All dogs can point. Technically speaking, the point is a frozen step in a stalking process, and successful stalking of game was a necessary survival skill for early canines. Most of us have witnessed a dog - or perhaps a cat - stalking some object. The dog moves forward very slowly, one foot at a time, often the moving foot just barely off the ground. At the moment he senses that any further advance movement at all will alert or alarm his prey, the dog freezes: this is the point. If he is in mid-stride, a front or rear paw may remain in the air; or all four feet may be solidly on the ground. Hunting esthetics prefer a raised fore paw, consider all feet on the ground less stylish, and oftimes ridicule a raised hind paw; but the frozen alert stance is really all that is necessary for a legitimate point.
Pointing was not part of the original hunting requirements for a setter. His earliest job was to drop alertly to his belly (or "set," hence the name) at the scent of game and to remain there as the hunters cast nets over the cover indicated as the birds' hiding place. The change from a "setting" position to a standing point as the preferred method of indicating the presence of game occurred as hunters adopted the use of firearms in place of nets. Even today, however, it is not unusual to see an inexperienced setter "set" his birds instead of standing them.
The quality of the point stance is further evaluated by hunters - and especially by field trialers - in terms of style and intensity. Both of these factors are usually required in good measure for the hunt to be an esthetically pleasing experience or for a dog to garner top field trial honors, although neither greatly affects the question of whether the hunter will be returning with a full game bag. A dog that has learned to "stand" his birds rather than to point them is not very exciting to watch. This dog has learned to stand still at the scent of game or at some command of his handler as he realizes that his dog is making game contact. Dogs will often "act birdy" at the first few whiffs of game by altering their running pattern, whipping their tails rapidly from side to side, or lowering their noses and/or bodies. Then when they pinpoint the source of the scent, they freeze into a point or stand.
My first Irish Setter field champion never pointed. Instead she responded to the command "whoa" and stood still, tail wagging between her hind legs, waiting for the handler to approach. Her tail would stiffen and rise somewhat as the handler neared the bird, but she certainly never earned any credit for style or intensity on point! Her beautiful run, excellent nose, and impeccable manners garnered the field title for her, but I'm certain that it would have come much sooner if she had had more style on point.
The two primary criteria for evaluating style are the positions of head and tail. Head position will vary with distance from the game, and the angle of the nose should be a clue to the handler as to how far from the dog the bird lies. In no case should the dog look away from the bird to acknowledge the approach of the hunter, and a closed mouth with flaring nostrils is preferable to a lolling tongue. (It should be noted, however, that many Gordon Setters in particular are so bonded to their owners, that they invariably turn their head momentarily away from the bird to acknowledge their owner's approach. This should be understood as a breed characteristic and not a lack of intensity.) The tail should be absolutely rigid, with no hint of quiver, and some would say that the higher its carriage the better. Others heartily object to a tail held so high that it curves over the dog's back. The generally acceptable range is from a position just slightly below the level of the back to a "12 o'clock" or straight-up tail, with the setter ideal between "10 and 11 o'clock." The 12 o'clock tail is usually preferred by pointer and American Field enthusiasts.
Intensity on point is the measurement of the degree to which the dog is absorbed in his work. The most intense points have a breathtaking quality to them, when the dog slams into a point, leaning into it so hard that it's a wonder he doesn't topple over! The head is below the level of the shoulders, with more weight on the front than the rear, and the dog frozen in position, possibly with muscles quivering from anticipation and from being held in check. It is a moment of tension captured, with the potential for sudden explosion ever present, thrilling, dramatic, perhaps even heroic! Such excitement and tension are contagious, and a person can easily become both emotionally and physically exhilarated and exhausted while watching and mirroring a top field dog's performance. The opportunity to experience such moments has turned many casual observers into avid trialers, be they originally hunters or not.