Before I begin discussing Pointers, it is important to clarify their name. Throughout the world, a Pointer is called a Pointer. Sounds simple right? Well anyone in the U.S. that has ever owned a Pointer has probably been asked thousands of times, “What kind of Pointer?” When I have time, I usually try to explain to people that the AKC calls them Pointers, but sometimes people in America call them English Pointers, particularly to clarify them from the German Shorthaired Pointers. To make it more confusing, sometimes field bred Pointers are called American Pointers or American Field Pointers.
Field Versus Show Pointers
The first thing to realize about Pointers is that they come in two distinct types in the U.S. – the traditional bench type Pointer and the the field bred Pointer. In the rest of the world, there is only one type; the traditional bench type Pointer. If you look at any piece of artwork before about 1900 with a Pointer in it, it will be the classic bench type Pointer.
Around the mid-1900s, some Americans starting breeding for a different type of Pointer, which we now call the field bred Pointer. Over time, these Pointers became smaller in size, pointed with a 12 o’clock (straight up) tail, and had a bigger range (meaning they go further from you while hunting or exercising off-leash).
The classic bench type Pointer is registered through the American Kennel Club (AKC). The field type Pointer is registered through a group called American Field in their Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB). It is possible to register a dog with both groups, but this is rarely done. The vast majority (probably about 90%) of Pointers in the U.S. today are the American Pointer type, and they are also the type that is most frequently in rescue. The bench type Pointer is still fairly rare (about 10%), and few are found in rescue; in my opinion, mainly because 1) there are fewer of them, 2) they are easier to have as pets, 3) their owners typically do not have hunting expectations of them (so when they fail they are not sold, given away, or turned into a shelter), and 4) they are typically more expensive as puppies.
My recommendation is whether you are looking for only a companion (pet) or are looking for a hunting buddy, unless you plan to compete on horseback in field trials, my recommendation is to get a bench type Pointer. If you plan to hunt with your Pointer, make sure that you get it from a breeder that has proven that their dogs can hunt, either by going out with them or by looking for titles in the pedigree like SH or MH (Senior Hunter or Master Hunter) or rarely AFC (or Amateur Field Champion) or DC (for Dual Champion meaning the dog got its Show and Field Championships). Be aware that there are only eight Dual Champion Pointers to date, so finding one in a pedigree is rare. Six of the Dual Champions are descendents of one dog, DC Scanpoint’s Touch O’Troll, who can be found in most of my dog’s pedigrees and seen on the Birdsboro Relatives page.
Temperament of a Pointer
When looking at any breed of dog as a potential pet, I always tell people the first factor that you should look at is what was the dog bred for. It seems obvious enough, but looking at the purpose of a dog can tell you a wealth of information about its personality. Pointers were bred to hunt independently, yet keep track of their owners. When a Pointer finds a bird, its instincts kick in and innately the dog knows to hold still, just like a statue and wait until its owner arrives.
So, what does this mean about the temperament of a Pointer? Well, Pointers are often called stubborn – wouldn’t any dog that was willing to stay as still as a statue have to have a bit of stubbornness in his genes? But remember also that Pointers, unlike hounds for example, are bred to hunt with their owner and keep track of them. This makes them kind, easy to train, and able to be easily trained to be off-leash. I recommend that all Pointer puppies be let off-leash frequently in different terrain so that they learn the skills necessary to keep track of their owners. In my experience, even rescue Pointers from field lines, who have no formal training at all, will not “run away”. The biggest obstacle in training them to be off-leash is that genetically they are bred to range a half-mile or more from their owner while hunting. For most people, and in most urban settings, this just is not practical. Also, I believe Pointers all need early training off-leash to learn basic navigation skills that will allow them to keep track of their owners. Many rescue dogs are kept in backyards or kennels without enough socialization or training, and missed out on this key step in training. However, most rescue Pointers can be trained to run off-leash with some work.
