This month's column is in response to a reader question regarding a common dilemna. He wrote "looking for information on making her (his German shorthair) a better grouse dog. She does well on planted pheasant and quail, but as you know grouse don't generally hold like a planted quail."
First, start with a pointing dog pup out of proven grouse dog bloodlines, one whose ancestors were proven in grouse woods on wild grouse. To quote my first book, Grouse Dogs, "real grouse dogs come from real grouse dogs". Choosing from the general population of pointing dogs, only one in a hundred may become a real grouse dog. Choosing from proven grouse dog bloodlines will dramatically improve your odds. Almost any dog can hunt grouse and occasionally point one when the conditions are right and the bird cooperative. The real grouse dog makes the bird play the game on the dog's terms and succeeds more often than not no matter the conditions nor the wariness of the bird.
Generally, breeds and individuals that predominately air cent are better grouse dog prospects. Air scenting allows them to locate and point at the absolute limit of the scent cone, a must on grouse, knowing by the presence of a certain amount of air scent that there is a bird ahead. Groundtracking dogs are more likely to bump birds simply because ground scent varies little from where the bird was a few moments ago to where it is presently located. The ground tracking dog may be too close before it is aware of it, resulting in a bumped bird. There are air scenters in most breeds, but setters and pointers have been bred to air scent exclusively and are upland bird specialists. Within these breeds there are bloodlines with decades to a century or more of grouse dog breeding. Versatile breeds that generally excel in other areas are mostly groundtrackers, but there are always exceptions. Also, there are some training techniques to encourage air scenting, all of which there is not space to discuss here.
The other part of the question concerns the use of pen quail, pen pheasants and other pen raised birds. In this era most of us are forced to use pen and preserve birds to some extent. Done right this is not necessarily a problem. When problems do arise due to the use of pen birds it is usually the trainer's fault not the dog's nor the birds. Make no mistake, a dog needs contact with grouse to learn how to handle grouse, and become a grouse dog. However, introduction to birds, finishing pointing manners and retrieving can all be accomplished with pen birds when done properly. Wariness of ruffed grouse is directly proportionate to the amount of human pressure it receives. No bird acts like a highly pressured grouse.
When using pen birds first make sure you have birds that are strong fliers and wild as is possible. Second, present them in a manner that is as natural as possible. Third, learn to read your dog, and do not allow it to creep or crowd birds. It should point and hold at the first hint of scent regardless of where the bird is or what it does. Pen birds and even other species of wild birds will tolerate crowding, but an educated grouse will not. Bad habits developed during the training process will carry/over into grouse woods and result in bumped birds. Fourth, do as little pen bird work as possible to get your dog started and pointing. When using shooting preserves make sure the cover is good and the birds are strong fliers preferably released not planted. If it is necessary to plant them have it done lightly and give them time to move around before going into the field. Your goal is to do what is right for your dog, not to just kill every bird. When working young dogs drag a short checkrope, and have a trusted partner along that can shoot. Your job is to make sure your pup points and holds as taught in training sessions. If it breaks and chases or catches a bird it is the handler's fault for not managing the situation properly. If older dogs have been properly finished they should point at the limit of the scent cone and hold no matter what the bird does. If not, it is again the handler's fault. Finally, if you want your dog to be a grouse dog get it into grouse. This is the only way it will learn how to handle grouse. There is no substitute. Pointing manners and retrieving can be fine tuned on other birds, but to be a grouse dog it must have contact with grouse. Like all pointing dogs a grouse dog is a combination of the right genetics, good training and plenty of the birds you want them to hunt and point.
To quote George Bird Evans, "no dog can handle the hawthorns and grapevine tangles like the dog in whose brain ruffed grouse are a fever".