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Is your Bird Dog’s Nose in the Air or on the Ground?

I recently joined Pheasants Forever co-worker Rehan Nana on a visit to Berg Brothers Setters.   Rehan, with his heart set on finding a pup from a red setter litter, and the Berg Brothers having a famous reputation for their hunting lines of both English and red setters, made for a natural match.  To Rehan’s credit, he wanted to complete the due diligence of examining the expected litter’s dam and sire in hunting action.  With a day of bird dog talk on deck, I eagerly accepted the invitation to tag along for the observation.


To my great pleasure, I learned an absolute ton about bird dog training and breeding during the afternoon’s proceedings.  However, one observation left me babbling for days after the visit.


As I observed the sire, “Slim,” elegantly work the field in search of a planted quail, I realized the dog held its nose in the air the entire time.  This was in stark contrast to my own German shorthaired pointer’s nose to the ground, then to the wind, then back to the ground, method of searching for bird scent.  While I’ve hunted with a myriad of bird dogs over the years, including a wide variety of setters, I typically am focused on my own shorthair’s progress in the field.  Consequently, watching Slim with complete and sole focus, I was startled by the difference in scenting style.


“Nose to the ground appears in bird dogs with hound in the breed, like your shorthair,” explained Ben Berg.  “The nose in the air is what makes a setter so special.  That scent cone is more dispersed in the air than it is on the ground, so an excellent wind-scenting bird dog should have a bigger scent cone than a dog that scents the ground alone.”

This jewel of wisdom opened my eyes and my understanding to why so many ruffed grouse hunting traditionalists favor setters.  A dog with a wider scent cone would logically bump far less ruffed grouse, a naturally skittish bird.  Conversely, a bird dog that uses the ground scent to track roosters prone to running, as well as tough-to-kill winged roosters would have obvious advantages.


As I listened, the female red setter, “Belle,” scented the ground where Slim had earlier pointed a quail.  “Most of us bird hunters love to chase all the birds of the uplands,” Scott Berg explained, “so the magic in finding an exceptional bird dog is completing the due diligence like Rehan to find the selectively bred litter that’s going to produce your best chances for the magic.”


Scott offered this list of five key questions for puppy buyers hoping to find that magical bird dog:


1) How many females does the breeder evaluate to find a female suitable for breeding?  Producing the best of any breed is by definition a numbers game.  The more highly selective the process, the better the result.  In other words, evaluating five females for every one that is kept of breeding is better than two.

2) How was the stud dog chosen?  Stud dogs should be chosen on an even more selective basis given breeders have access via stud fees to a variety of top dogs.  The essence of this question is “how wide was the search to find the ideal stud?”

3) Are the parents trained to an advanced level?  (steady to wing & shot / stop to flush / honoring)  While hunters may not require their dogs to be trained to advanced level, breeders should train all potential breeding candidates to this level.  The process and end result provides better insight in terms of whether the prospect is suitable for breeding in terms of natural ability, trainability and intelligence.

4) Do they hunt and/or train on a variety of wild birds?  Observing the dog in a variety of different types of cover, handling several species of wild birds is a great process for evaluating breeding candidates.

5) Can the breeder provide references of hunters with needs/preferences the same as the prospective buyer?  For starters it’s a good indication if the breeder understands the buyer’s preferences.  Ask for 10 names without contact information.  Pick three names at random and ask the breeder to provide contact information.  Any breeder can come up with three satisfied buyers.  This helps to provide a more random sample.


Follow this link to learn more about Berg Brothers Setters.


In my opinion, this list is a gold mine of litter selection advice.  As I reflect on my observation of the difference in Slim’s scenting versus my shorthair’s scenting, it seems ludicrous that I hadn’t noticed such a stark difference before.  However, I don’t think I’m that out of the ordinary.  I believe most of us categorize bird dogs by the way they react when they encounter bird scent rather than categorizing them by the way they search for bird scent.  My shorthair being more similar to a setter by reacting in a point when scent is encountered; however, in the search for that scent my shorthair is more akin to a Labrador with its nose more often focused on the ground trail.


So my question is this: Did you already know that certain breeds focus on the scent in the air, while other bird dog breeds focus their attention to scent on the ground?  What breed of bird dog do you have and where is its nose primarily focused?


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

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8 Responses to “Is your Bird Dog’s Nose in the Air or on the Ground?”

