Which Hunting Breed is Best

Paul Fuller is the gun dog columnist for Northwoods Sporting Journal. The Journal has granted permission to re-print Paul’s articles. Thank you Northwoods Sporting Journal.

August 2008

Has it really been two months since we started the upland bird season in New England? It’s unfair. We work hard training and conditioning our dogs and then it’s over. For pointing dog owners, we can hope for an open December and continue to hunt grouse. Most woodcock are basking in the warmth of more southern climates.

 Your writer, and his dog, aren’t ready to quit. If the snow cover isn’t too deep, I will make at least two trips to upstate New York where the grouse season extends through February.

 In the November issue, I reported on a very successful grouse hunt at Gogama Lodge in Ontario, Canada and the opening day of the Maine season. Dillon (my GSP) and I have hunted four to five days a week during October. We would hunt every day; (Sunday hunting is allowed in NH.) however, both Dillon and I need some recovery period. From my own experience and reports I’ve received, woodcock numbers were about the same as last year and grouse numbers were down.

I’m anxious to hear from the biologists as to why the grouse numbers appear to be down. Both predictions and actual early observation of broods pointed toward a good year for the Ruffed Grouse. I met a Game Warden in the North Maine Woods the third week of October. He said that his observation was that late spring/early summer grouse broods were in excellent condition. By late summer, however, there was a significant decline in the number of young birds. He had no answer for the decline. Weather? Excessive predation? I’ll report further on any explanation for the decline and I would also appreciate hearing from readers.

This is a gun dog column so now that bird season is coming to a close, that’s what we’re going discuss. Over the next year, or perhaps longer, we’re going to cover the entire process of training a pointing dog…from puppy time to a finished dog. There is an old saying about bird dog training; get five professional trainers in a room and you’ll get five different opinions on a training question. I’ll give you my approach; however, I will always appreciate an email regarding your experience.

 If you have never owned a pointing dog or haven’t in many years, you need to first ask yourself if having a dog fits your life style. Many of the pointing breeds are high-energy dogs. They’ve been bred to run and hunt. A pointing dog should be run three to four days per week during the off-season and four to six days per week during pre-season. Actually, I ran Dillon almost every day for 45 days prior to the season. His stamina has allowed me to hunt far more than most dogs and their owners could handle. Do you have the time to keep your dog conditioned? If you’re committed, then we move onto the next step. What pointing dog breed should you consider?

The English Setter is the traditional New England grouse and woodcock dog. It’s stood the test of time for over 100 years. Almost every wildlife artist over the years who has done a Ruffed Grouse painting uses the English Setter. Setters are good-natured and make a good family dog also. A big advantage they have over the pointers is their long hair. Grouse and woodcock are found in the thorniest, thickest cover you’ve ever seen or experienced. A dog with shorthair comes out of those covers with blood running down their legs. A disadvantage of the long hair is the difficulty seeing ticks. Lyme tick disease for both dogs and humans is a major problem in New England.

The point of an English Setter is almost aloof. I’ve even heard setter owners call the point “majestic”. If you didn’t know pointing dogs and were just an observer, you wouldn’t know the dog is on point. Personally, I like the intensity of the pointer. You know when a pointer is pointing. The shorter hair is tough on their hide in briar thickets; however, you can see a tick quickly. Just a few days ago, my wife picked 21 ticks off Dillon in just the time it took me to remove my hunting boots.

Speaking of short hair, the English Pointer is also a rock-solid performer. If wildlife artists prefer an English Setter for grouse paintings, then it’s almost always an English Pointer that appears in quail paintings. While grouse hunting in Wisconsin last fall, about ½ of all the bird dogs I saw were English Pointers.

I’m a big fan of the continental breeds that are also referred to as versatile hunting dogs. There are at least a dozen versatile hunting dog breeds. These breeds have very avid followers and have their own organization called the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). I suspect the most popular are the Brittany and the German Shorthaired Pointer. My dog, Dillon, is a German Shorthair.

The shorthair has been bred to perform the whole show. Their search pattern is excellent, they have an intense but stylish point and they train well to remain staunch through wing and shot. They’re also excellent retrievers. Because they’re the whole show, they might need an extra lesson or two on backing (honoring point). They’re not bred to share the stage. Also, they’re an excellent housedog and companion.

Now, back to the “life style” issue. No matter how good the breeding, no matter how much you pay for your pup, unless you’re prepared to invest the time training your new hunting partner, you’re dog will never reach its potential. The minimum requirement for a pointing dog is that it doesn’t chase birds and it holds point. Without these minimum performance levels, you’ll have many frustrating days in the field. Once you have the minimum performance levels achieved, you can take another year or two to finish your dog. By finished, I mean a dog is steady on point and steady to wing and shot. Honoring point and retrieving to hand completes the “brag dog” list.

If you’re convinced you’re ready for that new pup, then here are a few breeders you may want to talk with. For English Setters, call Ken Alexander at DeCoverly Kennels (www.decoverlykennels.com) in Pennsylvania. His number is 570/378-3357. Ken has continued the famous Ryman Bloodline of English setters. For English Pointers, contact Brian Hayes at Chokebore Kennels (www.chokeborekennels.com). Brian breeds the famous Elhew bloodline. The Elhew bloodline is famous throughout the world and Brian’s kennels is close-by in Rhode Island. His telephone number is 508/393-9238. For German Shorthairs, contact David Trahan at 603/463-7828. David’s kennel (www.onpointkennel.com) is located in Deerfield, NH. In Maine, contact Julie Smith at Skypoint Kennel. Her number is 207/698-5454. Any of these kennels will be happy to discuss your next hunting companion.

Although we’ll go into selecting a breeder and puppy in more detail in future columns, remember that it costs as much to feed a good dog as a poor one. Start with good breeding and your chances are much greater you’ll eventually have an excellent upland bird dog.