Grouse Hunting Dogs: The 10 Best Breeds

Six pointing breeds and four flushers round out our picks. Now let the fur fly…

Grouse hunters are a notoriously opinionated bunch. Put more than two of them in the same room and sure as sunrise they’ll find something to disagree about. More likely, they’ll find lots to disagree about. The best shotguns are a bone of endless contention. But if you really want to see the fur fly, stand up in a roomful of grouse hunters and say, “When it comes to grouse hunting dogs, I think breed _____ is the best.” Before you do, identify the closest exit, because objects will be thrown at you.

Today, that’s all changed. Flushing dogs now enjoy a large and enthusiastic following, the Continental breeds are an established force, and the Irishman and the Gordon have made heroic comebacks as grouse hunting dogs. It isn’t that the lights of the pointer and the English setter have dimmed; it’s just that they are no longer the only stars in the sky. William Harnden Foster wouldn’t know what to make of it.

To be sure that you do know what to make of it when it comes time to choose your next pup, here, in no particular order, are snapshots of the top 10 best grouse hunting dogs, 21st century style.

1. English Setter: The Traditional Grouse Dog






This breed remains the classic choice for traditional-minded grouse hunters—although the words “English setter grouse dog” can connote very different animals depending on who’s listening. There are low-to-the-ground, wispily feathered 35-pound English setters that smoke through the woods like missiles, and tall, extravagantly coated 70-pounders who go about their business with the unhurried formality of Downton Abbey butlers. The former are generally known as the field-trial type, the latter as the Ryman/Old Hemlock type. The legendary Tom Prawdzik of Clare, Michigan, believed that an English setter somewhere between those extremes—wide-ranging, but with an easy, all-day gait—was the most “efficient” dog for ruffed grouse hunting. He had 50 years of meticulously kept records to back up that opinion too.

2. Gordon Setter: The Handsomest Grouse Dog

Perhaps the handsomest of all the sporting breeds, the “black-and-tan” gets its name from the fourth Duke of Gordon, the Scottish laird who stabilized the breed’s type in the early 19th century. A steady, level-headed worker who operates at close range and rarely screws up, the Gordon was a great favorite among market hunters—about the best recommendation possible if your aim is to put birds in the bag. But for many years, as bird-dog fashion changed and the Gordon’s breeding was increasingly co-opted by the show crowd (the same fate that befell the Irish setter), sportsmen who’d have loved to hunt grouse with a Gordon had a devil of a time finding one that could hunt. Thankfully, the hunting Gordon is back, and while you won’t find one behind every bush, they’re out there if you make the effort to look.

3. Pointer: The Speedster

No breed elicits stronger opinions than the pointer. As the saying goes, there are really just two kinds of bird-dog people: those who think pointers are the only dogs worth feeding, and those who are scared to death of them. The way I look at it, the pointer is the Formula One racecar of the pointing-dog set: capable of jaw-dropping performance in the hands of those who know what they’re doing, and a wreck waiting to happen in the hands of those who don’t. Both Burton Spiller and William Harnden Foster, two of the most hallowed figures in the lore and literature of grouse hunting, were diehard pointer men. The greatest pointer man of all, Robert G. Wehle of Elhew Kennels fame, was a grouse hunter, and it’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of pointers used to chase ruffs boast a preponderance of Elhew blood.

See all 10 breeds and the complete Field and Stream article




Ruffed Grouse Management Areas - MN

Ruffed Grouse Management Areas

Ruffed Grouse Management Areas (RGMAs) are a great destination for the hunter looking to experience grouse and woodcock hunting. RGMAs are located in areas that have good potential for producing grouse and woodcock and are managed to promote suitable habitat conditions for these species.

Ruffed Grouse Management Areas:

  • range in size from 400 to 4,800 acres.
  • occupy over 100,000 acres in total, in 49 designated locations.
  • contain 184 miles of hunter walking trails.
  • allow dogs.

Find an RGMA

Visit the MN DNR site for mapping

Hunter Information

Respect private property and verify public hunting areas by observing boundary signs.

RGMAs are good places for upland forest bird hunting, yet they do receive considerable hunting pressure from bird hunters. RGMAs are also open to other types of hunting and recreation.

Note: There are thousands of acres of state forest and WMA land that, although not designated as RGMAs, have ongoing timber management that provides excellent ruffed grouse habitat.
Hunting in State Forests »

RGMA Management

RGMAs are maintained in partnership with government land owners, The Ruffed Grouse Society, volunteers, and by DNR wildlife managers. Because of the variety of ownerships and funding for maintenance, amenities and conditions can vary among locations. RGMAs may be managed by these various agencies through cooperative agreements or by a single agency.

Trail Information

Enhancements on the trails vary. Some feature clover planted along the trail; others have forest openings that tend to attract wildlife. Some are mowed annually. Many of the trails follow the courses of old logging roads. Forests change over time as the succession of forest growth progresses. Because of this natural cycle, the forest along the trails and the wildlife that inhabit the area change with time.

Thanks! Many RGMAs and this online resource were developed with funding from Ruffed Grouse Society opens in a new browser tab.

Attend Game Fair MN for Free. Volunteer with RGS

Game Fair Volunteers Needed

The Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society will be at Game Fair on August 11-13 & 18-20, and we need your help staffing our booth!

All volunteers receive free admission to Game Fair.

Anyone can volunteer, and you'll meet local RGS & AWS members, spread the message of forest habitat, hang out with bird dogs and learn more about what our partners are doing.
Never been to Game Fair? Check it out! It's like the state fair for outdoors folk - with activities for all ages.

MN Twin Cities Ruffed Grouse Society Chapter Fun Shoot August 30 @ 2:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Minnesota Horse and Gun Club
2920 220th Street E, Prior Lake, MN 55372
2 P.M.
2:30 P.M.
4 P.M.
4 P.M. - 6 P.M.
Wednesday, August 30, 2023
Proceeds benefit the
Ruffed Grouse Society’s
conservation efforts.
Pricing and Registration

WI 2023 11% decrease statewide in ruffed grouse drumming activity from 2022

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) today announced that data is now available from annual spring surveys of Wisconsin ruffed grouse, pheasant and waterfowl.

The spring surveys showed ruffed grouse and pheasant counts below the 5-year average, including an 11% decrease statewide in ruffed grouse drumming activity from 2022.

The decreases observed in the ruffed grouse and pheasant populations in this year's surveys were not unexpected.

“We are entering the down phase of the 10-year abundance cycle,” said Brian Dhuey, DNR Wildlife Surveys Specialist. “It is likely we will continue to see some declines in abundance in the coming years before we start to see increases, with the peak of the next cycle likely coming around 2029, 2030 or 2031. While the number of birds detected is down overall, there will still be pockets of good ruffed grouse abundance, although these areas will be fewer and harder to find this fall.”

Read the WI DNR report