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Bird Dogs, Scent and Finding Birds


With their incredible noses, bird dogs are easily able to distinguish between different environments and bird species, and different species within the same environment. Photo by Bob St.Pierre / Pheasants Forever 

I spent a number of days this spring running my German shorthaired pointer, Trammell, through woods I know hold timberdoodle on their migration north. It was interesting to watch Trammell navigate the scent determining when to point and when to press. It got me thinking about the incredible ability of a dog’s nose, so I reached out to Bob West of Purina Dog Foods and a professional trainer with 50 years of experience to teach me more about bird dogs and scent.

The Scent Cloud

“Although the bird dog world has referenced it as a ‘scent cone’ for years, scent doesn’t follow a geometric shape. Scent more closely resembles a cloud,” explained West.

West explained that scent does indeed get bigger as it disperses downwind from the source, but the air current, temperature, humidity, and individual animal’s body heat are just some of the factors influencing the path of scent particles.

Scent 1

Bird scent more closely follows in the form of a cloud as opposed to a cone. Photo courtesy Bob West / Purina.

Using smoke bombs to simulate scent, West has observed the unpredictability of these scent clouds. “I’ve watched scent travel in a path similar to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. There are indeed holes in scent that one dog can shoot through and another just a few feet away will encounter.

Temperature & Moisture

The temperature of the environment, the body heat emanating from the bird, and the moisture of your dog’s nose are all critical variables as well. Cool, moist days are better for dogs to locate bird scent. Scent seems to hold tighter to the ground longer under cooler and moister conditions.  Likewise, Bob West’s field trial research indicates before 10AM and after 4PM are the optimal times of day for dogs to locate birds, which generally coincides with the cooler portions of the day.

Moisture is also important in your dog’s nose. A dog’s ability to scent requires the sensory receptors in the pup’s nose being clean and moist. This is one of the reasons abundant water is necessary in the field.

West also believes dogs have the ability to sense, or perceive the body heat of a bird. “Birds are warm blooded animals and I believe our dogs have the ability to determine a bird’s location by using more than just the sense of smell. I believe bird dogs also factor in heat from other animals, as well as disturbed vegetation.”

Hot Spots

The combination of a concentration of scent, disturbed vegetation and the bird’s body heat create “hot spots.” Oftentimes, these hot spots are the cause of a flash point or a flusher’s increased tail motion. It’s perfectly okay for your dog to focus in on these hot spots. The key is for the dog to process the clues mentally and decipher the bird’s subsequent moves forward.

Dog’s Health

A pup needs to be in good physical condition to accurately process scent, heat and disturbed vegetation. “It’s my job to talk about nutrition because of my role at Purina, but it is in fact critically important to your dog’s success in the field. A dog that’s appropriately nourished, well hydrated, and in good physical condition for the rigors of hunting is certainly more able to find birds as well as mentally process scent and clues,” added West.

Bird Identity

I’ve long believed my shorthair had the ability to observe the difference in habitat between the grouse woods and the pheasant fields, then to know what bird she was scenting for during a particular hunt based upon the cover being hunted. What I wasn’t anticipating was that she’d be able to distinguish different species by scent in the same environment, but that’s exactly what happened on a recent hunt club visit when Trammell locked up on a rooster pheasant with a bobwhite quail in her mouth during a retrieve.

West confirmed the photo’s story, “There is no doubt dogs know the difference between species of birds. They also can differentiate between individuals of the same species. For instance, I’ve observed dogs point roosters with a rooster already in their mouth. Dogs definitely know the smells of different species and individual birds being hunted.”

West also went on to explain that dogs do not get desensitized to smell like humans. “If you walk into a room with fresh cut roses, you’ll notice them for the first few minutes but then the ability to distinguish that rose sent fades. That fade doesn’t happen with dogs. Their noses are exponentially better focused than our sense of smell.”

