Finnish spitz and safeguarding the hunting tradition
|Finnish spitz and safeguarding the hunting tradition|
|In the national inventory|
Practitioners and people who know the tradition well
The hunting tradition and the hunting method of using Finnish spitzes are kept alive by individual dog owners, organisations, associations and scholars dedicated to the breed. Practical know-how is passed on directly from the more experienced practitioners to younger generations on shared hunting trips and during events, such as bird hunting trials and breed shows.
The national representative of the breed is the Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö association, which currently has approximately 7,500 members. The association is a member of the Finnish Kennel Club, a national umbrella organisation for kennels. Locally, the breed’s interests are represented by the regional kennel associations operating under the Finnish Kennel Club and organisations maintaining the breed’s vitality, including several provincial Finnish spitz clubs and locally operating hunting clubs with kennels. Finland has a total of over 4,500 registered hunting clubs.
The traditional form of hunting with a Finnish spitz is best upheld in Finland, but the tradition is also well-known in Sweden, Norway and Russian Karelia. Currently, there are approximately 7,500 Finnish spitzes in Finland. Smaller populations also exist in Sweden, Russia, Norway, the UK and the USA. In addition, a small number of these dogs also live in France, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. Their beautiful appearance has in part helped their spread to other countries. For example, Finnish spitzes were introduced to the UK as a fashionable breed in the 1920s (Suomen Kuvalehti 29/1935). The total number of Finnish spitzes in the world is around 13,000. The busiest registering years for the breed were in the 1960s with as many as nearly 3,000 dogs registered annually. In 2016, 737 Finnish spitzes were registered in Finland, and their numbers grew for the second consecutive year. The Finnish spitz was the 13th most popular breed registered in Finland in 2016.
In 1979, the breed was named Finland’s national dog, based on a proposal by the Finnish Kennel Club.
Practising of the tradition
Dogs with pointed ears have been part of our northern lifestyle since the Stone Age. For centuries, the Finnish spitz has accompanied Finns, providing essential assistance in hunting and being used as a guard and pet in communities. The breed can undeniably be said to have participated in the formulation of the Finnish lifestyle and our national character. Even today, many Finns have some sort of a personal connection to the breed, and the breed is recognised all over the country. The Finnish spitz is an integral part of Finnishness.
The core element of the traditions related to the Finnish spitz, hunting, is still practised the same way as centuries ago – only the weapons and other gear have developed over the years. Bird hunting (capercaillie, black grouse, hazel grouse) with a Finnish spitz is practised in Finland, but also in Sweden, Norway and Russia.
Typically, the hunting party only consists of a handler and a dog, who work seamlessly together in the forest and have a clear division of tasks. The Finnish spitz can search for game over a wide area – spotting them even up the trees with its scent – and it will signal the location of the bird to its handler by barking underneath the tree. The dog focuses the bird’s attention on itself by barking intensely and wagging its tail. The handler’s task is to sneak quietly close enough to the tree without scaring off the bird. A talented and experienced dog will mesmerise the bird with its bark, giving the dog’handler time to choose whether to shoot the bird or not.
Hunting with a Finnish spitz facilitates the controlled population management, because before shooting, the hunter can assess whether the bird is young or old. The recommendation, based on the sustainable use of fowl and research data, is to favour young birds, the majority of which would not survive their first year anyway due to the high natural mortality rate typical for the species.
Often the hunter can gain enough information by listening to the bark and monitoring the dog’s lively behaviour. In the forest, the Finnish spitz comes to its own. The key is to spend time and do things together with the dog in the forest, the highlight of which is sitting down for a cup of coffee brewed on open fire.
Nowadays, bird hunting trials simulating the traditional way of hunting in a realistic environment and mimicking a real hunting scenario have become popular practices alongside hunting, but no birds are shot at these trials. The first bird hunting trials for Finnish spitzes were held in 1897, 120 years ago. The bird hunting trials allow for the use of these dogs for their traditional purpose and training the skills outside of the short hunting season.
According to an old saying, the Finnish spitz is ‘a dog of all prey’, because it can be used to hunt other animals as well as birds: small predators (pine marten, raccoon dog, mink, badger), water birds (ducks and the taiga bean goose), moose, bear and in the past squirrel, which used to have notable economical significance.
Nowadays, hobbies related to the Finnish spitz include moose hunting trials, and the breed is also well-suited to a multitude of other canine hobbies. Finnish spitzes have been trained as blood tracking dogs, for example, and they have also been taken to agility tracks, i.e. obstacle courses for dogs and their owners.
Breed shows are part of the Finnish spitz hobby scene. These shows steer the development of the breed’s appearance and anatomy and ensure that the Finnish spitz maintains the physical attributes officially specified for the breed.
The ancient relationship between the Finnish spitz and its owner is especially evident in a family context, in which the dog is an equal member of the pack and loyal to the other members. That is why the Finnish spitz is well-suited for visiting retirement homes as a so-called therapy dog.
The background and history of the tradition
The Finnish spitz is an original breed that descends directly from the natural stock without cross-breeding. This original breed that drives birds up in the trees does not exist elsewhere. The Finnish spitz is intelligent, quick to react and independent. It has a strong genetic tendency to exhibit prey drive towards all forms of prey.
Our national dog, the Finnish spitz, is closely connected to Finnish culture. It is the oldest of Finnish dog breeds, and has been used by Finns and our ancestors since time immemorial. Dogs similar to the Finnish spitz are depicted in Stone Age rock paintings. Finno-Ugric peoples were already using these small dogs for hunting when settling in their current living areas. In addition to hunting, these dogs have also had an important role in guarding settlements. The modern Finnish spitz exhibits this same strong tendency to guard its pack. During the 20th century when Finland was still an agrarian society, Finnish spitzes could be seen on many farmyards, which made the breed an integral part of the Finnish cultural landscape at the time.
