HOW TO PICK THE BEST GROUSE DOG
by David Michael Duffy (no date, article torn out of magazine)
Hevizi Acsi (probably fifties Magyar Vizsla)
Photo from the Hunt Collection
“The ideal grouse dog is a combination of verve, dash and concentration.”
“One breed does the job better than any other.”
Tradition and performance have convinced many upland hunters that the English Setter is the best breed to use for ruffed grouse.
The affectionate, pretty long-haired bird dogs have played second fiddle to the Pointer in overall popularity among upland bird hunters for the past 50 years. They remain favorites, however, in those states where grouse hunting is the most popular type of bird hunting.
Bonasa Umbellus is a tough cookie for any bird dog to handle properly. He spooks easily and is likely to fly away at inopportune times. That’s why a good grouse dog is so highly prized. One that displays style, class and can put birds in the bag, is a gem of the highest order. Classy grouse dogs are hard to find, and always have been.
If you ask a partridge hunter for the first requirement of a good grouse do, he’ll say, “I need a close working dog.” It is all to common to hear bragging about the performance of an overly cautious plodder who quests with a low head and stands birds in a relaxed manner.
Gun dog setters frequently unload cautious pups or uninspiring adults on grouse hunters, asserting that they are prime candidates for thick cover work “because they won’t run big.”
This is unfortunate. Certainly a good grouse dog must hunt close, never more than 100 yards from the gun and most times considerably under that. But a classy grouse dog should move quickly and correctly, quest with verve and dash and point with intensity and high station.
Top quality grouse dogs know where to look for birds, since those likely places and respond swiftly when quiet handling becomes necessary. They don’t make long, straight casts, but work more of a quartering pattern, with wide swings to the side, rather than boring to the front in a 45 degree pocket. Crossing within sight or sound of the gunner’s front, they keep track of his location and follow the erratic course a grouse hunter must pursue.
Not even a mediocre grouse dog comes up from behind very often. Nothing is more irritating than trying to keep track of and direct a dog that consistently cuts back, gets lost and then foot-trails his master to catch up.
The grouse dog that turns in, rather than out, at the end of acceptance to the hunter’s front. While no one loves a yoyo dog in thick cover, the concerned dog that checks in frequently is not to be faulted.
Once the quarry is located and pinned, the classy grouse dog’s point should exude intensity and concentration and should he high on both ends. If the bird’s scent catches him in motion, he should drop down on his belly in an effort to prevent flushing that wary game bird. His approach to game scent may vary with individual birds, from gingerly stalking a moving bird to snapping to a halt on a tight sitter.
Pointing dogs that foot-trail, carry dead tails when moving and stand their game indifferently can produce ruffed grouse. They are not, however, classy grouse dogs. They may be accepted, even admired, by hunters who use dogs, but they won’t satisfy dog men who hunt.
Once on point, top-quality grouse dogs freeze until the arrival of the hunter causes the bird to flush. If a bird runs out, they may break point and relocate. But there is no creeping to get closer or willful driving in to bust a bird if the hunter is delayed in reaching the point.
In thick cover a hunter can usually keep track of his dog by the sounds made as it penetrates the brush, or from a bell attached to the dog’s collar. When there is silence the hunter hikes expectantly toward where he last heard the dog or bell. A proper grouse dog usually doesn’t run out of the country so no noise is good noise.
A grouse hunter is lucky if he can walk in front of his dog and flush the bird in the classic manner. More often he will be forced to shoot over his dog, if the bird holds until the approaching man is within gun range. Even if the dog does his job flawlessly, grouse will flush prematurely for no apparent reason.
The polished grouse dog will fetch dead birds and cripples. Ruffed grouse present few easy shots, but they are not hard to bring down. They are difficult to recover unless the dog is an eager, consistent retriever.
Once he knows the characteristics of an ideal grouse dog, where does a man look to fill such a tall order? First, select a breed that will best suit your personal wants and style. The English Setter is my personal pick for hunting ruffed grouse and their migrant sidekicks, the woodcock, exclusively. You can choose either a properly trained Setter or, if you have the time and inclination to concentrate on a specialist dog, you can acquire a puppy out of the right breeding to facilitate your training efforts.
A number of other options are open. The best grouse dog among the pointing breeds I’ve owned was a Pointer bitch. I’ve shot many more grouse and woodcock over Spaniels, perhaps even Labrador Retrievers than off points. Flushing dogs with minimal training do effective work on a variety of game, and are the answer for many part-time and even full-time grouse and woodcock shooters.
