Bird Dog Profile: The English Pointer

9799d3e1-4fef-4225-922f-2a64e0bfff7c Among bird dogs, there is only one they call Cadillac—the English Pointer. A traditional hunting breed with a coat color ranging from white to black that could include patches of varied tints, afield the “pointer” appears like a burst of smoke. In southern portions of the country, among vast terrain and wide horizons, they are a bird hunter’s preferred answer to quail that tend to scatter like billiard balls after a break shot. Nose held high to the wind, crescent-moon tail, an English pointer’s paws barely graze ground as they effortlessly traverse ridgelines and draws in quarter-mile strides to contain coveys.
 
Admiration for the breed’s point runs generations deep, noted best by the American Kennel Club’s usage of the pointer’s silhouette as the club’s emblem since 1877. The deep, rich history of the English pointer in the United States dates as far back as the Civil War era, even possibly as early as Colonial America.
 
Some historians suspect colonists were the first to transport the breed from England. English references to pointers appear as early as 1650, though some experts believe the breed originated in Spain and Portugal. Like most dog breeds, bloodline history is murky at best, but greyhounds, foxhounds, bloodhounds and bull terriers are thought to have been instrumental in establishing the English pointer breed. 
 
An 1865 edition of the Victorian journal “The Field” includes a sketch drawing of a pointer along with early references to measurements and scores that would help serve as basis for future breeding. Today, the AKC, in its “Official Standard for the Pointer,” lists measurement ranges for males as a height of 25 to 28 inches, weight 55 to 75 pounds. For females, the range is 23 to 26 inches in height, 44 to 65 pounds in weight. A short coat reveals, ideally, a lean physique that, according to the AKC, “gives the immediate impression of compact power and agile grace.” 
 
Afield, pointers serve as a hunter’s stalwart companion. At home, they exhibit a congenial temperament and often seek out affection from any family member willing to oblige. They don’t show timidity toward humans or others dogs nor do they hesitate to rush into any territory to point a covey. Their feather drive often exceeds their own limitations, as well as their owners’. Their big running quality is the reason they remain one of the few breeds for which hunters employ horses to keep pace. Some hunters consider this high energy a liability, while others see it as immense opportunity, easily contained with proper training.
 
Steve Snell, owner of Gun Dog Supply, grew up with pointers and Brittanys and purchased his own first pointer in 1998. Today, he owns 14 pointers and dabbles in a few other breeds. “To me, pointers are sort of a traditional bird dog,” he said, “but so much is regional-based. When I grew up in Mississippi, if you had a bird dog, it was a pointer. I find that tends to be regional. In other states, setters are the primary dog. Depends on where you are.”
 
Snell, who spends a good sum of his hunting season chasing quail in West Texas, was looking for a dog that could handle the heat a little better than most Brittanys. He also believes pointers tend to fit his personality—very obsessed, he said.   
 
“They’re just tough,” he said. “Biggest thing you have to watch—make sure they don’t hurt themselves. You have to stop them. Watch out for heatstroke.” Snell relayed a story of hunting over a pointer the entire day, only to discover, when putting him in the truck, the dog had a 6-inch skin tear. “He never let up so I didn’t notice until afterward,” Snell recalled.
 
During decades of owning pointers, Snell has hunted the dog every way you can—walking, horseback, out of an all-terrain vehicle. “I have tried to be a good horseman—just not in me,” he explained. “You have to have a love and appreciation for horses. My preferred method is to turn them out and walk behind them.”
 
“I have some pointers I don’t consider to be close working. That has to do with where I hunt,” he explained. “Typically big running dogs work well in Texas. This year they sometimes ran past birds. Vast majority of my dogs will go with you, check in. I do have a couple knuckle heads, so I believe in GPS.”
 
In regard to reining in their big running tendencies, Snell attests the real work happens when the dog is only a few months old. “The trick with a young dog is to teach them to go with you and have ability to stop them, get them focused on birds,” he said. “You have to teach them to stop, quarter and teach them to hunt. Have to teach them as a puppy. That is the important thing.
 
