Why Hunting Dogs Point – Genetics, Behavior or Training?

Aside from the dog breed so aptly named “the Pointer,” most people don’t readily understand what it means to say a hunting dog “points.”

Clearly, dogs can’t point like people do because they don’t have arms and hands and fingers! But make no mistake about it – dogs have figured out how to point and they use what they’ve got to make their point (pun intended) clear.

Why do hunting dogs point?  Hunting dogs that point were bred to do so by selectively breeding dogs that showed a natural trait to freeze and hold still in response to smelling prey.  Generations of dogs bred by giving priority to strengthening this pointing trait resulted in the modern pointing dog breeds.  Dogs of these breeds have this pointing behavior hardwired into their genetics. 

To the non-hunting, hunting dog owner “pointing” is often quizzical.  Leaving the dog owner wondering why their puppy had suddenly locked up staring at a leaf or why their dog is standing staunch with their face pointing into the breeze seeming to not see anything but fully concentrating with nostrils flaring, immune to any leash tugging to try to get them moving again.   It’s literally in the dog’s DNA to exhibit this behavior.  As any hunter will tell you a dog’s pointing is a very functional.  A dog pointing tells a hunter where a bird is hiding and allows the hunter to approach within range of the bird before it flies.  This increases the odds the hunter will be able to successfully harvest the bird.

Now you know the basics but let’s explore this topic deeper.  Do dogs point based on sight or smell?  Do all hunting dogs point?  Can you train any dog to point?

What Does It Mean to Say a Dog “Points?”

First things first – let’s talk about dog pointing basics. If you are new to dogs or to hunting with dogs, you may not be sure you will recognize when a dog points.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), there is one posture that is considered to be the “classical point” posture.

The posture is based on the dog freezing in place. Their muzzle points straight ahead. One paw lifts slightly off the ground. Their tail lifts up. They stare intently at….something. If you look very, very closely, you may even see the dog’s nostrils flaring out slightly.

This is classical canine pointing in a nutshell.   

The size of the dog, the length of the tail, the amount of fur, the dog’s age, how well pointing has been trained and reinforced – all of these details and more can and will impact how close your dog’s pointing behavior comes to the classical AKC stance. 

While this is the “classic” pose, it’s almost a caricature.  Today it’s not common to train or reinforce the dog lifting of the front paw.  A modern stylish point in the bird dog world would be all four paws on the ground, tail high, and pure intensity in the dog’s posture as if its whole body is trying to channel your eyes to where that bird is hidden.

Why Do Hunting Dogs Point?

Now, when a hunting dog points, and even more specifically, when a hunting dog that is a pointer breed points, there is a more deliberate reason for this behavior.

As discussed earlier the dog has been genetically bred to naturally exhibit this behavior in response to the smell of prey.  A hunting dog may point in response to a sight or a scent.  Young puppies often sight point, or point based on something they see.  Later as the dog matures and learns their nose, they will point based on smell predominately.  Dogs’ noses are extra keen, probably because the area of the canine brain that controls scent is enormous compared to the same area in the brains of their people. A dog’s nose is also much keener than the average dog’s eyesight.

Recent research shows that everything about the canine nose, from its chronic cold, wet state to the interior structure to where the olfactory membrane and receptor cells are placed is designed to make a dog’s life scent-centric.

In other words, the average dog lives to sniff. So, a pointing dog’s nose will likely queue them into the presence of game far before they see it.  Therefore the dog is more likely to point when they detect a smell prey than seeing the prey.

While any dog may point when an interesting sight or smell is noticed, a hunting dog will do this more reliably because both the genetics and the training the dog has received has strongly reinforced this behavior.

This is also why, if you want to hunt with your dog, it can help to choose a hunting dog that has been specifically trained to point.

What Breeds of Dogs Point?

Do only certain dog breeds point? Or can all dogs learn to point even if they do not hail from a hunting breed line?

This is a great question!

While there are certain breeds that have been bred and trained down through the centuries to point with ease, and typically these dogs are informally known as “hunting dog breeds,” any dog can point.

To that point, there are many dog owners who have shared anecdotal evidence that their pampered couch-potato pooch who has never hunted a day in their lives will point with the right provocation (here, think squirrel, cat, lizards, birds, even anything that moves).

The hunting dog breeds each come from a purebred lineage that has been deliberately bred and crossbred to produce dogs with characteristics useful to their human hunting partners. 

While any dog may have the facility to point, pointing dog breeds were built for it.  If you are picking a hunting partner and are interested in one that points, you increase your odds of having a strong pointing instinct by picking a pup from an established pointing dog breed and specifically a breeder who breeds dogs to hunt.

The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) has a great breed list found here.  All the dogs in this list are pointing dogs.  I also highly recommend this organization if you are new to hunting and hunting dogs and want help learning about breeds, dogs, training and hunting with dogs.

