Choosing the Right Upland Bird Dog For You

by Jim McCann

I started out hunting ruffed grouse a very long time ago when I was just a kid, and I did it like most other hunters, without the aid of a bird dog. At the time I thought hunting grouse without a bird dog was incomplete and ineffective, but having a dog was out of the question according to my parents. Looking back over the many decades I now think it was the best thing for me, and for any other hunter, to first learn to hunt gamebirds one-on-one, just you and the birds, on their home turf. I not only became the consummate student; I also became the ultimate predator.

Although coming from a non-hunting family, dreams of someday hunting over a fine bird dog constantly swirled inside my head. Even after my mother declared “lights out” I would reach for my old blue and gold Cub Scout flashlight and one of the many outdoor magazines piled near my bed. With the aid of that flashlight I’d hunker under the covers and read the stories of grouse hunting over and over. And through all this reading and staring at the splendid photographs, there were always the bird dogs. 

Even though I knew I couldn’t have a dog at that point in my life, it didn’t keep me from perusing the many ads for bird-dog breeders and trainers on the back pages of my beloved outdoor magazines. This was back in the 60s and typically the bird dogs praised in articles were pointing dogs, and those always seemed to be English setters. I knew that someday I’d have a bird dog, and I also knew it would be an English setter, but thanks to high school, the draft, college, family and career, it would be some time until I got my first bird dog. 

Fast-forward many years and I got my first of two golden retrievers: gorgeous, affectionate, loveable dogs, but of the flushing dog variety. Not pointing dogs, and not even close to resembling an English setter. What can I say? Stuff happens. 

But the dreams continued and my desire to be a pointing dog guy soared. Along the way I’d started thinking more about the American Brittany (formerly called Brittany spaniel until the early 80s), and when the time was right in my life I made the leap into the pointing dog world. I’m glad I did and I won’t ever change back. I love all dogs to distraction, and I certainly still have a fondness for English setters, but four of those irascible American Brittanys snuck into my life and they, and others, will be with me until the end of the trail. 

But pointing dogs aren’t for every upland hunter, and for that reason we can also choose to hunt with dogs of the flushing variety; the Labrador retriever, and both the English Springer spaniel (ESS) and the English Cocker spaniel holding steady at the top of the list. 

Let’s go over what a pointing dog and a flushing dog actually do in the uplands, and then we’ll touch upon a few pointers (pun intended) on how you go about finding a good breeder. The limited space allowed in just one article precludes saying much about training the upland dog, but there are some great DVDs on the market, and in a sidebar I’ll add some places to go to meet other hunting dog owners, trainers and breeders right here in Alaska. 

Pointing Dogs
As the name implies, pointing dogs go afield and actually stop and point toward the birds hidden in the brush and grass and snow. A pointing dog uses its highly-tuned nose and genetic imprinting to locate gamebirds—you know, grouse and ptarmigan for us Alaska upland hunters—by smelling their airborne scent, and then stopping and standing unmoving while pointing toward the location of said bird. If a pointing dog does not find birds by scenting them, and pointing them, but instead actually “bumps” the birds into flight, then that dog is not doing its job as a pointing dog, but is instead acting like a flushing dog. 

Sure, even the most gifted pointing dog occasionally makes a mistake, or is dealt a raw deal and was never in position to actually smell the hidden bird, and bumps birds from time to time. But remember, the smart pointing dog handler/trainer will never shoot a bird bumped by a pointing dog because that’s a fine way to teach that dog it’s okay to bump birds into flight and not point them. So if your pointing-dog-in-training is flushing birds ahead of you, hold your fire! The only way a pointing dog gets a bird in its mouth is to hold point and allow the hunter to move forward and do the flushing on his own. Don’t cheat here.

Ideal range of a pointing dog is a personal sort of thing, but paying attention to the breeding of a particular dog is important because some dogs are bred to hunt close, and some to range far and wide. My Brittanys come from field trial breeding and will range out a lot farther than a lot of hunters are comfortable with. If you want a dog that stays in close to you that’s fine; whatever makes you and the dog happy is what matters. Just make sure you mention your desire to any breeder you shop with so you don’t end up with a dog that has different desires than your own. 

As a result of top breeding, and lots of training that never really ends, I can empower my dogs to get way out there, find birds and point them until I show up on scene or until the dogs die from exposure and starvation! In the thick ruffed grouse woods my pointing dogs might not get out farther than perhaps 75 yards, but in open sharptail and ptarmigan country it’s nothing for them to range out to 200 or even 300 yards to either side or ahead of me in their constant searching for gamebirds. 