“The biggest mistake people make is they don’t look where they tend to hunt,” he explained. “You have to buy dogs that are built to hunt in the area where you are hunting. A really good dog will change the way he hunts depending on situation you put him in, but that is a very rare thing.”
 
A common knock on pointers is their retrieve—dubious at best, some might argue. However, Snell again emphasizes the early months make a bird dog. Formulating a solid retrieve for a pointer involves creating a positive experience for the pup whenever it has a bird or another object in its mouth, he claims. 
 
“You have to be careful,” Snell explained, “with a lot of field trials dogs, retrieving is not a thing. You can end up with some dogs that aren’t bred to retrieve. I like to start puppies hunting dead and retrieving. I want to get to the dog as soon as I can by making them stop or calling him to me.” From there, Snell lets the dog hold the birds as long as he likes, because he wants the dog to experience a positive, happy moment. “As soon as they can pick stuff up, that is when you can do a lot of good.”
 
Attention to a pointer puppy’s behavior, especially around the house, is crucial in order to maintain positive retrieving experiences. Snell advises never putting a puppy in a situation where they can have negative experiences while chewing on items or holding something in their mouth. “People have a tendency to give dogs privileges, unstructured free time,” he said. “If you don’t have time to keep that dog from getting in trouble, then he needs to be in a crate or a kennel. Don’t put them into environment and situations where they can screw up.”
 
Without a doubt, puppies will teethe, but Snell professes there needs to be a difference between things on which they can chew and things they can retrieve. “I’m not a fan of squeaky toys,” he said, “letting hunting dogs have furry things that squeak when they bite down.” Chewing on any toy resembling quarry is a behavior that should be avoided as early as possible if a hunter wishes to establish retrieve drive.
 
Aside from training, pedigree still remains a main factor in determining whether an English pointer pup will mature into a bird manufacturer. Robert Wehle, who passed away in 2002, started breeding his own precise line of pointers called Elhews (his last name spelled backwards) decades ago. His tradition of excellence is upheld today by a few breeders, including Les Greer of Sunrise Kennels in southeast Arizona.    
 
“Wehle wanted to create an athletic dog with a brain that is easier to train,” explained Greer. Greer purchased his first Elhew nearly 30 years ago and started breeding 6 years later. “I could see Mr. Wehle wasn’t going to be around for very long. I made efforts to purchases as many as possible.”
 
Greer has produced a line comprised of several American field circuit champions, including his Elhew male, Blue Chip. Aside from their biddable nature, Greer greatly admires the aesthetic qualities of Elhew pointers. “They flow when they are running,” he said. “They’re more pleasing to watch work—more like a ballerina than a football player. They have a stronger drive to point. By general rule, the pups scent point at 7 or 8 weeks old with not much trouble at all.
 
“These dogs have the ability to adapt to what you want,” Greer said. “I can hunt from horseback for sharptail half mile out, or jump down and hunt pheasants within 50 yards.”
 
Throughout the year, Greer takes 12 or 15 dogs on several road trips, since he believes frequent handling can change a dog dramatically. “Just being with you a week or two on the road,” he said, “they strive to adapt and please you even more. That is the thing about the Elhews—they adapt.”
 
Still, trainability and adaptability aside, for both Snell and Greer, the main appeal of the English pointer lies in appearances—the sight of the dog gliding across wide-open terrain, witnessing the pure joy and excitement of an animal in its natural element.  
 
“Elhews try to catch as much air as they can,” Greer said. “They are running full bore and it almost looks they are on point. I’m in fifth gear, and they are just floating along.”
 
“I tell people you want to find a dog that is pleasing to the eye,” Snell said. “If you like the way that dog looks, that is more important than anything. The way they move, their point, it has to click.”
 
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
 
Photo credits: Main image – Tina Rensch Fraser, Mirror Image Photography / first image – Logan Hinners, Pheasants Forever / second image – Pheasants Forever / third image – Englishpointers (Hate Sleep Apneoa) via Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND