One of my best grouse dogs ever is Blue Shaquille (Houston x Blue Silk, 2004). He has a superb combination of instinct, nose, focus and tenacity which results in pinned grouse and very few unproductives.
It was a championship field trial run on sharp-tailed grouse. Both brace mates stood on point, independently, but in the same area. The handlers flushed extensively, relocated their dogs and flushed more. Neither handler could produce a bird so they released their dogs and continued down the course. As the gallery of riders passed through the exact area the dogs had just pointed, a single sharptail flushed.
I wasn’t competing that day but I was one of the judges. And one of those dogs was a multiple champion on wild birds, CH Centerpiece, owned and handled by seasoned Frank LaNasa.
What is an unproductive point?
When a dog points and no bird is flushed or seen to flush from the area, it is referred to as an unproductive point. Other terms such as unproductive, nonproductive and false point refer to the same situation.
Unproductive points will always occur—even to highly trained, experienced dogs like CH Centerpiece. Hopefully the following information will help with any frustration.
Why do unproductives occur?
Wild birds want to survive. They learn various avoidance techniques, especially when repeatedly pressured. Basically, wild birds are trying everything to outwit the dog.
These evasion tactics are confirmed by a five-year project undertaken by professors H. Lee Stribling and D. Clay Sisson of Auburn University in Alabama. The team used 254 radio-tagged, wild bobwhite quail coveys to determine how they behaved when encountered by dog and hunters.
Their findings on the causes of unproductive points are amazing.
• 58% caused by coveys running away from pointing dogs
• 31% attributed to wild flushes
• 11% sat tight and refused to flush
In addition, unproductives occurred in only 12% of the dogs’ encounters.
Unproductive points vary with the bird. Woodcock let the dog get close before pointing which results in fewer unproductives. Other species, such as ruffed grouse, require the dog to point from farther away, providing the dog with less scent and more opportunities to error. Other factors including age of the birds, cover type and weather conditions can effect on the number of unproductive points.
CH JTH Izzie (Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011) has successfully pointed hundreds of grouse and woodcock.
Good development is key.
What a dog gains by experience is not what you teach him, but what he teaches himself. ~ Dog Breaking, Major-General W. N. Hutchinson, 1865
While there is no way to avoid unproductive points, there are development and training methods that encourage a dog to point only when it is sure of the bird’s location. Young dogs should have plentiful opportunity to find, follow, point—and flush—birds. In other words, let the young dog learn on its own.
Experience is the best teacher and, in general, the more birds a dog contacts the better it will be. During these encounters, a dog learns invaluable lessons.
• How close to get before the bird flushes.
• How to differentiate where the bird is as opposed to where it has been.
• How to follow running birds.
• What foot and body scent smell like.
Northwoods Chardonnay (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2009) inherited the best from both her parents and was an outstanding grouse dog.
Tips to help with too many unproductives.
If your dog is having excessive unproductive points, here are common reasons and tips to resolve them.
→ Over-cautiousness due to training problems.
Constant talking to the dog while it is working game is distracting and bothersome. Also severe corrections can be a problem. The dog doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of a mistake.
Tip: Be quiet when the dog is working game. Let the dog figure out how to handle birds without interference. Correct the dog only AFTER it flushes the bird and only enough to stop the chase. It might take more time for the dog to learn in this manner but you’ll have a better dog in the end.
→ Over-cautiousness due to genetics.
The dog lacks boldness toward birds because of its genes. Some dogs have too much point and a sub-par nose. Others have soft dispositions which can make them afraid of birds.
Tip: Move the dog (with your command or toot on a whistle) toward the bird. In other words, point it or bump it. Don’t make it a big deal if the dog bumps a few. Give the dog time to learn. This type of dog rarely develops a serious bumping problem. If the dog is young, let it mature a bit before more bird work.
→ Pointing off game.
Dogs can point off game like song birds, rodents, rabbits, deer or turkey. If the off game is flushed in front of the dog’s point, it’s not, technically, an unproductive. If nothing is produced, it can be hard to discern what the dog was pointing. You might see a deer bed or rabbit droppings but those could be coincidences, too.
Tip: If you know the dog is pointing off game, use correction. A verbal correction might be enough or you might need to escalate.
→ Foot scent or old scent.
Some dogs point foot scent or old scent. Under good conditions, dogs can smell ground scent that might be hours or even days old. If a dog is tired, it might put its head down more to where that scent is.
