The Pointing Labrador
September 23, 2010
An update on the present status and possible future of this sometimes controversial gun dog.
"Point!" my hunting partner hollered as he took off running up a fenceline in the direction of his gun dog.
"Point?" I thought to myself, feeling a little confused, because the only "official pointing dog" we had with us was my German shorthaired pointer who was in the back of my pickup recovering from a fresh barbwire cut that required 10 stitches.
Nonetheless, I followed my friend up the weed-choked fenceline and arrived in time to see Sugar, his three-year-old yellow Labrador, standing and staring into the dense vegetation. Though her tail was wildly wagging and all four feet were planted on the ground, "She could be pointing," I remember thinking.
A half-second later, Sugar charged into a clump of thick foxtail. A rooster pheasant rocketed up against the blue sky, cackled once, took a flight path, then crumpled and fell at the boom of my buddy's 12-gauge. The yellow Lab leaped across the fence into the adjacent corn stubble and quickly retrieved and delivered to hand the stone-dead ringneck.
"Every once in a while, Sugar will point gamebirds," her owner later said. "And though her 'points' don't last very long and her 'pointing' isn't a consistent habit, it is handy for me because I can sometimes get closer to many birds before she flushes them."
Though this experience with a Labrador-retriever-that-also-points may not be all that unusual today, 30 years ago when this episode took place, seeing a Labrador that pointed gamebirds was fairly unique. Since that time, however, pointing Labrador retrievers have become more common, bloodlines of pointing Labradors have been clearly developed, pointing Lab organizations have been created, and thousands of pointing Labrador breeders, owners, trainers, handlers, and hunters have fallen in love with these "specialized" gun dogs.
Breed it into them or train it out of them? This is the big question about the pointing instinct in Labradors, a question that certainly touches on several issues having to do with the original purposes and modern day direction taken in the development of this breed of gun dog.
None of these developments in the history of the pointing Labrador, however, has taken place without some confusion, some controversy, and some opposition. There are some, in fact, who say that making the Labrador "retriever" into a "pointer" is guaranteed to take the breed in the wrong direction. In the meantime, though, the pointing Labrador's popularity is steadily growing, more breeders are producing pointing pups, more trainers are working with these dogs, and more hunters are using pointing Labradors for waterfowl and for upland gamebirds.
The controversy regarding pointing Labrador retrievers centers around a number of questions. What is a "point" in a "pointing" Lab? Is a Lab's point an instinctive or a trained behavior? Will developing the pointing behavior in a Labrador compromise this breed's bird-flushing and retrieving efficiency? Is breeding any type of gun dog for just one trait a good idea?
POINTING LAB OR PAUSING LAB?
"The kind of point and the quality of the point made by a pointing Lab are really two issues to be considered in judging this retrieving breed for its pointing potential," says Tom Dokken of Oakridge Kennels in Northfield, Minnesota. As a full-time trainer of all breeds of gun dogs, Dokken has worked with pointing Labradors for many years.
"One question to ask about pointing Labs is: Should this breed of dog be pointing in the first place? After all, Labradors are usually classified as 'flushing' dogs, bred and trained to find then quickly push up any upland gamebirds with hard-charging and unhesitating enthusiasm. As with all flushing dogs, many owners, handlers and trainers would fault any flushing breed for 'pausing' before pouncing on a bird to put it into flight," Dokken says.
"For a Labrador owner who decides that it's okay and actually desirable for a Lab to pause and point, the next question is, what quality of point can you expect to get from these dogs?" Dokken adds. "With recognized pointing breeds, the duration and hardness of a point are really important. For example, when English setters go on point, most can be picked up by hand and re-positioned without coming off point--that's how intense the pointing instinct is that has been bred into these breeds.
"With Labradors, however, this duration and intensity can be a problem that is often dealt with by teaching 'whoa' as a way to extend the length of time the dog will remain in a pointing posture," Dokken says. "Now, though, a new issue arises: Does this dog have a natural instinctive point or is this point being taught and learned? "The reason any dog 'points' game is that all canines--wolves, coyotes, and foxes--when sneaking up on any potentially edible animals, will 'pause' just before they leap in for the kill. This is the theory, anyhow. When human hunters noticed this trait in some of their hunting dogs, they started to breed for it. Eventually, the pointing breeds evolved," Dokken explains.
