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How Important Is a Gun Dog's Nose?

How Important Is a Gun Dog's Nose?
Photo Credit: Charles Laughton

Sounds like an easy answer, right? Of course a dog’s nose is important. But is it more important than all the other things that go into the making of a crackerjack bird dog? Let’s take a look.

I can still remember a few things about my first bird dog, a Brittany my father bought me when I was 12 (this would be shortly after the Civil War, in case you were wondering). And one of the things I most recall is that I was concerned—tortured may be a more apt description of what I felt—by doubts about my dog’s nose. I pored over all the hunting magazines of the day, and if there was a scenting test the expert du jour recommended, I tried it. Invariably, my poor dog would fail, and I’d be beset by doubts all over again.

Then we’d go hunting. If my pup found quail, I’d forget my doubts, at least for a while. But if, for instance, I accidentally flushed a covey my dog had somehow missed, it would confirm what I already suspected: My dog didn’t have a good nose.

Well, did he or didn’t he? I had no idea then and I still don’t. But now I no longer worry about it.

Here’s another example. About a decade back I had a setter named Rabbit. Rabbit, as it turned out, never quite lived up to her championship bloodlines, but as bird dogs go, she was good enough, if nothing to write home about. More to the point, I don’t remember ever being impressed one way or another about her scenting ability.

One day, I took her for a late-season hunt for Huns, not far from where I live in southern Montana. It had snowed a few days earlier, and there was a light skiff of snow covering the ground, perfect for tracking, something I enjoy doing when the tracks belong to one of my favorite game birds. We were walking up a long, steady incline that terminated on a ridge 400 to 500 yards away. Suddenly, Rabbit slammed into a point.

I walked ahead of her, expecting a flush, but found nothing. Then I glanced at the ground. No tracks. I sent her on, only to have her slam into a point again. And again, no birds, no tracks. Clearly, she wasn’t trailing running birds. This went on for the next ten minutes or so, until we crested the ridgeline and began to descend the other side, a slight breeze in our faces. When she pointed one final time, we found the covey. They’d been on the other side of the ridgeline all that time.

When I added it up, I realized, to my utter amazement, that Rabbit had caught the scent of the covey when they were at least 500 yards away. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. This from a dog with what I would have considered an average nose at best.

So if a dog’s nose isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, what is? Funny you should ask.

I own a lot of accoutrements, and one is an opinion. My opinion is that, day in and day out, an intelligent dog with an average nose will find more birds than an average dog with an exceptional nose. Here’s why: intelligent dogs get better with practice.

I can’t begin to fathom how a dog manages to decipher out the scent of a running ruffed grouse in the lush, dense woods of northern Wisconsin, but I know they do, and the good dogs I’ve owned do a better job of it every year. This applies to all birds and all kinds of dogs. Unfortunately, intelligence isn’t something you can enhance, but it is something you can buy with good breeding and it’s certainly something you can observe. So buy a good dog from a good breeder and you’ll have half the nose problem licked.

Biddability is another trait that I think is more important than scenting ability. Doubt me? Ask anyone who has ever hunted over a wild, out of control dog. While that dog may well have found plenty of birds, he often—and I’m speaking from personal experience here—found them either out of range, chased them out of the country, or both. The satisfaction of owning a dog that has a great nose fades quickly in light of the realization that you own a hammer-headed mutt that has to be beat into complying. Again, though, biddability is innate. (See the previous graph, intelligence as a function of good breeding, etc.)

Fortunately, my final suggestion is something you can enhance: prey drive. Yup, prey drive is also inherent, so breeding—as if you need to be reminded again—is important. But you can develop whatever your dog is naturally born with, and there are a lot of ways to accomplish that.

The first, simply, is to get your young dog into birds whenever you can, at as early an age as possible. I typically start my own pups on birds no later than three months of age and sometimes earlier. I’ve described that process numerous times in this column before, so won’t go into detail here. But simply put, you truss a pigeon, hide it a place where your puppy can find it, and turn him loose. Later, as the dog gets older, he graduates to birds planted in traps, then flushed and chased.

Having your own birds is ideal, which is why I maintain a coop of homing pigeons year around and have for the last 20 years. But there are other alternatives, if you’re not in a position to have birds of your own: Take your pup for training runs. Where doesn’t matter as long as there are some kind of birds and enough land that your pup can chase them.

City parks and open fields are great. Robins, meadowlarks and sparrows are all fair game for a four-, five-, or six-month old puppy. The more he learns to use his nose to find the birds he loves to chase, the more you’re increasing his prey drive. That will pay off in a big way when he finally becomes old enough to hunt.

So here’s my list of must-haves, in order of importance: intelligence, biddability, prey drive, and then a good nose. In the final analysis, there’s nothing you can do about a dog’s nose anyway, and there’s no remotely reliable way to test it that I’ve ever heard of.

If that’s discomfiting, it doesn’t have to be. Think of it this way: even a dog with a poor nose will be able to find and point vastly more birds than you could ever find with your own. And that’s something.

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