Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A treatise on the Pointing Ryan Frame

Ryan Frame works with Dave Hughes. They train and handle the Grouse Ridge Setters, amongst others, and the reputation and records of these men in Cover Dog trials speaks for itself..

Point: Thoughts On The Pointing Instinct

By: Ryan Frame
E. B. White, the brilliant creator of Charlotte’s Web, once wrote an essay trying to analyze ‘humor,’ commenting as a warning. “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” I suppose that an analysis of the pointing instinct might run the same risk. I am well aware that there are many who can see enjoy and appreciate a dog pointing and never care to know why. It my hope, however, to dissect and analyze in such a way as to enhance the appreciation of the point rather than detract from it.

The twentieth century saw a proliferation of breeds that distinguish themselves by the peculiar characteristic which is the subject of this essay. There are pointers, French Pointers, Irish Setters, English Setters, Gordon Setters, Brittanys, Munsterlanders (both large and small), Spinones, German Shorthairs, German Wirehairs, Griffons, Weimeraners, vizslas, pudelpointers, and about ten other breeds classified as ‘pointing dogs.’ These breeds are generally defined as breeds who ‘freeze’ in the close proximity of game. Yet little can be said with absolute certainty on the matter of pointing breeds because there are specimens within each breed that do not point, and now that there are pointing Labs, we know that there are non-pointing breeds that do point.

Several years ago, in fact, an AKC officianado used this uncertainty to, in a major sporting magazine, make the case that because pointing dogs often retrieve, and retrieving dogs flush, that we cannot define a dog at all but what it does. Instead, the dog has to be defined by (surprise)… its looks. Then the writer insisted that proper looks were defined by the AKC standards. It was a clever argument when you think about it, though it fails to hold water in the final analysis. For by the same reasoning , if doctor also does some gardening, you can no longer call him a doctor based upon what he does, but instead, he must look like some agreed upon notion of what the ideal doctor should look like.

It has been my observation that a dog, locked up in an intense point, in any variety of attitudes, is inherently fascinating to many people. Many of us have had the distinct pleasure of showing off our pointing dog to someone who has never seen one in real life before. I try never to miss such an exhibition. The looks on the faces of these new people reveal their amazement. No doubt, that same amazement was a big part what lured many of us into owning, hunting and trialing pointing dogs in the first place. And that sight of a dog in magnificent pose is a big part of what still inspires long -time pointing dog fans who, though they have seen thousands of point, seem never to tire of seeing another.

That there are more pointing breeds than flushing and retrieving breeds combined is an indication of the popularity of the point. Pointing Labradors are hailed as a great innovation. No one, however, is trying to develop close working pointing breeds and teaching them to flush instead of point. That a flushing pointer is a step backwards, is indicative of the high standing of the pointing dog.

The nature of the point results in another advantage that the pointing dog enjoys over most working dogs in that his moment of glory can be captured on camera film or in a painting. ‘Flushing’ and ‘retrieving’ are sequences of actions and while a ‘snapshot’ captures a segment of such a sequence, and can be interesting as such, the picture is not complete. The point, by contrast, because it is completely motionless, can be rendered in its essence on on photo paper or canvas.

Moreover, while flushing dog fans would certainly prefer a portrait of a dog performing what defines him: flushing, most can appreciate a portrait of photo of the defining act of pointing dog. The reverse tends not to be true , however, for the mere sight of a dog flushing game, a major violation for pointing dogs, causes the pointing dog fan to wince as natural reaction. He may catch himself and remind himself that he looking at a flushing dog and that therefore putting birds in the air is appropriate, but he never quite gets over it.

Of course, this fascination for the point has its drawbacks too. There are many who believe that a dog pointing is the entirety of his work and that because he points he is therefore of the same quality as any other pointing dog. In other words, a dog doesn’t have to be much of a dog, but if he points, someone will be happy with him.

Just considering English setters we have those who hunt over 100+ pound lopers and those who prefer 30 pound rockets. Some fancy a dog that stays within shotgun range while others like a dog who, if they can see it, it’s too short ranging. Some are steady to wing and shot, some to shot, others to wing, some to neither. Some retrieve, some don’t. You just do not see this much variation among, say, Springer spaniels. Moreover, every pointing breed has a different look and a different way. Pointing dog breeds run the gamut of shape size, color, temperament, and coat. But they all point.

