My friend Tonyâs setter is nothing special to look at. Sheâs short, with a slightly pushed up nose, as if a pug somehow snuck into her pedigree a few generations ago. Sheâs a muddy tricolor, built close to the ground, and at 10 years old is rapidly slowing down, no longer the freewheeling ground eater she was in her prime.
But sheâs been hunting nothing but chukars her whole life, day in and day out, from the torrid, rimrock heat of September through the brittle, snow-spitting days of December and January. Hunting over her is a lesson in exploded expectations: rather than waste time and energy casting back and forth, she simply jogs patiently from one covey to the next and points them where they live. Tony thinks sheâs one of the best chukar dogs heâs ever owned. I wouldnât disagree. And I wouldnât put my best dog up against that little setter on a bet.
So what makes that dog great? Well, the simple answerâand the indisputable truthâis that she does her job exceedingly well. Beyond that, though, her qualities are a bit harder to define. Is it her range and speed? Nope. How about her nose? Could be. Her style? Probably not. Experience? Absolutely, butâŠ
So how, exactly, do you define a great bird dog? In the field trial world, great dogs have a definite numerical value: such and such a dog has won X number of national championships, so by common consensus it is a great dog. (Not incidentally, itâs also going to be an expensive dog, but thatâs another topic entirely.)
But we in the gritty world of seat-of-the-pants, blue-collar bird hunting are far more subjective. Some folks like big running, flashy dogs; some donât. Some like a 12 oâclock tail on point; the owners of Brittanys, shorthairs and versatiles would beg to differ. Perhaps George Hickox said it best: âI want a dog that runs and hunts in a way that pleases me.â
There are so many variables to consider when discussing the speed of a dog that Iâm already starting to backpedal like a philandering politician.
I used to believe that a hard-charging dog would somehow âfreezeâ spooky birds in their tracks, effectively holding them until I was able to amble up for a leisurely shot. After all, thatâs what Iâd always been told.
Problem was, it never really worked that way. Dogs that are hell-bent-for-leather can also overrun their noses, blowing by coveys that a slower, slightly more methodical dog would probably scent. So, strictly from the standpoint of finding birds, thereâs no physical advantage to owning a dog that runs like the wind. All other things being equal, a slow-moving dog will find just as much game as a barn burner, although it will probably take him longer.
On the other hand, how a dog looks while itâs running is something I care deeply about, so Iâve always leaned toward dogs that move at a snappy (if not breathless) pace and handle birds with intensity.
The accepted wisdom is that open country dogs should run far and wide and thick cover dogs should work much closer. With that in mind, I spent years running 500- and 600-yard dogs on the prairies of Montana, where I do most of my hunting. Then I had a complete reevaluation of priorities: I started adding up the prairie birds (Huns and sharptails) my aging Brittany had pointed, and discovered, despite her limited range (100 to 200 yards, typical for the breed), she probably found more birds by a factor of two to one than any other dog Iâve owned.
Based on her and other moderate-range dogs Iâve hunted over, I now think a dog that ranges out to 200 yards or a bit more in wide open country is plenty big enough and will find just as many birds as a dog that runs at twice that distance. Whatâs more, at that moderate range I actually get to watch my dog hunt once in a while.
Thick, dense cover, of courseâthe kind that ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants and some of the quails live inâis a whole ânother ballgame. For those birds, close-ranging dogs are the catâs pajamas. But itâs easy to go overboard. Some folksâyou know who you areâcanât bear the thought of hunting over a dog they canât always see. That means theyâre uncomfortable with a dog that ranges much beyond 25 yards or so.
Thatâs simply too close in almost any kind of cover. The advantage of a pointing dog over a flushing dog is that it will punch out there and find birds you would have missed otherwise. So a dog that closes down to somewhere between, say, 25 yards at the closest and 100 yards at the farthest is, in my opinion, tough to beat in the thick stuff.
A great bird dog should have a great nose. Now tell me this: exactly how do you determine that? In February and March, after the regular hunting season is over, my friends and I, minus our guns, run our dogs on the prairies for âspring Huns.âÂ By mid-February, Hungarian partridge are pairing up and hold like bobwhite quail, making for grand sport and excellent dog training.
A couple days ago, I had one of my setters down on a farm I knew held some birds. Hanna, who at 6 years old has probably pointed thousands of Huns, ran upwind through three pairs of Huns, which she evidently never knew were there.
On the other hand, a setter I owned a number of years ago, and a dog who wasnât half the bird finder Hanna is, once pointed a covey of Huns from 500 yards away. So what does that say about her nose?
All this nose business talk is overblown, in my opinionated opinion. There are more important things. Your dogâs noseâwhatever you ownâis almost certainly good enough.
Now weâre getting somewhere. The late Bob Wehle once remarkedâand this isnât an exact quoteâif heâd increased the intelligence of the dogs in his breeding program over the years, he was doing something right. I couldnât agree more.
A highly intelligent dog with just average speed, nose and range can develop into a spectacular bird finder. My aging Brittany, whom I mentioned earlier, fits that description perfectly. And, unlike nose, intelligence can be determined simply by observing the dog as youâre training it.
Does he learn his lessons quickly? Does he improve from year to year in his ability to find and point birds? Both are solid indications of an intelligent dog.
Intelligence will allow a dog to compensate for other weaknesses in a way a less intelligent animal might never be able to do. But this isnât something you can train into your dog; it has to be there from birth. Which is another way of saying that good breeding mattersâŠa lot.
Over the course of a dogâs lifetime, it is experience and intelligence, one trait working to bolster the other, that produces the dogs you remember. The smartest, snappiest, best bred and most highly trained hunting dog on earth wonât amount to a hill of beans if he hunts only twice a season.
Iâve seen more dogs than I can countâgood, solid pointing dogs that most hunters would be happy to ownâwho got that way in spite of their lack of training or physical skills simply because their owners hunted them several days a week, all season long, year after year.
Iâm not suggesting anyone forgo training in favor of time in the field; in fact, I think thatâs a big mistake. But you probably need to get your pup out at least a couple dozen times a season if you want him to build on what he knows and improve.
Style varies with the breed, so Iâm going to keep this short. How a dog runs and how he handles birds constitutes his style. Wirehairs, Brittanys and English pointers have different styles because theyâre supposed to have different styles; thatâs how theyâve been bred. Judging one breed by the standards of another isnât fair to either.
Buy a dog from a breed you love to hunt over, and youâll love its style, too. And thatâs as least as important as what anyone else, including snooty dog columnists like me, may think.