Superior Pointers - Fine Bird Dogs - Elhew Pointers


Range, or the distance at which a dog typically hunts from his handler, is a somewhat controversial topic of great interest to walking bird hunters contemplating the acquisition of a pointing dog puppy. A few prospective owners desire a dog that never gets beyond shotgun range in any cover, or about forty yards. One must assume that these bird hunters have either never hunted over an accomplished bird dog, or regard such dogs that are capable of holding birds until the handler arrives as an anomaly, the likes of which they never expect to be fortunate enough to own. These individuals, therefore, wish to be in a position to shoot birds inadvertently “bumped” or deliberately “knocked” by untalented and/or ill mannered canine companions. Where such opinions are thoroughly ingrained, the holder is best advised to acquire a flushing breed. The fundamental purpose of a pointing dog is to seek game where the handler cannot – at least efficiently – and to indicate its presence until the handler arrives. A “shoe polisher”, or “grass prowler”, will produce no more birds for the gun than a dogless hunter would have walked up.

The maximum practical range of a foot handled gun dog is a topic of much debate. Some maintain that a gun dog can't range too far, cover permitting, if he is reliably staunch on game. The limiting factor for the foot hunter with a competent gun dog, however, is not the dog- it's the birds. The pen raised Bobwhite Quail released for most field trials- including most championships- will stay put indefinitely for a mannerly pointing dog. So will birds released by shooting preserves for put-and-take hunting. Wild birds will not. Unlike pen raised birds, wild game birds exhibit heightened survival instincts honed to a fine edge by natural selection.

A quick, fast, intelligent dog with a superior "nose" who decisively approaches wild birds, and does not crowd them, will get them pointed in favorable circumstances. Such dogs often establish point at the same moment as- or even before- the birds detect the dog's presence. When these pointed birds do detect the dog's presence, he is stationary. In these circumstances, wild birds will usually freeze and assess the potential threat from this "predator" for a period of time. How long is determined by multiple, complex variables including species, age, cover, weather, and previous hunting pressure. At some juncture, these and other factors will, in combination, motivate a pointed game bird to flee. Most will, simply, flush. Some will run, requiring the pointing dog to relocate. Pheasants and desert quail are notorious for employing this evasive tactic. Running birds worked by an accomplished wild bird dog will, eventually, flush after one or more successful relocations. Some will be flushed by the dog's handler, while others, unnerved by persistent pursuit, will flush prematurely due to no fault of the dog.

Some experienced wild bird hunters have, after thoughtful consideration, concluded that about 200 yards is the practical limit of a foot handled gun dog's range in prairie habitat. They note that the amount of time required for the average hunter to walk this distance to a find in relatively open country approximates the amount of time the wild game birds found in such habitat will customarily "sit" before flushing of their own volition. One well known author and professional trainer further observes that when hunting his three equally competent bird dogs together on the prairies, his single 100-200 yard dog points as many birds as do his two 400-600 yard dogs combined. He attributes this to the more thorough application of the closer ranging dog, and has concluded that the hunting pattern of the two wider ranging dogs simply misses birds. More significant, is that this author-trainer routinely kills twice as many birds over his closer working dog's points as he does over the two wider ranging canines combined. This, he notes, is because the birds pointed "out-on-a-limb" by his two wider ranging dogs often take flight before he can walk within gun range.

These observations and conclusions are also applicable to the grouse woods where a comfortable gun dog's maximum range is, of necessity, more circumscribed- 40 to 80 yards, depending on cover. In this habitat, it customarily requires more time to locate a dog on point, and for his handler to make his way through brush and down timber to the find. As with other wild game bird species, a properly pointed ruffed grouse won't "sit" indefinitely. They will, eventually, flee.

It should be noted that the comfortable 40 to 80 yard range that the majority of grouse hunters find desirable in a gun dog is inadequate for a field trial grouse dog, who is expected to hunt more ambitiously. Thirty years ago, there was no significant difference. The range requirements of grouse trials have, like horseback trials, increased substantially. The range of competitive field trial grouse dogs is now comparable to that which used to characterize horseback shooting dogs, with 300 yard casts in the grouse woods routine. Horseback shooting dogs currently exhibit the range of the horseback all age dogs of several decades ago. Today's horseback all age dogs exhibit range and independence virtually unknown when Bob Wehle was handling his Elhew Pointers to all age championship wins. These contemporary field trial dogs are not bad dogs- just different.