Hunting dog breeds that point include these:

  • Blue Picardy Spaniel
  • Bracco Italiano
  • Braque d’Auvergne 
  • Braque du Bourbonnais
  • Braque Francais
  • Brittany
  • Cesky Fousek
  • Drentsche Patrijshond
  • English Setter
  • French Spaniel
  • German Longhair
  • German Shorthaired Pointer
  • German Wirehaired Pointer
  • Gordon Setter
  • Irish Red and White Setter
  • Irish Setter
  • Large Munsterlander
  • Perdiguero de Burgos
  • Picardy Spaniel
  • Pointer
  • Portuguese Pointer
  • Pudelpointer
  • Slovakian Wirehaired Pointer
  • Small Musterlander
  • Spinone
  • Stichelhaar
  • Vizsla
  • Weimaraner
  • Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
  • Wirehaired Vizla

Can a Dog Be a Hunting Dog and Not a Pointing Dog?

This is an important question to ask, especially if you are keen to acquire a pointing dog that you can hunt with.

Yes, you can have a hunting dog that is not a pointing dog.  Pointing dogs belong to a larger class of dogs known as hunting dogs. The other two sub-classes within this class include retrieving dogs and flushing dogs.

Typically dogs in the flushing and retrieving classes are not pointing dogs. 

Flushing Breeds: Examples of flushing dogs include many of the spaniels: Cocker spaniels, Boykin Spaniels, Clumber Spaniels.  These dogs make great hunting dogs but were not bred to reinforce the pointing instinct.  So instead of stopping when they smell a bird they charge in and flush or force the bird to fly.  This works great but the hunter must stay close to the dog so that when the dog flushes the bird the hunter is within range to make the shot. 

Retrieving Breeds: Examples of retrieving dogs include Labradors and Golden Retrievers.  These dogs also make great hunting dogs.  Typically, retrieving dogs are used by hunters for just that retrieving or finding and bringing back to the hunter game after it has been shot.  Retrievers can be used to find game before the shot and function like flushing dogs.  They pressure birds to fly vs pointers who stand still and let the hunter walk in and provide the pressure that causes that birds to fly.

Versatile Breeds: Versatile breeds are not acknowledged by AKC as such, but in the hunting dog world they demand their own category.  Generally, these dogs can hunt anything.  All breeds in this category naturally point.  But they also retrieve and track.  Examples of versatile breeds include German Shorthaired Pointer, German Wirehaired Pointer, and Pudelpointers.   

Can a Dog Be Trained to Point?

If your goal is to hunt with a dog, and you like the style of hunting that uses pointers.  Picking a dog from an established pointing breed will be your best chance at getting a dog with a strong pointing instinct, which means the dog will naturally point and you will only have to use training to polish on already established behavior instead of spending time trying to train pointing to a dog that might not have much affinity for it.

That said, earlier here we mentioned that many pet dogs have been observed by their owners to point in some fashion, even if they are mixed breed or have no relation to hunting dog breeds by lineage.

While the pointing behavior may be strongly bred into some dog breeds more than others, it is quite likely that pointing is in the general skillset of canines in general.

This explains why many dogs will take on a version of the pointing stance when they see something interesting and attention-worthy. It may be that that dog was crossed with a pointing breed many generations ago or simply that your dog is being a dog!

And here, if you do want to hunt with your dog or you want to compete in sight or scent work competitions but your dog is not a pointing breed, there is good news. You can absolutely train your dog to do this behavior.

The best way to train any dog to do anything is with the use of what dog trainers call positive reinforcement. The old school method of training dogs often made use of negative or punishment-based training methods.

But as more research reveals just how smart and capable canines are, the use of negative reinforcement-based dog training methods is decreasing.

Dogs, like their people, will respond to both types of training. But just like you, your dog will likely learn more quickly and experience far less stress when trained with love, praise, treats, pats, playtime and other bond-building reinforcements.

What Is the Difference Between Sight Pointing and Pointing Based on Smell?

As you now know, there are two main types of pointing behaviors: pointing triggered by sight and pointing triggered by scent.

Is there a difference between the two? The answer is yes and no, depending on whether you are answering from the perspective of the dog or from the perspective of the human hunter.

Instinctually, dogs are much more likely to respond to their environments through scent rather than sight. But dogs will instinctively point to both sight and scent as puppies.

With hunting dogs, pointing based on smell is prized over sight pointing.  A dog that needs to see its prey in order to point will most likely be useless to the hunter.  Birds are naturally camouflage and often hide in heavy cover, by the time the dog sees the bird, it’s likely the bird will be flushing (flying from their hiding place).  It’s not very practical for a dog to only point flying birds, at that point the hunter knows where the bird is because he or she can see it too.  For that reason, sight pointing is often discouraged, while sent pointing is nurtured and strengthened through training.

Why Do Some Dogs Raise Their Paw When They Point?

