The Search for the Ultimate Cover Dog
Written By: Tracey Lieske
The tricolor setter with the half mask was working through the jungle. His head was high, his tail was cracking, and he was casting through the thick, early-season cover. He accelerated in the pass-through cover, slowed down in the tangles, until he finally locked up on point. The setter was born and bred for this, and his genetics made him do it well.
Good grouse and woodcock dogs know how to navigate bullbriers, raspberry thickets, and hawthorns, and they have speed. Cover dogs are specialists, and if you’re looking for an ideal cover dog, then here are some points to consider.
For pointers and setters, I like females in the 35- to 40-pound range, and males to be slightly larger, in the 40- to 45-pound class. If you work the covers with a different breed, look for smaller dogs that are light on their feet. A light gait gives them the stamina to weave their way through the thickness of brier patches, aspen and alder runs, and hawthorns.
Speed and Range
I personally like dogs that are fast. A fast dog gets quickly to their game. Some handlers prefer slower-running dogs because that reduced speed matches the handler’s normal walking pace. Pick a dog with a speed that resembles your own style. That way you’ll work together as a team.
Grouse dogs run at different ranges. Some cast at a close 35- to 40-yard range, others run inside of bell range, while others run much farther. As with speed, find a range that matches your hunting style. And consider different breeds. I run a mixed-breed string of pointers, setters, GSPs, Drahts, and the like. Those breeds range differently, which gives me a lot of diversity when guiding clients. I’ll work a dog that excels in a specific cover.
Good bird smarts
Bird smarts come from having dams and sires that know the game. Grouse dogs need to know how to handle the many intricacies of dodgy game, to naturally reposition, and to be patient and poised. When researching pedigrees, look for proven grouse dog blood in your pup.
Genetics are important to me, so I choose my pointer and setter pups from proven field trial winners. For versatile dogs, I’ll comb through the testing levels to find one that’s best. Look for dams and sires with multi-generational winners. Puppies from long lines of winning genetics are equipped to handle wily game.
Good grouse dogs need to differentiate between foot and body scent. Foot scent is less intense and comes when a grouse walks through a cover. Body scent is stronger and comes when the dog is close to a bird. Grouse dogs that know the difference between foot and body scent know when it is time to reposition and how to go about that next sequence of movement.
High head, 12 o’clock tail set
I like high heads and straight tails, but ultimately, it’s the owner’s call. Dogs running with high heads pick up more scent. They move faster and successfully read the cover as well. If you favor a quartering or straight-from-the-back tail set, that’s fine, too. Pick what makes you happy.
Happy dogs are great to have around camp, but they also have the patience to handle the covers. I like dogs that are relaxed, confident, and have a lot of focus. Grouse are tough to handle, and if a dog has those qualities then you’re off to a good start.