"This same 'pausing-pointing' behavior sometimes appears in the retrieving and flushing breeds, Labradors in particular. And, once it's identified as 'strong' in some lines of Labs, it can be bred for. For anyone judging the quality of the pointing instinct in a pointing Lab, making the distinction between a 'natural' and a 'taught' point is obviously important, especially when making decisions about buying pointing Lab puppies or training adult dogs," Dokken concludes.
THE FLUSHING DOG/POINTING DOG CONFLICT
Will the willingness of a Lab to point diminish the dog's ability to make a strong flush on upland gamebirds? Can the pointing behavior be reconciled with a hard flushing requirement? Aren't the two traits contradictory?
Gerald and Dawn Walker of Peyton, Colorado have raised pointing Labrador retrievers for several years and, along with their three kids, have entered their pointing Labs in AKC obedience and hunt tests. All of the Walker dogs are certified in the various levels of the American Pointing Labrador Association's testing program, as well. Plus, their dogs are used to hunt the full spectrum of upland gamebirds and waterfowl. From left to right are Micah, 12; Nathan, 14; and Hannah, 10; each with their own personal gun dog. Gerald Walker is the President of the American Pointing Labrador Association.
"When hunting pen-raised pheasants on preserves or wild pheasants anywhere, I sometimes use my
German shorthaired pointers to both 'point' and 'flush' pheasants," says one of my hunting partners. Though he asked to remain anonymous to prevent any criticism or ridicule that might be heaped upon him by his fellow NAVHDA trainers and judges, I can say I've seen his NAVHDA Invitational Champion (perfect score) male "flush" pointed pheasants that we couldn't have otherwise easily kicked out of dense cover ourselves.
"Generally, almost all of my German shorthairs come to learn the difference between a rooster that just won't leave the thick cover and one that will fly up, if pressured, when I'm still 50 yards behind," my friend says. "When I give one of my German shorthairs on point the 'fetch' command, he will dive into the cover and 'flush' whatever is there with as much enthusiasm as any springer spaniel or Labrador retriever," he adds.
"If German shorthairs can learn and practice a different set of techniques to sometimes point and sometimes flush their birds, couldn't other breeds of gun dogs do the same?" is a rhetorical question most pointing Labrador fans are quick to present.
CAN BREEDING ANY KIND OF GUN DOG FOR JUST ONE TRAIT BE A BAD IDEA?
"Breeding any kind of dog for just one trait often can be a mistake because other important breed characteristics might be diminished or possibly lost in order to develop that one feature," warns John Luttrell, a Labrador breeder, trainer and AKC Hunt Test Judge from Clark, South Dakota. "This is one reason I won't breed Labradors for specific color. Instead, I will bring two lines together in order to get a broad spectrum of qualities such as desire to retrieve, great cooperation, good temperament, and strong stamina. If a chocolate or yellow puppy comes out of the litter, so be it, if someone wants one," Luttrell says.
"This same 'broad spectrum' breeding principle should apply to the 'pointing trait' in Labradors. Breed for a wide range of generally desired and accepted Labrador characteristics and, if a few pups from the litter want to point, that's okay. But breeding only for pointing potential is possibly going to produce otherwise inferior offspring. This would certainly go against general dog breeding theory and good practice," Luttrell adds.
Should all gun dog breeds be restricted to a specific and narrow range of standards? For instance, should an English pointer only be expected to find quail or grouse or pheasants and point themÃ‚'¦but not retrieve them also? On a Minnesota northwoods ruffed grouse hunt a few years ago, I followed a pointer and her owner through some of the best grouse cover I've ever seen and saw some of the best pointing I've ever witnessed. We shot a limit of ruffs and several woodcock.
But that pointer never retrieved a single bird. "She's a pointer, not a retriever," her owner said as we poked around in the brambles looking for dead grouse and a wounded woodcock. And, yes, I know, some pointer lines have some 'retrieve' bred into them, and some trainers say that any gun dog can be force-trained to fetch. This pointer owner-breeder-trainer-field trialer-hunter, however, had some dogmatic ideas on this subject. And, while his dog was running off in the far distance looking to point another grouse, we were looking for a dead bird--along with a couple others that we never found.
Should a Labrador retriever only retrieve and never be bred, encouraged, or trained to point gamebirds? Last pheasant season, a friend and I hunted ringneck pheasants behind a five-year-old yellow Lab. "Buster's on point," his owner whispered as we looked 100 yards up a cut cornrow to see the dog standing stone-still and staring into a clump of tangled kochia weeds.
