CH JTH Izzie (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011).
August is an auspicious month for bird dog owners. First of all, autumn is in the air—especially on cool evenings. Too, even though they might have been conditioning their dogs all summer, they now begin training in earnest on wild birds.
Tracks of a sharp-tailed grouse.
Jeff Hintz is an excellent example.
He owns two white-and-black pointers: JTH Izzie (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011) and JTH Scion (CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015).
JTH Scion (CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015).
The preparation and training is, for him, as much fun as the hunting. Since June, Jeff has been preparing his dogs for the hunting season. Scion, the younger dog, needed finishing work on manners around birds. He conditioned both off a reconditioned golf cart, and now is training them on wild sharp-tailed grouse. These birds can be found in open, native grasslands or thicker, mixed cover of oak, alder and prairie plants.
Photos by Jeff Hintz.
Northwoods Rhea (Northwoods Grits x Northwoods Nickel, 2017) loves her clicker training sessions with Jerry in the kennel office.
Summer in Minnesota is a great season…perhaps only bested by autumn, the obvious bird hunter favorite.
While most of our fellow Minnesotans are heading to their lake cabins or hauling a trailer somewhere, this summer for Jerry and me has meant puppies—lots of puppies—and groups of talented dogs in for training.
Three litters that whelped within a six-week time frame produced 24 puppies. While dams did the bulk of the work, it meant plenty of chores for us but also hours of enjoyment.
Northwoods Nickel, on left, and Northwoods Carbon reared their litters in neighboring runs.
Eight puppies were whelped on April 3 out of Northwoods Bismuth by Northwoods Grits. Grits was also the sire of our second litter, this one out of Northwoods Nickel, whelped on May 1. Last with her litter of eight was feisty Northwoods Carbon by Northwoods Nirvana on May 12.
The only male puppy of Northwoods Carbon’s litter of eight by Northwoods Nirvana litter has the perfect home with Brandon Eales.
Jerry and I kept six puppies from this group but the rest are very happily living in their new homes (at least according to enthusiastic emails and text messages!). Puppies were picked up by families who drove from Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota while other puppies flew to Helena, Seattle and Philadelphia.
Dogs bring the neatest people together and we always like to meet new clients. But, too, Jerry and I were especially delighted to see Dick and Melanie Taylor and Mike McCrary again who bought second setters from us this summer.
Staunchness training for Northwoods Blitzen (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016). Photo by Jeff Hintz.
Out in the field, summer means gun dog training using pigeons in releasers, backing dummies and dogs dragging check cords. Jeff Hintz, our friend and neighbor, has helped Jerry for many years. They are an impressive team, easily communicating with hand signals, head nods and grins.
Loki (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Carbon, 2016) is owned by James Anderson. Photo by Jeff Hintz.
Nick (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2016) is owned by Larry Young.
Gunner (RU-CH Erin’s Prometheus x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2016) is owned by Kevin Zubich.
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.
Does it get any prettier than this? Merimac’s Blu Monday (Northwoods Blue Ox x CH Houston’s Belle, 2010) points a covey of bobwhite quail during the last brace of an afternoon hunt.
The experience a dog gains during a winter in Georgia with Betsy and me is hard to duplicate anywhere. For at least four months, excellent weather conditions and plentiful bobwhite quail combine for outstanding training opportunities. These winters are especially beneficial for puppies and young dogs because they get consistent exposure over a long period of time when they are maturing both physically and mentally.
Head high and practically on her tip toes, veteran Northwoods Vixen (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2010) locates a covey on a guided hunt.
Betsy and I brought our own puppies from 2015 litters, setters Fendi, Gucci and Prada and pointer Chanel. All have developed well. They find and point birds and, at least most of the time, back, too.
Maddie, on left, and Chanel point scattered birds of a covey along a mowed strip. They are female littermates out of CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015.
Derbies from 2015 are proving they have what it takes. Bismuth, Nickel, Platinum and Mercury (recently sold) are finishing well on their game.
Some dogs make it look easy. Northwoods Parmigiano (Northwoods Blue Ox x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2010) confidently points a covey.