For a man of limited training experience who starts with a puppy and wants his grouse pointed, the Brittany Spaniel is No 1 choice. Most Brits range close naturally and their innate curiosity leads them into probing nooks and crannies of cover and rooting into thick, stuff, rather than skimming the edges.
On the basis of close work and good hunting instincts the deliberate, dock-tailed pointing breeds of European origin like the German Shorthaired Pointers, and even the rare Irish and Gordon Setters stemming from hunting backgrounds, rate consideration.
The epitome of a proper grouse dog, the English Setter, is impractical for many but the rewarding to the man challenged by the task of developing a striking and uncommonly good grouse dog.
The only sure way to get a good grouse-hunting Setter is to buy a proven dog. If you are lucky enough to find someone who will sell a broken in grouse Setter, be prepared to pay a high tariff. Your choice may have some age on him-good, young grouse dogs are rare indeed. Grouse dogs improve with age, peaking at five to seven years.
If you start with a puppy, remember that proper breeding is vital in any gun dog. With English Setters to be used on grouse, nothing counts as much as the right parental background.
Do not even consider a pup out of show or pet stock. Such breeding produces oversized, structurally unsound dogs unable to negotiate cover or last out a hunt. They also lack the desire and heart required of a gun dog.
Some thought may be given to “field trial bred” English Setters. They possess the instincts, desire, stamina and class, but they would probably require “breaking” by a determined trainer. Their independence bent and wide-ranging ability was carefully bred into them to fulfill the wants of hose-=mounted hunters and field trailers.
Local grouse hunters sometimes breed their good dogs for the benefit of themselves and friends. Such a source is not a bad bet, but you seek a grouse-bred English Setter. Hunters’ dogs may be grouse trained but they will lack the genetic ability to transmit desired qualities to offspring.
The serious seeker of a great grouse dog should acquaint himself with grouse field trials and the men who breed, train and handle Setters. He should ignore preconceived ideas about the merits of field trial vs hunting dogs.
I recently attended the inaugural running of the National Amateur Grouse Classic, sponsored b y the Ruffed Grouse Society of North America and the Red Wing Shoe Company. It was held on the Gladwin Field Trial Area near Meredith, Michigan last April.
The importance of breeding was really proven during this contest. Ghost Train, winner of the 1969 Grand National Grouse Championship, owned by Wayne Fruchy, Beaverton, Michigan was the sire of the winner, the runner-up and six other English Setters among the 17 dogs who competed. The Classic winner, Jettrain, owned and handled by Tom Novak of Hope, Michigan had already emulated his sire by winning the 1975 Grand National and siring s futurity winner. Ghost Train Jr is also owned and handled by Fruchy.
Highest interest in ruffed grouse trials centers in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where they are run in both spring and fall. Trial dates and locations can be obtained from the American Field.
The techniques of training a grouse dog are detailed in many books on dog training. Exposure and experience, however, are vital. This means that the hunter of ruffed grouse must spend more time than any other trainer, both afield and at home, developing close rapport with his gun dog to be rewarded by consistent class performance.
Dogs must be afforded many chances to learn how to handle a bird prone to vacate the premises at any time. There is no shortcut, no mechanical way to teach hunting. Very few dogs possess innate ability to cope with ruffed grouse and others cannot learn to change an approach that works with other game.
Most English Setters readily catch on to retrieving, but they do not break early. They benefit from a better to gentle correction than harsh discipline. They seem to learn by actual “doing” and wanting to please. It may take a Setter 18 to 20 months to be doing what’s expected of a 14 month Pointer, but they seldom require brushing up once they learn what is expected of them. Acquiring or training a high quality, grouse-hunting English Setter isn’t easy, but few of the great things in life are.
But when that charming pup puts it all together for the first time, the grouse hunter will have good reason to be proud. A grouse producing English Setter’s beauty and class is rivaled only by the bird itself and the fine double gun used to bring it down.
I am not criticizing or questioning the veracity of this particular article. But I do note this particular author has other articles that I know are based on inaccurate impressions. He wrote an article about the Vizsla and said that in order to field trial this very close working breed, that field trailers had to apply mechanical training aids to increase range so they could be field trial competitive and those techniques had created field trial Vizslas who were nervous and difficult to train. dlb
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