To brace or not to brace? That is the question. Simply playing the numbers game can go either way. “Two is better than one” can become a “double whammy.” “One for the road” can be a “one hit wonder.” There’s no argument to support running two dogs as opposed to one that fits every scenario or every hunt. Many factors need to be considered.
For starters, how many dogs do you have to work with? For the first time in years, I only have one dog of my own. If I’m hunting several days in a row, all day long, I try to limit his time on the ground to an hour or two in the morning and an hour or two in the afternoon, hunting over other hunter’s dogs the rest of the time. When I had two dogs, I’d alternate but would have at least one of my dogs hunting with me at all times. If we could only hunt an hour total for the day, I might run them together or alternate days. Hunters with several dogs swap theirs out more often to be sure they each get field time and, logically, have more incentive to run their dogs in braces.
But what about the age and experience of the dogs? Young dogs can learn a lot from older dogs – how to range out, how to be cautious working scent, how to respond to commands in field situations. The other side of that coin, however, is a pup that doesn’t learn for himself and tends to follow the other dog rather than discovering what the wind and moisture and variety of smells mean. In most cases, young dogs should be given both opportunities, hunting alone sometimes and hunting with an experienced dog other times.
Another factor to be taken into account is the dogs’ temperaments. Effective bracemates should be aware of each other but hunt independently. They should be responsive to their individual handlers’ commands (and the handlers should not try to command the other’s dog). Running in a brace, some dogs will push out farther, feeling competitive pressure from having another dog in the field. Other dogs, usually young ones, get silly and playful when there’s another dog around to encourage goofing off. Males braced with females might be distracted by lure of the opposite sex. Intact males braced with intact males might get into the proverbial pissing contest.
That being said, nothing is as splendid as watching two dogs working in harmony. Put two dogs on the ground who run at similar speeds, quarter with the same rhythm, track in sync, respect each other’s retrieves and honor each other’s points, and birds or no birds, the hunt becomes unforgettable.
Turning the brace or rotate question away from the dogs for a moment, terrain is an issue. Big cover needs more dogs to work it thoroughly. Put one dog out on the Alaska tundra or a swath of South Dakota prairie, and he will have a heck of a challenge if you want him to work it all with the breadth and scope needed to locate a small covey of ptarmigan or sharptails. Conversely, thick or treacherous cover might be handled more easily with one dog than it would with two. In dense woods or thickets, two dogs means double the noise, which is likely to spook a bird. In impenetrable thorny river bottoms, two dogs risk pushing or flushing a bird well before the shooter can get in close enough to take a shot.
Ground conditions can affect the brace or rotate choice. If the ground is rocky, abrasive, stubbled, sharp, or rough, the dogs might not be able to run as long before getting sore pads. In that case, rotating dogs makes sense. Weather poses the same issue. If it’s hot, extend your dog power by running one at a time, rotating more often to give each rotation time to cool down between short runs.
Running multiple dogs or singles requires the same attention to conditioning and nutritional needs either way. The better a dog’s physical conditioning, the better his ability to tolerate longer hunts and difficult terrain or weather. Like any athlete, hunting dogs need year round conditioning and consistent exercise.
Some articles on maximizing hunting dogs’ condition say to “warm up” a dog’s muscles before hunting by trotting, jogging, even massaging them before they launch into the field. (I’d like to meet the hunting dog that needs a programmed warm up. Every bird dog I know does enough spinning, sprinting, barking, and general chaotic dashing about within the first three minutes out of their crates to warm up the muscles of a T-Rex snoozing in an ice bath.)
Nutrition, however, needs more careful deliberation. Sled dog racer and Purina Senior Research Scientist Arleigh Reynolds DVM recommends a high fat diet and, if possible, feeding only once a day in the evening. Quoted at the Purina Sporting Dog Summit in 2014, Dr. Reynolds said, “Feeding a high-fat diet ‘primes’ a dog’s metabolism to better use fat for fuel. This allows a greater power output from burning fat and spares more limited stores of carbohydrates [glycogen]. Feeding a high-fat instead of a high-carbohydrate diet while training can increase the maximum ability to burn fat as a fuel by 30 percent. Fat availability is also enhanced by a high fat diet. This feeding strategy allows a dog to perform longer at a higher intensity than would be possible if a high-carbohydrate diet was fed.”
The birds themselves pose a whole new set of issues to ponder. Pen-raised or wild? Heavily hunted (translation: smart!) or easy to hold? Would two or more dogs flushing a covey of quail or breaking point be more likely to interfere with shooting opportunities? Would one dog be able to track and pinch a running rooster?
Which is more effective – brace or rotate – is a question the answer to which is packed with local information and subjective strategizing. The only constant is that it should always balance what is best for that particular hunt with what is best for the dogs.
Story and photos by Nancy Anisfield