How Good is Your Bird Dog?

How good is your pointing grouse dog?  Fair? Good?  Outstanding?  What is the standard you use to judge your dog?  Your author has had the good fortune to watch and shoot over many pointing breed grouse dogs.  Those include English setter, English pointer, German shorthaired pointer, pointing griffon, Brittany and many more.  The training of these dogs has been from minimal to the very best field trial dogs.

Now let’s back-up perhaps 150 years.  In the 1800s, outdoor and gun dog writers classified the ruffed grouse as unfit for sporting purposes.  The bird’s desire to quickly flush made it unfit for pointing dogs.  Course untrained dogs were used by the market shooters but that was the limit of grouse shooting with dogs.  It wasn’t until some of the more trained dogs from the South made their way North before it was discovered that pointing dogs could be trained to properly handle the elusive ruffed grouse.

Today, as mentioned above, there are many pointing breeds capable of handling the King of Gamebirds.  Now, let’s get back to the opening sentence:  How good is your pointing dog on grouse? Most gun dog owners overrate their dog(s).  They want so badly to have a good grouse dog that they make believe that their dog is good.  I occasionally find myself in that group.  One of my shorthairs will make a mess of a grouse find and I’ll make an excuse for him.  The really good grouse dogs rarely make a mistake…and I truly mean the really good dogs.

Here’s an example of someone who thought he had a really good dog.  Several years ago, I received an email asking me if I had knowledge of a Brittany kennel in Maine.  The man wanted to buy a Brittany puppy from this kennel.  I called the kennel and asked if their dam was a hunter.  The woman said that they didn’t hunt but I could call a buyer of one of their pups who is an avid upland hunter.  I called the man who bought a pup three years earlier from this kennel.  He said he had the best grouse dog in the State of Maine.  He invited me to come watch his dog work. That was fine because I was traveling his way the following week.  If I recall, it was the second week in September.  The dog owner had a very nice grouse covert that he promised would hold grouse.  And it did.  The dog had three grouse finds in about one hour.  All three grouse were runners and flushed way ahead of the dog and the dog owner.  After each flush, the dog owner would say “Wasn’t that great dog work?”  And, when we finished, he said:  “Have you ever seen anything that good?”   Well, I was very diplomatic and told him he had a “nice” dog and I appreciated his time.  However, that was lousy dog work.

The bottom line, the absolute standard, for outstanding pointing dog work on ruffed grouse is whether the bird is there when you, the hunter, gets to the dog.  Is the bird within range for a shot?  The number of faraway flushes made in front of the dog has no value to the hunter.

Having established a standard for outstanding grouse work, how many dogs can actually pin every grouse find and have it there when you, the hunter, arrives?  Very few.  In fact, I’ve only seen one.  Her name was Long Gone Madison, an English setter, and she was considered amongst the top five grouse dogs ever.  I watched her pin nine grouse in one hour.

Now we know what the very best can do.  How about your dog?  If your dog can pin 50% of their grouse finds, then you have a very good grouse dog.  More than 50%, you have a true “brag dog” that can run with the best.  Pinning less than 50% will still give you a good dog, however, if it’s say one in ten, then your dog is simply a weekend hunter and you’re both out just for fun.  And, just being out for a fun day with your best friend is a beautiful thing.

Paul Fuller is a lifelong sportsman.  He’s been an outdoor writer since 1971. He’s the host and producer of the award winning Bird Dogs Afield TV show (www.birddogsafield.com) and produced the epic video Grouse, Guns & Dogs. Paul shot over his first German short-haired pointer in 1961.