Tip: Move the dog (with your command or toot on a whistle) toward the bird. In other words, point it or bump it. For a tired dog, give it a rest.
→ Bad scenting conditions.
It might just be the scenting conditions that day. Remember the old saying about “wind from the east.”
Tip: Nothing you can do about this one. Be patient.
→ The dog doesn’t want to quit hunting.
I have seen dogs go on point for no reason other than it knows the hunt is ending. Sometimes I think it sees the truck.
Tip: It’s usually an act! Call the dog in and hope it’s not the proverbial truck bird!
Blue Shaquille and Northwoods Chardonnay photos by Chris Mathan, The Sportman’s Cabinet. JTH Izzie photo by Jeff Hintz.
Not much beats a day in the woods when a pretty pointer sticks her grouse and the hunter doesn’t miss.
The ruffed grouse is the wariest of the species hunted by bird dogs, the wisest and hardest to handle. ~ Henry P. Davis, Training Your Own Bird Dog, 1948
The perfect ruffed grouse shooting opportunity occurs when a pointing dog engages the bird so it doesn’t move. Bumping grouse happens when a dog gets too close and the bird flushes. Of all the training problems clients ask me about, this is one of the most common.
A major reason dogs bump grouse is simply the difficulty of the quarry. An occasional bump is part of grouse hunting; but if your dog bumps more than it points, something else might be going on.
Listed below are common causes and tips for improvement and correction.
→ Cover and weather conditions.
In the early part of the season especially, the cover can be thick and conditions can be warm and dry. Both make scenting extremely difficult for less-experienced dogs and challenging even for veteran grouse dogs.
Tip: The hunter can’t do anything about this one. Wait until conditions improve.
→ Lack of experience.
It’s rare that a dog will naturally point grouse with just a few contacts. Most bird dogs need repeated exposure over several seasons.
Tip: This is easy. Hunt more.
→ Lack of training.
The dog doesn’t know it’s supposed to stop and point.
Tip: The dog needs to be trained to stop on WHOA.
→ Seeing grouse on the ground.
Occasionally, a dog will see a grouse on the ground and sometimes the temptation is just too much.
Tip: Reinforce WHOA and steadiness training with a visible bird on the ground.
→ Over-exposure to planted birds.
A dog can get very close to a planted bird before it stops to point. Grouse are just the opposite and will flush if a dog gets too close.
Tip: Stay away from the game farm for awhile and provide more exposure to grouse.
The dog lacks the ability to find and point grouse due to a bad nose, poor pointing instincts or other inherited trait.
Tip: Thoroughly check out the breeders and breeding of your next puppy. Make sure the sire and dam—and previous generations—are proven grouse dogs.
→ Stuff happens.
Even an experienced grouse dog with a bold, confident attitude will sometimes bump a grouse.
Tip: Exercise patience and move on.
Puppy Jeter (Blue Riptide x Northwoods Chablis, 2017) had a nose-ful of scent before the quail flushed. But he won’t get that close to many wild birds!
Working young dogs on wild birds takes lots of time and effort. And since, in the end, the goal is to bring out their best and develop them into the best possible grouse dogs, then that commitment is worth it.
Why do wild birds take time and effort?
1. You have to know where to find wild birds.
2. You have to get up early or be there late in the day for the best chances.
3. You still might not find any birds.
4. If you do find birds, it might not be the right opportunity for the dog.
5. You can only work so many dogs in a day due, usually, to weather. It can be too wet, too dry, too hot, too stormy.
Whew! Many days I wish the same training could be accomplished on liberated birds in a 40-acre field. It would be easy but it just can’t be done.
For the past several weeks, I’ve been working several young dogs, varying in age from eight to 18 months, on wild sharp-tailed grouse. They find birds but haven’t pointed any. Yet when I train those same dogs on pen-reared chukars or quail, they find and point almost every bird.
What’s going on?
Her head held high, Northwoods Chardonnay (Blue Shaquille x Houston’ Belle’s Choice, 2009) is perfectly poised to capture just a wisp of sharptail scent on the North Dakota prairie.
While there are several differences between wild and put-out birds, I think the primary distinction is the amount of scent they emit. Put-out birds just smell more. While those birds work well to get young dogs started, eventually, the dogs need to focus on tiny wisps of odor that lead to a bird.
My analogy is that some dogs seem to be searching for a bucket of scent and others are looking for a thimble-ful. As far as I know, the only way for young dogs to learn about finding a thimble-ful is to work them on birds that provide just that small amount—wild birds!
