Scents and sensibility..

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

Scent and a dog’s ability to use it in relation to hunting has long fascinated me.  When I watch dogs’ work and figure out the story which a scent trail reveals I can appreciate that this sense, more than any other, in relation to dogs is perhaps their most valuable hunting asset. Dogs trust their noses more than their eyes. Sight will bring them to the area of a fall but it will be their nose that will finish the trail and find their quarry.

Of course, the role a dog handler plays in helping track a bird should not be underestimated either. We have the advantage of height, sight and logic. It is this combination of skills between dog and handler which leads me to the following tale.

It is a story  about scent and the  combination of factors that fall into the mix when a wily cock pheasant decides to play chase. It tells the tale of how scent can be elusive and  frustrating. Even with the assistance of the handler, who often has the advantage of height and sight, sometimes a bird can lay a trail which only the cunning and experience of an older dog can untangle.

So let us go back to mid- November on a cold bright morning at Shelton Abbey. Staffords was the first drive of the morning and the birds were flying well. This drive is a mixture of tall conifers, sitting down in a valley with open areas of low, heavy undergrowth. The birds break from the top  of the bank behind the trees, clearing the tree- tops and offer quick, high challenging shooting to the guns standing on the  narrow path below.


Staffords offers a narrow window for challenging shooting.

Des was working Mossy further up the gunline but I had hung back for this one as the ground is too difficult for Elly to walk through. We had taken a stroll, instead, back along the path  looking for pine cones and Elly was having fun cracking the ice from some puddles.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

As the drive wound down I wandered back towards the game cart. A bird had come down behind the end gun with a wing down and was on the run. The spaniel directly behind the gun had marked the cock bird well and her handler sent her to retrieve him.  It should have been as straightforward as that, but the cock pheasant had other ideas. The young dog took a line directly on the bird  through the pine needles but lost him when she hit some marshy ground. She quartered the ground well covering the area of the fall and retracing where the pheasant had last been seen. Her owner  helped her by pushing her back further into the swamp in the hope of picking up the trail again.

At the game cart Michelle and Coral could see  the bird as it ran on deeper into the woods towards the roots of a fallen conifer. Coral took her young cocker to hunt the area  in the hope of either picking up the trail, or as sometimes happens,  finding the bird had hunkered down into the cover which surrounded the tree. Both young dogs worked well covering the ground asked of them but for some unknown reason the trail kept going cold; almost as if there were gaps in the scent and where the bird had run.

High birds and open sky.

High birds and open sky.

The drive was over so I took Winnie and Chester out to see if they could help figure out this riddle. I checked with Michelle that the area  behind Staffords was not going to be used that morning so, if necessary, I could allow the dogs range a good distance if they picked up a trail.

I took them to the fallen conifer where the bird had last been seen and set them to hunt. Just like the spaniels did before them, they covered the ground well. There was plenty of scent as many birds had landed in this area throughout the drive. The dogs would have to differentiate scent given off by the uninjured birds that landed  and the one bird running through this area which was injured. Nothing was pulling them away from the area to indicate that the bird may have moved on through the woods. He had to be here somewhere.

Then Chester skipped across a small stream and picked up a trail heading back into the woods towards the gunline, after a few minutes out of sight I could hear the lusty call of a cock bird as he rose and flew into the distance. That was not the bird we were seeking. Winnie continued to work the area but wasn’t showing any signs of hot fresh scent. Chester returned and again picked up a trail on the far bank of the stream, this time heading back up hill towards the area of the sweep drive. He was soon out of sight and was gone for much longer this time. There was no point in calling him, he would not hear me but I knew the ground well enough that he could follow a bird a good distance without difficulty and without endangering himself by crossing roads or fences. He is doggedly persistant and will trail an injured bird until he finds it.

Cover in Staffords .

Cover in Staffords .

We were just heading back to the gamecart when down through the woods comes Chester, carrying the wounded cock bird. He had sought and found the right trail. The pheasant had not made it easy he had outwitted three dogs and three handlers all of whom had worked hard to untangle the scent trail he left or didn’t leave behind as he made good his escape!

