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.
… the majority of times a high-quality and experienced dog pointed and no birds were seen was not because they were false pointing; but rather they were pointing where quail had been but had left undetected.
~ Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy, Tallahassee, Florida
Savvy wild birds want to survive. They learn avoidance techniques, especially when repeatedly pressured. They discern the approach of the dog and react accordingly.
These evasion tactics are confirmed by a five-year project undertaken by H. Lee Stribling and D. Clay Sisson, two professors at Auburn University. They conducted their research at the school’s Albany Area Quail Management Project in Albany, Georgia, beginning in 1992. The team used 254 radio-tagged coveys to determine how they behaved when encountered by dog and hunters.
Here are their findings on the causes of unproductive points.
• 58% caused by coveys running away from pointing dogs
• 31% attributed to wild flushes
• 11% actually pointed coveys that held tight and refused to flush
In this study, unproductives occurred in 12% of the encounters with marked coveys.
Experience is the best teacher
Better allow him to flush (the birds) than have him do too much pointing of a character that induces false pointing.
~C.B. Whitford, Training the Bird Dog
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.
Unproductive points will always occur, even if only occasionally. The acceptable number varies with the species. Woodcock, for example, allow the dog to get close before pointing and the dog has more opportunity to discern the exact location. Other species, such as ruffed grouse, require the dog to point from farther away, providing the dog with less scent and, therefore, more opportunities to error. Other factors including age of the birds, cover type and weather conditions can effect on the number of unproductive points.
In most field trials, regardless of the species, two unproductives usually takes the dog out of the stake.
Too many unproductives and tips to help
Not every unproductive point is caused because birds had left unseen. Some dogs are prone to point unproductively. If your dog is having excessive unproductive points and you suspect it is not because birds had left, here are common reasons and tips to resolve them.
→ Over cautiousness due to training problems
A dog can become over cautious around birds if it is being bothered. Constant talking to the dog while it is working game is distracting. Also overly 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 may take some 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/or faulty scenting ability. Others have soft dispositions which can make them afraid of birds.
Tip: Encourage the dog to move towards the scent to either point it or bump it. Don’t make it a big deal if the dog moves a few. Let the dog 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.
→ Off game
Dogs can point off game such as 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 for sure the dog is pointing off game, let it know that’s not what you want. A verbal correction may be all that is needed or you may need to escalate.
→ Foot scent or old scent
Some dogs want to point foot scent or very old scent. Under good conditions, dogs can smell ground scent that might be hours or even days old. Occassionally, a tired dog will put its head down more.
Tip: Teach the dog to move on a command such as “toot toot” on a whistle. Encourage the dog to move towards the scent and either point it or bump it. Let the dog learn. Hunt when the dog is fresh and full of energy.
→ Bad scenting conditions
It might just be the scenting conditions that day, i.e., the old saying, “wind from the east.”
Tip: Exercise patience. Try another dog. Wish for better weather.
→ 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: Your dog is very smart and/or loves to hunt but it’s just putting on an act. Call the dog in and hope it’s not the proverbial truck bird.
Remember, a key to fewer unproductives is letting the dog learn on its own. And you’re not alone if your dog has the occasional unproductive. Owners, trainers and handlers have been dealing with this issue for almost 150 years.
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