Louis Vuitton (Northwoods Grits x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2015)
Nothing beats native sharp-tailed grouse for preparing a bird dog for the ruffed grouse season.
When the grouse woods are still lush with summer vegetation, sharptails provide a good training alternative. Our local population lives in native grasslands that are dotted with scrubby oaks and willows. The area is intensely managed with fire.
From a dog’s level, the terrain is similar to the woods. From my perspective, I get a good view of the action. These birds can be jumpy while at other times they’ll sit as tight as any woodcock. Sharptails are great for any age dog—whether to start young dogs or to polish older dogs.
Early mornings are often foggy and everything is drenched with dew. By mid morning, the sun can be hot enough to end the day’s training.
Here are some photos from my training runs this year. Enjoy!
Blitzen (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016)
Rolls Royce (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2013)
Carbon (Blue Riptide x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2014)
Carly Simon (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011)
Nickel (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2014) honors Louis Vuitton (Northwoods Grits x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2015).
Twelve-week-old Northwoods Diana (RU-CH Northwoods Nirvana x Northwoods Carbon, 2017) exhibits remarkable poise, style and intensity while pointing a bobwhite quail.
Even though much of raising puppies is simply playing with them and enjoying their antics, Betsy and I do have a set schedule of things to introduce and what training to start. Bird introduction, which we begin at about 12 weeks, is probably the most fun and interesting. At this age, it’s all instinct; but for us as breeders, it’s really exciting to see what genetic tendencies and qualities we recognize.
This spring, two litters were whelped within 10 days of each other–Northwoods Grits x Northwoods Nickel and Northwoods Nirvana x Northwoods Carbon. Betsy and I kept four puppies from the first litter and two from the second.
We eagerly look forward to our puppy training sessions at the end of the day. Using either bobwhite quail or chukars flushed from their houses, we walk the puppies through the area where the birds flew. Watching them discover bird scent, follow, point (maybe hold for a bit), back (maybe) and then chase the birds is a highlight of our day.
The right front paw of Northwoods Blitzen (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016) shows normal growth and wear on dewclaw and toenails.
The issue of dewclaw removal is worth re-visiting on occasion. It’s not a life-threatening controversy but there is general misunderstanding…beginning with the possibility of a dewclaw tear.
I’ve been training, hunting and trialing pointing dogs for almost four decades. I’ve watched hundreds of dogs work thousands of hours in all kinds of terrain and conditions. Yeah, I’ve seen dewclaws torn but much less than regular nails and not even close to injuries to limbs, tails, eyes, ears and skin.
Besides, dogs use dewclaws. I’ve seen dogs groom themselves and scratch using their dewclaws. And they are used in the field because dewclaws show wear just like regular nails.
Perhaps most importantly, dewclaws are natural parts of canine anatomy. Five tendons attach to each dewclaw. At the end of those tendons are muscles with a distinct function: to prevent torque on the leg. When a dog turns while cantering or galloping, “the dewclaw digs into the ground to support the leg and prevent torque,” Dr. M. Christine Zink, Director and Professor, Department of Molecular and Comparative Pathobiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, wrote in the linked paper.
“If a dog doesn’t have a dewclaw, the leg twists,” she continued. After a lifetime of that abuse, carpal arthritis and injuries to elbow, shoulder and toes can result.
Betsy and I don’t remove dewclaws from our puppies. We base that decision on science—on research and clinical observation by Dr. Zink.
Most veterinarians admit that injuries to dewclaws are rare.
Again, Dr. Zink: “It is far better to deal with an injury than to cut the dewclaws off of all dogs ‘just in case.’”
Puppy points can be intense. Dixie (Houston’s Blackjack x Northwoods Highclass Kate, 2013) is utterly focused on bird scent.
The excitement associated with seeing a dog on point is likely what attracted most pointing dog owners. What is the pointing instinct, exactly, and how does it develop?
The pointing instinct.
Pointing is defined as freezing at the scent or sight of game. It is an inherited instinct most prominent in the pointing breeds but, to some degree, many sporting breeds and wild animals also display the pointing instinct.
Two terms are frequently used to describe points. Staunchness refers to how long the dog holds point while steadiness describes a level of training, i.e., steady-to-wing or steady-to-wing-and-shot.
A puppy’s first points are usually an instinctive response to the smell of game. These points are often called “flash points” and are short in duration. Some puppies, though, do point for a longer time because they’re unsure and aren’t bold enough to rush in. During these early points, the puppy is in a heightened state of emotion, its body posture intense and sometimes crouched as it focuses exclusively on the smell.
