Introduction to Pointing Dogs


"I really enjoy hunting upland game with my setter. He hunts the field at a comfortable range and works the cover in a pattern that never misses an objective. He has such a good nose and can mark a bird so well that I rarely leave the field empty-handed."

Gobbledygook? Probably not completely, if you are a hunter or long-time setter owner. But perhaps you aren't exactly sure what all those words mean; or perhaps you are a new owner, attracted by the promise of outdoor companionship and the beauty of that flowing coat, and bird hunting is no more a part of your past as is a big game safari in Africa. In either case, I hope to lift a few of the veils of mystery from setter field work and introduce you to the delights of doing with your dog the job that he was developed for.

The American Kennel Club recognizes and registers ten breeds of Pointing Dogs. The ten breeds are divided into Pointers and Setters based on their original method of indicating the presence of game (Pointers standing rigidly, Setters crouching rigidly, or "setting.") The Pointing breeds are further divided into Continental and non-Continental breeds, depending on whether or not the breed was developed on the European Continent or in the British Isles. The Continental pointers are the German Shorthaired and German Wirehaired Pointers, the Brittany (formerly called Brittany Spaniel,) the Vizsla (from Hungary), the Weimaraner, and the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon. The Pointer (sometimes called English Pointer) and the three breeds of Setters are the non-Continental pointing dogs. As one would expect, the English Setter was developed in England and the Irish Setter in Ireland; the Gordon Setter was developed in Scotland by the dukes of Castle Gordon.

The Pointing Dogs are called "upland game" dogs. By that it is meant that they use their sense of smell to identify and locate upland game birds: non-domesticated edible birds that live on dry land (as opposed to waterfowl.) In the western United States upland game birds include ringnecked pheasant, Indian chukar or partridge, and many varieties of quail. In various other parts of the North American continent, pointing dogs are also used to hunt ruffed and blue grouse, prairie chicken, sage hen, woodcock or timberdoodle, and various other local species.

The dogs locate these game birds by running back and forth across a field, using the wind to sniff them out. The term "nose" refers to a dog's ability to find game by using his sense of smell; a dog is said to have a "good nose" if he regularly finds a lot of birds by scent.

A dog who has developed "bird-sense" through hunting experience will spend little time smelling bare or sparsely covered ground, and will visually identify the spots in a field that are likely hiding places for the birds. He will then approach each one of these systematically for a thorough investigation by scent. These hiding places may be clumps of brush, bushes, tall grass, trees, deadfalls, fence rows, or piles of debris; these are collectively referred to as "cover," as opposed to bare ground. Birds will also hide in holes, cracks in the ground, and along the edges of fields and creeks - anyplace that affords them the protection of either cover or camoflage from predators both on the ground and in the air.

If you turn your setter loose in a good-sized field, once the initial excitement of running wears off, you may notice him approaching one likely hiding place after another, checking it out carefully, and then moving on. These hiding places are often called "objectives," and a proven bird dog will always notice and investigate, i.e., "hunt," the likely objectives in any field. Aside from the sheer enjoyment of the outdoors and of sharing a human/dog partnership, the objects of hunting with a dog are twofold: to cover a greater amount of territory than a person could on his own, and to locate and retrieve wounded or killed game. A hunting dog thus extends the range of a person's legs, senses, and endurance.

Ideally a hunting dog should run far enough to the front and sides of his human companion that the entire field is investigated without the hunter needing to do so on his own. The dog shouldn't, however, range so far to the side or front that the hunter can't see him when he locates game or must walk so far to get within gun range that the bird escapes or the hunter overtires. The ideal range for a dog will vary with each individual hunter, some preferring a close-working animal, others a wider-ranging dog. As a rule of thumb, a dog should work some distance beyond the limits of shotgun range, to extend the effectiveness of the gun and thereby maximize the fruits of the hunt; but he should never range so far as to lessen the hunter's chances of success.

Every dog has an individual manner of checking out a field. This is called his "pattern." On any given day, the pattern may be influenced by a number of variables, such as the direction and strength of wind, the amount of moisture in the air, the amount and location of cover, level or hilly terrain, the presence of other dogs in the field, the prevailing temperature, the time of day, the dog's level of experience, and the nature of his relationship with his human hunting companion.

One common pattern is an elongated figure-8 to the front and sides of the hunter. This is very efficient for covering a large area while maintaining close contact with the hunter. Many hunting dogs seem to have acceptable instinctive hunting patterns, and it is relatively easy to teach a young pup the pattern best suited to one's personal hunting preferences.

An upland game dog actually has two jobs afield. The first is to locate birds for the hunter. The second is to retrieve them back to the hunter after they have been shot. The hunter's job falls between the two duties of his dog, and he may choose to have his dog involved as an active partner or merely have him stand by as an observer while he confronts the bird by himself. It is not considered sporting for either hunter or dog to grab a bird in hiding, nor is it acceptable to shoot a bird on the ground except in the most extreme of circumstances. The accepted procedure is to cause the bird to fly into the air and then shoot.

A bird will leave its hiding place only because it perceives itself to be in more danger by sitting still than by hastily vacating the premises. A bird is said to have "flushed wild" if it takes to the air from cover on its own, prior to the hunter or dog being aware of its presence. If the hunter causes the bird to fly by disturbing its cover with his feet, body, or an implement, he is said to have "flushed" the bird. If he happens to grab it and throw it into the air, he is said to have "launched" it. If the dog causes the bird to fly by crashing into or otherwise disturbing its hiding place, he is said to have "bumped" or "busted" the bird, generally considered a negative action. Should the hunter happen to prefer to have his dog cause the bird to take flight, however, he will say that his dog has "flushed" the bird! A dog that grabs a bird with his mouth or traps it with his paws may fill his partner's game bag, but has also cheated him of the chance to demonstrate his skills of firearm and aim. If he is a "hard-mouthed" dog and mauls and mangles the bird, he may also cheat his partner of a decent meal. It is, of course, totally unacceptable for a dog to consume the bird himself or to make off with it and return empty-mouthed!

Retrieving a killed or crippled bird is really two procedures: The dog must first locate the fallen bird, and then he must bring it to the hunter. If the dog was not in a position to watch the bird fall, the hunter will send him off in the general direction, and the dog will have to use his nose to locate the bird just as he did initially. When the dog does see the bird fall, his job is to "mark" or fix that position in his mind so that he can rapidly go to the specific area and then again pinpoint the bird by scent unless it is lying out in the open in plain view. Good marking ability is an important quality in a hunting dog, and is one area where the setters seem to surpass the other pointing breeds. Young pups will tend to underestimate the distance to a fallen bird, but they quickly learn with experience to rush right to the exact spot.

Although it can be an agonizing and time-consuming training chore, bringing the bird back to the hunter is essentially an obedience exercise that can be taught to any setter who is not a natural retriever.