The Noble English Pointer
Loyal and hard-charging, English pointers are more than running machines.
Little Skylark was having control problems. This was first, and emphatically, pointed out to me by one of my hunting buddies shortly after we flushed a brood of blue grouse. Skylark had stopped, located the birds, and jumped right into the middle of them. My buddy watched her do it.
I’d spent the two previous summers putting Skylark through her paces. She was tiny for an English pointer, then barely 37 pounds soaking wet. But, she was exactly the kind of dog I’d been looking for—quick and stylish. I’d had no out-of-the-ordinary problems with her, nothing like what I’d experienced with some of the dogs I’d trained over the years. Yes, she was a bit headstrong, but turn that around and sometimes it can work in a dog’s favor.
So, I made excuses and we kept hunting her, and the faux pas kept piling up. Usually it went like this: She’d find birds—there was nothing wrong with her nose or hunting ability—then flash point them before busting them to hell and Sunday. I’d dealt with this with dogs I’d trained for other people, but never one of my own. It was frustrating, to say the least. Finally, my buddy asked that I not bring her along. That bothered me, but I could certainly understand why he felt the way he did. He wanted to get a shot at a grouse, not watch it fly away with a pipsqueak pointer nipping at its heels.
By the time my annual trip to Wisconsin rolled around, Skylark had racked up an impressive record: maybe a dozen grouse and Hun coveys found, bumped, or busted. I’d done everything I knew how to do. In truth, there wasn’t much I could do. If a dog is well broke on the “whoa” command and reliably steady on planted birds—and she was—then all you can do is keep hunting it and hope it figures things out on its own. Trying to finesse the point/flush sequence on wild birds you can’t see is an exercise in futility.
But something changed in Wisconsin. She started pointing birds and holding them. The birds were as wild as any I’ve seen, and there weren’t many. Most flushed not feet, but yards away, sometimes dozens of yards. But each time, she held. By the end of my two-week trip, she’d pointed (and held) seven grouse and one confused woodcock. Not bad for an 18-month-old puppy who was two months into what was essentially her first season. What’s more, when we returned home she continued to point and hold the Huns we were hunting. Case closed.
I wish I could say that it was my extraordinary patience, legendary expertise, and good looks that finally brought her around. But the truth is I have no idea what changed, or even what part I played in that change, other than to doggedly keep her on the ground and hunting, letting the gears in her head turn until the teeth meshed.
A Spot of History
As is true with many of the sporting breeds we now call our own on this side of the pond, English pointers were first bred and hunted in England as far back as the 17th Century. No one knows their exact bloodlines, but it’s probably safe to say the hounds got into the act—greyhounds, foxhounds, and bloodhounds. Their hound background accomplished two things: It gave them a short, carefree coat that is extremely easy to brush out and care for, and, more importantly, it gave them a superb nose. I’ve owned or trained all kinds of dogs, and the nose of a typical pointer, as a general rule, is as good as any of them.
Pointers—and pointer fans always refer to them as just that, pointers, rather than English pointers—have always been hunting dogs, first and foremost. Although they also have a presence in the show ring, it is in the field where they shine. In fact, before the turn of the last century, field-trialing was done almost exclusively with English setters. But within a few years of their introduction to that sport, English pointers began to win—and they’ve been winning ever since, dominating almost every all-age competition they run in.
But the very qualities that win competitions—hard-charging and wide-ranging—can also make dogs from field-trial stock too much dog for the average foot-hunter. Fortunately, there are now breeders in the country who are breeding pointers that are more amenable to foot-hunting. More on that in just a moment.
The Dog That Aims to Please
Frustration is a not uncommon sentiment among those who own English pointers. Many have spent years reading about the dogs in magazine articles and books. Who hasn’t heard of Bob Wehle’s legendary field-trial prodigy, Snakefoot?
But a field trial is a game unto its own. Few foot-hunters want to hunt behind a dog that punches out to 800 yards (or more). Unfortunately, that’s not something many first-time pointer owners realize until they’ve actually owned a dog with a big motor. I didn’t.
My unpleasant baptism in big-running dogs actually came at the hands of a couple of big-running English setters I owned. By the time I decided to buy an English pointer, I wanted to hunt over a dog I could see.
I looked up a breeder I’d interviewed years earlier for a long-forgotten magazine article, who had impressed me with his expertise in all things English pointer—Mark Wendling of Superior Pointers in Bayfield, Wisconsin. Long story short: He sold me my first English pointer, Tango, who I still have. She was unlike anything I’d ever read about the breed.
What most impressed me was how much Tango wanted to please. After 30 years of training dogs, a few of which had to be hammered into submission, it was clear from day one that Tango wanted nothing more than to be a good dog. If I could explain to her what I wanted her to do in a way she understood it, she was more than happy to comply. She was the happiest dog I’d ever owned. All the dogs I’ve owned have been happy dogs—that’s what made them fun to be around—but Tango was markedly so, to the point that it was, and still is commented on by people who meet her in the dog park where she sometimes gets to run. The two English pointers I’ve bought from Mark since then are exactly the same way.
