Training Dogs for Grouse Hunting

Training Dogs for Grouse Hunting
A grouse in hand is the end result of a dog and hunter working well together. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

Train your dog to work with you and you're in for some good grouse hunting.

When it comes to hunting ruffed grouse, a hunter can use several methods.

He can walk the woods, changing directions and hoping to make a grouse so nervous that it flushes.

Most purists pursue grouse with pointing dogs. However, more hunters own retrievers, with the Labrador the top breed owned by U.S. households.

grouse hunting

The reason Labs are popular is versatility. The same is true of other flushing dogs, particularly spaniels, so they can also be grouse hunters.

My all-around flusher is Tinker, a female black Lab, and yes, we hunt grouse. For the purposes of this article, what I say about my Lab as a flushing dog will generally be true of other well-trained flushing dog breeds. 

Consider the different hunting styles of pointers vs. flushers.

The grouse pointer is a wide-ranging dog. Hunters equip them with GPS collars, beepers and bells to track them and give them their heads.

A pointer follows grouse scent until it is so strong that the dog points. Hopefully, the grouse remains grounded until the hunter arrives to flush it.

With a Lab, the scenario is reversed. The hunter keeps tight rein, with the Lab putting the bird into the air. If the Lab trailed as freely as a pointer, the grouse would flush beyond shotgun range.

Handling techniques standard for waterfowl hunting field trials are rooted in whistles, voice commands and hand signals originally formed for flushing dog work.

The key is control. Primary control is via a sit-whistle, although some spaniel owners properly use the voice command "Hup!" to stop their dog.

If a Lab has been properly trained it sits, attention riveted on you, at a single sit-whistle. You tell it to continue hunting with a hand cast, reinforcing it with voice commands "over," "back" or "here."

If you are walking the edge of a thicket, you blow the whistle, the dog sits, looking at you. Then you cast it the direction you want it to hunt. Initially, the dog may need a hunt command, such as "find it" or "dead bird," which are commands used to hunt the area of a fall in waterfowl work.

If the dog works into cover beyond shotgun range, the hunter blows a double-whistle to bring it back within range. This return whistle is blown repeatedly, if needed. When the dog returns to the proper distance, another sit-whistle stops it to wait for another cast.

The dog's speed, range and hunting style come into play in this grouse-flushing game. Whether the dog is fast or slow, it can be trained to hunt grouse as long as it works close.

The hunter must keep his eyes and ears on the Lab because it can flush a grouse anytime. There may be little warning from the dog before the hunter hears whirring wings. However, the dog's body language will tip off an observant hunter if the hunter can see the dog in the cover being hunted.

grouse hunting

Flushing dogs look "birdy," upon hitting scent and their movements change as they work that scent. Different dogs show they are close to a bird in different ways, but typically the dog's tail will wag, its nose may cast side to side, it may rapidly change direction as it moves back and forth within a "scent cone" of the bird it is closing in on, or it could give other signs of excitement. 

Many individual dogs will also show different kinds of "birdiness" signs for different species of birds. For example, in most places where grouse live, woodcock are seasonally present. Many dogs react to woodcock differently than they do to grouse, and hunters who know the dog well can predict whether a grouse or a woodcock is in front of the dog well before the bird itself is visible.

At an initial sign of birdiness, especially in thick cover, blowing a sit-whistle can be a good idea. I keep my whistle at the left corner of my mouth so I don't have to spit it out to mount my shotgun. By allowing Tinker to move on a few feet at time, we move closer increments until the flush.

A typical hunt in steep terrain is tough on a Lab because it burns more energy and heats up faster than a pointing dog. Access to water is vital to the longevity of a hunt.

Trails typically wind along the side hills, with a steep drop to a creek on one side and a steep uphill slope on the opposite side. You can usually see across the bottom on the downhill side, but perhaps only 10 to 40 yards over the curvature of the uphill side.

Tinker is incredibly light on her feet, so speedy she tends to bump birds without scenting them first, a trait that would disqualify her in a flushing dog trial. The advantage of such an athletic dog is that she can hunt all day, whereas a heavyset Lab may last an hour or two. Both types of Labs are hunted in the same manner because it is the hunter who sets the pace of the hunt, not the dog, as is the case with pointers.

With the dog at heel, when I see a likely looking tangle in a bottom, I sit Tinker, then give her a directional cast downhill into the cover with the command "Back." As she reaches the cover, I blow the sit-whistle. I give her another cast, working every stretch of cover that looks like it may hold a grouse with this sequence.

With a flushing dog, the odds are in your favor when the dog is working a bottom because you have the best view. If a grouse flushes and you have worked the dog properly, sitting her while you maneuver to better vantage points, you will not get caught off guard when a bird goes up.

Working bottoms with streams is important. Even working in snow, Tinker dives in and laps water every time I send her downhill. When it's time to move her uphill, I return her with double-tweet come-back whistles, sit her on the trail, then send her uphill with hand casts.

I do not allow her to work out of sight. Flushed grouse often fly uphill, where you only have fleeting opportunities to shoot if they are heading over the hill.

If you have any doubts as to this method and rhythm, visit a flushing dog field trial, where the majority of dogs are English Springer spaniels. The handler and dog work fluidly, with the dog watching the handler in its peripheral vision. The handler has only to use a left-hand or right-hand cast to move the dog, with no sit-whistles in between.

Eventually, your dog will react to just your body language, moving in the direction you turn. This frees up your hands to carrying the shotgun at port arms, at least some of the time.

Field trial handlers do not have to carry guns, but you do. Carry the shotgun at port arms. If you are right-handed, to make a right-hand cast, hold the shotgun by the fore end with your left hand.

To make a left-hand cast, hold the shotgun by the wrist with your right hand. The left-hand cast is the most difficult and it may be easier to hold the shotgun if you allow it to slide down into the crook of your elbow. Another way to hold the gun while making a left-hand cast is to lean it back against your right shoulder.

An advanced tip is blowing a sit-whistle at the flush. A sitting dog will not flush a second bird if one is nearby.

The Lab also hears better while sitting than it will while crashing brush as it chases a bird. It learns to tell whether the bird fell or flew on, often when you have no clue. Since the dog is already under control, all you have to do is heel it to the area where the bird landed or fell.

You and the dog can then hunt the area together. If it flushes again, you may get another shot that a wildly running dog alone would not have gotten. First, middle and last, the key in successful hunting with a flushing dog is that the dog and hunter work willingly together. That's because people can't smell birds and dogs can't carry shotguns.

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