A pointing dog’s range should be dynamic, and a reflection of cover, terrain, and his handler’s pace. An intelligent gun dog will hunt much more widely on the prairies than in the grouse woods. He will also hunt more ambitiously when handled from horseback, ATV, or jeep, than when handled from foot. Inherent intelligence, and a desire to conform to his handler’s wishes, are obvious prerequisites to such adjustments. Equally important is that the desired- by the owner- range of the dog is not in conflict with the dog’s natural range as defined by his “genetic blueprint”.

All dogs have a “genetic blueprint” determining their conformation and, to a large extent, their temperament and performance characteristics. Range is no exception, and can often be reliably predicted based on ancestry. This is especially true of dogs with homogeneous pedigrees, and less so with dogs from heterogeneous backgrounds. In such heterogeneous dogs, with what have been called “piecemeal pedigrees”, it is often difficult to predict which ancestors will most strongly influence an individual pup’s natural range. If all dogs in the pedigree are wide ranging, however, the dog with such genetics is almost certain to also range widely. Pure Elhew pointers, bred by Bob Wehle for 66 years to be the ultimate gentleman’s shooting dog, are virtually certain to exhibit comfortable foot hunting range. Conversely, pups with pedigrees dominated by horseback field trial dogs- particularly horseback all age dogs- are very likely to hunt at a range not comfortable for the great majority of walking bird hunters.

Speed and application both influence hunting range, and are both genetically determined. Speed is determined by tenacity, or desire, and by gait. Tenacity is a heritable characteristic, as is a smooth, fluid, effortless gait derived from functional conformation. Tenacity is a desirable quality in a gun dog, so long as it is balanced by a desire to please and does not obscure compliance. Speed, endurance, and overall athleticism resulting from sound, functional conformation are equally desirable in both gun dogs and horseback field trial dogs.

Application, or the manner in which a dog hunts the country, is largely determined by genetics. Successful horseback field trial dogs are strongly predisposed to hunt edges or reach to distant objectives, where comfortable foot handled gun dogs are more inclined to quarter and thoroughly investigate closer objectives. Edges are linear transitions from one type of ground cover to another – generally from lighter to heavier cover. Examples are the boundaries of cultivated fields, the perimeter of wood lots, or the heavier vegetation associated with creek bottoms. A horseback field trial dog is expected to recognize those transitions, or edges, and hunt them forward and/or laterally within the ten to two o’clock arc. In terrain lacking well defined edges, such as some northern prairie country, these same dogs are expected to hunt objectives. In this country, objectives are primarily small popple or buffalo berry thickets where prairie grouse reside for shade, feed, and/or protection from avian predators. The horseback field trial dog is expected to run to these objectives (bluffs or thickets), circumnavigate the downwind side (edge) and go on (forward) to the next if no birds are detected. In prairie country lacking such bluffs or buffalo berry thickets, an edge may be the downwind side of a ridge, just over the crest, exhibiting a subtle transition in cover height and density. Such terrain, as intelligent dogs worked in this country learn, is favored by prairie grouse.

As one might logically expect, such application, combined with the speed, tenacity and overall athleticism characteristic of a well conformed pointer, can quickly carry the dog a considerable distance, requiring the handler to be mounted on horseback to stay in touch. The expectation in all types of terrain is that when the dog transects the scent cone of birds that have ventured out of the heavier cover to feed, or which are sitting just inside for protection, the dog will follow, positively locate, and point them right. Properly done, it is a spectacle that never fails to thrill the pointing dog enthusiast. Dogs capable of consistently rendering such performances, in often difficult conditions, are much rarer then the plethora of championship titles awarded annually suggests. They, and their trainer/handlers, are to be admired and celebrated.

An effective, comfortable gun dog, or what Ben Williams calls a “shooting pointer”, will hunt the same country very differently from the horseback field trial dog. The gun dog is "genetically programmed” to quarter more, and to thoroughly hunt objectives rather than to run edges. Where the horseback field trial dog will swiftly hunt along the edge of a fence row, waterway, woodlot, creek bottom, bluff, or ridge, a gun dog will enter this heavier cover and thoroughly canvas it in an intelligent, forward, systematic manner. This more thorough application/investigation slows the forward progression of both dog and handler to a comfortable foot handling pace. While the productive, comfortable gun dog's natural tendency is to quarter, rather than to run edges or reach to objectives, the best gun dogs do both, and do not exhibit a mechanical “windshield wiper” pattern. Their forward, lateral casts within the arc are punctuated with the thorough investigation of all objectives- both subtle and obvious- likely to hold birds.

