I recently joined Pheasants Forever co-worker Rehan Nana on a visit to Berg Brothers Setters. Rehan, with his heart set on finding a pup from a red setter litter, and the Berg Brothers having a famous reputation for their hunting lines of both English and red setters, made for a natural match. To Rehan’s credit, he wanted to complete the due diligence of examining the expected litter’s dam and sire in hunting action. With a day of bird dog talk on deck, I eagerly accepted the invitation to tag along for the observation.
To my great pleasure, I learned an absolute ton about bird dog training and breeding during the afternoon’s proceedings. However, one observation left me babbling for days after the visit.
As I observed the sire, “Slim,” elegantly work the field in search of a planted quail, I realized the dog held its nose in the air the entire time. This was in stark contrast to my own German shorthaired pointer’s nose to the ground, then to the wind, then back to the ground, method of searching for bird scent. While I’ve hunted with a myriad of bird dogs over the years, including a wide variety of setters, I typically am focused on my own shorthair’s progress in the field. Consequently, watching Slim with complete and sole focus, I was startled by the difference in scenting style.
“Nose to the ground appears in bird dogs with hound in the breed, like your shorthair,” explained Ben Berg. “The nose in the air is what makes a setter so special. That scent cone is more dispersed in the air than it is on the ground, so an excellent wind-scenting bird dog should have a bigger scent cone than a dog that scents the ground alone.”
This jewel of wisdom opened my eyes and my understanding to why so many ruffed grouse hunting traditionalists favor setters. A dog with a wider scent cone would logically bump far less ruffed grouse, a naturally skittish bird. Conversely, a bird dog that uses the ground scent to track roosters prone to running, as well as tough-to-kill winged roosters would have obvious advantages.
As I listened, the female red setter, “Belle,” scented the ground where Slim had earlier pointed a quail. “Most of us bird hunters love to chase all the birds of the uplands,” Scott Berg explained, “so the magic in finding an exceptional bird dog is completing the due diligence like Rehan to find the selectively bred litter that’s going to produce your best chances for the magic.”
Scott offered this list of five key questions for puppy buyers hoping to find that magical bird dog:
1) How many females does the breeder evaluate to find a female suitable for breeding? Producing the best of any breed is by definition a numbers game. The more highly selective the process, the better the result. In other words, evaluating five females for every one that is kept of breeding is better than two.
2) How was the stud dog chosen? Stud dogs should be chosen on an even more selective basis given breeders have access via stud fees to a variety of top dogs. The essence of this question is “how wide was the search to find the ideal stud?”
3) Are the parents trained to an advanced level? (steady to wing & shot / stop to flush / honoring) While hunters may not require their dogs to be trained to advanced level, breeders should train all potential breeding candidates to this level. The process and end result provides better insight in terms of whether the prospect is suitable for breeding in terms of natural ability, trainability and intelligence.
4) Do they hunt and/or train on a variety of wild birds? Observing the dog in a variety of different types of cover, handling several species of wild birds is a great process for evaluating breeding candidates.
5) Can the breeder provide references of hunters with needs/preferences the same as the prospective buyer? For starters it’s a good indication if the breeder understands the buyer’s preferences. Ask for 10 names without contact information. Pick three names at random and ask the breeder to provide contact information. Any breeder can come up with three satisfied buyers. This helps to provide a more random sample.
In my opinion, this list is a gold mine of litter selection advice. As I reflect on my observation of the difference in Slim’s scenting versus my shorthair’s scenting, it seems ludicrous that I hadn’t noticed such a stark difference before. However, I don’t think I’m that out of the ordinary. I believe most of us categorize bird dogs by the way they react when they encounter bird scent rather than categorizing them by the way they search for bird scent. My shorthair being more similar to a setter by reacting in a point when scent is encountered; however, in the search for that scent my shorthair is more akin to a Labrador with its nose more often focused on the ground trail.
So my question is this: Did you already know that certain breeds focus on the scent in the air, while other bird dog breeds focus their attention to scent on the ground? What breed of bird dog do you have and where is its nose primarily focused?