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How to Use Scenting Conditions to Your Bird Dog's Advantage

Understanding the science behind scenting conditions so that you can set your dog up for success.

How to Use Scenting Conditions to Your Bird Dog's Advantage
Any successful bird dog’s total being is systematically focused on positioning himself, and his nose, in relation to wind, cover, and conditions in an attempt to locate scent of birds. (Photo courtesy of Bill Buckley)

Scientists have proven that a dog’s sense of smell is thousands of times more sensitive than that of humans. Studies also indicate variations among breeds and individual animals. We could discuss the anatomy of the dog’s nose, but instead, I suggest we might be better served spending time reasoning what “scent” is, how it seems to travel, what affects it, and how to use it.

We can all agree that when certain dogs are on the ground, scenting conditions “seem to improve.” The question is, was it the dog or was it the conditions? What part does the number of olfactory receptors play as compared to the individual dog’s attitude, ability, and inclination to focus; coupled with drive, experience, physical condition, etc.

Compound those inherited or learned variables with the variable hunting conditions like humidity, temperature, altitude, vegetation, terrain, game movement, and wind direction/ speed and we’re beginning to understand how complex finding a “quail in a hay-field” might be.

Given the opportunity, I’ll someday ask the Good Lord how this all works, I’m certain he’s the only one who really knows. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through with some blend of scientific fact, years of experience, repeated observation, and a guess or two.


Ideal Scenting Conditions

We’ve decided scent disperses well under optimum conditions, and that provides a good target, but what’s optimum? This is where some speculation comes in, but most will agree on a cool, moist morning, maybe overcast, and a light breeze.

Morning because birds will move to feed, spreading scent over a bigger area. Moist, dense air seems to support scent better and at the same time allows the dog’s mucosa to remain moist/clean, aiding olfactory function. Overcast and cool so our dogs can perform at a higher efficiency for longer periods, while a light breeze disperses and carries scent, providing a larger target.

Some may disagree, but give me this day and I’ll enjoy myself whether we come home with birds or not. Let’s take a couple of extremes as examples to demonstrate.

On hot, dry, dusty, bright sun, and no wind days, birds will shade up and stay put, while your dog’s nose dries and congests. My buddy says on days like this “they couldn’t smell a pork chop in a phone booth,” so the dog’s focus drifts to thinking about the heat, sore feet, and which bush to pee on, rather than finding birds.


Two bird dogs pointing a bird in the tall yellow grass.
Hot and dry conditions tend to make harder scenting for bird dogs. (Photo courtesy of Bob West)

On the other hand, I don’t feel extreme cold favors the dog either. The air is dryer, and often less breeze during the coldest part of winter, yet if you can catch that 20° to 30° F morning with a light breeze and the sun just beginning to crack the snow, get off the couch, you may have the best day of the season.

We can’t change conditions, but we can plan ahead and provide preseason exercise to toughen and condition our dogs for better endurance and efficiency. We can carry water to keep our dog hydrated and to flush the nose and mouth. Maybe we could work the cover differently too.

How to Effectively Use the Wind for Scenting

Too little wind provides no carrier, but too much has another set of problems. High winds dilute and scatter scent, make birds spooky and hard to work. Too much wind tends to push dogs off as they cast into it and pull them out on the downwind casts, often right over the top of birds.

Knowing this, we might try to work valleys, thick edges, or other sheltered areas out of the heavy wind when we can. Birds sometimes feed early and take to heavy cover on those days, and the wind is calmer providing for better scenting in sheltered areas.

How about working the wind now that we’re thinking of ever-changing abstract shapes or, “clouds of scent” as our target rather than little birds. I feel depicting and understanding your dog’s objective in this way can make you a better handler and does away with a good deal of frustration of “over handling” or handling contrary to natural tendencies. Don’t fight it, use it.

Working directly into the wind tends to stall forward travel because the dog’s tendency is to cast or sweep perpendicularly along the wind’s face while taking advantage of likely objectives. So, we have to slow and give them time to work.

Walking perpendicular to the wind across uniform grassland, most dogs tend to “yo-yo” out and back along the wind, so again, give time and help to be sure the likely spots are checked.

When traveling with the wind, a good many hunters allow their dog to cast downwind then turn them to sweep back and forth covering all the good spots as they work back upwind.

Of course, when working a creek or brush edge, we like the wind drift coming out of the cover, carrying our target scent cloud with it. But that can’t always be, so we make do and help/allow our dog to position to its advantage, using whatever wind and cover are available.

Hunt when you can, but think it through, consider shape of scent, the wind, the lay of the land, your dog’s innate ability, and you’ll soon be needing a frying pan.

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