Most experts agree that pointing is a variation of stalking and is the “pause before the pounce.” One expert called it “a pause for the purpose of devising a strategem.” The ‘strategem’ is to try to pin point how far, and in what direction to pounce. William F. Brown, author and longtime editor of The American Field, noted one misconception that was held about pointing at one time when he wrote in 1942, “Many writers have described the statuesque point of the bird dog as a cataleptic condition which transpires when he encounters the scent of game and that it is involuntary and akin to mesmeric influence.” Brown was noting this viewpoint in order to discredit it, but “cataleptic condition” at least hints at what a point looked like in that era: intense and motionless.

Many experts have tried to discover the first pointing dog. Enos Phillips wrote some years ago of his belief that pointers were portrayed in etchings from ancient Egypt. Henry P. Davis, in his Training Your Own Bird Dog, cited Xenophon, friend of Socrates who wrote around 400 B. C., “Some again go a long way around in the first instance and anticipating the trail in their circuit before they reach it, pass the hare by, and when they do sight the hare in advance, tremble, and do not proceed until they see him make a move.” Experts will continue try to figure out which is the oldest pointing dog, but I have seen enough wolves point in various documentaries to know the answer.

Many trainers have noted that a pup’s success at pouncing and actually catching the prey, such as can easily happen with poor flying, usually pen-reared birds, often results in a pup that either will no longer point or does not hold his points long enough. Old time trainers allowed a pup to chase wild birds until the pup convinced himself that he could not catch them on his own. One of the reasons that wolves and wild dogs are pack animals is that they are not all that effective as hunters individually, and this tends to be true of dogs as well. These old timers maintained that a dog would never be reliable so long as he still held the notion that he could bag prey by his own efforts. Chasing enough birds without being able to catch was said to be the secret, for a dog convinced by experience that chasing was fruitless, was thought to be the most reliable, steady, pointing dog. The moment where the dog ‘gave in’ was carefully watched for. Perhaps the most eloquent description of the process came from an early 20th century trainer named C. H. Babcock: “… giving the puppy a good time with plenty of opportunities on game with no cares or worries for the dog or for me, yet asking him that question daily, and some fine morning when the weather’s cool, the dew upon the grass, the dog bending every energy to find his game, he will answer and I’ll know he’s telling the truth. As plainly as human speech could tell it, I’ll know that he has sowed his wild oats, shed his puppy ways and is ready for his mission in life.”

Bevy training on quail is thought to be able to facilitate the process of bringing a dog to point. The mingling scent of a lot birds in the vicinity makes it difficult for a dog to pin point any one accurately. Frequently, as the pup is zeroing in on the location of one, the brush will twitch elsewhere, drawing his attention, or he will see one scooting away on the ground and charge in. Many times, the first one he sees in the air is not the one he is trying to locate. In a variety of ways, therefore , coveys tend shake a dog’s confidence that he can locate and catch a bird and thus the instinct to point is brought to the fore. The dog’s realization that he is not usually succesful on his own means that he needs help. An element of the point, then, becomes a dog waiting motionlessly for help from the rest of the pack, the rest of the pack being the handler with the shotgun, and to not risk flushing the game by any further movement. It is no big secret that most any dog that still retains some hunting instinct from its wolf ancestry can point. The recent pointing Lab phenomenon is therefore neither a surprise nor an innovation. I also recall reading an article in flushing dog column where instructions were given on what to do about the Springers or cockers that was having the ‘problem’ of having the dog hesitate while attempting to locate and flush the bird.

Pointing dog fans sometimes find it troubling to realize that other breeds of dogs point, but it is a fact also that other species of animals point. Not long ago I witnessed a Public TV documentary on pumas. I saw a number of hunting sequences where these big cats would ‘lock up’ while stalking. The intensity of the puma’s what could be called a ‘sight point’ was unmistakable and familiar. Perhaps the most unusual ‘pointer’ was a pig from New Forest in the U. K. who lived in the 1830’s and belonged to a gamekeeper named Robert Toomer. According to an account of the pig, “Toomer had the idea of training her to range and point partridges and rabbits. She made rapid progress and some weeks afterwards she would go and retrieve partridges that had been wounded just the same as any pointer or setter would do, or even better because of her greater scenting powers.”

