Kooikerhondje

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

Although it remains unknown to much of the world, the Kooikerhondje is a breed on the rise, and appears likely to become a far more common pet in the United Kingdom in the coming years. Hailing from the Netherlands, this is a very old breed, though it had to be rescued from the brink of extinction in the mid-twentieth century. A charming and clever hunting dog, its working technique involves enticing ducks and other waterfowl to their doom by using its flashy tail as a lure, a trick that it shares with few other breeds. This is an active dog with bundles of energy, and needs space to run, and preferably swim, for it loves water. It is gentle, somewhat reserved, and dislikes loud and boisterous personalities. For this reason, it may be uncomfortable having to deal with younger children – although it is unlikely to inflict a bite, it may become nervous and stressed in hectic households.

However, each Kooikerhondje is very much an individual, and they all have their own character traits and quirks. Their intelligence and ability to think for themselves means they can be very entertaining dogs to have around, but can also find their way into mischief. Although eager to please, the Kooikerhondje is wily enough to make training a challenge for a novice owner; like many of the hunting breeds, it looks for experience and confidence in its pack leader, and is not averse to “acting out” if it feels it can get away with it. Because all modern Kooikers are descended from a small number of dogs, there has been a high incidence of inherited disease in the breed for many years; however, it does appear that responsible breeding, coupled with advances in genetic testing, are beginning to pay dividends. With good care, and a modicum of luck, most Kooikers can be expected to live to 12 to 14 years of age.

About & History

Although the earliest origins of the breed are not clear, it is likely that this sporting dog descended from spaniels introduced to the Netherlands by the Spanish in the fifteenth century. Certainly, by the following century, it was appearing in positions of privilege in notable works of art, and a member of the Dutch royal family, Prince Delft, was said to have been saved from assassination in 1872 by his little orange and white hunting dog, who woke him by frantically licking his face by way of raising the alarm. Apart from this life-saving intervention, the appeal of the breed lay in its ability to “toll” ducks, using its white, plumed tail to attract them into so-called cages – kooi in Dutch – where they could be dispatched with ease by the hunters. Few other dogs are capable of this trick, with the only other notable example, the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, believed to be a nineteenth-century derivative of the Kooikerhondje.

Despite its earlier ubiquity, the number of Kooikers dropped over the following centuries, culminating in the near-annihilation of the breed in the period around World War II. Thankfully, around this time, a member of the aristocracy, Baroness van Hardenboek van Ammerstol, determined to save the Kooikerhondje, gathered as many individuals as she could muster into an intensive breeding programme. From this tiny population of around 30 dogs, she oversaw the successful re-establishment of the breed over the following decades, with the Dutch Kennel Club entering the first Kooikerhondje into its register in 1971. While it now enjoys some of its former popularity in its homeland, the breed has been slower to gain traction in the rest of the world. However, recent figures from the Kennel Club show a dramatic uptick in the number of UK-registered Kooikers in the past five years, meaning we can look forward to this little dog being a more common sight on our streets in the near future.

Appearance

Kooikerhondje Large Photo

The Kooikerhondje is spaniel-like in its appearance. A lively and alert character, it holds its head high and has a sprightly, clipping movement, showing an aristocratic bearing worthy of its heritage. The head is shaped like a blunt wedge, with a broad, slightly rounded skull and a gently tapering muzzle; the stop between the two is visible, but not pronounced. It has a black nose and similarly pigmented lips and eyelids, with almond-shaped, dark eyes, and a friendly expression. The relatively large ears are set just below eye level, and are carried flat to the cheeks.

Its body is lean but strong, with the back being noticeably longer than the height at the withers. Though muscular, the Kooikerhondje is never bulky, and is built for speed and agility. Its chest is let down to the elbows, and has well-sprung ribs, while the abdomen is tucked upwards to enhance the dog’s slender profile. The tail is set in line with the back, and is carried level or upright at most times, and its strong limbs have good bone structure.

