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!
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.
An accurate location by the young pointer Penny (Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013) and a proper flush and good shot by hunter Mike Powers will result in this happy scene.
Flushing grouse and woodcock in front of a pointing dog might seem like a simple concept. It can make the difference, though, between a bird in the bag and an empty shot shell. In more than 20 years of guiding ruffed grouse and woodcock hunters across the northern Great Lakes region, I’ve pretty much seen it all. Some mistakes I attribute to excitement; others are downright comical; and most are merely naïve.
Here are some tips on how to properly flush for grouse and woodcock over a pointing dog.
Grouse or woodcock.
First of all, try to determine which bird is being pointed. Woodcock tend to be closer to the dog while ruffed grouse are usually farther away. Of course, if it’s late in the season and the woodcock have migrated, the bird is a grouse.
Read the dog.
Most dogs will convey bird and bird location by its intensity and body posture. A really intense posture combined with a lowered head and/or body means the bird is right in front and, therefore, likely a woodcock. A dog that stands taller with a higher head and is more relaxed on point indicates the bird is off a distance and likely a grouse. When the dog is twisted due to a sudden point, that means the bird is close and could be either a grouse or woodcock. If a dog is moving its head or looking around or if the tail is ticking, it doesn’t have the bird accurately located.
Two hunters pass the backing dog and move into position to flush for the lead dog in good-looking grouse cover.
Assess the cover.
Look at the vegetation. Young aspen cuts with scattered woodcock splash would be a good indicator for woodcock. On the other hand, a 20-year-old aspen stand with deadfalls and thick, grassy edges is more likely grouse cover. If you’ve found woodcock or grouse in the surrounding cover, that can be a good clue, but not always.
Flush the bird.
Ideally, two hunters should position themselves a few yards on either side of the dog and steadily walk forward in unison, looking for likely places a bird will sit, until about 10 – 15 yards in front of the dog. Be prepared when stopping as this often causes a bird to flush.
If a woodcock is suspected, you can go back and flush more thoroughly in front of the dog. Some woodcock will sit very tight and be difficult to flush.
Also, flush beside or behind the dog. Discern wind direction and flush upwind of the dog. And even if the dog is pointing on one side of a trail, flush on the other side. Finally, look up into the trees.
Be ready for a second bird.
If one bird flushes—whether grouse or woodcock—always be prepared for another flush. If you do shoot, reload immediately. Many times I have watched a hunter shoot both barrels, only to stand with an empty gun while another bird flushes within range.
What not do do.
• Never walk a few feet in front of the dog and stop. The dog isn’t going to flush the bird. Keep walking to flush the bird.
• Never walk up closely beside the dog as this might break its concentration and encourage it to move.
The ultimate attention–and what the dog wants most–is our physical touch.
Dogs constantly watch us. They’re trying to figure out what we’re doing. They watch us not because they adore us but to determine if something is about to happen that might benefit them. They even want to make that something happen.
But first, they need our attention.
How does a dog get our attention? One of the best examples is barking. Even though that attention may be a negative “Quiet,” it still got your attention. Other attention-seeking behaviors include nudging an arm or hand, mouthing, whining and sighing.
A key aspect to understand is that we control our attention. We can use our attention to communicate approval of what the dog is doing, or disapproval. A quick glance in the dog’s direction might be the approval it needs. A higher level is spoken words and the ultimate attention we can give a dog is physical touch.
Withholding attention is a high form of disapproval.
Giving attention for a behavior often leads to more of that behavior.
~ Turid Rugass, international dog trainer and author
To use your attention as a training tool, give the dog your attention for behavior you want to continue and withhold attention for behavior you don’t. Be patient and wait for the right behavior while ignoring others. And great timing produces quick, clear results. Bad timing could reward incorrect behavior.
Your attention is one of the best tools for training your dog. It’s always with you and doesn’t cost a thing. Even though using your attention properly will take some practice to master, it’s worth it.
PS A recent piece in The Washington Post confirms my thoughts. Among other pithy comments and research results, Kimbriell Kelly writes “research shows that dogs are primarily motivated by praise.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/08/17/what-does-a-dog-want-more-good-boy-or-treats/?wpisrc=nl_pwrainbow&wpmm=1
This is the time to withhold attention!
This caution is repetitive but it is not redundant.
Jerry and I know of bad things that have happened to puppies over the Fourth of July holiday. They have become so scared that they panic, run away and are lost. Some have been hit by a vehicle. Others have chewed out of crates, breaking teeth and scratching until their paws are bloody.
Even if your young dog has been exposed to gunfire, you still need to be careful. Here are two easy precautions.
• Put a crate in a protected, quiet place and put the puppy in it.
• Provide background noise such as TV or radio.
If your young dog will be exposed to fireworks, consider these actions.
• Go about things normally during the fireworks. Act as though nothing special is going on.
• Don’t comfort the dog or give it any attention. Don’t look at the dog; don’t talk to it; don’t touch it.
• If your dog wants to be close to you, let it; but again, don’t comfort it. Comfort will most likely reinforce the behavior and make things worse.
In fact, consider older dogs, too. Even though they’ve been shot over countless times, those have usually been in hunting situations. The circumstances of loud noises and fireworks are utterly different.
