What is the best grouse dog breed has been debated for decades. There can be no perfect answer to fit every hunter; there are simply too many variables.
A few of those variables are with the hunter and not the dog. Is the hunter in good physical condition? If so, do you prefer a big running dog? Does the hunter favor a pointing dog or a flushing dog?
Let’s look at the pointing versus flushing dog first. As most of my readers know, I’m a pointing dog owner. I thoroughly enjoy walking up on a point, having the bird flush, having the dog stay steady and then releasing for the retrieve if I was lucky with my shot. That whole sequence is very thrilling for me. This article addresses pointing dogs. However, I’ve been in camps where grouse guides were using flushing spaniels. I’ve watched them work and have been very impressed. I do not in any way underestimate their value as a grouse dog.
Picking a pointing grouse dog breed has a lot to do with the hunter’s legs. Are you capable of following a big running dog? A dog that might point three hundred yards (or more) from your position means a lot of walking. And, the dog may repeat that same scenario all-day long.
The all-time number one breed used for ruffed grouse is the English setter. It’s been proven as a top performer since the 1800s. The English setter consistently wins more grouse field trials than any other breed. Most setters are big running dogs. Many grouse guides and trainers feel there should be only two speeds for a grouse dog…fast and stop. They want a dog that covers a big chunk of cover and to do it fast. Of course, a big and fast runner must absolutely stop with the very hint of grouse scent. If they don’t, they run over the bird. A busted bird very seldom produces a shot for the hunter. The theory is that the more ground a dog covers, the more birds they will find. Your author has had the privilege of following and shooting over the top grouse dog setters in the country. If well-trained, it’s a thing of beauty. A well-trained setter will work within bell range of the owner/hunter. They will stop in their tracks at the first hint of grouse scent and then keep the bird pinned until the hunter arrives.
The second most popular grouse dog is the Brittany. The Brittany has consistently proven to be a great all-around bird dog. It is a medium range dog that fits perfectly to an individual that may not have the legs or stamina to keep up with a big running dog. I have a very good friend who has hunted grouse with the Brittany spaniel his entire life (he’s 79 years old). Over the past forty years, I’ve watched his dogs perform incredibly well on running birds. They’ll point until they detect a fading scent cone and then relocate until the scent becomes stronger. And, they eventually pin the bird for the hunter. For the average hunter, I can’t think of a better breed.
The third most popular grouse dog is the German shorthaired pointer. This is the breed that resides in our household. It’s the versatile breed that does it all. The shorthair is a medium range dog that fits just about any age hunter. It has a good search pattern, points well, trains easily to steady to wing and shot and retrieves your downed birds. If there is criticism of the shorthairs, it is often that they “potter” on scent too long. This tendency is from their tracking instinct which is a part of their heritage. Certainly this issue is not present with all shorthairs. We presently have two in the household. The older male tends to potter occasionally, however, the younger female runs with her head high and hardly ever pays attention to ground scent. That’s what we want since pointing scent is in the air…not on the ground.
Other pointing dogs we often see in the grouse woods is the English pointer (amongst the hard core, it’s just “pointer”), vizsla, pointing griffon and small munsterlander. They can all get the job done.
Before buying your next grouse dog puppy, do a leg check. Can you keep up with a big running dog? If not, you’ll enjoy the hunt more with a medium range dog.
Paul Fuller is host of the Bird Dogs Afield TV program. Paul’s website is www.birddogsafield.com.