We brought our older dogs as well as several owned by clients and all are veterans to these piney woods. We work them on our grounds and use them on guided hunts. Merimac’s Blu Monday, owned by Ben McKean, is easily a “10” on quail whether on wild or liberated quail hunts. Grits, Chablis, Royce, Sean, Oscar and Vixen round out my guiding string.
What style in motion! Charlie (Blue Riptide x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2014) shows off his long, smooth stride. Photo by Ben McKean.
We have other extremely talented client dogs with us. Pointer Maddie (CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015) is here from Maine and setter Remmie made the trip from Minnesota. Charlie (Blue Riptide x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2014) is here from Ohio and we also have Grace, Hannah and Jack from Montana. Roxy (Northwoods Grits x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2014) is back for her second winter of training. Sure beats her home state of Illinois!
In good broom sedge cover, Jerry flushes for Roxy (Northwoods Grits x Houston’s Belle’s Choice, 2014). Even though not yet two years of age, Roxy runs a mature race, accurately pins birds and is steady to wing and shot.
I miss our own Carly and Carbon on my guiding string but they are busy with puppies. Each whelped litters of nine in late January/early February.
A puppy’s first point is always exciting! Six-month-old Remmie locates a quail in thick cover of a mowed strip.
A pair of eight-year-old bird dogs, setter Houston’s Blackjack (CH Can’t Go Wrong x CH Houston’s Belle, 2008) and Chris Mathan’s pointer Pal’s Kitty Hawk (Pal’s Maverick x Wynot Kristy, 2008), share point.
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.
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
To provide the ideal ruffed grouse shooting opportunity, a pointing dog should engage the grouse so the bird doesn’t move. Bumping grouse occurs when a dog gets too close and causes the bird to flush. It’s one of the most common training problems I hear about from clients and friends.
One reason 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 for veteran grouse dogs.
Tip: The hunter can’t do anything about this one. Wait until conditions improve.
→ Lack of experience.
Rare is the dog that will exhibit a natural ability to 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.
Dogs invariably see 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 quite 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, inadequate pointing instincts or physical limitations.
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.
In thick cover on the barrens of northwest Wisconsin, Platinum (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Prancer, 2014) finds a covey of sharptails.
A lot (and I mean A LOT) of hours are spent training dogs on wild birds during August. Locally, woodcock and sharp-tailed grouse are plentiful while travel to the prairies of the Dakotas give dogs opportunities on both sharptails and pheasants from horseback.
On a misty morning in North Dakota, three pretty females find and point pheasants. On left, Frank LaNasa’s Claire (CH True Confidence x CH Lil Miss Sunshine, 2014), Paul Hauge’s Mocha (CH Shadow Oak Bo x Northwoods Chardonnay, 2014) and Tony Follen’s Lucy (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011).
Training on wild birds takes tremendous effort but there is just no substitute. As friend and training pal Jeff Hintz says, “The difference between planted birds and wild birds is like playing checkers versus chess.”
The woodcock have been plentiful in the pasture edges and Smooch (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013) accurately locates a single.
Since it is so much work, we accept a limited number of clients’ dogs to train on wild birds. Setters Grits, Royce and Mocha have made every trip to North Dakota. On local sharptails, I’m fine-tuning the abilities of two-year-old pointer littermates Nutmeg, Smooch and Jaguar.
The beautiful fields of North Dakota are vast and can be a challenge for young dogs. But one-year-old Carbon (Blue Riptide x Northwoods Carly Simon, 2014), on right, shares point with the veteran Grits (Northwoods Blue Ox x Northwoods Chablis, 2011) on a covey of sharptails.
For our own veterans, I sharpen up their staunchness and let them have fun in the woods while conditioning, too. And it’s one of the key ways Betsy and I evaluate young dogs for potential future breeding. Prospects from our 2014 litters—Carbon, Bismuth, Mercury, Nickel and Platinum—are gaining invaluable experience on wild birds.
From a long distance out, littermates Nutmeg, on left, and Jaguar (CH Elhew G Force x Northwoods Vixen, 2013) point a covey of sharp-tailed grouse.