The English Pointer, or simply “Pointer”, as it is known in the USA, has been used since the early 17th century as a hunting dog. The breed adopts the characteristic “pointing” stance, for which it is named, upon catching the scent of its quarry. Its original purpose was to spring game from the undergrowth to allow hunters or other hounds to make the kill, but nowadays, the breed is most commonly kept as a biddable and intelligent family pet.
Renowned within the hunting community for their ability to tirelessly work all day in the field, Pointers need a good deal of exercise, and are not suitable for apartment or city living. They are large, tall dogs, and need a secure, fenced garden if they are to be left unattended for any length of time. If under-stimulated, Pointers are prone to boredom and destructive behaviour.
The breed has a fine, short coat, meaning they need warm accommodation, but tend to be tolerant of hot temperatures. They are incredibly affectionate dogs, and should be treated as family members, with as much human contact as possible. Having been developed to be extremely responsive to commands, most Pointers are relatively easy to train, and will enjoy learning complex games and commands. The breed is not prone to many significant health problems, and has a life expectancy in the range of 12–15 years.
About & History
Despite its name, it is likely the English Pointer actually originated on the Continent during the 1600s, before arriving in Britain shortly after. It was widely used by Spanish and Portuguese huntsmen both to alert hunters and their companion animals to the scent of their prey, but also to raise game from the undergrowth, thus allowing greyhounds and other breeds to move in for the kill.
The early Pointers appear to have been much heavier dogs, and although they had been selected for their strong tendency to “point”, the breed required further refinement on its arrival to the UK to produce the athletic, lean build seen in the modern breed. Records suggest that the continental Pointers were crossed with Bloodhounds, Foxhounds, Greyhounds, and Setters in order to produce the qualities of stamina and sensory awareness which make the English Pointer of today an indispensable hunting companion.
From the early 20th century, English Pointers began to be exported in considerable numbers, largely replacing the less-developed bloodlines still found throughout Europe at the time. Pointers have been shown in the UK since 1877, and the breed was one of the first to be recognised by the American Kennel Club upon its founding in 1884. Pointers are held in very high regard in the Southern United States, being kept in great numbers, and are known colloquially as “bird-dogs”.
Apart from physical characteristics, the Pointer’s characteristic “pointing” stance is what immediately springs to mind when considering the breed’s appearance. Upon picking up a scent of interest, whether in a back garden or ankle-deep in marshland, the Pointer will freeze, with the nose, back, and tail held in a horizontal, level line, and with one wrist cocked, facing in the direction from which the scent is travelling. Interestingly, when a group of Pointers are together, they will usually all adopt the same stance upon observing a companion do so. This is referred to as the quality of “honour” in the breed.
Physically, the English Pointer is a tall, elegant dog, lean and strong. The head is reasonably broad and well-muscled. The back of the skull ends in a noticeable occipital prominence. The ‘stop’ is pronounced, with a clear step down from the forehead to the muzzle, which is concave, and ends squarely at the nose. The lips are not tight, but nor should they droop, and the Pointer has a scissor-type bite, meaning the teeth fit snugly together, without any hint of an overbite or underbite. The ears are medium in size, with triangular tips, and are held high and close to the head. The Pointer generally has a very placid, aristocratic expression, with hazel to brown eyes.
The chest is deep, reflecting the breed’s athleticism, and while not very heavily muscled, the limbs are clearly strong, with good bone structure, and being relatively upright. When trotting or running, the Pointer appears to glide effortlessly, with a long, flowing stride. The tail is quite long and slender, and tapers from base to tip.
English Pointers have a thin, short coat, which should be glossy when in good condition. Many colours are considered acceptable, with the more common being:
- Lemon and white
- Orange and white
- Liver and white
- Black and white
- Solid lemon
- Solid orange
- Solid liver
- Solid black
Tricolour combinations are also accepted by the Kennel Clubs.
Males generally stand 63–69 cm (25–27 in) tall at the withers, and weigh 27–34 kg (59–75 lb), while females measure 61–66 cm (24–26 in) and weigh between 24 and 30 kg (53–66 lb).
Character & Temperament
English Pointers are extremely gentle, even-tempered dogs, known to be placid, and noisy but harmless guard dogs. Incredibly, it is believed that the primary reason for the introduction of Setter genes into the bloodline was to deal with a tendency towards “ferociousness” in the Pointer in the 19th century. It is hard to believe this was ever an issue, given the nature of the modern breed. Indeed, it is more likely for a Pointer to be timid and reserved rather than to show any signs of aggression towards humans or dogs. Early socialisation to people, animals, and noisy environments is important to overcome any tendency to shyness in a young Pointer. In contrast, given the opportunity to hunt, to climb, or to explore, the breed is notable for its courageousness and tenacity.
Pointers are very affectionate dogs, and enjoy close contact with their family. Most thrive if given “quality time”, with scratches and cuddles, and they may become depressed and withdrawn if deprived of love and affection. They make excellent pets for children, and most are very dependable, even if being mercilessly poked and prodded.
For obvious reasons, English Pointers can be independent and stubborn, having been bred to work ahead of their masters, and do need early training to make them biddable and obedient pets. At the same time, they are devoted to their owners, and will be easily upset by cross words or harsh treatment. They respond best to gentle coercion, rather than being forced to comply with commands. Pointers are highly intelligent and easily bored, and require a good deal of stimulation, ideally in the form of exercise.
Pointer puppies are noted for being sometimes difficult to housetrain, and although almost all will learn to be very clean when indoors, crate training may be considered as an option. Though they mature into very placid and congenial adults, as pups they can be very exuberant and clumsy, potentially making them a little difficult to live with during their “teenage” phase.