There is considerable latitude in the genetically defined natural range of a pointing dog. Whether a dog tends to hunt at the near, or far, end of that spectrum is determined by the ground cover, the terrain, the manner in which he is developed, and how he is handled in the field. A dog of homogeneous genetics bred primarily for comfortable foot hunting might have a natural range of 50 to 300 yards. If encouraged during development to hunt close, he could reasonably be expected to mature into a 50 to 150 yard dog - 50 yards in the woods and 150 yards in wide open country. The same dog, worked exclusively from a Jeep or utility vehicle, might develop into a 100 to 300 yard dog. If regularly “pushed” from horseback in open country, he might run even wider.

By contrast, a dog with primarily horseback shooting dog genetics is likely to have a natural range of around 200 to 1000 yards. A dog of exclusively horseback all age lineage could easily possess a natural range of 400 to 2000 yards. The actual range exhibited will depend on the dog’s specific “genetic blueprint”, how he is developed, and how he is handled. Of note is that neither of these two examples are likely to exhibit the range sought in a comfortable foot shooting dog. While it may be possible to foot hunt such dogs with excessive handling and the aid of an electric collar, it is likely to be a less than pleasant experience for both hunter and dog. It is, therefore, much more satisfying for all concerned to foot hunt a dog bred specifically for this purpose.

Accomplished trainer and Gun Dog Magazine columnist Rick Smith astutely advises, "If you're wanting a close working dog for foot hunting, you're not likely to be happy with a pup from an open all-age caliber field trial litter. The same goes for wanting a [horseback] competition dog..... If that's on your list of wants, make sure you look for a breeder who is competing in the game you want to play."

Acclaimed trainer and author Paul Long observed that "if your dog handles but runs too wide to suit your taste and you especially dislike this, think about trading him off and getting the kind of dog you want. It will be an uphill fight to make him into a close dog, and neither he nor you may be happy if you succeed."

The foot hunter with a young prospect bred for this purpose, and who desires a closer working companion, can develop his pup in a manner that encourages the dog to hunt at the near margin of his genetic range. While young dogs benefit from being worked in a variety of cover and terrain, more work in heavy cover or woods will naturally encourage a pup to hunt closer. The length of your workouts are also a factor. A dog learns to adjust his pace to reflect the anticipated length of his workout. Successful field trialers rarely work young dogs for much longer than the length of the heats in which they will compete. This ensures that they are still “flying” at pickup.

The owner desiring a closer working gun dog should, therefore, work their young dog until he tires and adjusts his gait and pace to a more sustainable level. The amount of time required will depend upon the age, physical maturity, and the difficulty of the cover being navigated. A young dog should not be “run into the ground”, but simply exercised until tired. The length of workouts can be gradually extended to reflect the physical maturity and conditioning of your young dog.

Working a gun dog prospect from an ATV encourages the developing pup to range more ambitiously than does working him from foot. The ATV mounted handler invariably maintains a faster pace than does a foot handler, and the pup will not develop the same "connection" with a machine as with a human. ATV mounted handlers are naturally inclined to keep up with, rather than contain, an ambitious pup. This teaches the pup that he, and not his handler, sets the pace. Bird hunters developing a gun dog for the grouse woods, should, therefore, work their young prospects exclusively from foot.

Ensuring that your young dog has regular bird contacts during his workouts will also constrain his range, particularly as he gains maturity and experience. A tenacious bird dog with experience on game will naturally begin to “reach”, or range further, if he encounters no birds for extended periods. Ideally, your developing gun dog prospect should be encountering birds every ten to fifteen minutes.

Note that most enthusiastic, tenacious gun dog pups will, with proper development, settle down and reduce their range by the end of their second season. This adjustment is a reflection of maturity, assimilated training, and experience. A twelve to fifteen month old pup is still a work in progress, not a finished product. Consistent, patient, appropriate development of your gun dog prospect will ensure that his adult hunting pattern, rhythm, and range are compatible with your hunting style and terrain.

Finally, as you develop your young prospect, stay current with age appropriate yard/obedience training. Your pup will, at some point, need to know his name and reliably respond to it. This facilitates encouraging your dog to hunt at a desired range, and within the ten to two o’clock arc. If you have no control over your young dog in the yard, you will have none in the field.