A Heritage of the Renaissance: The origin and appeal of hunting over pointing dogs

hunter shooting at a flushed grouse

The wind blows in your face from the great plain. To the right, there’s a field of wheat, and to the left, an unplowed stretch overgrown with wild grass and shrubs. In the distance, a small creek winds its way across the plain, bush and reeds lining its banks. The area looks wildlife-free. But today there’s a little four-legged creature with you. It quarters the field in a tireless gallop, ears flapping, tongue hanging on the side. And almost when you think it’s just as pointless as walking the field alone, the dog suddenly slows down.

Carrying its head high and taking in the air through its nostrils, the dog makes a few more careful steps, and freezes still, its eyes fixed on a small patch of grass. With the shotgun at the ready, you walk to the point, your heart pounding faster and faster. What is there hiding in that patch of grass – a long-tailed, ring-necked cock pheasant? A tiny bobwhite quail? A covey of Hungarian partridge?

a pointing dog flushing a birdThe origin of the pointing dog is lost in the mist of times. Some old books say they were first used by falconers, or for catching the birds by throwing a net over both the covey and the dog pointing it. But modern researchers, such as Craig Koshyk, author of Pointing Dog, don’t find these theories plausible.

Koshyk believes that the pointing dog originated in Europe during the Renaissance, most likely in Italy. Affluent merchants, artisans, and other members of the growing urban middle class  wanted to diversify their days (and table fare) with hunting, but of course couldn’t afford lavish hunts with falcons and hounds like the noblemen. Instead, they hunted partridges and rabbits, using just one or two dogs to find the game. Like most predators, dogs have a tendency to pause when prey is near, just before the leap. Some hunters noticed that if the pause lasted long enough, they could make out the bird or rodent and shoot it with a blunt bolt from a bow or crossbow. The pointing dog was born.

Later, improvement in firearms made it possible to shoot the birds not only on the ground, but on the wing itself. This practice probably originated in Spain, where we find the earliest light-weight flintlock guns suitable for shooting flying birds. The pointing dog and the shotgun spread to France and other European countries. By the middle of the XVIII century there is documented evidence of people shooting birds over pointing dogs all over the continent – from Britain in the West to Russia in the East.

a few setters running in a fieldIn every country the hunters adapted their dogs to both their tastes and the requirements of the environment. The British bred a number of highly specialized breeds, such as the English Pointer and Setter, with unbelievably fast search, good noses, and solid points. The Germans, on the other hand, made their dogs amazingly versatile. A German pointer, be it short-haired (Kurzhaar), wire-haired (Drathhaar), or long-haired (Langhaar), was required to not only point birds, but retrieve, act as a scent hound after hare and fox, do the bloodhound’s job on big game, and protect the master from any human villain! Brittany fetching a woodcockThe French were somewhere in between, creating a number of versatile bird-focused breeds, most notably the Epagneul Breton, a.k.a. Brittany. At the same time, Italians and Spaniards preserved their ancient breeds such as Spinone and Pachon Navarro, that could remember Leonardo da Vinci and the journey of Columbus.

It is not clear when the first pointing dogs arrived in North America, but it’s a safe bet that it happened in the earliest colonial days. Both the Spanish, the French, and the English were enthusiastic hunters, and the New World provided a wealth of opportunities to chase birds with a pointing dog.

Woodcock, for instance, has long been considered the king of the game birds in Europe, and woodcock affictinados that are willing to travel thousands of kilometers to areas where migratory birds concentrate. In the pristine woods of the East, the newcomers found an abundance of American woodcock, which is very close biologically to its European cousin, and offers the same tense, action-packed, hunting experience. At the same time, they found an even more exciting quarry in the American native species – the ruffed grouse!

Both ruffed grouse and woodcock present a great challenge to both the hunter and the dog. In their densely wooded habitat the dog has to work, most of the time, out of the hunter’s view. Bells and beepers make it easier to find the dogs that went on point, but independence is a great temptation to get out of control. A wood hunter’s dog has to be trained beyond reproach. And when the bird flashes, you will only have a split second to make your shot count, before it disappears between New England’s magnificent red and yellow leaved autumn trees!

American pointers with 12 o clock tailsFurther on to the West, one finds the blue, sage, and pinnated grouse, a.k.a. Prairie chicken. The first Westerners who tried to pursue them with bird dogs discovered that on the wide open plains of the prairies too much ground had to be covered before one could find a covey. Unabashed with that, they started to hunt prairie chicken on horseback, and bred pointers with extra speed and stamina to match. These purely American lines of pointing dogs tend to have the so-called “12 o’clock tail”, that they raise vertically when on point. It’s supposed that this manner makes it easier to see the dog on point, but European dog lovers usually find it extremely displeasing aesthetically.

Another bird that can claim the title of King of the American Game Birds is bobwhite quail. In the South especially, this tiny but brightly colored creature enjoys respect that seems to be in reverse proportion to its size. The “Gentleman Bob” brought to life the so-called “plantation style” hunts. On a typical “plantation style” hunts the hunters go out in a big company, on or accompanied by mule-drawn wagons with dog cages and refreshments for the lunch. Depending on the terrain, they could hunt on foot or on horseback, spreading far, each hunter accompanied by a handler with a couple of pointers, and get together for lunch to exchange stories and impressions.

bobwhite quailUnfortunately, in recent years the free-ranging populations of bobwhite quail have deteriorated. It’s safe to say that if you want to have a good hunting experience after bobwhite quail, you will have to visit a private property that is specially managed to create the perfect conditions for the little bird.

In addition, three more species of birds were introduced to North America, you may think, solely for the benefit of the bird hunter. Our blog already covered the history of the pheasant. Grey partridge, the original quarry for the pointing dogs, was introduced at about the same time, and thrives in agricultural regions. The first birds were brought from Hungary, and thus got the name “Hungarian partridge”, or “Hun” for short. Last but not the least, the chukar, originally of the Asian mountains (where it’s known as “keklik”), has become such an inalienable part of the Rocky Mountains that some American hunters refuse to believe it’s an introduced species.

a brittany searching for gamePeople of the Renaissance are famous for their taste in art, and the first hunters probably admired their pointing dogs for their beauty as much as if not more than for the rabbits and partridges that filled the larder. This still holds true today: most pointing dog lovers will tell you that hunting over pointing dogs is one of the highest forms of the hunting art. The style and dynamics of working the dogs make the hunt much more than a simple act of harvest, and in fact there’s a saying that a true upland bird hunter would rather go out without a shotgun than without a dog!

The modern representative of the urban middle class, who wants to discover this noble pursuit, may find it quite a challenge. Before investing a lot of money and effort in raising a training your own pointer, it is advisable to get a little experience by hunting over someone else’s dogs. If you don’t have friends who have good dogs, the best option is to go for a guided hunt. There are a wide selection of those on BookYourHunt.com, directly from proven outfitters. And even if you will find that hunting over pointing dogs is not for you, the diversity of the experience will make you a better hunter.


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