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Does Your Bird Dog Know the Difference Between a Hen and a Rooster?

Does this wirehair know it's flushing a hen and not a rooster?

Last week, I wrote about a CBS news story reporting on a scientific study detailing four dogs’ ability to diagnose lung cancer in humans.  My reaction to the study was one of amazement, but not shock.  I, too, have seen the incredible power of a bird dog’s nose.  Whether it’s locating a ruffed grouse under a foot of fresh snow, zeroing in on a rooster in a windstorm or finding a covey of quail that just landed; I’ve witnessed the incredible sense of smell most bird dogs possess. 


One of the most frequent reactions to last week’s blog was pheasant hunters remarking their bird dog’s nose could distinguish between hens and rooster pheasants.  While most of us have that one buddy who will make the claim: “my dog doesn’t even bother with hens, he’ll only flush roosters;” I haven’t ever taken the boast seriously because I’ve seen that buddy’s dog flush hens as well as roosters every time we’ve been hunting.  To be honest, the hunters making that boast to me in the past have lost credibility in my eyes and so do their dogs.  However, I am self-aware enough to realize that I haven’t seen it all and I surely don’t know it all.  So, I thought I’d ask a couple of the more knowledgeable dog and pheasant folks I know for their opinion to the question:


Have you ever seen a bird dog that could tell the difference between a hen and a rooster by smell? 


“I could swear some of my Labs have known the difference.  They won’t completely ignore hens, but I’ve been able to watch their intensity level – in their tail, in their speed, in their entire body language – increase when they are on a rooster,” explained Rick Young, Pheasants Forever’s Vice President of Field Operations and a wildlife biologist.  “I believe dogs smell pheasants through the bird’s breath and although it may be subtle, I think some dogs can detect the difference between roosters and hens under the best conditions.”


“I’ve watched hundreds of dogs and dozens of breeds, and I don’t think bird dogs can detect the difference between a rooster and a hen; at least not during hunting season,” offered Bob West, Purina Dog Foods Director of Breeder Enthusiast & Sporting Groups, as well as a professional dog trainer.  “There might be a time of the year when roosters may smell different, but I don’t think that’s during hunting season.  I’ve just seen too many dogs lock up just as hard on a hen as they do on a rooster to believe differently, but that doesn’t stop me from holding out hope that one day I’ll find that perfect dog that can detect the difference.”



So there you have it.  The jury remains out!  What’s your opinion: Can your bird dog tell the difference between a hen and a rooster?



The Pointer is written by Bob St.Pierre, Pheasants Forever’s Vice President of Marketing.  Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre.


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9 Responses to “Does Your Bird Dog Know the Difference Between a Hen and a Rooster?”

  1. Jim Bowman says:

    I haven’t seen it in any of mine or any other breeds hunting in the fields with or without me. And, I wouldn’t want it to. Practice & repetition is the key. But, I have seen some dogs waste time pointing at unnecessary things like, mice, etc. The closest your dog knowing the difference is when/if you call out, “no bird hen” & he stops.

  2. Tom Shoush says:

    Perhaps there is some basis in it, but maybe there are visual and auditory components involved as well as smell. My current lab seems to be discriminatory under certain circumstances; she will plow by hens as if they aren’t even there, and at the end of her “mission” when the rooster gets up, only then will she look up from the ground and visually track a bird. Unfortunately, she will sometimes pursue that rooster to the edge of gun range, so it’s also a frustration for me. And she will completely ignore sharptails – at my reqest – as I don’t care for them. When sharpies flush she usually won’t even look up, and if she does, I say “Roosters” and she’s back to looking.

  3. Tony Barlow says:

    I swear my dog does the opposite! Seems like she ONLY finds hens… might be laziness… then she doesn’t have to retrieve!

  4. wolfie says:

    Bob West is a friend of mine, and normally I’d defer to his experience…


    I know my dogs react different to pen-raised birds vs. wild birds, of all species, and I know there are many who would say the same thing…

    …I also know my dogs have run right by shot birds in cover when it was their first experience with the scent…(teal vs mallards dropped in a field, for example)…

    …so in reply to Bob’s comment, I might point out that during the hunt season, it’s likely that the dog can tell the difference between a rooster and a hen, but it’s equally as likely that the dog is so happy to be out that it doesn’t care, because every pointed (or flushed) bird offers the opportunity for a shot and retrieve…

    …and I’m all good with that!


  5. wolfie says:

    I’d like to add a little more to my reply above…

    …when we go hunting, my dogs know it…they know it is different from training…and they want to get out there and do their work come hell or high water…

    …and we like it that way, and if the day is slow for roosters, I’d just as soon have my dogs find and point 100 hens each and not take a shot…

    …and my dogs are going to get all the praise and the love just the same!!!


  6. Jeremy Lies says:

    I have hunted behind a number of dogs. As they age they seem to understand the difference between roosters and hens. I.E. If a seasoned dog points a bird and then the hunter flushes it. If no shooting starts up then must not be what we are after. If shooting starts, then exciting times are in store. The other thing that seems to happen as the season progresses is roosters seem to keep wondering or running ahead, so there are more points then the dog moves and repositions and points again. With hens there are more locked up solid points. Of course this is thrown out the window every now and again. But this is what I have seen/observed.

  7. Terry Rooster says:

    Dogs can certainly smell the difference between hens and roosters. They don’t smell the same.

    If you have ever been a custodian at a building with a public restroom, you know this. The first time a male janitor walks into a women’s room to clean it, he might say, “What is that smell?”, because a women’s room smells completely different than a men’s room. Testosterone smells different than estrogen, and men’s and women’s urine has a totally different smell even to humans who can smell almost nothing compared to a dog.

    There is a reason why most dogs behave similarly around hens and roosters, though. Their handlers praise the pointing and flushing behavior around hens and roosters the same. If you wouldn’t praise your dog for pointing a cat, why would you praise your dog for pointing a hen? Stop doing that, and you will see your dog hunt roosters differently than hens. To you, maybe pointing a hen is praise worthy because you know it’s a pheasant. Your dog doesn’t smell pheasants like that. He is reacting to your hen praise.
    If you hunt pen raised birds, or start a pup on them, then you may have no choice but to shoot hens, and you will always have a dog that hunts hens and roosters the same, In that case, hunters also falsely believe that hens and roosters smell the same.

  8. Terry Rooster says:

    One more comment: The more avid a hunter is, the more likely he is to have his dog in competions on pen raised, an muliple species birds. He probably harvests more birds than we hunters who only hunt wild birds during the season. Therefore the more avid hunter’s dog will not distinguish between hens and roosters, because he is trained to hunt everything. The field trial hunter observes a less experienced hunter who does not hunt trials, saying his dog can tell the difference between hens and roosters. He infers that the hunter who does not do all the trials just doesn’t get it. I hunt wild birds and avoid trials. My dog knows the difference just like yours, but he behaves differently than the field trial dog, the pen raised bird dog, and the praised for both hens and roosters, dog.

  9. Paul says:

    I have a Pointer that only points Roosters hard and he will flag on hens every time. No kidding … For those who don’t know what flagging is,, it is when a dog wags his or her tail when on point…So we say he’s waving off on Hens. So yes,,,they can tell the difference …


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