Perhaps a hunter can relate to this. If you’re at a gun range, blasts, shots and noises of all kinds are expected. But if you’re sitting on your deck reading a book when a gun is fired 20 behind you, the experience is totally different.
That’s how the dog feels.
Let me amend the caution:
Fireworks and dogs don’t mix.
Photo at top by fortbragg.com.
Grouse run. Always have; always will.
… for the birds are such inveterate runners that unless they are bunched, running themselves en famille, in some southern nook, there will be no scent-cue wanting when once you have come near them.
~ Arthur Burdette Frost, Shooting Pictures magazine, 1895
More than 100 years later, Frost’s words still ring true. When a ruffed grouse is pursued by a bird dog and a hunter, they will run. They will run and run and run—and rarely in a straight line. In fact, I’ve known them to circle back behind their pursuers. Grouse also combine evasive tactics. They’ll run for a bit, then flush and fly some distance; then land and start running again.
The birds aren’t running randomly. They’re going to places where they’ve escaped pursuers many, many times before.
Running grouse pose a special challenge and provide the ultimate test for a pointing dog. Few have the knowledge, experience and talent to follow a running grouse as far as it takes to ultimately get the bird pointed. These special dogs—perhaps less than 10% of all pointing dogs—don’t just run through the woods looking for a grouse. Instead they are constantly seeking even the vaguest trace of grouse scent, maybe long after the bird moved through the area. Once the dogs get a whiff, they have the ability to determine which way the grouse went, follow until they determine they’re close enough and then pin it.
The expertise necessary to follow a running grouse isn’t acquired in one season. It might take two years, three years or even more. But when the dog finally puts it all together and, more often than not, takes on the king of the woods on the bird’s home turf and outwits it, that is a real grouse dog.
In this case, Northwoods Aerosmith (Blue Shaquille x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2011) receives only praise–not correction–from his owner Ken Taylor.
Even though Gary Larson retired from The Far Side daily cartoon 20 years ago, I still remember many. With clever drawings and simple prose, he succinctly satirized dogs, cats, cows, bears, doctors, scientists and Neanderthals.
Among my favorites was a two-panel cartoon depicting a man admonishing his dog. The panels had the exact same drawing but different headings and different cartoon bubbles.
What we say to dogs
Okay, Ginger! I’ve had it! You say out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!
What they hear
blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah…
Larson nailed it. Applying strictly human means and psychology when reprimanding a dog doesn’t work. We need to correct in ways that a dog understands.
A well-behaved dog is a partner that’s a pleasure to hunt over and a wonderful family companion. But for safety reasons too it’s essential that a dog responds to corrections. It behooves an owner to master this skill.
• Be consistent.
• Say the command once and then enforce. You are the leader and must make your dog respond.
• Timing is crucial. The dog needs to know why it’s being corrected. The best time to correct your dog is to anticipate when it’s going to do something wrong or when just starting to do something wrong. Don’t administer correction afterwards—rather wait until the next time.
• Administer the correction with the right attitude. Use a calm, confident, assertive manner. Don’t get angry.
• Use only enough correction to stop the behavior. Don’t over react or lose your temper.
• Voice: We use QUIT. It’s an easy, one-syllable word and when combined with a low, guttural tone of voice, it gets a dog’s attention. NO isn’t recommended for a pointing dog because it’s similar to WHOA.
• Tools: When the dog is close, try a tug on a leash, check cord or pinch collar. When the dog is a distance away, we prefer an ecollar. Even a rolled-up newspaper whacked near the dog will get its attention.
• Physical: Sometimes, this becomes necessary. Grab the dog by the scruff of the neck, look it straight in the eyes and sternly say QUIT. Never strike or kick a dog.
Some final thoughts…
Consider your dog’s temperament and understand there are differences in learning capability. Dogs can be bold and fearless or soft and timid or some can have a difficult combination of headstrong yet submissive.
Ultimately, you must make your dog respond—whatever it takes.
It’s unlawful to reproduce Larson’s panel but click here to see Ginger and her owner again.
NW Smooch (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013) nicely executes the essence of a bird dog. She hunts, handles and point birds during a training session in Georgia. Photo by Chris Mathan, The Sportsman’s Cabinet.
The essential duties of a bird dog are simple. Hunters and field trailers might endlessly discuss other traits but, truly, there are only three basic characteristics.
While these three are genetic, refinement through good training is necessary to bring each to the highest level.
A bird dog must hunt, handle and point birds.
The dog should hunt for birds all the time, under all conditions and never quit. It should always seek out the slightest wisp of scent. As Sherry Ray Ebert once said to me, “A dog should be hunting for bird scent every time its feet hit the ground!”
The opposite is a dog that just runs—and it’s easy to tell the difference.
While hunting for birds, the dog should keep track of the handler’s location and direction. This involves good hearing, good eyesight, good sense of direction and a want-to-please attitude.
Some dogs focus too much on their handlers and don’t hunt enough. They might find easy birds in their path but never really dig them up. Others are so intent on searching for birds that they disregard the whereabouts of the handler. At best, these dogs can be hard to find when on point and, at worst, they could get lost.
This is the epitome. When the dog smells body scent of a bird, it should stop, point and stand still until the handler arrives. If the dog points too soon, the bird can be difficult to flush. If the dog points old scent, there is no bird. The bird can flush wild if the dog crowds the bird searching for stronger scent or if the dog doesn’t stop at all.