Picture this: you’re out with your hunting dog when, out of nowhere, it completely freezes, almost like a robot, and raises its front paw as if pointing at something in the distance or concentrating really hard.
Sounds familiar huh? Most hunting dog owners, whether they regularly go on hunting trips or not, often wonder why their hunting canines exhibit such behavior.
Today, I’ll be explaining why hunting dogs raise or point their paws. So, if you want to find out your hunting dog’s motive, then you’re in for a treat! (Pun totally intended)
Why do hunting dogs raise their front paw? When a hunting dog raises its front paw, in an act is typically referred to as ‘pointing’. This action is a long time instinct for such dogs, rooted in their very own DNA. The lifting of the paw is likely to be an act of caution as the dog advances towards the location of the bird. The dog doesn’t want the bird to flush (aka fly away), so before taking a step forward, they’ll pause their paw mid-step while still in the air.
Hunting dogs that exhibited a natural ability to freeze and stand still in response to spotting or smelling prey were rather valuable back in the day, as they helped their owners hunt game and secure food on the table for their families.
Over the years, hunting dogs have been deliberately bred and trained with an emphasis on the pointing trait. This was done by selectively breeding dogs that use pointing behavior to alert their owners about a bird or small game being close by. And so, generations of hunting dogs to this day have this instinct embedded deep into their genetics.
For the hunting dog to successfully track prey, they need to pinpoint their possible location by picking up their scent. Once the dog catches scent the game they will point. Dogs will even stop and point mid-step, leaving a raised front paw.
Now that you have a basic idea of the reasons behind this fascinating behavior, it’s time we dive deeper into the topic for a more extensive answer. Do all hunting dogs point? Can you train non-hunting dog breeds to point? How can you recognize when your dog is pointing? We’ll be exploring all this and more in the following article.
What’s a Pointing Stance for Hunting Dogs?
As we already mentioned, when a hunting dog raises their front paw, it’s most probably associated with a behavioral pattern referred to as pointing. If you’re a new owner to a hunting dog or just started to go on hunting trips with your dog, you may not be able to actually tell when your dog is raising their front paw to point.
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the standard posture that’s considered “classical point” stance goes like this:
The dog stands completely still as if their body suddenly freezes. They point their muzzle straight ahead, simultaneously raising one of their front paws off the ground. The dog also lifts its tail up and tops the posture with an intense stare that’s directed at, well, something in the distance.
If you look closely at the dog, you may be able to notice their nostrils flaring out a bit. This sums up the classical pointing posture.
If your hunting dog shows a similar stance while you’re hunting outside, especially in the absence of external circumstances, then they’re probably trying to tell you the location of a nearby game.
Of course, not all hunting dogs will demonstrate the exact same posture, just like not all humans stand the same way or talk with the same accent.
The degree of similarity between the pointing behavior of your hunting dog and the classical stance described by the AKC depends on several factors that include the size of the dog, how old the dog is, the length of their tail, the amount of fur on their bodies, as well as the level of pointing training they have received.
It’s also worth mentioning that it’s not very common nowadays to train or encourage hunting dogs to raise their front paw.
Many dog owners and trainers go for a modern adaptation of the classical pointing posture where the dog would stand on all four paws (no paws are raised above the ground) with their tail up high. The intensity of the dog’s stance is what tips you off towards the direction where the game is hiding and you should be looking.
Why do Hunting Dogs Raise their Front Paw to Point?
As we mentioned above, hunting dogs point in response to the presence of prey nearby. It’s a behavior that aims to alert owners of small game, which was crucial to provide food back in the day. Consequently, dogs have been genetically bred over time to naturally demonstrate pointing when they pick up the smell of prey.
Such dogs are called pointer breeds. If your hunting dog is a pointer breed, then they may raise their front paw to point in response to a scent or a sight.
As puppies, pointing is almost always based on seeing something interesting. Later on, as the dog gets older and their senses mature, they’ll learn to use their noses and point mainly based on smell.
This brings about the question; why raise the front paw to point? Why use paws in the first place?
Well, when a hunting dog picks up the scent of a bird or spots on in the distance, they tend to act more carefully so as not to let the bird know they’re close. The lifting of the paw, in this case, is likely to be an act of caution as the dog advances towards the location of the bird. The dog doesn’t want the bird to flush (aka fly away), so before taking a step forward, they’ll pause their paw mid-step while still in the air.
This results in the iconic pointing posture with a raised foot, which is probably more reinforced in our heads than in real life where the chance is higher for hunting dogs to point on all four paws.
So, if a hunting dog is allowed to creep in on prey, it’s likely to exhibit the raised paw stance. However, some owners train their dogs to point and hold their ground once they catch a whiff of the prey’s smell. While this may look good for the show, it’s often more impractical than not. Here’s why:
Some types of game birds are well-known for being runners, such as pheasants, which means they simply escape by running instead of flying into their air. If a hunting dog is trained to point the faintest smell and never move or if a pointing dog isn’t familiar with such running tricks, the dog will end up pointing out a location where the bird once was but it’ll be long gone by the time the hunter reaches that place.
On the other hand, well-trained hunting dogs that are aware of the running tactics and are allowed to move with their prey will be able to keep track of the birds’ scents. As a result, they’ll do a better job judging whether or not the bird is moving and how far they are if that’s the case.
By now, you may be wondering if there are other motives why a hunting dog raises their front paw other than primarily being a hunting behavior or a breed trait. Well, you could be onto something! Here are a few possible reasons your hunting dog may lift their front foot:
- Curiosity – while it’s true that hunting dogs may raise their front paws when they pick up a prey’s scent, there’s a wide array of smells out there that can also stimulate their olfactory sense.
