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The History of the Pointing Dog, Part 1: Origins

Craig Koshyk

This question of genesis has sparked so many discussions that it would be presumptuous to claim that I could offer a decisive explanation. To venture into that subject would be, after all, to penetrate the realm of the impenetrable. — Jean Castaing

Bird dogs circa 1400 
On June 16th, 2009 American President Barack Obama appeared in a televised interview. About half way into the program, a fly began buzzing about his head as he was answering a question. Despite repeated attempts to scare it away, the very persistent fly eventually landed on the President’s hand. Ed Pilkington, writing in the next day’s edition of the English newspaper the Guardian, described Mr. Obama’s reaction:
His body went rigid and he cast his eyes down toward the fly that had settled on his left hand. At this point he looked swathed in the stillness that comes from absolute concentration...
Then, with lighting speed, the President swatted the fly and exclaimed, “I got the sucker!” Naturally, the rather humorous event was reported around the world. I saw it on the evening news and watched it again on Youtube the next day. But it wasn’t the swift presidential action that caught my attention. It was what Mr. Obama did immediately before he swatted the fly.

He paused.

He did exactly what you and I — and most other predators — do just before we pounce on our quarry.

We pause.

Thousands of years ago, hunters must have observed that same behavior in many of the animals around them, including their dogs. Eventually, they found a use for it. As new weapons and hunting techniques developed, a dog’s natural tendency to pause, and its willingness to be trained to remain motionless, became useful for certain kinds of hunting. 

So hunters began to train their dogs to stand or lay down in the presence of game, and then selected them for a longer and longer instinctive pause. Eventually, they developed dogs that would freeze and remain rigidly still, without a command, at the mere scent of game. They had created the pointing dog.

In ancient Greek and Roman times, people used many different types of hunting dogs, from powerfully built scent-hounds to sleek sight-hounds. Some authors have tried to argue that the Greeks, Romans and even the Egyptians also bred pointing dogs
to be used with hawks and falcons. But none of the claims has
ever withstood the scrutiny of expert analysis and nowhere in the ancient literature are there any unequivocal references to pointing dogs. After researching the question for many years, William Arkwright concluded that:
Egypt appears to have left no foreshadowing of a pointing dog
in her records, and the treatise on venery by Sid Mohamed Al Mangali (the tenth century), translated by M. Pharaon (1880) is taken up with hunting and hawking, without even a prophetic hint of the “partridge-dog”—though this author’s range is so wide as to embrace both ants and elephants! 1
Jean Castaing points out that the methods used by ancient hunters simply did not require a dog to pause before setting upon its quarry, so ancient hunters did not train or select their dogs to do so. And while the current evidence suggests that canis familiaris, the domestic dog, ultimately traces its origins to somewhere in Asia, it is telling that hunters there never developed a single breed of pointing dog. Even today, central Asian and middle eastern hunters who still practice the ancient forms of hunting with hawks and falcons do not use dogs to point game.

Most histories of pointing dogs naturally concentrate on where and when they first came to be. They generally support the conclusion that it was not until the end of the high middle ages that hunters in the region that is now parts of Italy, Spain and Southern France began to train their dogs to stand still or lay down in the presence of game. But to me, an even more intriguing question is why?

If we accept the premise that pointing dogs began to appear more or less simultaneously in various regions of southern Europe, we have to wonder what common motivator could have inspired hunters to begin training and eventually selecting their dogs to stop in the presence of game.

Some authors speculate that it was the growing popularity of hunting with falcons and hawks that led to the creation of the chiens d’oysel (dogs of the bird) mentioned by Gaston Phébus. But Phébus clearly states that those dogs were expected to flush game for the bird. He wrote that the chiens d’oysel, which he also called espaignolz...
... put up all manner of birds and animals, but their true calling is the partridge and the quail; a fine thing for a man with a good goshawk or falcon, lanner or saker, or for flushing small birds for the sparrow-hawk. (Emphasis added). 
It has also been speculated that the use of nets eventually led to the development of pointing dogs. But nets had been used to trap or snare game for thousands of years. They were nothing new in the 12th century and were generally not the sort of net that could be thrown. To capture birds, hunters would suspend large nets between trees or even narrow mountain passes and wait for the birds to fly into them.
In some areas of France, hunters still use the same techniques today. Smaller nets, light enough to be thrown by an individual or to be held between two people, were also used to capture birds but the practice was not common enough to explain why there was such a sudden interest in pointing dogs and why hunters would go to such lengths to train and select them.

