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Sporting Dogs – Part 3: Pointers and Setters


Sportsmen have long pursued game birds, and over the millennia sportsmen developed breeds that would sniff out the preferred birds, and hold them tight without flushing them. These breeds are classified as pointer and setters. Each of these classifications denote different nuisances that are particular to the different classification. For clarity, we will look at each of these separately.


English Pointer Locating a covey of bobwhite quail

English Pointer Locating a covey of bobwhite quail

Pointers: Originally pointing breeds were used by hunters before the invention of guns. Hunters used nets to capture game that was located by pointing breeds. These dogs would locate the game and ‘point’ at them with their muzzle to indicate where the game was located. This allowed hunters to cast a net over the game before it flushed.

As guns were introduced to the equation, the ability of the dog to locate game continued and breeds were encouraged to sit steady to the sound of the gun and also, to ‘back’ or ‘honor’ another dogs point. What this means, is that if hunting more than one dog, when one of the dogs pointed by scent or sight, the rest of the dogs also stopped and pointed in the same direction; thereby ‘honoring’ the point of the lead dog.  This is a vital trait to prevent flushing game prior to the guns being prepared.

Pointers are typically short haired, (although there are a few wire haired breeds) strong heads with wide muzzles and sharp eyes. Their instinct allows them to roam far and wide in search for game. Many hunters prefer this trait because the dog is covering a lot of ground. Well trained dogs will work the ground in a methodical manner. For instance, using the hunter as the center mark, the dog will move to the right and work in a large circle, cross back in front of the hunter and then work a large circle to the left. They repeat this process covering the area very methodically looking for game birds.

When game is located the dog will lock their position and ‘point’ with their muzzle in the direction of the birds. Some dogs will see the birds and circle to prevent them from running.

Today’s sportsman typically uses pointing breeds for upland hunting. Quail, pheasant, grouse and woodcock dominate the quarry list of these fine breeds. Many of the breeds in the pointing class are also considered hard headed meaning they can be difficult to train. Centuries of breeding instilled a strong will and a strong desire to hunt that often trumps compassion, loyalty and politeness. The English Pointer is by far the most hard headed and can be difficult to train. Sportsmen looking for one should strongly consider the parents and breeder when selecting an English pointer.

The German Short-haired Pointer is less so, and is often considered the most versatile hunting breed. These dogs can and often are trained to point, hold, flush, and retrieve game on land and water. Owners of German Short-haired pointers like to tout their compassion and loyalty as pets’ as much as hunting companions. Their field manners are top notch and are beautiful dogs with their liver markings, ticking and dark strong heads.

Pointing breeds are larger than setters, roam further and in many cases more difficult to train. However, many commercial hunting operations prefer these traits and use a variety of these breeds in their operations.


English Setter 'honoring' the point of another dog.

English Setter ‘honoring’ the point of another dog.

Setters:  Setters like pointers are used by upland hunters to locate game. Point their location and sit tight to shot. They are very similar in function with a few distinct differences. Setters look much different. They typically have long flowing coats, are smaller in frame and much better mannered. (This is more of an observation by the author than a fact) there are examples of each type that will dispute this, but it can be stated that setters are more affectionate, loving and compassionate than their counterparts.

Setters obtained their name from their low ‘set’ or point posture when game is located. They will typically crouch in their points with their nose close to the ground. Yet while working, they will often circle with their heads high scenting the air for any particle of game.

Most setters are easily trained in the art of retrieving downed game. They are quick to mark, and retrieve game on both land and water. Many a hunter has been seen in a duck blind with his setters rather than a retrieving breed. The North American Versatile Dog association has more dogs from these two classifications than any other. Pointers and setters dominate the scene when it comes to an all-around versatile dog.

Setter breeds include the English setter (of which there are several distinct hunting lines) Irish setter, Gordon setter. Color is the biggest difference between these three to the novice. With the Irish being a copper or red color. The Gordon is mostly black with a brown belly and legs while the English has a white background with blue, liver and yellow markings and ticking. Different areas have different dominance of these but different varieties of English setters dominate the scene.

Upland hunters have known for centuries that finding the game is 80% of the battle when hunting flushing birds. Breeding dogs that can sniff out the game and hold them tight for net or gun has brought a lot of enjoyment to many a sportsman. Whether you prefer a wide roaming strong willed dog as the pointer or a close working, mild mannered versatile dog like the setter. Upland hunters are dependent upon these breeds to enjoy the sports they love.