  1. Trey Rigby says:

    Two sides to this story… My Vizsla has his nose on the ground nearly all the time. My pointer, on the other hand, hunts with his nose about 75% in the air and 25% on the ground.

  2. Jason says:

    I belong to a hunt club in PA and I have hunted with Brittanys, English and Llewellin Setters, ect… I have always wondered why the nose of a setter sometimes went to the air more than the ground. The hound bloodline makes sense. It also explains why one of the gentleman I hunt with says his dog (English Setter) does so well in the woods with grouse and can’t find a planted pheasant. After reading this blog it makes me reflect back, and more often than not I have seen setters point their nose to the air more so than any Brittany I hunted with or had. I’m not saying through my observations that a Setter never put his nose to the ground, I’m just saying from a Brittany dog man that I have seen this over tha past few years hunting over many Brittanys and Setters.

    The other thing I noticed about Setters vs Brittnays is the circle/range they cover while searching for birds. I know that range can be trained or controlled by the handler but I have come to notice that a setter, particullary a Llewellin ranges out real far before ciruling back. I was wondering if that is a trait that Setters have and Brittanys don’t?

  3. @Jason
    Thanks for the comment and question.
    I grew up with Brittanys and hunted with a number of setters over the years at PF. I would confirm your intuition that in general setters range bigger than Britts.

  4. Laura says:

    We have a Lab/Weimaraner mix who just obtained his Upland Hunter title last month. He does both. If he has the scent he is on the ground, if he loses it the nose goes up until he finds it and then back down again.

    There is a comment on the StarTribune site about a bill that is being proposed right NOW to legalize really big body gripping traps on land again (330 size). Unfortunately, this is true. It is wrapped inside the Game and Fish bill. 220s are big enough to trap our 60 lb male dog, so 330s will surely kill him if a 220 doesn’t. These traps need to be set up and off the ground, not as a land set. Even in the proposed box (we built a prototype to test with our dog), our trained bird dog ducked right in to get the bait. Please write your reps and senators NOW if you believe body gripping traps should be set 5 feet up and off the ground to protect your hunting dog. An english setter was just killed in December while grouse hunting on public land in a 220 body gripping trap.

  5. dan says:

    I have hunted with Black labs for 25 years, in MN and the Dakotas. Typically they have hunted with noses to the ground. However, I have had 2 that would point and sometimes they tested the scent with their noses in the air.

    As Laura says, in MN it is becoming more dangerous to hunt public land with the ground set conibears. It is very backwards here and with new laws being rammed through the legislature, all should know it could become more dangerous. I think we all agree that trapping is beneficial and we want it to continue, just in a better and safe manner for our dogs, whatever breed

  6. Scott LaPlante says:

    Some of the “head-up/head-down” is instinctive (hounds comment), and some can be learned. I have found that working with young dogs on quail in field-trial settings will tend to have them search the air for scent, as that becomes successful in finding birds – as these birds are typically not moving around. The running, wild pheasants in the Dakotas tend to be bring out different qualities in the dogs. As they have gained experience, my dogs will find the scent in taller cover and keep a low profile and low head to more effectively find the moving bird. They learn quickly what produces birds under certain situations. It is very fun and rewarding to see the dogs progress through stages of development and experience. I like to expose my shorthairs to more and more situations as they get more mature. Too many variables too soon in the young dogs life can be a bit trying on both the dog and the handler, so be prepared for some setbacks as the situations become more complex. Best of luck in finding the dog that works for you. You could not go wrong with a Berg setter.

  7. CDY says:

    After years with GSPs I now have a Korthals Griffon and have found the griff to be extremely thorough in scenting both air and ground.
    The griff works much closer to the gun and has a style and pace slower than the GSPs. I am facinated with the way my griff uses the air and ground scent to pin down running birds it is something that I feel cannot be trained for but is pure instinct and breeding. The only trouble with my griff is he is a burdock magnet. No cover is to heavy to stop him from finding a runner and pinning it.

  8. Clark K says:

    Beware of generalizations… they are not always true.

    The dog’s nose should go where the best scenting is. Having said that, the nose in the air is generally better and what I prefer. All my gsp’s have been predominantly air scenters and not ground scenters. They are not from German lines or traditional lines but from field trial lines. They are fast & rangy and can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Something I prefer.


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