A panel of experts weigh in on key characteristics of great grouse hunting dogs.
By Brad Eden
Stories about great ruffed grouse dogs have been bantered about in hunting camps and amongst birddog folks for centuries. What made those dogs so outstanding is a fair question, since ruffed grouse are arguably the toughest game bird for a dog to handle successfully.
I posed this loaded question — what makes a dog a great grouse dog? — to a cross section of professional upland guides, breeders, trainers and field trailers.
The common thread amongst these experts is that they all hunt their dogs for ruffed grouse. Let’s get started.
Jordan Horak owns Juggernaut Spaniels in Wisconsin, and breeds, trials and hunts a string of English cockers. He’s a relatively young man, but his dedication to this breed, and his dog’s accomplishments on the trial circuit and in the grouse woods, speaks volumes.
According to Horak, the cockers that approach greatness on ruffed grouse are objective hunters. They don’t randomly cover ground, nor do they stick to a static pattern, but always seem to know where the grouse are.
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He mentioned his exceptional grouse dog Breeze as an example. She weighs about 26 pounds and has a long, lean build that eats up the ground and seemingly never tires. She has incredible bird-finding ability and a soft mouth on retrieve. And like most great grouse dogs, she is cleaning up on the trial circuit as well.
One hunt stands out in his mind. They were hunting in a few inches of snow in mixed cedar and aspen, and as usual Breeze was putting up grouse. Soon it became apparent to him and his hunting partner that the birds were all coming from under the cedars.
They consciously noted how Breeze would hunt from cedar to cedar ignoring other trees and pieces of cover, and continued putting up birds to their guns. Although a seasoned trial spaniel, she wasn’t performing any symmetrical patterns, but had figured out the cover that day, knew where the birds were, and wasted no time zeroing in on them.
Horak can detect when a dog may be exceptional on grouse as early as 6 to 8 months old. He likes a biddable cocker with a tight coat, a long body, and the ability to hunt all day. He hunts all his dogs, and gains an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, which is reflected in his breeding for exceptional physical and mental abilities.
Bruce Shaffer is a well-known and respected trainer of a variety of pointing breeds. He owns and runs Almost Heaven GSP’s in West Virginia where he breeds and trains birddogs. His personal hunting dog of choice and those he breeds are the German shorthaired pointer.
According to Shaffer, the elements that go into a great ruffed grouse hunting GSP can be a bit mysterious. He points out that the first and foremost component is what’s between the ears. A great dog has to be a smart dog, and a dog that has a “full choke” or a long nose that is constantly pulling in scent from a distance.
An interesting observation from Shaffer was that the exceptional grouse-hunting GSPs he has owned, trained, and hunted seem to have the ability to adjust to individual birds. These dogs have a sixth sense that seems to tell them when a bird is relaxed, alert, or on edge and ready to flush. He believes they can smell and detect the adrenalin coming from a bird, and those blessed with this ability hunt and point accordingly.
In the case of some dogs, the potential to be a great grouse dog can be seen as a puppy, but if they have it then in some cases they can show it later in life as well. For example, he mentions Dutch, a GSP he bred and trained for a client. Dutch experienced great success in field trials and had seen plenty of pen-raised and preserve birds during his early life. At seven years old he finally got to experience wild ruffed grouse hunting and stuck his first grouse off a logging road in New Hampshire, and then proceeded to point and hold over 40 grouse during that hunting trip. He had those superior grouse-hunting qualities, and although until then they had been dormant, they rose to the surface when he encountered wild birds.
In addition, Shaffer points out that outstanding grouse GSPs have a fluid working style that almost appears lazy to the casual eye, but is actually an economy of motion that handles tough cover. He emphasizes that dogs that trial can be and are often excellent ruffed grouse hunting dogs. They can tell the difference between trials and hunting wild birds. And, of course, the natural retrieve inherent in the versatile GSP is another quality of a great grouse dog.
The springer spaniel is my personal ruffed grouse dog of choice — it’s the dog I hunt. But I turned to Jim Keller, the owner of Wild Wind Kennels in Maine, to talk to me about springers. Keller has been training bird hunting dogs for field trials and hunting for over 30 years and specializes in spaniels, with an emphasis on springer spaniels. He has guided for ruffed grouse and woodcock with his springers at some of the best known and respected Maine sporting camps.
Keller charged right out of the chute with some specific characteristics he looks for and sees in exceptional grouse hunting springer spaniels. They have to hunt for scent even when none is present, hunt close to the gun, and really dig out birds from cover, whether in the thick of it, or on the edges.
An element that kept raising its head during our discussion was the word trust. An exceptional grouse-hunting springer develops a trust with its owner and handler, and they work as a synchronized team. That alone raised the hair on the back of my neck since that is paramount in my relationship with my springers. They want to be with you, on the couch, in the truck, and most importantly in the grouse covers.