Pointers have been bred to be hunted with other dogs. This makes them great with other dogs. I have yet to find a breed that handles living with other dogs as well as Pointers do. Further, Pointers are only bred to point birds – they were not bred to hunt small game or to run down game like a hound. Personally, this is one of my favorite traits. It makes Pointers compassionate towards all animals. Thus, it is very easy to teach a Pointer how to live happily with other pets like cats, rabbits, and even (non-game) birds like Parrots. Many Pointers like to point cats as a game though, and secretly I think most cats enjoy it. It also means that most Pointers are happy to leave other wildlife alone; although many of them do enjoy squirrel watching. None of my Pointers are deer chasers, and they have seen plenty. They just stand and watch them run by. Mine have found opossums, skunks, and raccoons in the woods as well as many cats on walk…and they just try to make friends (which doesn’t always go over well).
Myths and Truths About Pointers
1) Pointers are crazy, high-strung dogs – FALSE. No, they are not the ultimate couch potatoes. If that is what you are looking for, a Pointer is definitely not for you. However, Pointers are not fidgety, nervous dogs that forever pace around your house and bounce off the walls. Even with all of the field Pointers I have rescued, I have only had a couple that were truly hyper in the house. Pointers do require a minimum of about an hour off-leash running and playing per day. Typically, a yard is not enough to satisfy this requirement. Hunting areas and off-leash dog park visits at least two or three times per week are a necessity – even in the middle of winter when it is raining or snowing. My best advice to people getting a Pointer puppy or adopting a rescue Pointer is to get that hour in every day. It makes your Pointer happier and healthier, and, if you don’t fit it in the day, your dog will get that hour (and probably more) out of your day by pestering you around the house!
2) Pointers are outdoor dogs – FALSE. Pointers are NOT outdoor dogs. If you were led to believe that hunting dogs hunt better when they are kept outside, someone lied to you. Hunting dogs are the best hunters when they can read you better than you can read them. When you raise a dog in your home, he knows your every move. He knows when you get up to get a glass of water versus when you get up to leave to go to work. He knows when you are irritated, happy, in a hurry, upset, and so much more. In the field, a house dog will better know whether you are headed left or right, whether to hunt fast or slow, and how to keep track of you. That is a great dog to have in the field!
3) Pointers are aloof – FALSE. Or at least they should not be. If you meet a breeder whose dogs are timid or unfriendly, I would not recommend you get a puppy from them. However, Pointers in the field are all about business, and they rarely have time to pay attention to a stranger. Thus, do not expect a Pointer to greet you with a hug if you meet him running in the woods or bird hunting – it is unlikely that he will find the time for you! In my experience, Pointers are also quite loyal. Thus, many are indifferent towards strangers. Although, once again I emphasize that they should not be timid or aggressive. If you meet them at a breeder’s house, they should be eager to meet you.
4) Pointers don’t swim – TRUE or FALSE. Pointers were not bred to swim, but in my experience about 50% of them do. If you want a puppy that swims, ask the breeder if the parents swim and introduce him to the water the right way (gently when it is warm outside) at a young age. However, if you absolutely must have a swimming dog, a Pointer is not for you. A 50% chance is a pretty good chance that you’ll be disappointed.
5) Pointers don’t retrieve – TRUE or FALSE. Pointers were not bred to retrieve, but I would say most of them do, at least to some degree. Once again, ask the breeder if the parents retrieve. If the parents retrieve, ask how they were trained – naturally or using the force fetch method and why. Also, like swimming, start him young. Start by teaching him somewhere like a hallway where there is only one way out (you). And DO NOT rip the toy or dummy out of his mouth the second he gets to you! Instead pet him and praise him and then gently remove the toy. Also, you only need a few retrieves a week. You don’t want to bore him. Another training technique that I am a firm believer in is to ALWAYS praise your dog when he brings anything to you (including forbidden items like socks, trash, etc.). If your puppy learns that no matter what he brings to you, it is considered a present, he is more likely to choose that option instead of destroying or eating in another room. If you are looking to hunt, ask if the parents have naturally soft mouths. This tends to be a genetic trait. Many Labs today have hard mouth, and they have to be force-broken to retrieve so they don’t maul the bird on the way to you.
6) Pointers are quiet – TRUE for the most part. Pointers are relatively quiet dogs. Some will bark when strangers are near the house (although mine do not as the Beagle takes care of that job and they just stare at her wondering why she wastes all her energy on it). Many Pointers bark when they play (two of mine do).
