Italian Spinone

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Italian Spinone

Every European country developed its own pointer breed for hunting the particular bird species endemic to its own region, and the wonderfully versatile Italian Spinone (or Spinone Italiano, as it is known over much of the world) is Italy’s contribution to this large family of dogs. With its shaggy beard and eyebrows that overlie its docile, human-like eyes, the Spinone has won over many dog lovers in the United Kingdom, where its population is growing. Although the Spinone is boisterous and clumsy throughout its long juvenile phase, it matures into a laid-back adult that loves to spend most of its time lounging around in its owners’ company. Patient and gentle, it is a good children’s pet, although it has the stubborn streak typical of so many gundogs, and does need an owner with prior experience of training a more biddable breed.

The Italian Spinone is very sociable with other dogs, as well as people, although it can be somewhat reserved when first introduced. It is a non-aggressive breed, and so does not function as a watchdog or guardian. However, its strong prey drive does mean that cats and other small pets are not safe in its company. It is known for its stamina, rather than speed, and needs plenty of slow-and-steady exercise to keep it in good shape. Although the only reputable study available on longevity puts the breed’s life expectancy at just under 10 years, personal experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that most Spinoni exceed this, reaching 11–12 years. Most individuals are healthy, but there are several health conditions to which the breed is predisposed, including a significant incidence of joint disorders.

About & History

While it may not have quite as long a history as its compatriot, the Bracco Italiano, the Spinone has an important place in the nation’s culture. It can be traced through works of art, including a fresco by Andrea Mantega, to at least the fifteenth century. Its native region is the Piedmont, in the northwest of Italy, and here it was used to hunt wild birds. Predating the arrival of firearms capable of taking a bird on the wing, the Spinone’s job was to stick close by its master, using its fine nose to scent its prey before ambushing it, either retaining the bird itself, or allowing the hunter to finish the job. The breed’s characteristic, plodding trot is a reflection of this need to work at a human’s pace. It is thought the Spinone’s name originates from the favourite hiding places of the quail, partridge, and grouse that it pursued: the spinos bush, a particularly thorny shrub that only a dog possessing a wiry, rough coat and thick skin could venture into.

While the breed was indispensable to the northern Italians for centuries, the arrival of foreign hunting breeds, including setters and pointers, led to a reduction in its numbers in the nineteenth century. A further, disastrous decline occurred around the period of the Second World War, which left the Spinone in danger of extinction. The subsequent recovery programme required crossing the small number of surviving Spinoni with the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon and German Shorthaired Pointer in order to re-establish a sustainable population. Today, although the Bracco remains the more popular breed, the Italian Spinone is also kept in large numbers in its homeland, and is enjoying a growth in popularity worldwide, both as a versatile hunter and a family pet.

Appearance

Italian Spinone Large Photo

This is a strongly built, sturdy dog built on a substantial frame. The Spinone has a long head, almost half as long as the dog is tall, with a domed skull and a markedly Roman nose. The forehead ends in a subtle stop, and there is a marked bony furrow between the brows. The muzzle and jaw are very strong, while the lips are rather fine and slightly droopy. The breed is known for its expressive eyes, often likened to those of human, which are large and round and of an ochre colour, and its long ears are carried low at the side of the head.

The Spinone has a broad, strong, but short neck, and a well-muscled back that is as long as the dog is tall, giving it a distinctly square shape. Its chest should be broad, deep, and long, and the abdomen runs almost parallel to the ground between the brisket and pelvic brim. In their movement, the limbs reflect much of the breed’s approach to life and working style; powerful and heavily boned, with marked joint angulation, they are mobile and free-moving, swinging in an easy stride that is not fast, but can be maintained all day. Though the tail was traditionally docked, it should be thick and is carried below the horizontal at all times.