Something else had to be going on at the time. As we shall see, it was the first in a series of profound changes in the social and political landscape of Europe that would eventually lead to the development of the pointing dog, as we know it today.

It may be hard to imagine now, but the concept of the “individual”, the cornerstone of our modern society, did not really emerge until the end of the Middle Ages. From the 12th to the 14th century, a sort of pre-industrial revolution occurred in Europe, and specialized classes of craftsmen and merchants were created. These men formed guilds and other enterprises that tended to emphasize the identity and specialization of their members. No longer was a man just a general labourer — he was a shoemaker, a baker, a lawyer, 
a banker. He was an individual. And, as such, he began to think beyond the immediate needs of the clan, toward his own needs 
and pleasures. 

In addition to this new way of thinking, craftsmen had also developed the financial resources that allowed them to not only pursue pleasures such as hunting, but to do so in a way that emphasized style and quality over efficiency and quantity. Mediaeval hunting literature makes this abundantly clear. The most influential treatises of the time were written by men who understood the importance of style, technique and honor in hunting. 

And even though they were written at a time when people were still mainly living off the land, they are filled with the same yearning for a deeper connection to the natural world that inspires hunters today. After all, hunting over a pointing dog is like fly-fishing: a supremely inefficient way of putting large quantities of meat on the table and essentially the pursuit of individual sportsmen. And that is, I believe, the key to understanding the genesis of the pointing dog. It was not created to help the individual hunter feed his family. It was created to help him achieve a deeper connection to the natural world. It continues to serve that purpose today.

But understanding why pointing dogs were developed does not answer the question of “how?” What methods did hunters use to train, and then select, dogs to stop in the presence of game? And what kind of dogs did they start with?

During the Middle Ages, there were many types of dogs available to southern European hunters: herding dogs, tracking dogs, sight-hounds, running hounds and, since pure breeding and closed stud books would not be invented for another five centuries, every conceivable mix among them. But none of those kinds of dogs had more than just a hint of pointing instinct. So hunters had to start with dogs that, as Castaing puts it, were predisposed to becoming pointing dogs

The most likely candidates came from among the running hounds and tracking hounds. Most illustrations from the Middle Ages show running hounds to be similar to the modern Harrier or Foxhound, but with shorter legs and a broader, flatter face. The tracking or trailing hounds were similar but usually larger with bigger heads and loose, hanging skin. Both types came in every color and hair type and usually hunted in packs. They were known for their excellent nose and their ability to run great distances without tiring—two essential qualities of modern pointing dogs.

Within each pack, certain individuals would be singled out for special care and training. They were called Lymers or Lyam Hounds (Limier in French, Leithund in German). The technique of using a Lymer was known as “harbouring”. A Lymer and its handler would be sent into the forest at dawn to track an individual animal, most often a large deer. Their job was to follow its trail, discover where it was browsing or resting and then report back to the chief huntsman. The deer would then be hunted by the pack. If the deer managed to escape, the Lymer was once again brought in to find its trail and the hunt would resume. 

In both form and function, Lymers had many things in common with modern pointing dogs. Old illustrations show that they looked similar to the modern Bracco Italiano and Burgos Pointer and they were said to have great endurance and an excellent nose. But most significantly, Lymers were selected to work alone, with an individual hunter and were often trained to stop and lay down in the presence of game as shown in the illustration on the right.

Jean Castaing and William Arkwright both conclude that all the shorthaired pointing Breeds, the braques, ultimately trace back to the Lymer. But what about the long-haired pointing dogs, the espaignolz? Where did they come from? In Le Livre de la Chasse, Gaston Phébus wrote that: There is a kind of dog called the chien d’oysel or espaignolz because it comes from Spain, however many there may be of them in other countries.