It is this realization that pointing is not all that uncommon that has led many to conclude that mere pointing is not all that special, and therefore what distinguished the pointing dog his ‘how’ he points. So there are many who insist upon intensity and style as important factors. Alfred Hochwalt was a great proponent of ‘character’ on point, insisting that while many dog’s can point but some can point in such a way as to make a memorable impression. Other people believe that while pointing is central to what a pointing dog should do, it other aspects of a dog’s performance tht truly make him stand out from the crowd. In the preface to the second edition of his classic study on the pointer around the turn of the last century, William Awrkright, after mentioning the New Forest pig , wrote of a fox terrier that he broke to stand partridges. “The unflagging range of the Pointer where there may be no game,” he noted, “his statuesque attitude when on point, the presentation of his nostrils to the wind while galloping across it - all seem to me to separate him from other dogs far more widely than actual pointing, because they are qualities impossible to teach, the development of centuries of careful breeding.” Others might add ‘bird-finding,’ ‘intelligent hunting application,’ and ‘independence’ to Arkwright’s list.

Field trialers are on the forefront of the group that believes that a pointing needs a lot more than the ability to point to be worthy of passing on his genes. To some gun hunters, field trials are crazy because to the trialer bird finds and point, tehough a dog may demonstrate each in abundance, are not sufficient of themselves, and other qualities need to be present Trialers generally insist upon good style on point and lots of intensity, and that a dog must work the ground properly and display plenty of speed, bird sense and stamina.

Breeding dogs that point, to other dogs that point, has undoubtedly accentuated and magnified the quality. The pointing pig is an almost unheard of oddity and while other dogs may point, in pointing dogs the quality has been much intensified and refined through selective breeding. Most of us tend to think that the pointing instinct has a gene or two assigned specifically to it. But this may not be true. Scientists are only beginning to understand and identify genes in dogs and what they do. Most behaviors result from the interactions of a number of genes and are influenced by a number of environmental factors as well.

The extent to which genes influence behavior in dogs is, in iself, an interesting topic. Several years back Robert Wehle wrote a piece which contained a fascinating account of a dog who, while roading for exersize, was harnessed sled-dog style next to a dog called Elhew Mr. Magoo. Whenever they stopped to allow the dogs a break, this female pointer would rest by throwing her front legs over Magoo’s back and leaning on him thus, sort of half-laying across him. The behavior was neither taught nor encouraged. Over the many years of roading dogs prior to this female, Mr. Wehle had never seen a dog exhibit this peculiar mannerism. The article showed a picture of her dog resting contentedly over Magoo’s back. Next to the photo was a similar one of another dog resting over Magoo’s back in the exact same manner. The second dog was a daughter of the first. Presumably something in the genetics had an influence over this even obscure behavior.

I have seen it too. The pointer champion Van Mac would constantly play with his feed bowl, pitching it up and down, carrying it around, bouncing it around with his feet, and other such antics. I have seen a dog in Michigan do the same exact antics with her feed bowl, she, a direct daughter. The setter champion Grouse Ridge Reroy had a peculiar howl-like way of greeting you. He would curl up his lips when he saw you and, “wooooooo.” I have seen quite a number of his pups do the same thing. I have seen even more minute gestures passed on from generation to generation.

The answers to many of our questions about pointing and specific genetic markers are many years away from being answered if such questions are answerable at all. It is my suspicion that whole host of genes and alleles contribute to pointing and some of them have to do with personality. It seems to me, with no science to back me up here, that pointing is related to a love of hunting and a great desire to pursue and catch quarry, but is also related to a personality with a lot of built in caution. He is dog who loves to hunt but doubts his ability to catch the game, and so he remains locked in indecision - Sure smells good. It’s gotta be riiiight there. Yes … get ready. Get those muscles tense and ready to explode. NO! No .. it’s not right there. As soon as I move it will be gone. Did that wind shift? Or did the bird shift? Sure smells sweet. I can do it. No I can’t. It won’t be where I pounce. Sure smells good. Better wait and think about this some more. Gotta be absolutely sure before I do anything. Better wait.

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