"Shouldn't we hurry?" I asked my buddy as we walked, not ran, toward where Buster was waiting. This question was answered a minute later when we came up behind Buster, who was then told to "Get 'em!" Buster charged the cover, and a hen flushed first and flew away. Then a rooster cackled into the sky, met a load of No. 6s, stopped in a halo of flying feathers, and crashed into the thick cover. Buster was on the bird in a second, found it immediately and then brought it to his owner's hand in the classic style of the Labrador retriever.
Should Buster have pointed this bird? I know I had no objection. Others, however, feel just as strongly that the "pointing instinct" in Labrador retrievers absolutely should not be perpetuated. "Beat it out of them and breed it out of them," was the way another Lab owner-breeder-trainer-field trialer-hunter put it. He is totally convinced that the main purpose of any Labrador hunting upland game is to quickly flush upland gamebirds and to retrieve dead ones. Any "pausing" or "pointing" on a Lab's part is a fault to be avoided by any means possible--period, end of discussionÃ‚'¦in his opinion.
"Say what you want about pointing Labradors, but they're here to stay," says Danny Allen, one of the original organizers, former president and present board member of the American Pointing Labrador Association (APLA). This attitude is reflected by hundreds of Association members as well as thousands of other pointing Labrador owners across the country.
Most agree that the pointing Labrador retriever can hunt, point, flush, and retrieve upland gamebirds with the same degree of efficiency as many other breeds of gun dogs.
The final "field test" for any pointing Labrador is whether the dog hunts--that is, finds, points and retrieves upland gamebirds.
THE FUTURE OF THE POINTING LABRADOR: THE AMERICAN POINTING LABRADOR ASSOCIATION
For those who can accept that pointing Labrador lines actually exist within the Labrador retriever breed, there has been and will be a continuing effort to improve the pointing Labrador as a type of gun dog. Though many individual and independent pointing Lab breeders have produced some viable pointing Labs, the most organized and recognized success in breeding the pointing lines has come through the efforts of the American Pointing Labrador Association.
Formed in 1991, the APLA is made up of pointing Labrador enthusiasts dedicated to improving this line of gun dog through a formalized testing program and organized breeding procedure. Originally the APLA's main purpose was to merely identify pointing Labs by having two judges observe any Labrador point a gamebird for three seconds. This elementary test has now grown into a much more sophisticated and meaningful series of tests that include a basic certification of pointing Labrador's pointing abilities as well as overall hunting capabilities.
These formalized tests begin with a basic certification designed to evaluate a dog's natural ability and basic trained behavior with emphasis on apparent obedience and proficiency in hunting upland gamebirds and performing land and water retrieves. In this test, dogs are scored on point as well as nose, search, cooperation, desire, retrieving ability and water work. Pointing ability, then, is only one of several key components in a dog's overall score.
The "Intermediate" level provides an advanced format requiring the Lab being tested to demonstrate proficiency in hunting upland gamebirds (quail, chukar, or pheasants) placed randomly in a 20-acre field. Two APLA qualified judges evaluate the dog on effective nose, intensity and duration of point (a motionless point of 10 seconds without a "steady" command from the handler), a methodical search for game, a high degree of cooperation, an evident desire to please, and efficient land and water retrieves.
The "Master" and "Grand Master" tests include all the categories of the previous tests but with a greater emphasis on reliability in pointing, retrieving and searching, nose, stamina, desire, cooperation, and obedience. These two tests "will prove the versatility of the pointing Labrador as an all around working dog bred and developed for both upland and waterfowl hunting." For the upland portion of the test, the dog must establish point on its own prior to any verbal command given by the handler. Points must be intense and unmistakable, showing an instinctive response to scent, as opposed to a sight point. In addition, the tested Lab must be steady to wing and shot, perform a productive search by hunting with its nose while maintaining a cooperative contact with the handler.
These two highest-level tests also include marked land retrieves, blind land retrieves, and marked water retrieves with blind steadiness. Desire to work, stamina, nose quality, obedience, retrieving, marking, retrieving desire and retriever steadiness all put these two tests on a level of difficulty to similar tests conducted by the AKC, UKC, and North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA).
As the APLA Testing Rules indicate, this organization has done much toward creating solid and meaningful ways to measure the strength of these dogs both as pointers and all-around gun dogs.