The dog raising their paw is likely caused by the dog being cautious, beginning to take its next step toward the bird but not wanting the bird to flush (fly away) the dog pausing mid-step with their foot in the air.  This posture is likely reinforced in our brains more because it became an iconic image of a pointing dog than its prevalence in the field.  It is more likely that a dog points with all four feet planted on the ground. 

The raised paw is likely to occur where a dog is allowed to creep in on birds to point.  Some train dogs to point and stay staunch at the first whiff of a bird’s sent. This can lead to some dramatic points as the dog will go from a full run to a dead stop point in a heartbeat.  While showy its not often practical.  Some game birds are notorious runners, pheasants being the biggest offender, instead of taking to the air to escape predators they simply run.  With a pointing dog not familiar with this running tactic or those taught to point the faintest whiff and never move, the dog will often be pointing a place where the bird used to be and by the time the hunter approaches the bird has run away leaving the hunter stopping around trying to flush a bird that is now in the next county.  Pointing dogs that are wise to the running tactic and allowed to move with a moving bird will use their amazing noise to judge if the bird is moving and if so how far away they are.  The dog will then learn to judge the distance where they can get close enough that the bird doesn’t feel like it should run in this situation every foot placement counts so you will often find the dog on point with a leg up cautious of its next step.

How Far Away Does the Dog Point from a Bird?

This varies by dog, the bird and by the conditions.  If there is a lot of bird sent and a strong breeze a pointing dog can point a bird from 200 yards or more.  This is not a very practical way to hunt as the hunter has no idea the birds are that far away and likely spends a good amount of time tromping around in front of the dog trying to locate the birds.  In this situation, the hunter may ask the dog to relocate, or move up and closer to the birds and go on point again.

Typically, the distance between the dog and the bird when on point is a product of training and they past scenarios the dog has been in.  Left to their own devices and with enough exposure and positive reinforcement a dog will learn how much distance it needs to give each bird species in each hunting condition.  For example, a dog may learn for a woodcock early season 3 feet is enough room as the woodcock’s defiance mechanism is to stay perfectly still even as the dog gets within a few feet.  However, the dog will also learn Hungarian partridge won’t afford that same close distance and the dog will have the most success pointing these birds from a great distance as they are often in groups and are not likely to run out from under a point.

How the dog learns is to judge the distance often by making mistakes.  Getting too close and having the bird fly off without the reward of having the bird shot by the hunter.  The more repetitions of this, the dog getting to close, the bird flying off, the more the dog learns the correct distance the bird can be given before it feels too pressured and takes to the air.

Pointing Terminology

Bumping – when a dog gets to close to a bird and causes it to flush.  With pointing dogs, the hunter should be flushing the bird.  Any bird that flushes because of the dog is considered a bump.

Circling – you will see a dog circle for two reasons.  One would be to catch the wind correctly.  For example, if you are walking with the wind at your back the dog can’t smell anything in front of him. So he may run far out and work back toward you to have the wind in his face.  If your dog does this smile because you have a better than average hunting dog.  The second reasons you see a dog circle would be to pin a running bird.  Pinning is a dog putting enough pressure on a running bird to stop it from running.  The best pheasant hunting pointing dogs will smell a running bird, make a circle, get ahead of the running bird and work back toward the hunter to pin the bird between the hunter and the dog to keep it from running.  Again, if you see your dog doing this smile you have a one in a million pointing dog.

Blinking – occurs when a dog smells a bird knows it’s there but does not point it.  Blinking is an unwanted behavior.  It is often caused by the dog associating the smell of a bird with an unwanted experience.  For example, if the dog was not properly conditioned to gunfire and associates the load scary noise of a gun going off with the smell of a bird, the dog might blink the bird or avoid it so that it does not have to be scared by the guns going off.

Flagging – this is a term for a dog pointing without intensity.  It gets its name from a dog’s tail wagging like a flag while the dog is on point.  This is another unwanted behavior.  A dog on point should be totally unmoving. 

Unproductive Pointing – this is a term for a dog pointing an area that does not produce a bird.  Young dogs will often have unproductive points.  They might be pointing the smell of a mouse or pointing the smell of a bird that has left the area.  This is another unwanted behavior.  As the dog gets more exposure to birds and hunting unproductive points usually decrease.

We hope you have enjoyed learning more about why do hunting dogs point, what the classical stance looks like, which breeds have been developed to point and the differences in pointing behaviors.

Scott Phelan

I came from a non-hunting family, in my teens I got interested in hunting and taught myself to hunt. I got my first hunting dog after college and became obsessed with all things hunting dog and hunting dog training. I have spent the last 10 years training and hunting with dogs. My dogs and I have hunted quail, chukar, huns, pheasants, grouse, woodcock, ducks, and geese all over the USA and Canada. Hunting dogs are my passion.

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