Owing to their high intellect, most English Pointers can be trained to a very high standard. They are happiest when given a task to complete, and failing the facility to take them hunting, can make excellent agility athletes. Being very alert to scents and sounds, they can be somewhat easily distracted, and constant encouragement and verbal reward is helpful in maintaining focus and attention on the handler.
Recall is a very important skill for any Pointer to learn, as they will be prone to wander, following any interesting trail that should pass their nose if allowed to exercise off-lead. Any garden in which they are to be left unattended must be very secure, as they are capable of jumping and scaling considerable heights, and again, can wander some distance.
The English Pointer is considered a generally healthy breed, coming from a background where genetic problems were unlikely to be propagated. However, the following are conditions of note seen in the breed:
- Acral Sensory Neuropathy – Thought to be due to a lack of sensation in the limbs, Pointers may be seen to self-mutilate skin on their paws, particularly around the regions of the joints.
- Cataract – Accumulations of proteins and saccharides in the lens of the eye, giving a milky-white appearance and affecting vision.
- Cerebellar Ataxia – A sex-linked genetic abnormality seen in Pointers. Affected animals have poor function of the cerebellum – the part of the brain coordinating movement – and may exhibit “goose-stepping” and exaggerated movements.
- Corneal Dystrophy – Seen as small, shallow pits in the surface of the eye. Often of no significance.
- Demodecosis – Uncontrolled proliferation of Demodex mites, normal inhabitants of the skin, causing infection and irritation. Most often seen around the face and paws.
- Entropion – Abnormal development of the eyelids in puppies, resulting in hairs rubbing on the surface of the eye, causing discomfort and discharge from the eyes.
- Epilepsy – Pointers are one of several breeds to commonly suffer from epilepsy. This is a disorder causing seizures due to abnormal, excessive discharge of neurons in the brain. Signs may be dramatic (grand mal) or more subtle (petit mal).
- Portosystemic Shunt – A condition seen in many pedigree breeds in which liver function is impaired due to the development of blood vessels with bypass normal circulation.
- Neuromuscular Atrophy – Loss of nerve supply to particular muscles resulting in pronounced muscle wastage and prominence of underlying bony structures. Commonly seen to affect the muscles of mastication (chewing).
- Pannus – Excessive immune reaction in the cornea (the clear surface of the eye), resulting in the development of a pink/red tissue film.
- Panosteitis – A cause of severe lameness in immature, growing dogs. Due to inflammation of the long bones (e.g. the humerus/femur). Lameness tends to wax and wane, and will often shift from one leg to another. Affected animals outgrow the condition by 18 months of age, but may require pain relief when experiencing flare-ups.
- Pemphigus Foliaceous – An uncommon autoimmune condition which can cause skin lesions around the nose, eyes, mouth, and genitalia.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy – A genetic condition in which vision is progressively lost due to death of neurons in the retina of the eyes.
- Protein-losing Enteropathy – A failure to absorb nutrients, and to prevent nutrient loss, from the gut. Severe diarrhoea is usually a feature, as is marked weight loss. Treatment may involve feeding a hypoallergenic diet, as well as high doses of corticosteroids and other medications.
- Umbilical Hernia – Seen in puppies due to failure of the umbilicus to adequately seal after birth. Can be very variable in size – most are of little relevance, but some larger hernias will need to be repaired.
- van Willebrand’s Disease – Some Pointers may exhibit a tendency to bleed excessively from minor wounds due to poor platelet function and clot formation.
Exercise and Activity Levels
The English Pointer has been bred for prolonged, vigorous activity, and exercise is an integral part of keeping the breed happy and healthy. Most require a minimum of 90–120 minutes of lead walking per day, but will gladly take more. Off-the-lead activities are a great idea, but only for dogs well-trained in recall. Other activities, such as agility training and hiking, are ideal for this breed.
With adequate exercise, they make very pleasant companions – being happy to spend most of their time lounging around and relaxing. However, a Pointer that is bored or insufficiently exercised will wreak havoc on a home or garden. Much like a child that has been confined to the house during a period of bad weather, Pointers have the potential to be destructive and ill-behaved. This is not a breed for couch potatoes!
Grooming requirements are pretty minimal for the English Pointer. Although they will shed a reasonable amount, twice-weekly brushing is sufficient for most dogs. If brushing is followed by wiping down with a damp cloth, the fine, light coat will usually stay glossy and odour-free. Bathing should not be needed very often, and is detrimental to the health of the coat if done too frequently.
Brushing teeth and clipping nails are good habits to introduce to any dog when young. Most dogs do not like having their mouths or paws interfered with, but are generally much more amenable in puppyhood. In addition, some Pointers tend to develop a lot of ear wax, and so handling of the ears and cleaning them should also be done from a young age. Use of kitchen oils and vinegars is not advisable, contrary to some opinions, and suitable otic preparations are available from veterinary surgeries and pet stores.
Famous English Pointers
Quite a famous example of the English pointer is the Royal Navy's Judy who was awarded the Dickin Medal for her outstanding work in World War II aboard the HMS Gnat and the HMS Grasshopper. Judy was able to hear incoming aircraft before her crew to give them an early warning, she helped save crew members from drowning and even assisted in finding fresh water when they became deserted on an island – just to name some of the many heroic actions she took during her time with Royal Navy.
English Pointers have been crossed with several other breeds, not least for their athleticism:
- American Gointer – Cross between an English Pointer and a Golden Retriever
- Beagle Point – Cross between an English Pointer and Beagle
- Border Point – Cross between an English Pointer and a Border Collie
- English Sprointer – Cross between an English Pointer and English Springer Spaniel
- Lab Pointer – Cross between an English Pointer and a Labrador Retriever