Mark tells me that’s because Tango, Suki, and Skylark—my dogs—are Elhew pointers. If you’re not familiar with that strain of EP’s, here’s the Cliff Notes version of their storied past: During the first half of the 20th Century, Bob Wehle (Elhew is Wehle spelled backwards) inherited a fortune while still a young man, and devoted his life to breeding English pointers (as well as cattle and horses). He wanted to produce biddable, loving, happy dogs, and after 60 years of selective breeding, he was wildly successful on each of those criteria. But not all Elhew pointers are close-ranging.
Mine are. As a general rule, my three dogs will hunt at or about 200 yards in open country, and half of that (or less) in the grouse woods. In my opinion, those ranges are plenty big enough on the prairies, and just about right in thick cover. That doesn’t mean that my dogs won’t occasionally run bigger than that—they can and do. But I can typically count on all three running at a comfortable range for foot-hunting. That said, if you hunt on horseback, on an ATV, or for some inexplicable reason are a foot-hunter who prefers a dog that runs at 600-plus yards, there are probably more English pointers to choose from than any other breed.
A Southern Dog Moves North
For years, English pointers have been associated with the South: Hard-headed, surly machines that are kept in kennels until they’re needed for a hunt, then put back into their kennels until they’re needed again. There are thousands of English pointers that still live like that—and not just in Texas. Is it surprising then, that certain dogs that grow up with minimal human contact ultimately develop little craving for human contact? Like everyone else, I’d heard the rumors about pointer hard-headedness, but the English pointers I’ve trained and been around have all been happy and eager to please.
In fact, my experience with English pointers, the Elhew strain as well as others, has been almost entirely good. In fact, I decided to buy an EP largely because a friend of mine owned one.
My friend, Bill Buckley, was the owner of Jimmy, an English pointer, strain unknown. I ate at Bill’s house often, and over the years came to know his dog very well.
Jimmy was a complete clown. He’d play hide-and-seek under a blanket with just his nose exposed, thumping his tail with delight. Then he’d dash to the top of the steps with his favorite ball in his mouth, nudge it over the top step with his nose, and then leap downstairs after it. He was a great hunter, although a bit too far and wide for my taste. What I eventually learned, however, is that just like about every other flavor of hunting dog, range can vary, as does size. It all depends on the breeding.
Jimmy was a big dog, probably around 60 pounds. As male pointers go, that’s about average. Males weigh from 55 to 75 pounds, and females from about 45 to 55 pounds. But my unscientific assessment of where the breed is going indicates a welcome trend toward smaller dogs. Two of my three pointers weigh just 40 pounds, and the largest, Tango, tops out at 50. I bought them specifically because of their small size, which I’ve always preferred. To be fair, though, I’ve seen big, muscular males—65 pounds plus—run with the feline agility of panthers. Smaller dogs don’t necessarily run close, and large dogs don’t always run big. You’ll have a better chance of getting what you want if you look for breeders who develop that type of dog.
In the Great Lakes states, as well as in other parts of the country, certain kennels specialize in “grouse dogs.” These kennels often breed English setters, but there seems to be a small but growing trend toward breeding English pointer grouse dogs, as well. If you’re looking for a closer-ranging English pointer pup, a kennel that specializes in grouse dogs is where I’d begin my search. If, on the other hand, you want a bigger-running dog, there are any number of kennels you can go to, but fair warning: A big-running EP is a lot of dog, so be sure you’re up to the challenge.
Debunking the Myths
Now for a little myth debunking. English pointers are not necessarily possessed of better noses, more drive, and more physical toughness than other dogs (although that statement, I realize, is hard to square with their overwhelming dominance in field trials). Dogs that do possess those characteristics are individuals with superior talent, and individuals with superior talent exist in many breeds. Unlike the common idea that English pointers are hot-weather dogs, mine aren’t particularly tolerant of heat. Nor can they run harder or longer than many of the setters I’ve owned and/or hunted over. They can also get banged up and hurt, just like any other dog.
Pointers also have a lot of energy, as anyone who has been cooped up with an antsy pointer for multiple days will attest. They need to be exercised and hunted—if not every day, at least two or three times a week. If you’ve got the facilities, roading your dog on an ATV or with a harness attached to logging chains (as I do) is hard to beat. But if not, even getting them out for a half-hour run will make a difference. An English pointer with time on its hands is a dog looking for trouble.
Still, my pointers are almost always fun. Sure, they can be knuckleheads from time to time, just like every other dog in the known universe. But day in and day out, I love hunting over them. We have an arrangement, my pointers and I. If I take the time to train them, they’ll give me their lives. And that’s not a bad bargain.