by   David Hancock

Dogs at work can sometimes make you catch your breath in sheer admiration. Working sheepdogs herding sheep can just make you shake your head in suppressed approval and almost wonderment. Artists have been regularly inspired by a pack of hounds in full cry, with their subsequent portrayal inscribed with captions such as 'The Joy of the Chase' or 'Hot on the Scent'. Wealthy owners often had their coursing dogs immortalized on canvas, with their hounds depicted at full stretch at the tail of a fleeing hare. Ornamental dogs, prized for their physical appeal as much as their companionship, have long been admired for their cosmetic virtues. But, for me, the sight or portrayal of a Pointer or Setter on point has a particular appeal - it sums up the sheer dedication of such dogs to their work and depicts the sublime poetry of their 'frozen' stance. The immense concentration, the remarkable discipline, the extraordinary focus and the unwavering stamina in maintaining such a stance is astounding. The English Pointer and Setter, with the Irish and Gordon breeds too, have long provided the best examples of this committed instinctive performance.

Yet despite this eternal appeal, some of these breeds are under threat, not just on numbers registered but on the switch to the ever-increasing use of hunt-point-retrieve (HPR) breeds from mainland Europe in the shooting field. In 2016, only 114 English Setters, 263 Gordon Setters and 63 Irish Red and White Irish Setters were newly registered.  This is in stark contrast to the 2,333 Hungarian Vizslas, 1,405 German Short-haired Pointers and 1,138 Weimaraners registered in the same year. Of course, these breeds show great style in the field too - and retrieve as well! I wonder if the British breeds being seen as just 'pointing and setting' dogs, with no retrieving capability, hasn't contributed to their losing ground. The truth is that the latter used to be used as retrievers, with plenty of artistic portrayals revealing this. I have heard it argued that it is very frustrating for a setter to mark and then indicate game and then be denied the chance to retrieve it, once shot. I have heard some pretty silly arguments about the perils of allowing a pointer or setter to go on and retrieve shot game. In France, in late Victorian and then Edwardian times, the English Setter and Pointer were the most used gundogs there, and always as retrievers as well as 'indicators'.

But whether used as retrievers or not, the British breeds have captured the market for sheer style in the pointing of detected and yet-to-be-shot game. Their undocked tails continue the symmetry of their held stance, their appealing coat colours enhance the frozen pose and their lissom athleticism exaggerates their sustained balancing act. In the setter breeds the leg and tail furnishings provide the artist with scope for extending the dedicated pose and along with the graceful head, with ears furnished too, capture the moment in time of this committed stance. When sportsmen lose a scene like this, they lose a lot. We may live in times when performance matters more than style, but shooting should be a sporting indulgence in man-and-dog work not just a bag-filling exercise. I admire the functional utility of the very capable HPR breeds but will be sad when our native bird-dogs leave our sporting scene. A freezing misty moor may not always delight the eye, but the unique glamour of our native bird-dogs has lifted many a shooter's morale. Shooting entirely for an impressive bag is just showing-off; I'd rather the gundogs did the showing-off!

Sir Richard Glyn in his 'Champion Dogs of the World' of 1967, wrote that: "If one had to pick a dog, not a foxhound, as typical of English country life and the English country gentleman who lived it in the nineteenth century, then that dog would be the English Setter." Those words straightaway provide the frame for any word picture being painted of the setters. They were the shooting companions of those with land or access to it and a life of ease, often dominated by country sports. The passion of such men for country sports not only shaped the English countryside but gave us our hounds, gundogs and terriers. In the time of the Stewarts, the setting dog was used to hold game birds to ground, often with a hawk overhead to keep the birds from flying, while a net was carefully drawn over them. Then with the introduction of firearms and later 'shooting flying', setters were needed, along with pointers, to indicate and then put up feathered game. In the 18th and 19th centuries, our bird-dogs were the envy of mainland Europe, bred by experienced sportsmen and a great credit to us.

For me, our contemporary Pointer is too lightly constructed, too Greyhound-like. The Pointers depicted in paintings from past centuries show dogs with far more substance. It was sad to read the critique of the Pointer judge at Crufts in 2009, which read “The movement on the majority of these dogs and bitches was quite unbelievable, from crossing in front, upright in pasterns, upright in shoulders and it became very soul-destroying watching so many bad unsound movers.”  For such a magnificent English gundog breed at our premier dog show to exhibit such serious faults is truly distressing.

The pointing and setting breeds of the British Isles have elegance, a definite gracefulness. They never seem to possess the sheer effusiveness of the spaniel breeds, the earthy warmth of the retrievers or the eternal impudence of the terriers. Pointers have their own characteristics; I swear that our native Pointer can look decidedly disapproving if their natural dignity isn't respected. They demand stylish handling in the show ring and in the field. My own favourites are the all-black ones, sadly not so common these days, but once highly rated. I do hope we retain true type in this admirable English breed. After the running down of so many leading kennels in recent times - Scotney, Carswell, Blackfield, Cromlix, Segontium and the like, it is important to keep some depth in the breed. Far too many of the best working dogs are being exported, those of the distinguished breeder-trainer-handler Derry Argue for example. It is good therefore to see the dual-purpose dogs of the Crookrise kennel doing well here as well as overseas. I see much to admire in contemporary kennels here and would love to see English sportsmen taking more interest in their Pointer and considering them ahead of the German ones now so popular in our shooting fields. Patriotic pride is not arrogant nationalism but gentle preference, ideally based on merit - with a love of style thrown in!