It is a retrieve which stuck with me in the weeks following and one which I am still perplexed by. Why did the trail go cold so quickly after the bird hit the ground? One old timer’s theory, when I told him about it, was the pine needles. He reckons they disrupt scent and recounted an incident where he almost lost a young dog in a pine forest some years back. There may be some truth in this as when Chester crossed the stream the woodland becaome more mixed with decidious leaf litter as opposed to pine needles but I will never truly know.

I also wondered about the retrieve from a trialling perspective. It was through no fault of any of the dogs that they lost the trail of the pheasant but what would have happened in a trial? Would each subsequent handler be allowed to move further into the woodland in order to pick up a trail? The line which Chester initially took flushed a bird, possibly lightly pricked, would that have been taken as the initial bird or could Chester be allowed try again? Sometimes the confines of trialling may limit gamefinding skills rather than enhancing them perhaps?

The indominitable Chester.

The indominitable Chester.

4 thoughts on “Scents and sensibility..

  1. Like you “scenting” has long fascinated me. I was recently drawn back to the mystery when I realised that my present dog, Stevie, effectively goes blind when he “switches” fully to his nose. I have seen him many times working-in slowly with his nose when the retrieve was clearly visible – had he chosen to use his eyes. At times he relies completely on his nose, ignoring sight!

    I think that in trying to understand, we anthropomorphise a little too much. We approach their ability to scent as if it were like our sense of smell but far more powerful. Having watched them over the years, I’m tempted to think that we’d get nearer an understanding if we compared their scenting with our way of seeing.

    When showing someone a retriever at work on dummies, we’ve all been asked, “How does he do that? Is there a special scent on them or is there a smell of you on them?” I experimented on this years ago. I threw out a number of brand new dummies from their packaging bags and took care not to touch them. I then went and got my dogs. I sent them on long unseen retrieves from the opposite direction. I wasn’t a bit surprised when they located the dummies with ease and certainly as quickly as a “smelly” well-used one. I hadn’t a clue how they did it but I was convinced it wasn’t just a matter of smell.

    It began to dawn on me that while their ability to smell is many, many times greater than ours, that’s not the most startling part of the story. That nose – fantastic though it is – is no more than a very efficient and effective device for gathering raw information. As in most areas, the more information the better but as in all areas, no quantity of information is of any use without the processor, i.e. without the brain’s ability to use it. I think we are mistaken when we assume that a dog gets the slight whiff of a scent and can then follow it. He/she certainly can do this and frequently does it but it is used only in straightforward situations and couldn’t possibly explain what happens on well-used and difficult terrain traversed by all sorts of creatures and with many other uninvolved creatures close by.

    What I think is happening is quite like human sight. Consider looking across a stretch of land. Nothing in particular is noticed, though all is visible, until something incongruous catches the eye. What has happened is that the sensory data are processed in the brain and attention is drawn to the particular. In short, what is expected is not interesting and the brain has a clear “picture” of the expected.

    The behaviour of a dog scenting suggests that something similar is going on. In a riot of competing smells – some strong, some weak, some strange, some familiar, and the wind changing them constantly – a nose like that should be overloaded with data to the point of utter confusion. In a puppy the data overload is seen in confusion but over time the “pictures” are composed and stored in the brain, and they are complex. The dog in the fabulously data rich environment of smells is drawn to the incongruous, an out-of-place hint of something. Be it a brand new dummy in a fresh field or a scent called to mind as something odd on ground across which live game have run or from which game has recently been retrieved, the dog’s attention is drawn to some tiny detail because it is out of place in the expected, let’s call it, scentscene: “Interesting!” – and he’s off.

  2. That is really an interesting issue and not so clear, but in general I came to nearly the same conclusion about this remarkable ability of (older) dogs, I also compared it with mens’ kind of seeing the world instead of smelling
    Many thanks for your colums

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