You see, a dog’s sense of smell is highly sophisticated (way more than us humans), which means they can easily pick up the trail of things that pique their instincts and raise their front feet in response. It may be the smell of a distant slice of pizza or the scent of the urine of a female dog in heat.
You can also see your dog raising their front paw if there are other dogs around as they may be considered rivals. In this case, the lift of the leg is to be prepared – a state of “on-guard” or so to speak.
- Submission or distress – this is likely to happen when you have two or more dogs as part of the same family. It doesn’t matter if they’re adopted or related by birth, an order must be established.
This means that the dogs will try to assert dominance with one another. The way they do it can get complicated, but most of the time the dogs will play games to create the chain of command. Once one dog asserts dominance, the submissive dog may raise a front leg and lie on their back signifying that the game is over.
It may also be a sign that the dog is frightened or uncomfortable. You need to be observant of the other dog in such a case as they can be unresponsive or even aggressive. This behavior should be corrected.
- Being playful – when a hunting dog raises their front paw, it doesn’t have to be all business. Your dog may be simply inviting you to play with them!
It’s typically followed another posture that dogs commonly assume to initiate a playing session, which is when the dog places both front legs on the ground, lowers their head down, and points their tail up. The “let’s play” posture isn’t exclusive to humans, but dogs may also do it with other dogs or animals that they feel safe around.
Sometimes if a dog isn’t really sure whether or not they want to play, they’ll settle for raising one front paw and a tilt of the head to let you know they’re thinking about it. It’s pretty much how your dog expresses its curiosity towards you.
- Injury – one of the unfortunate reasons why your hunting dog may be raising their front paw is because of an injury.
If your dog has a thorn in their paw, muscle or ligament damage, a broken bone, or any other sort of injury on their front leg, they’ll lift it off the ground to protect it. That way, they won’t step on it and feel pain.
You can tell if your hunting dog is injured if they keep their leg raised when there’s no need for it. Other signs such as whining or bleeding can alert you to the situation. In such a case, carry your pet off their feet and pay an urgent visit to your vet.
Do All Hunting Dogs Raise their Front Paw to Point?
This is actually a great question! It’s especially important if you’re planning to get a pointing dog that you can hunt with.
So here it goes: No, not all hunting dogs are pointing dogs, but all pointing dogs are hunting dogs. In other words, pointing dogs are classified under a large category of dogs known as hunting dogs. Two other groups belong to the hunting dogs class, namely the flushing class and the retrieving class.
- Flushing dogs – these dogs are terrific hunting dogs but they weren’t bred or trained to demonstrate the pointing behavior.
When they pick up the scent of prey, flushing dogs charge in and ‘flush’ or force the bird to fly. At the same time, the hunter should be ready to make the shot. Flushing dog breeds include Clumber Spaniels and Cocker Spaniels.
- Retrieving dogs – as you can probably tell by the name, these dogs will retrieve or find and bring back the game to the hunter after it has been shot.
They also make excellent hunting dogs since you can use them to find and flush game before you make a shot. Examples of retrieving dog breeds include Golden Retrievers (duh) and Labradors.
As for hunting dogs that are pointer breeds, they come from a purebred lineage that has been purposefully bred to produce dogs that naturally exhibit pointing behavior as an instinct.
While some non-hunting dog breeds may have the potential to raise their front paw and point (more on this later!), established pointing dog breeds specifically built for this purpose. So, if you’re looking for a hunting partner and you’re interested in pointing dogs, your best chance is to pick a pup from a recognized pointing breed, and from a breeder who breeds hunting dogs to be exact.
The following breeds are hunting dogs that are pointing dogs as well. You’ll find them on the recognized list of The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) as well as the AKC.
- Blue Picardy Spaniel
- Bracco Italiano
- Braque d’Auvergne
- Braque du Bourbonnais
- Braque Francais
- Cesky Fousek
- Drentsche Patrijshond
- English Setter
- French Spaniel
- German Longhair
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- German Wirehaired Pointer
- Gordon Setter
- Irish Red & White Setter
- Irish Setter
- Large Munsterlander
- Perdiguero de Burgos
- Picardy Spaniel
- Portuguese Pointer
- Slovakian Wirehaired Pointer
- Small Munsterlander
- Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
- Wirehaired Vizsla
Can You Train a Non-hunting Dog to Point?
Before answering this question, it’s important to point out (pun intended) that if you want to hunt with a dog and you’re into the style of using pointers for hunting, then your best bet is to get a dog from an established pointing breed since they demonstrate a strong instinct towards pointing behavior.
This means they’ll only require training to polish their existing natural skills, instead of spending effort and time trying to build it up from scratch in a dog that may not have a high affinity for it.
That being said, it’s quite probable that pointing is part of the general skills that run in the canine family as a whole. This means that while pointing is a hardwired behavior in the genetics of pointing breeds, you may still find dogs that point using their front paws (in a wide range of styles), despite being a mixed breed or even without a lineage relation to hunting dog breeds.
This can pretty much explain why many dogs show different versions of pointing when they come across something that piques their interest.
This is where a professional dog trainer can work with your dog to unlock the full potential of their pointing skills. The trainer should only use positive reinforcement methods to achieve the best results.
Hopefully, this article was able to help you better understand why hunting dogs raise their front paw. Now, you should be able to recognize if you got a pointer hunting dog, or where to look if you’re interested in one.
Remember, if your hunting dog lifts their front paw during pointing, let them be! Don’t try to discourage the behavior. It’s a good thing that means you got an incredible hunting partner.