These lines seem to offer rock-solid evidence for a Spanish origin. But were the espaignolz and chiens d’oysel similar to the long-haired pointing dogs and épagneuls we have today? Based on the descriptions and illustrations in Le Livre de la Chasse the answer is: probably not. Phébus actually wrote that they should not be too hairy. And illustrations from the time show that many espaignolz and chiens d’oysel were actually short-haired. Paul Mégnin wrote that: 
The Spanish origin deduced from a sentence by Gaston Phébus needs to be examined with caution; it was not about long-haired spaniels, for in the Phébus manuscript found in the Mazarin Library are two miniatures representing chiens d’oysel or espaignolz, one is standing, the other semi crouched, but these are short-haired dogs with tufted tails. The chien d’oysel or espaignol is therefore not the source of our spaniel. 2
But if spaniels don’t have a Spanish origin, where did they come from? Jean Castaing believed that they might have developed from dogs that originally came from further north, were the colder climate would have favoured long-haired dogs. But he concedes that they were flushing dogs at first and must have been transformed into pointing dogs later, probably by hunters in the Mediterranean region.

No matter what their true origin, dogs that were used to find and indicate the location of game by standing still or lying down were, at first, trained to do so. Perhaps the earliest passage referring to how it was done is found in De Animalibus, written by Albertus Magnus (Albert the great) living in Padua, Italy in 1270:
The dogs, however, that are used for birds seem to have these (powers) more from training than from sense of smell, though they derive them from both. They are taught in this manner: they are first led round some caught partridges pretty often and at length by threats learn to go round and round them; but they get to find the partridge by scent, and thus at the beginning they set (ponunt) pretty often at the indications of the captive bird. 3

The best known books offering detailed instructions in the training of early pointing dogs are the 16th century Diálgolos de la Monteria written by an unknown author and Arte de Ballesteria y Monteria by Alonzo Martinez de Espinar. Both treatises reveal that dogs were not only trained to stand still to indicate the location
of game, but were very often trained to circle the game, almost like a Border Collie circles a herd of sheep. Dogs that stood still were called perros de punta (pointing dogs) and those that circled were called perros de vuelta (circling dogs, vuelta means “to turn round”). Since both techniques served to indicate where the birds or rabbits were hiding, Spanish hunters eventually adopted the term perros de muesta for all pointing dogs (“muesta” means “indication” or “sign”).
Dogs have three methods of pointing: some simply point, others only circle the game, and others again do both. ...Among these circling dogs there are two ways of showing game: one by going round it and never standing on point. ...there are others that go round and point with the wind indicating the game, and these are the best, as they plainly show the sportsman where the game is. 4
By the 16th century, pointing dogs had become fairly common in many regions. In fact, they became so popular in some places that more and more ordinances were issued to limit their use or prohibit it altogether. And their popularity only grew with the appearance of a new invention that allowed the hunter to shoot birds on the wing: the arquebuse. It ushered in a new era of hunting, an era in which the pointing dog would be perfected.

Prior to the invention of firearms small and light enough to be carried by a man and agile enough to be used to shoot birds on the wing, partridges and quail were usually shot on the ground by hunters armed with crossbows. This method required extremely well-trained dogs that may or may not have had any real instinct to point. When firearms were invented, dogs that were carefully trained to circle or point game were no longer a necessity; a flushing dog could be used.
They (partridges) are shot on the wing with an arquebuse and for that reason they do not exist in such numbers as formerly, nor are there any longer such pointing dogs (perros de muestra) to find them and point them with cleverness so great that large quantities of them could be killed with a cross bow. In those days the sportsmen were most dexterous, now such are wanting; for, as game is killed more easily, nobody wishes to waste time training his dogs as the man has not to shoot the partridges on the ground, and the only use he has for dogs is to flush the game and that takes no training, as the dog does it naturally. 5
While a flushing dog can be very effective, a pointing dog can cover more ground. It can also give a shooter more time to get ready for the shot. So it is not surprising that hunters continued to train dogs to point, even if it was no longer strictly necessary. And since they also continued to select for a longer, stronger pause, they eventually arrived at dogs that would point naturally, without any training at all.

As isolated populations of these new pointing dogs acquired unique combinations of characteristics that differentiated them from other populations, they became landraces. But the event that would ultimately lead to pointing dog breeds was another revolution. But this time, the revolution was a violent one. And it was followed by a century of chaotic, indiscriminate breeding that only came to an end when order was restored by outside forces.

1. William Arkwright, The Pointer and His Predecessors, 3
2. Quoted in Jean Castaing, Les Chiens d’Arrêt, 65
3. Quoted in William Arkwright, The Pointer and His Predecessors, 7-8
4. Ibid., 46-47
5. Ibid., 39-40