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With ticks, cold hands, wet feet, fluctuating bird numbers, wolves, other hunters, muddy trucks and increasing expenses, why go to the grouse woods? Dog training of course! If you want to produce excellent bird finding canines, you need to train them where the wild birds are. There is no better wild bird for training spaniels than the ruff grouse.

We can run our spaniels on game birds at our training facility in Georgia and put all the obedience in them that is required. We can instill a general hunting pattern and retrieving skills and develop a nice gun dog that will be impressive to most at your local preserve. However, wild birds are what separate hunting dogs from bird dogs. It provides an opportunity to see the genetically gifted raise the level of their quest to that which is required to consistently produce birds for the gun that have already survived the hawk, opossum, skunks, coons, coyotes and other hunters.

To produce wild birds successfully, your dog needs to beat a wild bird at its own game and on its home turf. These birds have honed their escape routes. They know when something is out of place and they know you and your dog do not belong in the woods with them. Most hunters never hunt wild birds and those that do will likely only hunt a couple of days each year. So then, why is it so beneficial to send your dog to the grouse woods?

For young dogs, the experience is most beneficial. The exposure of running on grouse in the woods for 2-4 weeks cannot be replicated in a training environment. The change in a dog from the first day to when we break camp is not always evident until we return home. It is easy to see the dogs that learn about grouse and woodcock; where they hide, picking up foot scent and crashing the evergreens. But what about the dog that shows little advancement? These dogs typically are the ones that get the most out of the trip and in many cases, the experience is likely to salvage the dog as hunting partner.

The daily routine for the dogs is to feed and air out. Then it is on the road to the various coverts. Each dog will run for 45-60 minutes with little interaction from us. The young dog must figure out this new game. The woods can be dark and scary and dogs naturally want to stay on the paths. Before they can produce birds, the dog learns about sticks and branches, wind and leaves, other dogs and running water…all in an environment that is new to them and sounds different in the deep woods.

As the comfort increases, we venture off the paths and into the woods. Alder swamps, evergreen patches, mature woods and forest regeneration all need to be navigated. In the early stages, we see and hear the birds flush but the young dog does not. They become increasingly birdy, but are late to the party once again. They need to keep at it and we cannot help. We are only here for transportation and to observe which dogs are making it happing and which ones are struggling; useful information when working out training issues down the road. It is a very hands-off approach that allows the dogs to shake things themselves out. This is where we look for breeding stock; find out if there is a dog in that coat or is it an imposter leasing the genotype until it is bored with it?

This daily routine continues day after day. As the young dogs start to shake things out, we start to group the dogs based on performance. The more advanced ones only run in the middle of the day and in harder cover. They do not need to be handed gifts, they understand the game and no they need to become obsessed with it. The dogs lagging behind will run in the late afternoon when it is easier. Young puppies run together in the morning to pick birds off the paths and there is safety in the commotion of the pack.

The daily routine continues and the dogs further separate themselves. Now some are really punching the cover. These dogs need to work even harder with less reward. They must hunt where there is minimal chance of finding a bird. Do they keep questing; looking for the drug they have come to crave and we selfishly have led them to? You have put them where there are no birds yet a few find birds anyway…they are that good and it is time to shoot birds for them. For those dogs that cannot keep up, we must back up and spoon feed more opportunities.

All the dogs ultimately advance, some more than others. The superstars have separated themselves and become the potential future stock. The weaker dogs have been elevated to a higher level than they would else-wise attain. The system never fails. It mimics nature and the reality of survival of the fittest; smartest and/or strongest. Nature is cruel. Fortunately, we do not need to be. Every year, we break camp with a dog or two that we are convinced it was a wasted trip. We cannot be sure they ever produced a bird. They never ran with confidence. They never got lost and therefore, they never had a chance to find us. However, just as tomorrow is guaranteed to come, all the dogs come home changed. The great ones are impressive, but they likely would have been great anyway. This is the way it is with great dogs. The weaker dogs are likely saved and this is the benefit of the grouse woods.

All the weak dogs come home as better students. They all come home with more confidence that shows in training and their bird work at home. Going to the grouse woods is not about shooting grouse. It is about developing prospects out of dogs that otherwise may not make good hunting dogs if left on the farm. All dogs comfortable in the woods learn to run the prairies with boldness. Not all dogs become comfortable in the woods and many shrink within the confines of the big and dark woods. Whether your game is a field trial, hunt test, game preserve or wild bird hunting; the real field trial, we must separate the bird dogs from the imposters. And, that must shake out itself as nature has always done it in the grouse woods.

Todd Agnew

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