The old literature is filled with references to Old Spanish pointers and various French and Italian pointing dogs. And just about every history of the English pointer traces that breed’s origins to dogs brought to England after the War of Spanish Succession around 1715. But another old breed from the Iberian peninsula is often overlooked. It is a hard-hunting, naturally talented gundog from Portugal that played a major role in the development of the modern pointing dog.
The first glimpses we get of gundogs in Portugal are from old drawings and fairly vague references found in old manuscripts such as the Livro da Montaria
written by Portuguese King João I in the 15th century. The dogs were probably very similar if not identical to others being developed in Spain and southern France at the time. They were most likely used to flush small game for the net or falcon, and if they did stand their game or “point”, they were surely trained to do so. Later on, they were selected for a more pronounced natural point and, like the dogs in Spain and elsewhere, eventually became true pointing dogs.
By the 18th century, they were common enough in Portugal to allow for a good number to be exported to England. Once there, they played a role in the development of the English Pointer. This is a point that almost every history of the Portuguese Pointer emphasizes, but one that is often overlooked in the histories of other breeds. This is probably due to the fact that many 18th and 19th century sources seem to refer to any dog from the Iberian Peninsula, or even southern France for that matter, as “Spanish Pointers”.
Fortunately, some sources do specifically mention Portuguese dogs. In a book written in 1776 titled A Treatise on Field Diversions by a Gentleman of Suffolk
, author Barnabas Simonds writes that the English Pointer “...is acknowledged to be a native of Spain or Portugal; as many were and yet are brought to us from both kingdoms.”
English soldiers almost certainly discovered short-haired pointing dogs either while stationed in Spain or by frequent contact with Spanish soldiers in other areas of Europe. It is obvious that they also would have had ample opportunity to come into contact with dogs in Portugal since Lisbon is a major port through which many English troops would have traveled. So it is reasonable to conclude that Portuguese Pointers were taken to England and that they contributed to the development of the English Pointer. But to categorically state that they alone are that breed’s “grandfather” is a bit of a stretch. After all, Portuguese Pointers are from the same basic root stock that gave rise to all pointing breeds and were probably closely related to the pointing dogs in Spain and France.
In any case, what we do know is that the native pointing dogs of Portugal fell on hard times in the late 1800s and early 1900s when English Pointers, Setters and other breeds caught the imagination of large numbers of Portuguese hunters. Socio-economic factors and rampant crossbreeding also led to such a steep decline in the breed’s fortunes that by the 1920s it was in very rough shape. Fortunately in the 1930s efforts got underway to rehabilitate the breed. A breed standard was drawn up in 1931, but it wasn’t until 1939 that the modified standard was recognized. Looking back on the years of decline, the author of one of the first books on the breed, Father Do- mingos Barroso, wrote in an article published in the 1940s that:
In 1924 hunters from the city wanted to have the fury of the “Poin- terized” dogs and others like them. But the villages retained their old dogs. Time went by. The city folk realized that they had made a mistake and stepped back.
The “step back” was toward a more traditional version of the breed, one that had not been overly modified by excessive amounts of English Pointer blood. By 1948 Father Barroso would write that he had Portuguese Pointers of “excellent breeding”.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, progress toward the complete rehabilitation of the breed continued, and in 1984 the breed club l’Associação do Perdigueiro Português
was established. Soon after, the reputation of the Portuguese Pointer began to move beyond the national boundaries. Breed clubs were formed in France
(1999) and in the US
Today the breed continues to grow in popularity in Europe and North America. Its dynamic and well-organized club in Portugal has succeeded in keeping the breed mainly in the hands of hunters and in
promoting the breed first and foremost as a hunting dog.
The first thing you notice about a Portuguese Pointer is its resemblance to the English pointer and, in some ways, to the Boxer. But when we spent the day photographing Portuguese Pointers in their native Portugal, what stood out more than anything else were their eyes. The dogs that day had the most expressive eyes we had ever seen.
Whenever Lisa and I meet with breeders of gundogs, I warn them to count their dogs before we leave since Lisa always carries a purse
big enough to smuggle a puppy or two out of the kennel. Everyone knows I am joking, but when we were in Portugal, I was not so sure. I had the sneaking suspicion that if she’d been left alone for a few minutes, she just might have turned into a puppy-napper! And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I would have turned her in if she had. We both really took a shine to the breed.
Of course, the views we formed were nowhere near objective. We saw some of the best dogs in the breed running across the gentle hills of a beautiful cork tree plantation in central Portugal. We were in the company of three of the most experienced members of the breed club and we’d just been served one of the most delicious picnic lunches we’d ever had. The dogs were super-affectionate and were calm in their kennels, but all business in the field. They pointed hard, backed each other and retrieved every bird to-hand.
And those eyes! They were so striking
they gave some of the dogs a near-human expression. It must be the way that the dark pigment around the eyes, nose and lips contrasts with the yellow/brown coat. Lisa said that some of them looked as if they had a “Cleopatra eyeliner” sort of thing going on.
Back at our hotel, we reviewed the photos we’d taken at the cork plantation. They were some of our best work yet and only added to the positive impression that the breed had made on us. We talked about how great the day had been. We’d seen some very nice dogs, enjoyed charming company and beautiful weather. There was only one disappointment. Somehow, Lisa had resisted temptation: there were no puppies in her purse!
to see a gallery of photos of Portuguese Pointers doing their thing in Portugal.
Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals