The golden leaves of October lie crisp on the forest floor. The dog’s bell rings merrily as the hunt moves from one likely piece of grouse cover to another. Suddenly, the bell stops. With high anticipation, the hunter searches and, near an alder edge, sees the dog — body rigid and eyes intensely focused. As the hunter approaches, a ruffed grouse noisily flushes and the report of a shotgun swiftly follows.
To achieve that classic ruffed grouse hunting experience with your dog will require hours in the woods and years of effort, for there is no game bird more difficult for a pointing dog to properly handle than a ruffed grouse. It is wily, wary and often called “King of the Woods.”
The process of developing a puppy into an experienced grouse dog begins with the all-important first season. The dog is at an impressionable age and lessons learned will set the foundation for future success.
Here are important considerations to make the most of this time.
Before taking your young dog into the grouse woods for its first hunt, make sure you’re prepared.
The foremost consideration is proper introduction to birds and gunfire. A basic obedience command, HERE or COME, and an attention-getting command, such as calling its name, need to be understood. In addition, the means to enforce those commands, such as a check cord or e-collar, is necessary.
Your young dog also should be accustomed to the sound of a bell or a beeper and to riding in a vehicle. It should be at a suitable weight and in good health, too.
Exposure to grouse
Most of what a dog needs to know about finding and pointing grouse is learned from the birds themselves. Exposure to grouse — and plenty of them — is crucial.
Your puppy will learn key details about grouse.
• Where they are most likely to be found.
• How to differentiate where the grouse is as opposed to where it was.
• How close to get before the bird flushes.
• That it can’t catch the grouse.
• How to follow running birds.
The goal is to have your puppy hunt for and find grouse. Don’t worry if it doesn’t point many; that will come with repeated exposure, maturity and training.
Handling in the woods
Expecting your puppy to be in sight always or range at a certain distance is unrealistic and, in fact, can inhibit its bird finding. As long as it is checking in and hunting in the direction you’re headed, you don’t need to say anything. Overhandling, in terms of too much calling and whistling or constant encouragement, can distract and confuse the dog. In addition, it could alert any grouse to your whereabouts.
At times, you’ll need to communicate with your puppy. Use the basic recall or attention-getting commands and be sure to have the capability to enforce them.
If your puppy gets overexcited, take a break. Give it time to settle down and regain its composure.
Owner attitude, expectations
Be patient. Developing an experienced grouse dog will take several seasons. Your puppy has a lot to learn. Expect it to make mistakes — flush birds, chase rabbits, not pay attention and, at times, become uncontrollable.
Be realistic about your young dog’s capability. It might look mature, but it is still just a puppy. Be cognizant of its physical and mental limitations; i.e., plan several short hunts instead of one long outing. To encourage your young dog to point grouse and not flush them, shoot only birds that have been pointed.
Finally, do remember to have fun with your puppy. Take time to savor this first season — hopefully the first of many — in the grouse woods.
Jerry Kolter and Betsy Danielson own Northwoods Bird Dogs (northwoodsbirddogs.com), a pointing dog breeding and training facility near Sandstone, Minn. They focus on English setters and pointers used in the pursuit of upland birds — particularly ruffed grouse and woodcock.