As a puppy learns what it is smelling, it points and then stalks toward the location of scent until it gets close enough to flush the bird. The puppy chases to try to catch the bird. This continues until the puppy realizes it can’t catch the bird and, therefore, its only alternative is to hold point. As the puppy becomes more experienced in pointing, the excitement wanes and its pointing stature begins to convey confidence and boldness.
Puppy points aren’t necessarily the prettiest. The important part is the instinct to stop.
To properly develop a young pointing dog, it should be allowed to learn how to handle birds without interference. The best method is frequent bird (wild or liberated birds that can’t be caught) contacts. Two of the most important lessons are learned at this stage—how close the dog can get to the bird before the bird flushes and that the dog’s movement causes the bird to flush. (For more information, please view the post Accuracy of location.)
There is nothing the handler can do—or should do—to rush this phase. While the puppy is pointing, don’t talk to or restrain it and don’t be in a hurry to flush the bird.
By the age of two, Northwoods Carly Simon (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011) was fully trained, i.e., was steady-to-wing-and-shot. On a Georgia quail plantation, she displays the quintessential pointing posture–beautiful and confident.
Staunchness and steadiness training.
At some time, and after enough bird contacts, most well-bred pointing dogs naturally stay on point until the handler arrives. This is the minimum expected (the hunter needs to be close enough to shoot the bird) and is referred to as a staunch point or staunchness.
The next step is steadiness training. Many pointing dogs are trained to be steady to the flush of a bird, also called steady-to-wing. Very few are trained to the ultimate level–steady-to-wing-and-shot.
Faulty genetics, improper development, bad training or a combination can cause problems with pointing. Here are some of the most common and their causes.
The dog smells the bird but then avoids it and continues on. This is almost always a man-made fault from improper development around game. While some dogs may be soft tempered by nature, no dog is born a blinker.
Whether before or after pointing, the dog intentionally jumps in and causes the bird to flush. This is fine in a young dog but should not be allowed in a mature dog. These are usually bold, aggressive dogs that need to be corrected.
The dog smells the bird and maybe points but then tries to move around the bird instead of going directly towards it. In a mature, experienced wild bird dog, this behavior might be a learned response to stop birds from running away from its points. Circling in a young dog, however, is more likely an inherited behavior but could be caused by improper training and development.
The dog points the bird but its tail wags and never stiffens. This can be inherited and/or man made.
A dog points with low posture or even lies down on point shows a lack of boldness towards the bird and/or doesn’t want the bird to flush. This can be inherited and/or man made.
The dog points and but no bird is flushed. Again, this can be inherited and/or man made. (For more information, please view the post Unproductive points.)
The “wing on a string” trick is sure fun to see but means absolutely nothing.
• Sight points are not the same as scent points. The old “wing on a string” trick so often used to pick a pointing dog puppy means nothing regarding future scent-pointing ability.
• All dogs will tend to point longer as they get older. Too, they get more cautious in the presence of game.
• There is “too much point” and “not enough point.” Ideally, the young dog will have enough genetic point to stop but learn staunchness through bird contacts.
• A precocious puppy with excessive staunchness doesn’t always turn into the best wild bird dog in the end.
Northwoods Gucci (CH Erin’s Hidden Shamrock x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2015)
Northwoods Gucci is the co-winner of the 2017 Minnesota/Wisconsin Cover Dog Derby of the Year. Her point total equaled that of Opie, a setter male owned and handled by Sig Degitz. In just three starts in trials this spring, Gucci placed in each one.
Gucci was whelped on April 15, 2015, out of Northwoods Chardonnay by CH Erin’s Hidden Shamrock. Betsy and I, together with Paul Hauge, co-bred the litter. Paul owned Gucci and entrusted her development, training and handling to us.
Northwoods Chardonnay (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2009)
Gucci comes from a long line of females winning this award. Consider this:
Dam: Northwoods Chardonnay, 2011
Great grand-dam: CH Houston’s Belle (owned by Paul Hauge), 2003
Great grand-dam: Blue Silk, 2001
Great great grand-dam: CH Blue Streak, Runner-up, 1997
Houston’s Belle’s Choice, one of Gucci’s grand-dams, didn’t win the award herself but produced, in addition to Chardonnay, Northwoods Highclass Kate (owned by Barry Frieler) who won in 2012. Gucci’s grand-sire, CH Ridge Creek Cody (owned by Larry Brutger), won the Bill Conlin Setter Shooting Dog Derby award in 2010.
