I spent a number of days this spring running my German shorthaired pointer, Trammell, through woods I know hold timberdoodle on their migration north. It was interesting to watch Trammell navigate the scent determining when to point and when to press. It got me thinking about the incredible ability of a dog’s nose, so I reached out to Bob West of Purina Dog Foods and a professional trainer with 50 years of experience to teach me more about bird dogs and scent.
The Scent Cloud
“Although the bird dog world has referenced it as a ‘scent cone’ for years, scent doesn’t follow a geometric shape. Scent more closely resembles a cloud,” explained West.
West explained that scent does indeed get bigger as it disperses downwind from the source, but the air current, temperature, humidity, and individual animal’s body heat are just some of the factors influencing the path of scent particles.
Using smoke bombs to simulate scent, West has observed the unpredictability of these scent clouds. “I’ve watched scent travel in a path similar to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. There are indeed holes in scent that one dog can shoot through and another just a few feet away will encounter.
Temperature & Moisture
The temperature of the environment, the body heat emanating from the bird, and the moisture of your dog’s nose are all critical variables as well. Cool, moist days are better for dogs to locate bird scent. Scent seems to hold tighter to the ground longer under cooler and moister conditions. Likewise, Bob West’s field trial research indicates before 10AM and after 4PM are the optimal times of day for dogs to locate birds, which generally coincides with the cooler portions of the day.
Moisture is also important in your dog’s nose. A dog’s ability to scent requires the sensory receptors in the pup’s nose being clean and moist. This is one of the reasons abundant water is necessary in the field.
West also believes dogs have the ability to sense, or perceive the body heat of a bird. “Birds are warm blooded animals and I believe our dogs have the ability to determine a bird’s location by using more than just the sense of smell. I believe bird dogs also factor in heat from other animals, as well as disturbed vegetation.”
The combination of a concentration of scent, disturbed vegetation and the bird’s body heat create “hot spots.” Oftentimes, these hot spots are the cause of a flash point or a flusher’s increased tail motion. It’s perfectly okay for your dog to focus in on these hot spots. The key is for the dog to process the clues mentally and decipher the bird’s subsequent moves forward.
A pup needs to be in good physical condition to accurately process scent, heat and disturbed vegetation. “It’s my job to talk about nutrition because of my role at Purina, but it is in fact critically important to your dog’s success in the field. A dog that’s appropriately nourished, well hydrated, and in good physical condition for the rigors of hunting is certainly more able to find birds as well as mentally process scent and clues,” added West.
I’ve long believed my shorthair had the ability to observe the difference in habitat between the grouse woods and the pheasant fields, then to know what bird she was scenting for during a particular hunt based upon the cover being hunted. What I wasn’t anticipating was that she’d be able to distinguish different species by scent in the same environment, but that’s exactly what happened on a recent hunt club visit when Trammell locked up on a rooster pheasant with a bobwhite quail in her mouth during a retrieve.
West confirmed the photo’s story, “There is no doubt dogs know the difference between species of birds. They also can differentiate between individuals of the same species. For instance, I’ve observed dogs point roosters with a rooster already in their mouth. Dogs definitely know the smells of different species and individual birds being hunted.”
West also went on to explain that dogs do not get desensitized to smell like humans. “If you walk into a room with fresh cut roses, you’ll notice them for the first few minutes but then the ability to distinguish that rose sent fades. That fade doesn’t happen with dogs. Their noses are exponentially better focused than our sense of smell.”
Hunting Dead Birds
West also reports that dogs can tell the difference between a dead bird, crippled bird and a living/healthy bird. So, when you drop a bird in the tall grass that isn’t immediately retrieved, just stop. The worst mistake a hunter can make is barging into that spot and start breaking down that vegetation. “Let your dog work the cover and scent. If that bird has been hit, imagine the scent from broken tissue or a ruptured digestive track. Your dog will find that scent if you don’t tamper with it. Don’t underestimate your dog’s ability to read disturbed vegetative cover too. They can piece together the puzzle.”
Up Wind, Down Wind, Cross Wind
“Hunt em all,” proclaims West. “You’ll never encounter a day where hunting up wind will always lead you back to your truck. Dogs are used to hunting through variable wind conditions and these different wind directions can make your dog a better bird finder in the long run.”
Just Add Luck
As we finished off our conversation, I asked West to break down into a percentage how much of a dog’s success was the result of its training/master and how much was the dog’s ability. Here’s how he broke it down for me.
Locating Birds (finding): 30% Human influenced / 70% Dog’s Natural Ability
Handling Birds (pointing, flushing, working a runner): 25% Human influenced / 50% Dog’s Natural Ability & 25% LUCK
“You simply can’t forget about luck,” Bob finished. “Sometimes all the training and dog power can’t equal a dose of good luck.”
If you’d like to learn more about bird dogs and their scenting abilities, Bob West was a guest on FAN Outdoors radio on Saturday April 26th. Listen to the KFAN podcast.
The Pointer is written by Bob St.Pierre, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s Vice President of Marketing. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre and listen to Bob and Billy Hildebrand every Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on KFAN FM100.3.