We do lots of Meet The Breeds events. But with the Kooikers, even walking down the street or posting a cute picture on Facebook turns into an impromptu MTB Q&A session. I do find that while there is plenty of information about Kooikers out there, most websites don’t hit on the biggest questions people ask, so here is a list of the most common questions I get, and how I answer them.
Q: How do you pronounce that?
Far and away the number one question we get. Try “koi-cur-hund-jyuh” – koi like the pon fish, cur like a feral dog, hund (like Schutzhund – means dog – hey we are back to familiar territory now, aren’t we?), chyuh or jyuh.
In Dutch, “kooi” means cage (referring to the cage where the ducks would be trapped), “kooiker” is the man or hunter working the dog. “Hondje” means small dog (“je” is the diminutive – so don’t leave it off lest you be talking about a large dog). So literally – it’s the duck trapper’s little dog.
But in FCI, and recently AKC, their full name is Nederlandse Kooikerhondje. “Nederlandse” is the Dutch word for “Dutch.” We almost always leave this off, and I never say I have a Nederlandse Kooikerhondje (just “Kooikerhondje” is enough to mystify most Americans). Also, they were exclusively “Kooikerhondjes” for the first 16 years I was involved with them – I ain’t never had a Nederlandse Kooikerhondje until recently!
In short: just call them Kooikers.
Q: What are they? What were they bred they for?
When faced with a novel object, human instinct is to seek a category for it! Kooikers are a tad difficult to categorize, so I usually start with saying they are Dutch spaniels that were developed hundreds of years ago to lure ducks into traps.
The difficulty comes when you Google “spaniel” and it says they are gundogs were bred to flush game from cover. That’s not a Kooiker’s job at all! How can they be a spaniel? I explain that they are derived from ancestral spaniels so while they may not share the same function as contemporary spaniels, they share a genetic heritage (and in a broader term, all spaniels – Kooikers included – are meant to assist in hunting feathered game). Just like I am German by descent although I don’t live in Germany or speak German – my ancestors are German, so that’s how you would categorize me by my heritage. Thus while Kooikers are not true gundogs in that they were never used around guns, they are best grouped with their spaniel brethren in the Sporting and Gundog groups, in my opinion.
They were bred to lure ducks down the elaborate arms of an eendenkooi, or duck trap/decoy – I touch on this elsewhere so am not here expanding on their use in decoying. Kooikers were also meant to be multipurpose, and were also employed to patrol the pond and surroundings to alert to visitors or poachers, to kill vermin, as well as to be a companion.
Q: What is their temperament like? Are they friendly?
This probably the most important question but difficult to answer succinctly. Especially with my boys at heel, who are the friendliest and sweetest Kooikers I’ve ever met, it’s hard to explain that they are potentially atypical. If people hear “spaniel” and think they are like any cheerful, friendly-to-all Cavalier or Cocker – Kooikers are far more complex. I always touch on the worst-case scenario here because Kooikers are not perfect, nor are they for everyone, and it is doing a disservice to all involved to paint a picture of an angelic loyal dog when the reality may be a little more challenging.
The Standard describes temperament thus:
Lively and agile, self-confident and with sufficient perseverance and stamina, good natured and alert, however not noisy. The breed is faithful, easy-going and friendly. Outside the hunting season the dog is expected to find and kill vermin, hence he needs to be keen, swift and tough. He is a true sporting dog, being attentive and energetic and having a zest for working and with a cheerful character.
This is apt, and sounds great! However, I would consider unstable temperament a current drag in the breed, as many, many Kooikers do not have a temperament that would fit this description. The line about killing vermin is reminiscent of something one might read in a terrier standard, and in fact many behaviors that one sees at a Kooiker gathering is almost better explained if one thinks of them as terriers in spaniel coats instead of bad-tempered spaniels. It is not rare for a Kooiker to be dog-aggressive and/or nervous/fear-aggressive/reactive. Of course, this can be mitigated to an extent by careful breeding, whelping and raising on the part of the breeder, and by persistent controlled socialization by the puppy buyer – but if an adult Kooiker snaps at another dog for instance, it should not come as a surprise. Is this ideal? No. Should people interested in the breed be aware? Of course.
Luckily, the majority of Kooikers I have met are genuinely happy, friendly dogs with an eagerness for work and a desire to be near their family. They will generally try anything asked of them, although if they do not love it, it will be clear. They are quite intelligent but don’t tend towards being neurotic or hyperactive, although they will alert and bark at the door. Unlike some other active breeds, they have an “off switch” and will be content to lie around the house with you as well.
While it does not appear in the Standard, you will also find Kooikers commonly described with the word “sensitive.” What does this actually mean in a dog? In my experience, it means they are loyal, smart and intuitive enough to be extremely in tune with their owner’s emotions – for both better and worse. While it is truly wonderful to live with a companion that understands how to react when you are feeling either sad or happy, it makes training a challenge (which is why Kooikers are usually not recommended for first-time dog owners). If you are unhappy or annoyed about something and you attempt a training session or a trial run, a Kooiker will pick up on it immediately, and assume you must be annoyed AT them. It’s thus very easy to “shut down” a Kooiker and make him stop working with you – if he senses any frustration or negative feelings coming down the leash, that training session or trial is going to be functionally over. Sure, you can recover their attention and/or bribe with treats, but you and the dog will fail to “gel” at that point. I’ve found that if you cannot reign in any negative emotions (which, admittedly, you get good at hiding if you work with Kooikers enough), it’s best to end the session and just play, or have a cuddle session, or give lots of treats for a behavior they already know and like. In the same vein, negative reinforcement/punishment doesn’t tend to work on Kooikers – it is more likely to cause a “shutdown” than it is to achieve results. Say what you will about R+ training, but putting an E-collar or prong collar on a Kooiker is, well, unheard of – because you will never succeed with a Kooiker by being rough or without fostering a personal relationship with them. Once you have that trusting relationship though, training and trialing is such a joy – to be so in tune with a dog that they can be controlled by the most minute of gestures, and they can communicate with you as well – it’s a true partnership.
