Needless to say, genetics is an important role in many of the qualities of a grouse dog. Genetics determine, the amount of natural instinct and how quickly a dog will develop, have bird savvy, patience, easily controlled on birds and so forth.
Those of you that know me... already know I am not a super fast grouse dog type of person nor am I the type that wants to have a slow dog. I want a dog to cover the ground but not so fast it runs past scent until it is too late or so fast it is going to get hurt needlessly. The faster a dog goes in the grouse woods the higher the chances are for accidents for the dog. We need to set the pace for the dog...not the dog set the pace for us.
I prefer methodical and the ability for the dog to quarter, be hand directed to an area if needed ... but I do not want to have to talk to my dog. The dog needs to locate the scent, give me a heads up that we have made scent contact and then we proceed to work the scent. The only words to be said to the dog, is the release command, maybe I might have to emphasis the whoa command, (especially with a young dog) and then the dead bird command, or the command if I change direction. However, most of the time with my older dogs ... they keep an eye on me and then turn with me without anything being said. When I run a brace of dogs, an older and younger, I may have to say more because I am training the young one using the older dog as an example.
Dogs that are naturally hyper and lack patience tend to release too fast from a point and sometimes will bump the bird (many times this is the fault of the way the dog was trained). I prefer a determine controlled release from a point with a cautious approach. A dog that knows how to handle and process the scent of a running bird and at the same time works with me (while I adjust the position of the clients based on cover, the ability of the clients and allows me to move clients into position for a shoot or to block the escape of the bird). This is what a grouse dog for guiding needs to be able to accomplish. The realization is that not everyone needs a dog trained as a guide dog. But most of the traits I mention are all needed in every dog that is going to hunt grouse.
All of the above takes time and very structured training and even an owner that knows how to read the dog, the cover and work the situation as it unfolds in the woos. It is a tight rope act that with any false move can force the bird to flight and the game is over.
To me it is a chess game in the woods and every angle needs to be thought out and you and the dog are working together as a team.
There are few factors of a dog's characteristics that make it easier to accomplish this level of dog work and in the end become an excellent grouse dog.
A dog that has an "Off and On Switch" meaning calm by nature but turns it on in the woods. This is genetics and also the initial training and environment of the dog.
A dog that will work with you and not for itself ... meaning it checks in, waits for you to get in position and takes commands no matter what. Does not go off and hunts on its own.
A dog that will keep within range ... there is a time for a dog to work out but not all the time. A dog that will work close enough that if it goes on point you can get to the point in a decent amount of time. The longer it takes you to get to the point... the closer the bird will position itself to cover and walk off the point. Thus decreasing the amount of time, distance and cover changes you have to work the bird. When you have a lot of birds and are at the high of the cycle you have birds that are less spooky... do not run as much and hold better. One needs to train for the low end or down years than for the perfect condition. I believe the grouse dogs of the future needs to be able to work on less scent and really in essence be able to handle running flighty birds. I don't see the pressure going down on these birds nor do I see the grouse numbers going up higher and higher with each peak. We are seeing the opposite of this.
A dog that has patience... patience is critical with a grouse dogs. Think about how many denials you have before you even finally get a shot at a bird. We have to have patience in this chess match in the woods. The dogs need to be taught the same.
A dog that has been taught to track various levels of scent quantity ... running grouse do not leave a lot of scent behind. If your dog has been imprinted to pickup a certain amount of scent each time he has worked a bird. You then have establish a scent threshold that a dog believes it needs to have in order to stop and go on point. I prefer a dog that you can read... that starts acting birdy but gives you a heads up before being too close to the bird... "Hey, I have scent... the bird is out there in this direction...lets start working it" The dog and I will start working the scent and may establish point and release repeatedly before we have the flush. This type of hunting allows us to work the bird, analyze the cover and the changes ahead and even block the route of escape with a hunter.
This is a basic overview of what I feel is important for a grouse dog. I realize the list could go on and on but I am trying to mention the more important traits and attributes we need in a grouse dog. Everyone will have their own needs and opinions on grouse dogs etc. I base mine from over 35 years of hunting grouse and within that time frame fifteen of those years have been guiding for grouse.
Some areas have easy birds and you need less from a dog. I realize in the area I live...we have birds but they can be at times very jumpy and spooky making it hard for young dogs to learn how to work a bird on less scent. That is where I have used the older dogs and developed techniques that help me train my setters to work this type of bird. Once trained for a spooky, running birds... any other bird is a slam dunk to work for my dogs. In the end I want to be proud of my dogs and their abilities and come home and have them settle in on their pads or under my desk and be content... until they hear me get my gear together and then the game in on again.