The breed has a medium-length, soft coat that can either be slightly wavy or straight. There is pronounced feathering at the backs of the legs and the tail, while the ears have long fringes. The hair is a mixture of orange-red and white, with a distinct white blaze on the head. Black hairs may be seen interspersed with the primary colours, but are considered an undesirable feature. Males and females alike stand between 38 and 40 cm (15–17 in) in height, and weigh 9 to 11 kg (19–24 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Kooikerhondje was bred to work in close cooperation with its owner, and it does not like to be separated from its people. Although it is a loyal dog, rarely straying far from the owner’s side, it is not one to be effusive with its affection, and is more of a quiet, comforting presence than a boisterous face-licker. It is known for being cautious around strangers, although aggression is not a problem, and visitors to the home simply need to give the dog some time to become accustomed to their presence rather than forcing their attention on an unwilling recipient, as Kooikers generally warm to friends and family quickly.

This is a breed that does not handle stress well – family arguments or persistent annoyance from a small child will make a Kooikerhondje fall to pieces, and it is best suited to mature, calm homes where its humans will share its fondness for an easy-going approach to life. Though it is sociable with other like-minded dogs, its prey drive makes it unreliable with other smaller pets.

Trainability

Photo of Kooikerhondje puppy

Kooikers are extremely intelligent, and can excel at complex activities like flyball and agility. However, this intelligence also means that they are likely to push the boundaries in trying to discover how much mischief they can get away with.

While an experienced dog owner is likely to find the Kooikerhondje easy to train and obedient, the breed can be more of a challenge for inexperienced or less assertive individuals.

Health

If you are interested in becoming a Kooikerhondje owner, it is essential you do your homework, for there have been some significant health problems with the breed in the past. Any reputable and responsible breeder should be more than happy to discuss their dogs’ medical histories and to alleviate concerns regarding any of the following:

  • Cataract – An inherited form of cataract is recognised in the breed, which can cause significant visual impairment to young adult dogs. While a specialist ophthalmologist will likely be able to offer a surgical solution to the problem, this is a costly undertaking, and not without risk.
  • Epilepsy – A brain disorder causing seizures. Common in many pedigrees, especially the spaniel breeds, and generally becomes evident in the first few years of life. May require long-term medical management if seizures are severe, frequent, or accompanied by disturbing behavioural changes.
  • Kidney disease – There appears to be a particularly high incidence of kidney failure, a chronic, debilitating illness, in the Kooikerhondje. Family history is particularly relevant in relation to this disorder.
  • Necrotising myelopathy – A devastating, breed-specific neurological disorder. Although there is no treatment, its incidence in the breed has been reduced to significantly less than 1% over the past several decades.
  • Patellar luxation – Anatomic abnormality causing instability of the kneecap and intermittent lameness. May require surgery to allow normal function.
  • Polymyositis – Inflammatory illness in which muscle tissue is targeted by the immune system, causing diffuse, severe muscular pain and dysfunction. Most commonly first seen in young adults, and may require lifelong immunosuppressive therapy for successful management.
  • von Willebrand’s disease – Genetic defect in the function of platelets, the cells responsible for plugging tears in blood vessel walls. Affected dogs are prone to heavy, uncontrolled bleeding when injured.

Exercise and Activity Levels

As a working dog, the Kooikerhondje should be provided plenty of exercise, and ideally given access to water, for it loves to swim. It is an ideal companion for keen hikers and runners, and will happily keep pace with all but elite human athletes for several hours. However, it is not a restless breed, and will be content to spend much of the day resting as long as it can look forward to a minimum of one hour of walking each day.

Grooming

The silky coat needs regular brushing – two to three times a week – to keep it glossy and free from knots. It should rarely be washed, for as a water-loving dog, the Kooikerhondje relies on its hair’s oily coating to protect it from damage. Like any other dog, it will benefit from having its teeth brushed every day using an appropriate brush and paste, and will need occasional nail clipping.

Because of their pendulous carriage, the Kooikerhondje’s ears should be washed out with a cleansing solution at least once a fortnight – this helps remove wax and debris, and also keeps the number of resident bacteria and yeast under control, preventing infections.

Famous Kooikers

While you may not spot the Kooikerhondje on stage or screen, it can be seen in works of art, such as “The Lutist” by Hendrik Martensz-Sorgh and “The Happy House Companion” by Jan Steen.

Cross-Breeds

The Kooikerhondje is not regularly used in cross-breeding as it remains a rare breed in most of the world.

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