When Dogs Are a Passion

Photography by Coreene Kreiser
Sally Downer grew up with English Setters and took over the breeding kennel started by her father and uncle soon after World War I. Today, her setters are sought by bird hunters in Michigan and elsewhere.

The difference between a profession and a passion is often a matter of money. Sally Downer made her living as a registered nurse, but if she had her way about it, she’d have spent her career raising English setters. Downer, 70, is one of Michigan’s best-known breeders of English setters. Her father and his brother developed the Wicksall (her maiden name) line of setters, known country-wide as staunch-pointing bird finders.

“If I was a gazillionaire, I would have just done dogs,” said Downer, who lives on the bank of the Boardman River where she grew up. “That’s my love, my passion. But I had to work.”

“This is not a business; this is a passion.”

Downer was raised with English setters in a household that included six kids and “lots of dogs.” Her father and his brother began raising setters together right after World War I, and continued until they could no longer keep up with it. That’s when Sally decided it was her duty to carry on the family tradition; she started breeding the dogs when she was “25-ish,” she said.

Sally runs three of her setters through an exercise, using a whistle to get their attention.

She was involved with the dogs growing up, but in that generation, “the girls weren’t supposed to go hunting,” she said. “I would help dad as much as I could — like cooking the birds — and when I met my late husband, he was a hunter and then I began to hunt, too. I got my own dog and hunted with my dad until he couldn’t walk anymore.”

For her part, she’s passed the tradition along to one of her two sons, but she hasn’t given up breeding her own dogs; she owns three now — Annie, Citori and Rosie — all females. She’s owned males in the past but found it difficult to raise both sexes together.

One of Sally’s setters retreives a bird dummy.

“This is not a business, this is a passion,” she said. “I really enjoy raising a litter of puppies and that means I’m going to keep the females. And I know enough people who have Wicksall setters that I always have access to males. One of the best litters I ever had was sired by a {Wicksall} one of the biologists owned.”

Fact is, the Wicksall line is popular with not only Michigan wildlife biologists but with others in other states, so much so that it’s commonly referred to as “the biologists’ line” by some owners. They are known as close-working, staunch-pointing dogs, qualities that make them especially popular with grouse hunters. She learned from her father that breeding the best dogs with the best dogs will produce the best dogs.

Breeding hunting dogs is traditionally a masculine pastime, but Downer has broken the gender barrier. In the beginning she felt “like a fish out of water because I was a woman,” she said. “But that didn’t last. I never felt like anybody was looking down on me. I really had a lot of support from many, many people who knew my dad and worked and hunted with him. Maybe I had to work a little harder at it, but when you’re determined, you do what you have to do. I was going to do what needed to be done right.”

All of Downer’s setters have been house dogs as well as hunters. Not only are they good companions, but she believes having them around all the time helps them bond more closely with her. Over the decades, many of Michigan’s best-known grouse hunters — Andy Ammon, Ton Prawdzik and Jim Foote, among them — have owned Wicksall setters. Al Stewart, the current upland game bird biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, has had Wicksalls for years.

A young setter with a good nose checks out the training equipment at Sally Downer’s kennel during a break.

“Sally has done a great job of keeping that line going,” Stewart said. “She raises good dogs without any problems that do what they’re supposed to do — point, back and retrieve.”

Downer has no idea how many dogs she’s produced. Probably hundreds.

“I averaged a litter every other year,” she said. “I should sit down and count it out sometime.” ≈

Bob Gwizdz is a lifelong outdoor writer and former communications staffer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

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