Q: What do they do? Are they versatile/compete in obedience, agility, etc?
What do Kooikers NOT do, is a better question. I’m not aware of any performance events that at least one Kooiker has excelled at – with the possible exception of Schutzhund/IPO (but I challenge someone to prove me wrong!)
Q: Do they shed? What kind of grooming is required?
Yes, Kooikers are double-coated and they shed – otherwise, they’d have nasty Rastafarian dreads! Is it horrible, unmanageable shedding, no.
“Spay coat” is definitely a thing in the breed – spayed and neutered individuals have coat texture changes where the entire coat becomes woolier, more prone to matting, and sheds plenty. Intact bitches will also lose coat after a season. The intact boys shed only minimally, and I don’t find it a problem – in fact, most of the hair on the ground is usually mine, and not the dogs’. I am, however, relatively meticulous about grooming them (mostly because we do go to shows occasionally). I bathe the boys with quality products every few weeks and blow them out with an HV dryer. In between this, though, they rarely get so much as brushed, and their coat maintains itself quite easily.
Most Kooiker owners rarely or never groom or bathe their dogs. I would challenge you to find any other medium-haired, white dog that will let you get away with that level of non-involvement! Kooikers’ hair is quite fine and doesn’t hold on to dirt or debris very well – my Kooikers can run through a muddy field and be completely brown, and after an hour or so of laying down and drying off, they will be back to their original state without any human intervention. After tromping through the mud on a visit to an eendenkooi – I understand why this was advantageous!
For regular maintenance, you could get away with just an occasional brushing and bath with any old shampoo. You’ll also need to do nails (these can be black or white, or both on one nail!) and teeth. In addition, they are spaniels with drop ears, meaning while it’s rare (and FAR rarer than in, say, a cocker spaniel) they can get ear infections. I clean ears at bathtime with an OTC enzymatic cleaner.
For show, not much more is required. In fact, in AKC, Kooikers have a severe penalty for any visible grooming or scissoring, other than “neatening of the feet.” We don’t want to turn this into an overgroomed show dog like many of our fellow Sporting breeds, so Kooikers are intended to be shown naturally. “Neatening of the feet” allows for trimming of the hair between the toes. Kooikers shouldn’t be shown with Hobbit feet/slippers, like would be seen on a Cavalier.
Q: Do they have many health problems?
This is one of my favorite questions because I deal with this for a living. Because no – Kooikers are by and large a very healthy breed. They were recovered relatively recently from a small gene pool so we are hyper-vigilant to any potential genetic problems, and thus we are lucky to have a population that is very well recorded. In addition, we have not had significant problems with puppy mills or backyard breeders breeding from unhealthy parents contributing to the gene pool (knock on wood!) so while we do have issues in the breed, they occur at a much lower frequency than in, say, English Bulldogs. Kooikers do experience health issues but predominantly we can test for and avoid them.
To get a CHIC number, Kooikers have to be tested for 5 things: von Willebrand’s disease, ENM (hereditary necrotizing myelopathy), patellar luxation, hip dysplasia, and have a CERF eye exam. Renal issues, epilepsy, and an autoimmune disorder called polymyositis can occur in the breed but as testing is impossible or still in developmental stages, these are not included in requirements to get a CHIC number, but are something to be aware of/research/ask your breeder about. The Dutch Kooiker club (the VHNK) maintains a register of population data, recording all details of all births and matings along with health results – thus Kooikers are quite easy to research and have a long tradition of transparently published health testing.
As a breed that has avoided being bred for extreme phenotypes thus far, Kooikers are free of issues that plague other breeds like orthopedic, respiratory, and skin and allergy problems.
Q: Are they fully recognized?
In the United States, Kooikers have been fully recognized (able to be shown in regular groups) for years in UKC, IABCA, and ARBA. In AKC they are a little further behind, and since 2015 have been in the Miscellaneous class (a class for rare breeds with certain restrictions – we cannot earn a Championship, compete for Best In Show, show in NOHS, etc.). However, in February 2017 Kooikers were approved to join the Sporting Group and be fully recognized as of January 1, 2018!
They have been recognized by the Dutch Kennel Club since 1971, FCI since 1990, and are fully recognized in most of Europe. They are not currently recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club.
Q: Why shouldn’t I get this breed?
A good question in any dog search! I’d say if you’re not prepared for a challenge, experienced in dog training and committed to socialization of an energetic and impressionable pup – maybe a Kooiker isn’t for you. Also if you are not willing to speak to strangers about your dog on a daily basis – pass on a Kooiker as well. you WILL be asked about the breed constantly and the breed needs knowledgeable ambassadors to responsibly promote and preserve it.