I was born in Denmark and my very first memory of a dog was soft, gentle and black and white. She was called Blijke and was the Stabyhoun of a Danish/Dutch family who became very close friends. Little did I know that this was a breed counting only a few thousand members, but she had left a lasting impression that would inspire the launch the UK Stabyhoun Association more than 30 years later.

Mar en Byke's brown and white Stabyhoun

Mar en Byke’s brown and white Stabyhoun

If you have never heard of the Stabyhoun, don’t worry. It was only formally introduced to the UK this year from its native Netherlands, where the Friese Stabij is considered by many as a national treasure. Although, at a glance, it might vaguely resemble a Border Collie, the two breeds couldn’t be more different – both as pets and on the agility course.

The Stabyhoun is categorised as a spaniel-type pointer by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) and sits in Group 7 alongside gun dogs such as the Weimaraner, Münsterländers and Pointers. People who know or have met one, however, are far more likely to compare the Stabyhoun to a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. The official standard dictates that males are around 53cm tall and that bitches stand at 49cm – weighing between 18-25 kg. But since breeding has been focused on health first and looks second, you will find quite a few dogs on the outskirts of the standard.

Humble beginnings: Stabyhoun history

Picture by Marjo IJpelaar

Picture by Marjo IJpelaar

The breed was only formally recognised by the Dutch Kennel Club in 1942 together with another dog from the same region in Friesland, the Wetterhoun. Five years later, the Dutch Stabyhoun and Wetterhoun Association (NVSW) was established to protect the interests of these two unique and remarkable Frisian breeds. Historically, these dogs were praised for their mole catching abilities which required great patience, and their versatility made them the breed of choice for those who could only afford to keep a single dog. Slightly larger and more powerful lines were bred by farmers and trained in the field. But as numbers dwindled, perhaps due to a resurgence of more specialist breeds, all lines were pooled to preserve and promote genetic diversity. Today, most of these dogs are bred and raised as loving family dogs – admired for their ability to live in contented harmony with a plethora of other animals and, not least, with children.

Hidden potential

Over the past ten years, the Stabyhoun has grown steadily in popularity across Scandinavia and North America. Sporting an acute sense of smell and eager determination, hunters in Sweden and Norway have trained them as certified scent tracking dogs. And this year, six-year old female Soya (Stabyhouse Corine Of Domino) has qualified for the National Danish Agility Championships as the first of her kind. Owner, Jesper Lund from Ikast in Denmark is both proud and excited about their prospects although an injury has rendered Soya bed-bound during what would have been the couple’s last few weeks of intensive training.

Jesper Lund with his Stabyhoun, Soya

Jesper Lund with his Stabyhoun, Soya

When Jesper got his Stabyhoun back in 2007, he wasn’t interested in agility. In fact, he wasn’t even particularly interested in dogs. The new family member was his wife’s idea and she also orchestrated the pair’s first ever agility session. But as the dog began to show her potential and the enjoyment of being part of a social club took hold, there was no stopping either of them. Now on the waiting list for Stabyhoun number two to take Soya’s place when she retires, Jesper clearly has faith in the breed’s abilities although he was keen to stress that this is first and foremost a family dog and that training one to top level agility takes a great deal of patience.

Speak to anyone who has trained their Stabyhoun for agility and they will tell you that these dogs are reliable and very accurate – hardly ever putting a foot wrong. Wonderful, you might think? They then tell you to allocate at least twice as long time to training one compared with other breeds, and to come armed with buckets of patience.

Marjo IJpelaar lives in the Netherlands. Since 2002 she has owned and trained her Stabyhouns for agility. She began our conversation just like Jesper did; by stressing that if you want a dog specifically for agility, don’t get a Stabyhoun. You see, people who own and breed these dogs do so out of love and admiration for its unique temperament and characteristics. They are at pains to ensure that every single one of these special puppies ends up in a home where they will be given the opportunity to thrive, and this is not something they do under pressure.

