not voice on the scent track of live game such as rabbit or hare but they do open on the sight of live game. In German this ability to open on the sight of game is called “sichtlaut” (sicht=sight). According to the German literature, spurlaut is dominant over sichtlaut, which in turn is dominant over muteness. And because muteness is recessive it can be carried over many generations through heterozygous carriers, who themselves are spurlaut. In consequence -- if a breeder wants to maintain “spurlaut” in his breeding program, he has to select for this trait, otherwise it can be easily lost. You should not be expecting spurlaut dogs in the offspring of mute parents. However, it is quite common for mute dogs to turn up in the offspring of spurlaut parents. Of course, from a breeding point of view dachshunds who are homozygous for spurlaut gene, are the most valuable. They could be bred to a mute partner and still produce 100% spurlaut offspring.

 

The voice is triggered by the scent of the track but the stimulus threshold necessary for the release of voice is different for every dog. Some dogs open very easily, just when they get in contact with the scent. Other dogs have to follow the scent track for a while before they open. It looks like they need some time for the momentum to build up. Some dachshunds voice on a relatively cold track while others open only when the scent is really fresh and strong. All these variations can be easily observed at field trials conducted on cottontails. In my own experience, the speed of chase is a factor as well. Dogs who pursue the game with a good speed usually voice more easily than the ones who move slowly. The variation in expression of spurlaut in individual dachshunds suggests involvement of modifier genes with small quantitative effects, but at this point this is just a hypothesis. Certainly future DNA studies will be of great help in clarification of the genetic basis of spurlaut.

 

I have never attempted to breed a litter of puppies out of mute parents, but I have bred many litters out of spurlaut parents. Our only inbred litter was out of spurlaut Gita and her spurlaut son Sherman. We kept two females, Vamba and Vesper, and they were raised together, in the same environment. They were taken on walks together and explored scents of neighboring fields and woods. Vamba had opened on a rabbit scent shortly before she turned six month old; she was fascinated by the scent and was a true self-starter. Being very fast she could really put pressure on a rabbit and her voice was like a machine-gun in the woods. On quite a few occasions, she bumped deer in the woods and opened on them too. Vesper, even though she was quite keen to explore the scent of game and follow it, never opened and remained mute until at the age of a year and a half, when we found a new home for her. There are more examples of mute and spurlaut dogs occurring in the same litter. In wires bred by David and Trudy Kawami, littermates Avi (spurlaut) and Asti (mute) out of spurlaut parents, Willow and Nelke, come to my mind. In longs, Patt Nance’s Marta (spurlaut) and Maya (mute) out of Ilsa (opens occasionally) and Karl (spurlaut) fit the description.

 

To illustrate how easy it is to lose the spurlaut trait in a breeding program, which does not include a screening process for the trait, let’s go back to the example of Vamba and Vesper. We carried this bloodline by keeping spurlaut Vamba in our breeding program. But what would have happened if we had chosen to keep Vesper instead? If genetically mute and homozygous recessive Vesper had been bred to another dog just like her, she would have produced a 100% mute offspring. The gene for spurlaut would have been lost in this particular situation completely. Since spurlaut is dominant over muteness – it is easy to carry it from one generation to the next one if you screen for it, but once it is lost, that is it. You have to outcross to a spurlaut dog to introduce it to your bloodline again.

 

Part of the problem with breeding for spurlaut is the difficulty of screening puppies for this trait. When puppies are born, we have no way of knowing which ones are going to be spurlaut and which ones are going to be mute. You cannot select for spurlaut when puppies are under 16 weeks old. Moreover, it is not realistic to expect a puppy to open on its first rabbit though some can do it; pups have to be exposed to the scent of rabbits or other game and their hunting instinct needs to be awakened first. Only when puppies actually trail rabbits can you expect that they will voice on them. Some are very precocious and open when they are 3-4 months old, but the majority of spurlaut dachshunds, in my experience, open at the age of 6-7 months. Of course, there are some dogs who need a lot of work on rabbits before they voice, and the mute ones never open or open very rarely. The Germans believe that the dogs who show good spurlaut at an early age tend to be good producers of this trait. Therefore, dachshunds who pass the spurlaut test before the age of one year, get a special performance award Sp/J, where J (for Jugend) indicates this precociousness.

 

Since screening puppies for spurlaut is impossible at a very early age, certainly not at the age of 8-12 weeks, you maximize your chance of maintaining the trait if you use strong spurlaut dogs for breeding in the first place. Still, we know it is not a 100% guarantee, as some homozygous recessive mute dogs will segregate in the offspring of heterozygous parents; testing is necessary.

 

These days you can find some open trailing dachshunds at field trials, but majority of field trial dachshunds run rabbits silently. It is a result of many generations of breeding without applying selection for the trait. We really do not know the frequency of the spurlaut gene in the population of American dachshunds. Many dogs are never taken to the field and are never exposed to the scent of rabbits or hare. When I left Europe and came to Canada in 1981 I bought two show bred dachshunds, one smooth and one longhair. They came out of Canadian and American show breeding; the smooth was able to tongue really well while the longhair was completely mute.

 

Some people might be under the impression that the majority of European-bred dachshunds are spurlaut, which is far from the truth. There are a lot of breeders in Europe who are concerned with conformation only. They never take their dogs to the field or enter them in hunting tests. The fact that a dachshund was bred in Europe does not mean that he is going to be spurlaut. However, if the dog’s pedigree holds ancestors who tested well for spurlaut, then it is highly likely that the pup is going to be spurlaut as well.

 

This concludes the first part of my reflections on spurlaut. The second part will be published in the next issue of the newsletter. If you have any comments, questions or experiences related to this topic, contact me at Jolanta Jeanneney, 1584 Helderberg Trail, Berne, NY 12023, tel: 518-872-1779, jola@born-to-track.com