Who are we to doubt the supreme sniffing power of dogs when they have 44x more scent receptors than us? asks Roy Bebbington
I am led to believe that the average human has around 5million scent receptors in his or her nose. This places us somewhere within the lower third of all mammals in our smell sensitivity. An average dog, on the other hand – and let’s remember, I am using the word “average” here – has around 220million in theirs. This equates to their sense of smell being around 44 times more sensitive.
Evolution has designed the very structure of a dog’s nose to be different from ours, enabling it to make the maximum use of a multitude of scent receptors. This means dogs can pick up on incredibly faint odours, undetectable to humans. Why then, do we nasally challenged humans arrogantly fail to believe what our dog is telling us?
It is not only its nose that should give you a clear indication of what a dog is trying to communicate. Its body language tells you just as much — provided you can understand and read your dog. I am truly amazed at the number of people whom, no matter how many dogs they may have owned, or the number of times they may have shot over them, never learned to read a dog’s body language. I am ashamed to admit it, but even after all of the years I have spent either shooting or hawking over my dogs, I too occasionally doubt what my dog is telling me.
Good but not infallible
By and large, a dog will not lie to you. Let’s always remember that first and foremost your dog is a fallible creature. It is not some robotic, mechanical android, programmed to perform perfectly on each and every occasion it goes afield.
As such, yes, it will on occasions make a mistake. I have found a multitude of reasons for an uncharacteristic performance from a dog: fatigue, feeling over-pressured, inexperience of both the country upon which it is being worked and the type of game being hunted, dehydration, temperature extremes and the king of them all — poor scenting conditions and the kinds of variable wind conditions and strengths that make the pointing dog’s job difficult. Yet an experienced, well-conditioned dog, allowed to do what it has been bred and trained for, will 99 per cent of the time get things right. Far more than you can say for any average human!
Last season I made not one but two faux pas — both of which resulted in success thanks solely to my dog’s self- belief, which saved my embarrassment. One of these incidents took place in the Highlands in August, when we were working our dogs for grouse.
On the day in question we had a total of eight Guns and so decided to split into two parties of four. The younger Guns accompanied the estate’s headkeeper, who was handling their hard-running, wide-ranging pointer. I was allocated four mature Guns, which meant a somewhat more sedate, leisurely pace for us.
The area of highland upon which we were shooting was towards the estate’s extremities, encompassing what was probably its most wild and challenging terrain. An added obstacle was the fact that the moor was heavily scarred with innumerable deep peat hags. In an area such as this, the advantage is always with the grouse — they know exactly how best to use the hags to run continually before a dog. They will sit and hold for only the briefest of time. This means you really need Guns who are able to get up to, alongside and forward of the pointing dog in pretty short order to take a shot, as the grouse flush ahead.
The mature Guns I was working the dogs for were unable to do as such, and a frustrating pattern began to develop: initially the dogs would find and point the grouse, and then hold awaiting the Guns. Unfortunately by the time the Guns were up to the dogs, the grouse had taken their chance and run on to flush out of range.
Many a Gun, understandably rather concerned with their own safety as they traversed the hags, never even saw the grouse go. I was convinced they thought the dogs were repeatedly “false pointing”. Diplomacy and the art of biting one’s tongue are talents that benefit the dog man! On many occasions the dogs, in an attempt to keep up with the ever-moving grouse, would continue to follow them at a safe distance behind, meaning they would disappear within the hags. With one eye on the Guns, and the other on the dogs, I had basically to second-guess where I thought the dogs might be, from the last time I saw them disappear into a hag. This is a very inaccurate science, I can assure you!
Old dogs, new tricks
I am now giving serious consideration to the use of the telemetry system I routinely use on my hawk when working my dogs within such areas as these hags. Though far from traditional, a transmitter attached to a dog’s collar, then the subsequent deployment of the antennae, would give an exact fix on any non-visible dog’s whereabouts, saving me a certain amount of heartache, and the Guns some legwork!
Eventually we moved out of the hags and began to work a relatively undemanding area, where one of the dogs locked on point, nose facing a small area of water. With no reason to disbelieve what the dog was telling me, I brought up two Guns and we walked up to, alongside and forward of the dog. No grouse! I informed the Guns that the grouse had in all probability run on, and that it would be best if they continued forward with me.
After some 40 yards with no visible grouse, I stopped the Guns to look back towards the dog, which resolutely remained locked on point. I felt sure that if the grouse had run on, the dog would have moved on itself, and yet we had walked straight past it — within inches of its nose — with nothing produced. I brought the Guns back and we repeated the process. But there was nothing. By this time I felt the Guns were beginning to question both my sanity and perhaps that of the dog. Back in line, I suggested we walk, slowly, up to the dog. I stopped the Guns at the side of the motionless animal. Staring into the ground immediately before it, then walking around it, I still could not see anything. What on earth was wrong with this dog? I instructed it to “move on”, but the dog was having none of it.
A point conceded
He was so solid that he could have been cast in marble, and I was beginning to feel a certain amount of embarrassment with the Guns around me wondering just what on earth was going on. Then as I gazed into the water, a ripple occurred. The ripple was far too large to have been caused by the pond skaters that were skimming the water’s surface. I looked back towards the ripple’s source and there it was, so obvious to a dog’s nose but completely camouflaged to my puny human senses! A grouse had actually sought sanctuary in the water, and had been still for so long, entirely due to the dog’s persistence.
I brought up the Guns and, even though we were only a couple of feet away from it, it still took a long while for them to spot the grouse. Full marks to the Guns — despite the long haul experienced so far, they wished the grouse good luck and we moved on in search of others. Thankfully, that afternoon fortune smiled on us, and a respectable bag was eventually made. Our freshwater grouse made for some interesting conversation for the Guns over dinner back at the lodge that evening. And I felt pleased that I’d managed to capture the scene with that photograph.