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.
CH JTH Izzie (CH Westfall’s Black Ice x Northwoods Prancer, 2011). Look at her eyes.
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.
JTH Scion (CH Rock Acre Blackhawk x Northwoods Vixen, 2015). It doesn’t get any better than this.
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).
Big bluestem, purple blazing star and yellow sunflowers are a pretty backdrop to a pointer hunting for sharptails.
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.
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.