Hunting Dead Birds

West also reports that dogs can tell the difference between a dead bird, crippled bird and a living/healthy bird. So, when you drop a bird in the tall grass that isn’t immediately retrieved, just stop. The worst mistake a hunter can make is barging into that spot and start breaking down that vegetation. “Let your dog work the cover and scent. If that bird has been hit, imagine the scent from broken tissue or a ruptured digestive track. Your dog will find that scent if you don’t tamper with it. Don’t underestimate your dog’s ability to read disturbed vegetative cover too.  They can piece together the puzzle.”

Up Wind, Down Wind, Cross Wind

“Hunt em all,” proclaims West.  “You’ll never encounter a day where hunting up wind will always lead you back to your truck. Dogs are used to hunting through variable wind conditions and these different wind directions can make your dog a better bird finder in the long run.”

Just Add Luck

As we finished off our conversation, I asked West to break down into a percentage how much of a dog’s success was the result of its training/master and how much was the dog’s ability. Here’s how he broke it down for me.

Locating Birds (finding): 30% Human influenced / 70% Dog’s Natural Ability

Handling Birds (pointing, flushing, working a runner): 25% Human influenced / 50% Dog’s Natural Ability & 25% LUCK

“You simply can’t forget about luck,” Bob finished.  “Sometimes all the training and dog power can’t equal a dose of good luck.”

If you’d like to learn more about bird dogs and their scenting abilities, Bob West will be a guest this Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on www.KFAN.com at 6:35 AM Central.

The Pointer is written by Bob St.Pierre, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s Vice President of Marketing.  Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre and listen to Bob and Billy Hildebrand every Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on KFAN FM100.3.

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7 Responses to “Bird Dogs, Scent and Finding Birds”

  1. Jay Gore says:

    Great post. Thank you. Jay

  2. Patti Carter says:

    About 20 years ago I attended a clinic conducted by Bob West. He made a great point I have always remembered and used while hunting, training and testing my German shorthairs.
    ” Don’t assume you know what the wind is doing to the scent as your dogs works to find game.” Learn to read your dog and trust your dog.

  3. Some anatomy would be helpful. Like # of olfactory glands, size of nose, comparison to other species, etc. Dave Stengel

  4. Ron Sturn says:

    Great work.

    Some of the most impressive times I’ve had in the field with my dog and others is on just nasty days in the field.

    I once dropped a late season pheasant here in WI and it landed in deep snow. Could not see anything but just let my pudelpointer do her magic for 3 to 4 minutes. She kept coming back to lock on one spot and we were dumbfounded. Looked around really close for a minute or two longer wondering what she was working on and finally saw one super tiny speck of blood in the snow where the bird had entered and buried when it landed. Released her…she dove in almost out of sight and came out with it….probably 18 inches under the snow. I had 2 other hunters with me and we were all were blown away, thinking we had lost that bird. Like Patti points out: learn your dog, read your dog, trust your dog.

  5. Rich K says:

    I have hunted the upper penisula in Michagan. I have noticed and paid attention elevations. There is quite a difference in most cases. When i find the right elevation & Ground tempeture, This is where i try to run & Have many of produtive points. I have a dog that gets birdy pretty far out & Goes into a stealth mode. (What beutiful thing to watch) She has never, ever flushed a grouse, Woodcock Or a pheasant. This was a natural gift for her. The knowledge & The nose. It happens to be my first bird dog & Hair that i am very fortinate to have such a dog. But dont expect all of them to be this way, So my friends tell me. She also honors on instinct. I have finished her in the AKC Hunt test world as a master hunter. I have only bread her on time & Wished i would have bread her a few times. All of the pups have turned out to be exlent gun dogs & Have the simular gifts. I have been told by some that got one of the pups that it is one of the best bird dogs thet ever had. I have one of the pups & He also has the gift. My thought is pay attention to elevations & Ground tempatures. This way you keep your dog in the cloud areas.

  6. It doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult to set up some scent testing among dogs. Otherwise you get all these opinions, testimonials and “my dog is better than your dog” stories. Couldn’t some smart vet. grad student just get a bunch of dogs and measure the distance to the target when they become alerted to a scent?


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