Although I tend to walk as much as 10 or more miles in a day of bird hunting, my pointing dogs will likely clock something in the area of 30 or more miles in a single day afield. I direct them in the field, but they fan out and go places I won’t have to walk to unless they find and hold birds there for me. A hunter with a flushing dog has to cover much of the same ground as the dog in order to remain within gun range of any birds the dog puts into flight. You can do the math and figure out how pointing dogs might find more birds simply because of the vast area they cover over that of a flushing dog. And when pointing dogs find those birds—and hold them—a hunter can plan the approach, prepare for the shot and use special tactics to flush the birds when and where he chooses...most of the time. 

Some dog men and women will tell you how a pointing dog isn’t a good retriever of game, or won’t retrieve at all. Well, with some dogs that may be true, but not in my personal experience. Despite my dogs natural retrieving skills, I still run each through a force fetch program. Pro trainer Tom Simpson of RiverRun Kennels in Fairbanks says, “Pointing dogs are bred to point birds, and often would rather get back to hunting and pointing more birds after the hunter shoots a bird rather than fetch that bird. That’s why I do ‘force fetch’ (trained retrieve) training with any dog I take in for training. After I shoot a bird I’m not asking a pointing dog to fetch me that bird; I’m commanding the dog to fetch my bird. The command ‘Fetch!’ is like any other command I issue to a dog. I don’t ask a dog if it feels like coming back to me, or changing direction, or in the case of a pointing dog to ‘Whoa’ and cease all movement; I command the dog to do these things. Retrieving birds is no different.”        

Flushing Dogs
A flushing dog does not point gamebirds. A flushing dog uses its nose to find birds for the hunter, and when it finds those birds a flushing dog will home in on those birds like a guided missile and make those birds fly for the “gun.” The trick here is for the dog to have the proper breeding and training to do all this within the range of that hunter’s shotgun. It might be fun to watch a dog find and flush a ruffed grouse or covey of ptarmigan at 50 or 75 yards, but it will only save a hunter from expending a shot shell and will never put any birds in the game bag...except, of course, if that grouse or covey of ptarmigan chooses to fly right back at a hunter instead of moving rapidly to some other part of Alaska.

I spoke to Derek Tomlinson of Anchorage, a longtime breeder of English Springer spaniels, to get his take on flushing dogs. Here are a few things he had to say. 

“Spaniels are naturally close-in hunting dogs, with 30- to 35 yards being the maximum range they should be allowed to hunt. A focused, well-trained mature spaniel has learned to stay within gun range.” 

As to a flushing dog’s retrieving skills, Derek adds: “Most spaniels—either English Springer or English Cocker spaniel—are natural retrievers and might not require force fetch training.” But if your dog does require force fetch training, Derek is quick to caution against the unskilled attempting this sort of training and suggests a person seek the skilled services of a pro trainer. I certainly agree. 

Pro trainer Tom Simpson specializes in training Labrador retrievers and only occasionally these days will take on pointing dog clients. When it comes to hunting Labs in the uplands, Tom had this to say. 

“The Labrador Retriever is a top choice for an upland hunter who is looking for instinct, enthusiasm, and endurance in the field. As a general rule of thumb, if I was selecting a new upland hunting partner I would look for a retriever puppy whose parents have earned AKC field trial titles (FC or AFC) or Master Hunter title (MH) or UKC hunting title (HRCH).”

Although I clearly fall on the pointing dog side of the fence, I don’t mind at all crossing over that fence from time to time. In certain situations I think a flushing dog is not only fun to hunt behind, but it is also extremely effective. Imagine hunting a long farm windrow, one hunter to a side, and the flushing dog working over the middle. If that flusher does its job one of those hunters is in for some good shooting.

I love all dogs, especially hunting dogs, but I’ll have pointing dogs for the rest of my life. I like the way a pointing dog looks on point; I like the way a pointing dog stretches out and covers ground I don’t have the time or the ability to cover; I like the more controlled circumstances of having the dog(s) hold those birds until I get near to them; and I like having a chance to catch my breath after a long climb or crossing over or under several acres of blown-down trees and thick brush before I move forward, flush the birds and attempt a shot. 

Whichever you choose—pointer or flusher—only select a pup after carefully studying each breed, finding and interviewing several breeders, and perhaps watching the dam and sire actually hunt. You will definitely fall totally in love with any pup you choose, and since this is a 12- to 15-year commitment, you really should choose the type and individual hunting dog that is best suited to you.   

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Jim McCann was hooked on bird hunting the day he shot his first ruffed grouse at the age of 12, not far from his home in upstate New York. As a young man he later found himself living in Fairbanks, the hub of Alaska’s bird hunting, where he still resides and spends as much of the 9-month-long upland bird season as possible afield with his four Brittany pointing dogs.

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