Your Irish Setter is happily bounding through the park, getting his morning exercise, his nose lifted in the air investigating the air for scent, when suddenly he freezes, and looks intently into the woods, cocking a front leg and holding motionless. Following his gaze, you notice a wild grouse at the edge of the trees, also frozen still. Both animals are doing what comes instinctively, the pointing gun dog was bred to locate game with his nose and then freeze to direct you to the quarry, the bird is frozen hoping that you won't see him, as his plumage blends almost perfectly with his surroundings. If only you had a shotgun with you, you’d be eating wild grouse for dinner tonight!
The pointing behavior is bred into dogs such as the Irish Setter, English Setter, Pointer, and Gordon Setter and these dogs will naturally stop to point at birds, rabbits and all sorts of interesting prey, even butterflies and insects. Training a gun dog to point at the right distance is important, or the animals will “flush”, fly off or run, which will not allow a hunter to get off a good shot at the moving target.
Pointing gun dogs were bred to locate game, usually birds, by scent and then freeze so as not to frighten and flush the bird. A pointer or setter then points at the location of the bird with his muzzle and sometimes by lifting a front leg and holding it suspended, pointing at the bird with its leg and nose.
Teaching your gun dog to point effectively means teaching him to obey off-leash commands, to keep your dog scenting within range, and teaching him to know what distance to freeze and hold position and point at so as not to frighten prey. Sometimes, if the wind is not cooperating, a pointing dog will accidentally bump prey, by getting too close before they pick up the scent and location of game, resulting in the bird taking flight. This may be unavoidable, but you want to train your pointer to search and be alert so as to minimize this happening, and not to be too aggressive or excited so that he gets too close to quarry and frightens it. The goal is to “set” the game, causing it to freeze, in order to avoid detection, so that hunters can get an accurate shot at a still target. Sometimes this means teaching your gun dog to overcome his natural inclination to catch the prey himself. Even once the prey breaks, you will want your gundog to hold position so as not to get in the way of a shot. Verbal commands such as “whoa” are often used to teach your gun dog to hold position and point at prey. While young gundogs can and should be exposed to outdoor environments where they can practice pointing, the discipline needed to hold point may need to wait until the dog is more mature.
To train a gun dog to point in the field, experience is necessary. There will be a lot of trial and error, so be prepared and patient. If your dog prematurely flushes game, you will have to stop and correct your dog if you want him to learn--you will not be able to pursue the hunting opportunity, retrieve a downed bird and train your dog all at the same time. Instead, be prepared to relinquish the opportunity for the sake of correcting your dog. Time will be involved. Be prepared, it will pay off in the long run as a well-trained pointer/setter is a valuable hunting companion. Training your dog to be familiar with the outdoors and follow off-leash commands is important so as to avoid losing your dog, or having your dog run wild scaring everything in sight!