Cover Dogs to Covet

two dogs
The traits looked for in the ideal cover dog—a dog used for hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock—have not changed much in the past century.

There have been a lot of changes in wingshooting in the past century or so. Side-by-side shotguns have been joined by over/unders, pumps and semi-automatics. Pretty soon we’ll have totally biodegradable shotshells to go along with our Gore-Tex gear. While field trials and excellent breeding programs have elevated the performance of our gundogs, many original views of the ideal cover dog—one used for hunting ruffed grouse and American woodcock—are still in vogue today. 

Edmund Davis described cover dogs in his 1908 book, Woodcock Shooting. The devout grouse and woodcock hunter favored a trio of English breeds: pointers, setters and field cockers. He liked white base coats for easy visibility and believed longer, protective coats to be brush repellant. Though his dogs ran at modest range, he pioneered the use of sheep and goat bells for easy location. Excellent sniffers were a must, and Davis finished his pointing dogs all the way through. His string ate well twice a day, with breakfast given prior to a morning hunt and supper well after pick-up. To prevent soreness and stiffness, he bathed his dogs’ legs and feet in a mixture of warm water and alcohol every day. On cold nights Davis lined his dogs’ kennels with hay. The more things change, the more they stay the same . . . .

S.T. Hammond shared his cover-dog thoughts in his book My Friend the Partridge, published in 1908. “Good dogs are fairly abundant,” he said, “but the first-class partridge dog is very hard to find.” Hammond liked close-working, methodical dogs as well as fast, big-running athletes. “Either will show you satisfactory sport,” he said, “provided the ability to hold the birds is a part of their accomplishments.” Those points (pun intended) are just as true today. 

These days grouse and woodcock hunters look for some of the following characteristics in their breeds of choice. 

Smaller size: Many hunters prefer dogs that are slightly smaller and lighter than the breed standard. These dogs work thick cover efficiently; are light on their feet; and can go harder, longer. 

Bird smarts: Ruffed grouse are worthy adversaries, and a dog with bird smarts is highly prized. Selecting a pup with genetics that include multiple generations of grouse experience is key. Litters from proven cover-dog field-trial winners are good places to look, as are those from dogs that have placed high in testing programs. Excellent genetics help dogs naturally handle the dodgiest of game, which now includes woodcock as well. (“Timberdoodles” used to be considered the “Gentleman’s Bird,” as they held tight, but these days they’re running more.)

The nose knows: The best grouse dogs have excellent noses and will find birds even when scenting conditions are tough. They’re honest, too, so when they lock up, you know they are on birds. 

Easy handling: Cover dogs quarter naturally and cast in a 10-to-2 pattern in front of the handler. They should check in with the handler and respond to hand signals.

Drive with an “off” switch: Dogs with drive hunt hard, jump over deadfalls and stone walls, and work the thickest of cover. They’re driven to find birds, and their tails show that they’re happy, relaxed, confident and focused. Having an off switch is important when the day is done. Biddable temperaments are preferred, as opposed to high-strung dogs that get on everyone’s nerves. 

Following are some breeds and traits favored by five highly respected professionals.

Garret Booth, owner of Grey’s Outfitting, in Caratunk, Maine, is a pointer man and has 84 straws of frozen semen from Elhews Distinction, Explorer and Seaman. “I breed and look for three types of intelligence,” Booth said. “The first is I want a cover-smart dog, one that instinctively knows how to work in the grouse woods. Bob Wehle bred for dogs that naturally adjusted to their terrain, and that means I don’t have to constantly hack at them. Next I want dogs with bird smarts. Hard-driving dogs find more birds, and I want mine right on that edge where they push for independence and I have to keep them in check. Last I look for trainability. I want dogs that listen, that learn their lessons and that want to please. Wrestling with hard-headed dogs gets old quick.”

Thor Kain is a setter man who owns Super Storm Kennels, in Carbondale, Pennsylvania. He’s a highly competitive and successful amateur field-trialer. His dog Strike (Blast Zone) won the Mike Seminatore Award as the top all-age English setter cover dog for 2018–’19. Strike also has won both the New York Grouse Dog Championship and the Pennsylvania Grouse Championship. Another dog, Fed (Super Storm), is the two-time US Complete Amateur Shooting Dog of the Year, and Kain himself was the 2022 U.S. Complete Handler of the Year. Let’s just say he knows cover dogs.

“Setters come in two sizes,” Kain said. “Those small-to-medium-size setters are very athletic. Their compact gait is quick and snappy, and they easily get through the woods. I want a dog to have a ‘big nose,’ meaning he’ll pick up on even the smallest amount of scent. But I don’t want him to outrun his nose. He needs to run fast and in control and possess bird smarts that make him throttle back his speed when he winds game. I also want dogs to go quickly and boldly to game, and they should be animated when they get birdy as well.”

It’s no secret what kind of dogs Stephen Faust favors. Faust is the owner of Stoneybrook Gordon Setters, in Statesville, North Carolina, and he guides with his string in Minnesota, Virginia and North Carolina. According to the Eukanuba pro trainer, he prefers Gordons because “they were developed in England for use on red grouse, which makes them the original grouse dog. Early breeding in the mid-1800s by the 4th Duke of Gordon included outcrosses to black-and-tan hounds, and that’s why Gordons have outstanding sniffers. Outcrosses to Border collies elevated the Gordon’s intelligence, and the breed is naturally disposed to finding birds and knows how to work with the wind. Gordons were bred to be working dogs, and their bodies can stand up to the rigors of training and hunting.” 

Brett Silliker, the head guide at Upper Oxbow Camps, in Red Bank, New Brunswick, Canada, is a Brittany man. “Brittanys are close-working and thorough dogs,” Silliker said. “We have a tremendous amount of logging, and our covers are always thick. Britts snake through them, they’re patient and they know how much pressure to put on a grouse. When they’re on point, my dogs tell me what’s under their noses: A high head means a grouse and a lower head a woodcock. They have webbed toes and like to swim, which is helpful because my covers are around a lot of Atlantic salmon rivers and tributaries where water retrieves are essential.” 

Blaine and Patti Carter, owners of Merrymeeting Kennels, in Brunswick, Maine, have been breeding and hunting German shorthaired pointers since the 1970s. “We like GSPs as cover dogs,” Patti said, “because they’ve got excellent temperaments, they’re naturally intelligent and they have great noses. They adjust to terrain and hunt with us, not on their own. They’re biddable and make for great camp dogs. As a versatile breed, they love the water, which is a plus when hunting lowlands and river bottoms.” 

S.T. Hammond wrote: “A good dog is indispensable for successful pursuit of this wild bird. The better the dog, the more satisfactory will be one’s share of the sport.” Amen to that, Brother Hammond. Amen, indeed. 

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