7) Pointers don’t shed – FALSE. Pointers are very clean dogs, but they do shed (although not a lot). The good news is that it will not float through your house and get stuck under the couch and in the corners of the house like the hair of a Lab, Husky, German Shepherd, or cat would. However, you will get tiny white hairs on your couch and fleece jackets. The trick is to get a leather or light colored couch and buy light colored fleeces and dress clothes (like grey or yellow) and you will be fine. It does come out in the washer for the most part, but you cannot wash your couch (unless you get a couch cover).
8) Pointers are not loyal – FALSE. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pointers are so loyal that I recommend that owners make sure to do some small preventative measures to prevent their dog from developing separation anxiety. Pointers are “Velcro dogs” meaning that they follow you from room to room when you move around the house.
9) Pointers are escape artists – TRUE. Unfortunately, many (or should I say most) Pointers are phenomenal escape artists. Once again, I think this comes from their hunting instincts. In the field, we expect our dogs to go under or over fences, safely go through barbed wire, and get by any other obstacle that we might encounter. Unfortunately, that means that Pointers do not see anything as a barrier. In my experience, the vast majority of Pointers will find their way out of yards in the right situation. I have had rescue Pointers that have easily scaled 6 foot fences (and one that used to climb a 10 foot fence in no time at all). The good news is that Pointers will only leave the yard with a good reason (or in the case of rescue Pointers as a learned behavior). Mine only leave the yard to get to me. Thus, I never leave my dogs in the yard unattended. I know if I did, two of them would likely jump the back fence and find their way to the front door and be begging to come inside. Pointers also do great with invisible fencing, as that seems to make more sense to them than a physical fence. Pointers also tend to jump baby gates in the house. It is not to be bad, it is simply because they don’t seem to understand their meaning. You can either teach your dog to respect the baby gate as a barrier, or you can make or buy a taller (3 foot) baby gate, which is what we have done.
Many Pointer breed descriptions in books and on the web tend to inaccurately portray the Pointer. Some sources are far too easy on the Pointer making statements to the effect that they are perfect companions and are easy to train. Other sources swing the pendelum the other way calling Pointers aloof, stubborn, requiring harsh training methods, saying they can never be kept in an apartment or city setting, etc. Here are sources that I think give a relatively accurate portrayal of the breed. Keep in mind that Pointers are quite variable, so where you get a Pointer from makes a huge difference:
Pet Planet (a UK site)
Pointer Profile by Ann Zapun who breeds show type Pointers
Corwyn Kennel’s Choosing a Puppy Page
Note: If you only buy two books, I would recommend these two: “How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves” by Joan Bailey and “Point! Training the All-Seasons Birddog” by James B. Spencer.
“How to Help Gun Dogs Train Themselves” by Joan Bailey: This is an ideal book for the first year of your birddog’s life. Basically it is a puppy book, but geared towards a hunting puppy. It is full of all of the socialization experiences that are necessary for a hunting dog. Best of all, it gives you realistic expectations for that first year to remind you to let your pup have this year because if you just give them the exposure and the chance to grow up, you will have a phenomenal companion and hunting buddy for the next 10-15 years.
“Point! Training the All-Seasons Birddog” by James B. Spencer: This is by far the best book I have found for step-by-step instructions on how to train a birddog. I have read it several times, and often refer to it when I’m looking to move on in training (or stuck on a problem). I think it is the best bookof its type because it is realistic for the modern hunter who has one or two dogs and basic equipment. Many of the older books are great, but they fall short in two ways 1) many of the methods are too harsh and 2) many methods assume that the trainer has access to a multitude of dogs, birds, equipment, and land. The only part that I don’t agree with is in the Pointer breed description they are characterized as not being loyal and being very aloof.
Pointer Coat Color Genetics
This is a web page I created discussing Pointer Coat Color Genetics for those interested or breeders planning a litter.
The American Pointer Club has information about Pointers and you can click on the Breeder Directory for a list of breeders.
The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) is by far your best resource for training your Pointer. Pointers are not technically versatile hunting dogs (please don’t tell Boone or Garrett that they were not bred to swim or retrieve), but the group is kind enough to let them participate. I belong to the Southeastern Michigan Chapter of NAVHDA (SEMI NAHVDA) and train with them about 20 days per year on Saturdays from March through August. They are a great group of people who truly love their dogs, and love training them for what they were bred for. Even more, they are willing to help out those new to the sport with choosing and training their dog in a non-competitve fashion.