Successful poker players often talk about identifying opposing player’s “tells” in route to victory. Some card players can’t look others in the eye when they’ve got a good hand, or they start tapping their fingers on the table when they’re bluffing. Baseball pitchers are known to have similar “tells.” I can remember one pitcher from high school who would only grunt when delivering a curve ball. Fastball = no grunt. Curve = grunt. I hit pretty well off that guy.
I believe a parallel can be drawn between successful hunter and dog teams. Without the ability to talk, the hunter is left to interpret the pup’s body language in the field to determine what that dog’s nose is communicating to the rest of its body. Most of us refer to this interchange of scent to body language as a dog getting “birdy.”
While there are common traits consistent across bird dogs, I believe each birdy dog’s tells are as unique as batting stances in the Hall of Fame. In my opinion, the basic birdy dog indicators are a pup’s tail, ears, eyes and pace. The key to being a successful hunter over your bird dog is honing in on how your dog’s tail, ears, eyes and pace behave when your pup’s hot after a bird or covey.
My shorthair has a couple of surefire tells. The biggest indicator for me is the pace at which her tail wags left to right. The faster it goes, the surer she is to be on a bird’s trail. Contrastingly, as soon as she believes she’s located it, her tail and the rest of her body goes “rock solid” into a point and her ears are pricked at attention. In essence, the more statuesque she is, the more certain she has the bird or covey pinned in the cover somewhere in front of her nose. As long as I’m not behind her, she’ll also make eye contact with me; making sure I see her and know she’s got one located. While I don’t know if pro dog trainers would encourage or discourage this eye contact, I absolutely get a rush out of the interchange. To me, it galvanizes the passing of the baton from her job to mine as the shooter.
While Trammell’s tail and eye contact tells aren’t unique to her, she does have another tell that I’ve yet to witness in anyone else’s bird dog. When Tram is hot on the trail of a running rooster, but she simply can’t locate it after an extended chase, she’ll let out a whine. When I hear that whine, I pick up the pace as fast as I safely can with shotgun in hand, because based on past experience that whine tells me she’s on the scent of a wily old rooster that is going to flush before he ever lets her get close on a point.
When it comes to pace as a tell, my buddy Matt Kucharski’s Lab, Lucy, provides my best example. There is no doubt a dog’s chasing speed picks up as it zeros in on a rooster, running grouse or covey. Matt’s Lucy is no exception. As the scent grows in intensity, so does Lucy’s horse power, until Lucy finally zeros in on a bird pinned under grass. At that point, Lucy stops, looks up to locate Matt, and then immediately pounces on the clump of grass concealing the bird.
What is your dog’s surefire “tell” when on a bird?