The Spinone has thick, loose skin that is essential to it being able to deal with scrubby undergrowth when hunting. It forms a slight dewlap on the underside of the neck. The coat, too, reflects the rugged landscape where the breed was developed. It has a coarse, hard texture, and is dense and moderately long, especially around the delicate areas of the mouth, eyes, ears, and perineum. It can exhibit one of several marking forms:

  • White
  • White with orange patches/speckles
  • White and brown
  • Orange roan
  • Brown roan

Male Spinoni measure 60 to 70 cm (24–28 in) in height to the top of the withers, and weigh 32–37 kg (70–81 lb), while females range in height from 58 to 65 cm (23–26 in), and in weight from 28 to 30 kg (62–66 lb).

Character & Temperament

Italian Spinoni are stoic and docile dogs, tolerant of discomfort and annoyance. Their gentle nature shines through in their eyes and body language, which is never tense or threatening. They are exceptionally considerate with children, to the point that a Spinone will allow itself to be bullied and handled roughly, and younger family members need to be coached on appropriate and fair ways to handle these patient creatures. While a Spinone will lavish affection on its family, it may be shy or aloof with strangers, at least on first meeting them, but it is quick to warm to newcomers, and almost as fast in adopting them as its new best friends.

Inter-dog aggression is almost unheard of with the breed, and a Spinone can usually be introduced into a home with other dogs without disturbance. However, other, smaller animals will be viewed as prey, and the breed is therefore not suited to homes with non-canine pets. Despite its placid and sedate behaviour as an adult, the breed experiences a long juvenile period, often up to two or three years of age, during which it is a far more boisterous, rowdy character. Owners must be prepared for this, while looking forward to an easier future with their rambunctious teenager.

Trainability

Photo of Italian Spinone puppy

Many hunting breeds have a tendency to be stubborn when being coached in an activity other than their preferred pastime, and the Italian Spinone is no exception. However, it is also an intelligent and loyal dog, and an experienced dog owner who does not allow him/herself to become frustrated with a lack of interest from their pupil will likely find it to be a relatively quick learner.

Health

There are several conditions to which the Spinone is known to be predisposed, although careful selective breeding does seem to be reducing the incidence of some (notably hip and elbow dysplasia):

  • Addison’s disease – Most commonly diagnosed in young adult females, this is a condition of steroid hormone deficiency, caused by autoimmune destruction of the adrenal glands. Signs range from sudden collapse to chronic, intermittent vomiting and diarrhoea. In the latter presentation, it may take some time before the significance of the symptoms is recognised. Although it is a lifelong affliction, long-term medication yields good results in most cases.
  • Cerebellar ataxia – Hereditary neurological disorder that predominantly affects males. Signs of incoordination and weakness develop in the first few months of life and progress over the following year, often resulting in death or euthanasia.
  • Eclampsia – Seen in lactating bitches in whom blood calcium levels drop dramatically, causing weakness, agitation, tremors, and seizures. Potentially fatal unless treated rapidly with intravenous calcium followed by oral supplementation.
  • Elbow dysplasia – Inherited malformation of the elbow joints, becoming apparent in growing pups from around five months of age. All breeding dogs should be x-rayed and scored to evaluate their suitability as parents.
  • Hip dysplasia – Like elbow dysplasia, a significant cause of lameness and early onset arthritis that can largely be eliminated by breeding only from those adults shown to have good conformation on radiographic examination.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Italian Spinone is not an apartment dog – it needs space in which to ramble – but it does not need vigorous exercise, preferring a slow-and-steady pace over a long distance, rather than being expected to chase a ball or keep pace with a bicycle. That being said, it is more than a match for most people on foot, and its stamina means that it can be an excellent jogging companion.

Grooming

The wiry coat is really very easy to care for, needing only occasional brushing, and even less frequent hand stripping – a process that removes dead hair and encourages fresh growth. Some owners do not like to strip the coat themselves, as it requires a certain amount of force, while not hurting the dog, and in such cases, a professional groomer will be happy to do the job. Like other bearded breeds, the Spinone should have its face wiped and dried after eating and drinking in order to prevent malodour and potential skin infections.

Famous Italian Spinoni

Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, is probably the most well-known Italian Spinone owner, having a male dog appropriately named Fuzzy.

Cross-Breeds

There are no well-recognised Italian Spinone cross-breeds at this time.

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