The special relationship between the man and the dog had a significant impact on the well-being of ancient Finns. Dogs provided warmth during cold nights and acted as companions.
It is estimated that the development of a unified proto-form of this pointy-eared breed began in Finland in approximately 100 CE. Dogs similar to the Finnish spitz have been used for hunting all over Finland for several centuries. A large number of written records have survived from the end of the 19th century describing hunting dogs with a fierce bark and red fur. In 1834, Wilhelm von Wright mentioned the resemblance between a barking bird dog and a fox in one of his writings. Dogs with pointed ears have been used in hunting since the age of hunting bows, but their use did not become widespread until firearms began replacing bows amongst the common people on a larger scale.
The Finnish spitz used to provide valuable assistance in finding sustenance. Before agriculture was developed and established here, the forests and bodies of water were the main sources of food. The dogs could easily hunt for food from nature for themselves and their human companions. In addition, dogs were trusted with the major task of acquiring furs, which were used as ancient currency. Fur trade was an important way to make a living, and squirrels were the main fur animals. The significance of the squirrel to an economy that was based on natural products is reflected in the vocabulary, as one of the first known Finnish units was "kiihtelys", which means a set of 40 squirrel furs.
The Finnish spitz is independent and brave enough to take on and hunt bears, which was also a valuable feature for the ancient Forest Finns.
The Finnish spitz has always been considered a dog for all prey. Therefore, it is also used for retrieving shot birds from water. In the forest, the Finnish spitz will remain in good contact with its owner. A short working distance of approximately a few hundred metres is necessary in the forest, because while intensely focusing on barking, the dog can easily be located and caught unawares by wild beasts, such as wolves and bears.
The Finnish barking bird dog was first listed in the breed register in 1892, and the first special show for the breed was held that same year. In 1897, the breed’s characteristics were further specified, and in 1946, its name was changed to Finnish spitz.
In 2006, the Finnish spitz and its Russian sister breed the Karelo-Finnish Laika were declared to be the same breed. This expanded the genepool of the Finnish spitz and allowed for the valuable increase of genetic variation. However, the appearance of the Finnish spitz was not affected by this, because the two breeds resembled each other significantly.
The transmission of the tradition
The spitz tradition within Finnish families is mainly being passed on from parents and grandparents to children. Every time a new owner receives their first Finnish spitz, the special bond between these dogs and the Finnish people is recreated.
The shared hunting tradition connected to the breed is also transmitted by national-level dog and hunting organisations, as well as regional and local associations that organise joint events, training and courses. People can also join these activities and participate in the tradition by visiting breed shows for the Finnish spitz, where the dogs’ physical appearance, anatomy, character and behaviour are evaluated, or hunting trials, which test the abilities and hunting instincts of individual dogs. In 2016, a total number of 1,221 Finnish spitzes attended shows and 1,475 took part in hunting trials, the majority of which were for bird barking. Like in all canine activities, the handler must be able to read the dog when hunting with a spitz. This skill cannot be taught or learned orally or in writing – it must be experienced. The only way to learn how to read dogs and their behaviour, intentions, expressions and body language is to spend time with them hunting. Naturally, it helps to have someone there with prior experience.
Information regarding the shared development of Finns and the Finnish spitz is available in several written sources, from Finland’s national epic and similar works to the histories of the Finnish Association for Spitzes and collections of short stories describing hunting with the breed. Visual art, crafts, jewellery, stories and even films have also captured the coexistence, shared hunting tradition and the characteristics of the breed itself. An apt, if a somewhat belligerent example of the breed’s status in Finland is the Finnish nickname for the M27 rifle popular during the Winter War, ‘Spitz’. This nickname comes from the shape of the side guards of the rifle’s front sight, which resembled the pointed ears of the Finnish spitz. All men conscripted by the Finnish military in the 1930s–1960s are probably familiar with this rifle, which helped to make them aware of this physical key characteristic of the Finnish spitz.
The future of the tradition
It is extremely important to advertise the long-held tradition connected to the Finnish spitz in a positive and active manner among Finns living in cities, who are no longer in touch with the hunting tradition due to urbanisation. The number of people hunting with Finnish spitzes has gone down from the peak years, following the concentration of the population. The right kind of publicity and keeping the threshold as low as possible for new practitioners of the tradition can ensure the tradition’s vitality and continuity. The tradition connected to the Finnish spitz can also be safeguarded in an urban environment. The older Finnish generations are still well aware of the content and significance of this tradition. The younger generations have also been shown to have an interest in the long continuum of this lifestyle, provided that they are given access to the related information. In recent years, the number of female hunters has notably increased in Finland, which has been a positive development. And what is best is that many of them have found this hobby through their Finnish spitzes. To secure the future of the Finnish spitz, the aim should be that every Finn: 1. Is familiar with the main aspects of the past and present status of the tradition connected to the Finnish spitz; 2. Understands the significance of the Finnish spitz in the formation of Finnish identity; 3. Is at least able to identify the breed based on its appearance.
The community/communities behind this submission.
Suomessa haukkuu muinaiskoira (Tiede 9.12.2015). Artikkeli suomenpystykorvan pitkästä historiasta.
Heimo Langinvainion tutkimus 2015 ”Hyvää elämää koiran kanssa - Koiran vaikutuksesta koiranomistajan hyvinvointiin ja onnellisuuteen”. Linkki julkaisuun.
Cavill, Angela 2014: Finnish Spitz. Kuopio: Suomen Pystykorvajärjestö – Finska Spetsklubben ry.
Tuominen, Erkki 1987: Pikinokka pystykorva, suomalaisen pystykorvametsästyksen opas. Hämeenlinna: Karisto.