An aspect that some may scoff at but many of us experience is that exceptional springers will start to work cover so they flush the birds towards you. These great grouse springers provide more shot opportunities than the average dog. Jim mentions a grouse dog named Miska. She was a client’s dog that Keller had trained and was guiding with. The hunters Keller was guiding on that particular day were skeptical on how a flushing dog would successfully work the logging roads and trails prevalent in the northeast. They soon became believers when Miska worked to the sides of the trails and consistently drove the birds over the logging road in front of them.
They started paying attention right quick, and birds in the bag were the result. She is one of the great ones, and a prime guide’s dog that worked fast and efficiently, not allowing the grouse to think before she was on them, and putting them in the air.
Bob Little is an “English pointer guy.” He spends his time birddog training, guiding, participating in field trials, and bird hunting in Canada and northern Maine. Little has developed a reputation as a hard-working, amiable, and outstanding guide for ruffed grouse and woodcock with his English pointers.
Little is a firm believer that a champion trial pointer can be and usually is a great grouse dog. He started his list of characteristics for an exceptional grouse pointer with brains, before nose or athleticism. They have to be smart first but also have a good nose, which seems to be a given with EPs, and a no-nonsense workmanlike style of hunting.
Dogs that he considers the cream of the crop for grouse hit cover hard with good speed that “mesmerizes” the skittish ruffed grouse. It’s important for the dog to get on them fast enough so that they don’t have time to react with a wild flush.
Since most of his guiding and hunting is done in big woods with clear cuts and edge cover, he likes a big-running dog that stretches out to 150 and 200 yards or more finding birds. There is little worry that after getting to the dog on point that the bird will be there for the shot.
A great pointer can smoothly transition from trials to hunting and they naturally tighten up when needed for the foot hunter. The best of the best see a blank gun and know its field trial time; if a shotgun is uncased they know it’s time to go find grouse.
His dog Shea stands out for him as one of his great grouse pointers. Although a big runner, she can settle down and pick apart a cover. She has that special ability to head into a new bird cover she has never seen and figure it out in a hurry. She is a dog that, according to Little, “could find a grouse in a parking lot.” That alone describes a great grouse hunting English pointer.
Anyone interested in ruffed grouse hunting with pointing dogs has likely heard of Berg Bros. Setters from Minnesota, and their breeding program and training of English setters. Their stellar reputation for producing excellent English setters is well deserved. Steve Berg is a plethora of knowledge on all things setter, and we focused our discussion on what makes an exceptional ruffed grouse hunting setter.
In a great ruffed grouse hunting setter Berg looks for a high-headed, biddable, smart dog with a composed manner on birds. He likes a dog that hunts hard but is not frantic. The good ones have a physical gait that covers ground efficiently with stamina and heat tolerance, and ultimately find more birds than the average dog.
The following comment ended up in my notes with an underline: “They know where you are, like you have a GPS collar on.” In other words, they are always cognizant of where you, the grouse hunter, are during a hunt. That awareness results in a working team that hunts in tandem even if not within eyeshot or even earshot. Berg mentioned a setter named Birds Hard Turner, or “Liv,” that exhibited all these exceptional grouse hunting characteristics. She keeps track of the hunter while at the same time naturally hits all the best spots in the cover. Like other standouts “She looked you in the eye like she wanted to talk to you.”
Berg mentions sports analogies as well to describe truly great grouse setters. We have all heard of child athletes that are signed before they are out of high school because their current and future talents are palpable. Same goes for setters: You can see the potential for greatness as early as 4-6 months old. With the proper training, bird contacts, and experience, they have a good chance at becoming great grouse dogs.
There are common threads woven throughout my interviews with my experts. One is that being a trial dog or a hunting dog is not mutually exclusive. In fact, according to them the opposite is true. A champion trial dog will more often than not be a great grouse hunting dog. Another common characteristic is an innate intelligence, which results in a dog that quickly adjusts to the hunting conditions, and even individual birds. All my professionals emphasized genetics and good breeding as being a prime characteristic, but not necessarily a guarantee of a great grouse dog. Those special components, those final ingredients that propels a dog above the rest in the grouse woods is a bit of a mystery. In the final analysis you can certainly stack the odds in your favor, but some dogs just have it and some don’t.
RUFFED GROUSE EXPERTS
A special thanks to the experts who took the time out of their training, guiding, trialing, breeding and hunting schedules to share their knowledge about great grouse hunting dogs.
Field Bred English Cocker Spaniel
E9658 Brehmer Road
Fremont, WI 54940
German Shorthaired Pointer
Almost Heaven GSP’s
P.O. Box 556 Lot #3 Riverview Road
Springfield, WV 26763
Field Bred English Springer Spaniel
1368 Webb Road
Knox, ME 04986
Robert Little Upland Guide Service & Birddog Training
23 Vanceboro Road
McAdam, New Brunswick
Berg Bros. Setters
703 200th Street
Clearwater, MN 55320