FINDING A WELL-BRED, PROMISING POINTING LABRADOR PUPPY
In talking with several pointing Labrador breeders and trainers, as well as members of the American Pointing Labrador Association, I've gathered and condensed some suggestions given for finding a pointing Labrador puppy.
- Do your homework. Read about pointing Labradors by looking for articles on the subject in this and other magazines. Check out ads in these same publications and call the breeders with specific questions about their puppies. Are they APLA members? Do their dogs have titles from this organization as well as in AKC, UKC or NAHRA tests?
- Insist on OFA-ed and CERF-ed dogs. And remember that "good" scores on these tests are only general indicators of quality, not absolute guarantees that the hips and eyes of a pup or an adult dog will be absolutely perfect.
- Look carefully at the pup's parents to evaluate how the pups might turn out. If you can't actually witness in person how the parents point, quarter in the field, or retrieve from land and water, then ask the breeder for a videotape showing the mom and dad doing all these things.
- Consider puppies from "repeat breeding"--especially if pups from previous litters have shown exceptional pointing ability along with all the other desirable traits of well-bred Labradors. Ask the puppy's breeder for references from satisfied owners of these pups. And call these dog owners to ask very pointed questions based on information gathered from doing your homework as well as reading this article.
- Ask any breeder with puppies for sale about the parents' "intensity and duration of point." These have always been matters of concern for owners, breeders, trainers, and hunters of pointing Labs. Twenty years ago, when the formal recognition of the pointing instinct in the Labrador first started to grow, how well and how long a Lab pointed didn't seem to matter all that much. Almost any Labrador that made a "pause" or stopped for a "look" in the presence of gamebirds could be considered a "pointer."
|An Important Book On Pointing Labs |
|The Pointing Labrador by professional gun dog trainers Paul and Julie Knutson is a 254-page paperback ($25.00 from Clinetop Press; 970-984-3801) that answers such questions as: What is a pointing Lab? Why a pointing Lab? Are there differences between a pointing Lab and a flushing Lab? Because they have guided 13 Labs to the status of "Grand Master Pointing Labrador Retriever," the Knutsons' opinions are worth reading. |
The book is most of all a training manual that starts with "Finding a Puppy" and "Starting Early Pointing Work" and progresses through all the standard steps of retriever training in general. Included are chapters on basic obedience, introduction to water, whoa and whistle training, the force fetch, and use of the e-collar. In addition to being the only training book on the subject of pointing Labs, The Pointing Labrador is also a solid guide to training any Labrador or other breed of retriever.
Today, however, many pointing Lab fans that judge the degree and length of concentration their dogs exhibit when pointing any species of gamebird expect more. This trend toward improving intensity and duration of point will play a big part in the future of these dogs with more breeders striving to put these qualities into their puppies and more hunters expecting harder and longer points from their gun dogs.
As a longtime fan, hunter, and owner of German shorthaired pointers, I've sometimes heard the claim that this breed is "a jack of all trades but a master of none." This description suggests that although GSPs are classified as pointers, their pointing ability is compromised because they are also expected to be reliable retrievers on land and water.
Gun dogs bred only as pointers, the argument goes, are true specialists and therefore genuine masters at pointing gamebirds because that is the one thing these breeds are bred to do. So if you want a dog that superbly points, you should look for an English pointer or setter. Similarly, if you want an excellent retriever, you should get a Chesapeake, golden or Labrador retriever because this is their main purpose and what they are born to do.
Consequently, according to this line of thinking, anyone who seriously hunts upland gamebirds and waterfowl actually needs two gun dogs. In reality, however, considering where most wingshooters spend most of their non-hunting time (city or suburbs), one gun dog of any breed is all they can afford, train and care for.
"Though the phrase 'pointing Labrador retriever' may sound like a contradiction in terms, it is actually more confusing than contradictory," says Danny Allen. "Think of the pointing Lab as, first of all, a basic retriever that also happens to point. In considering a purchase of one of these dogs, the prospective buyer should look for the standard Labrador qualities, and then judge the dog's pointing ability. This is the direction the APLA is moving, and it's a direction that is definitely improving this type of Labrador." This could certainly be good news for anyone who wants a
Labrador to serve as a retriever. And, oh yes, if given the opportunity, this gun dog will also point gamebirds.
For information on the APLA call 719-683-6486 or 219-345-5227.