Recently Gucci was bought from Paul so she’ll now spend her falls hunting birds in Montana. Betsy and I will still have her with us in Georgia during the winter. In 2018, we plan to breed her to the outstanding Northwoods Grits.
Northwoods Highclass Kate (Northwoods Blue Ox x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2010)
CH Houston’s Belle (Houston x Forest Ridge Jewel, 2001)
Blue Silk (CH First Rate x CH Blue Streak, 1999)
CH Blue Streak (Spring Garden Tollway x Finder’s Keeper, 1995)
A. J. Kalupa, flanked by Rochel and Dave Moore, happily poses after an open shooting dog placement with I’m Blue Skye.
The spring field trial season is winding down across the country and here are some dogs out of our kennel that placed.
Congratulations to dogs, owners and handlers!
A special combination of dogs/owner/handler is happening on the western field trial circuit. Bill Owen campaigns two dogs he bought from us as puppies—one setter and one pointer. Bill handles them in amateur stakes but has entrusted Travis Gelhaus to handle them in open stakes.
Handler Travis Gelhaus poses with first place derby Northwoods Blackhawk Sage (first dog on the right). Sage is owned by Bill Owen, the guy in the cowboy hat on Travis’ left.
Northwoods Blackhawk Sage (CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015), a big, handsome liver-and-white male, won the National Chukar Derby Classic. Bill’s setter, Northwoods Charles (CH Ridge Creek Cody x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2013), was named champion in the National Chukar Shooting Dog Championship. The stakes were held in Sunnyside, Wash.
Newly crowned champion Northwoods Charles is posed by handler Travis Gelhaus while owner Bill Owen, in the green hat behind Travis, wears a nice smile.
In Wisconsin, I’m Blue Skye (Northwoods Grits x CH I’m Blue Gert, 2014) placed third in a Chippewa Valley Grouse Dog Association open shooting dog for A. J. Kalupa, her new owner. A. J. had recently bought Skye from Dave and Rochel Moore, who also own Skye’s dam, CH I’m Blue Gert. Amazingly, this trial was the first A. J. had entered.
Winners pose after a Moose River Grouse Dog Club open derby stake held in Wisconsin. From left: Rod Lein with his third place setter, Jerry with second place Northwoods Gucci and Sig Digetz with his winning setter.
Northwoods Gucci (CH Erin’s Hidden Shamrock x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2015), owned by Paul Hauge, had never competed in a field trial. But this spring, Paul thought she was ready so I handled her in three open derby stakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She won one and placed second in two. In those outings she earned enough points to share the derby of the year award with Sig Digetz’ setter Opie.
Northwoods Nirvana (CH Houston’s Blackjack x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2011) continues to produce winners. The latest is Phillips Spitting Image, owned by Matt Phillips, who placed fourth in the U.S. Complete Shooting Dog Futurity.
On a spectacular, late afternoon workout, Northwoods Blitzen (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016) found and pointed six grouse and one woodcock. As Bob Wehle might have said, “This is my brag dog!”
Wild bird contacts are essential when developing our puppies. I’m exposing them as much as possible to wild birds so their hunting instincts, natural abilities, style and poise can be fostered. All are key considerations when selecting future breeding dogs.
Showing impressive style and poise for a 13-week-old puppy, Northwoods Hercules (RU-CH Erin’s Prometheus x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2016) points a single bobwhite in native wiregrass.
As soon as the Georgia quail season ends in late February, dog trainers on most plantations focus on working their puppies. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to know several of them and so I spend most mornings in March bracing our young dogs with theirs.
During a morning training run on a beautifully maintained private quail plantation, setter Northwoods Mica (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Nortwoods Carbon, 2016) and pointer Northwoods Blitzen (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016) share point.
When back in Minnesota, I can’t wait to get our puppies in the woods on grouse and woodcock. Amazingly, the transition is usually easy for them.
In a scene reminiscent of a Bev Doolittle painting, Northwoods Gabbro (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Carbon, 2016) sticks a woodcock.
By the time nesting begins and training season ends, I have a good idea of the abilities of each pup. And yeah, it’s a lot of fun, too!
Northwoods Slate (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Carbon, 2016) stopped in mid-stride, ear flipped back, when he caught scent of a quail.
In a picturesque setting of broom sedge, Northwoods Chalcedony (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016) points a covey of bobwhite quail.