Berthan Van Engelen with female Stabyhoun,  Doutzen - Picture by Jan Wessel Bakker

Berthan Van Engelen with female Stabyhoun, Doutzen – Picture by Jan Wessel Bakker

Training a Stabyhoun for agility

Careful breeding has almost eliminated hereditary hip problems in the Stabyhoun. But these dogs grow to their full size fast and great care must be taken not to over-do it in the first 12 months. Having said that, early training in terms of exposing the puppy to different surfaces, tunnels and so on is essential.

The Stabyhoun requires encouragement throughout the course, Marjo stressed. They constantly look to you for reassurance and direction – one of the reasons they so rarely make mistakes but perhaps also why they win on accuracy rather than on time.

A breed which constantly looks to you for guidance and keeps a strong focus on its handler is not a bad thing at all in a sport which has a strong partnership at its heart. In fact, these dogs won’t leave you out of their sight – one of the characteristics that has impressed full-time

Collie v Stabyhoun: two similar breeds yet very different.

Collie v Stabyhoun: two similar breeds yet very different.

dog trainer and behaviourist, Helen Withey. Over the years, Helen has trained a number of breeds in obedience, agility and gun dog work including Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, Rottweilers, Huskies and Sheepdogs. “One of the most wonderful things about the Stabyhoun is their devotion and complete focus on their handler. In other breeds we sometimes have to work hard to keep their attention, but that effort can be spent elsewhere with the Stabyhoun. It is a completely unique breed and I am very excited about working with them here in England.”

This is a soft breed too that responds well to positive reinforcement such as clicker training and shaping exercises, but that crumbles under pressure and force. Never force your new Dutch companion to do anything he doesn’t want to do. According to Patty Janssen from the American Stabyhoun Association, the Stabyhoun needs to figure things out in their own pace – letting their own natural curiosity get the better of them. “These dogs can read you like a book and, once they understand what you want them to do, there is no stopping them.”

If something doesn’t quite go according to plan, take a step back and take your time to build their confidence before moving on. Like an elephant that doesn’t forget, a bad experience can easily leave a lasting impression so find a trainer who understands how to work with more sensitive and pensive breeds.

Picture by Marjo IJpelaar

Picture by Marjo IJpelaar

Although you need to spend longer on getting the basics right, the Stabyhoun is known for requiring less ‘maintenance’ training than other breeds. And the calm, patient demeanour which stems from its mole-catching heritage means your training can focus on what you want him to do without having to try and ‘manage’ unwanted behaviours.

How do I get a Stabyhoun puppy?

If, by now, I have managed to put of the hard-core agility fans out there then that’s ok. The Stabyhoun might not quite measure up to the Collie, Aussie or Sheltie and should never be purchased with the sole aim of becoming a top agility dog. For someone seeking a reliable yet active family dog first, and potential agility partner second, this might be the just the dog. Who knows – you could be the owner of the first agility competing Stabyhoun in the UK.

Mar En Byke's brown Stabyhoun, Bijke

Mar En Byke’s brown Stabyhoun, Bijke

The UK Stabyhoun Association manages all import of these dogs from the Netherlands to ensure that they have been bred in line with the international health and breeding programme, and to build a genetically diverse population in the UK. A lot of work goes into matching the right puppy with future owners – especially when their ambitions include hunting or agility. We take into account the dog’s pedigree to make sure it comes from generations with outstanding hips and elbow scores, and the experience of the breeder to select the puppy with the most courage and drive. If you are number five on the waiting list for a puppy from a particular litter where the other four are also seeking a dog with working potential, it may be that we decide to find a different litter where fewer families have requested the most courageous and enthusiastic candidates.

If you want more information about the Stabyhoun or to apply for a puppy, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – as long as you are prepared to wait for the right dog. I can also facilitate an introduction to Jesper and Marjo if you want to hear more about their agility experiences with the Stabyhoun.

Written by Christina Savage, President of the UK Stabyhoun Association

Although the Stabyhoun isn’t yet a recognised breed in the UK, you will still be able to take part in official agility events by registering your dog on the Kennel Club’s Activity Register

Click here to download the Kennel Club’s beginners guide to agility