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That Dog'll Hunt !! by Ryan Rothhaar

            The use of leashed blood tracking dogs to aid in game recovery has been gaining more and more interest in the United States over the past several years.  Use of a recovery dog is now legal in at least twenty-nine states, and many more legislative issues are presently under review.  The idea is still a new concept to most American hunters and many misperceptions about the use of blood tracking dogs abound.  Worries of “chasing deer around with dogs” and trackers leading hunters to trespass on posted land as well as ethical concerns about hunters taking ill-advised shots if there is a dog available to back them up in recovery are just a few of the concerns.  A reasonable analysis of the reality of tracking with dogs, as well as some knowledge of how the process really works, shows these fears to be unfounded.  I have never had a hunter or landowner show concern over my twenty-pound standard dachshund; actually he is usually received with a smile and a chuckle.  Unethical hunters will take bad shots at game regardless of access to a tracking dog and instances of trespass have never increased in relation to tracking dog use.  In reality, we, as ethical hunters, should make every effort to both recover game and to ease the suffering of wounded animals.  In that respect using a well-trained tracking dog is no different than practicing with a bow to increase accuracy or making sure broadheads are shaving sharp.

              The traditional use of tracking dogs in Europe has a long and rich history.  Many of the breeds we now think of as hunting or companion dogs were developed in various parts of Europe for hunting purposes hundreds of years ago.  Hunters in many countries including France and Germany would not think of hunting without the ability to call in a tracking dog if needed and, in fact, in Norway the law requires a hunter to prove they have access to a trained tracking dog before they can legally hunt big game.

           I have had an interest in developing a blood tracking dog for several years and carried out a significant amount of research in that time.  My wife Katia is from eastern France, near the border with Germany, and grew up with European dachshunds from hunting bloodlines although she never used them as working dogs.  This past summer we finally decided to pull the trigger, so to speak, on acquiring and training our own tracking dog, and after intense research into American breeders we purchased a pup from Sian Kwa (Qua-Linea Kennel) in North Carolina.  Sian breeds standard size smooth haired dachshunds from proven European hunting bloodlines focusing on producing top notch versatile hunting dogs in the European tradition.

            After extensive discussion with us regarding our wants, needs, personality, lifestyle, and previous experience with working and non-working dogs, Sian thought that two pups from her 2009 litter would fit us well.  We drove down to her house, met the litter, and blindly picked the pup that we preferred.  This pup turned out to be the very same that Sian had chosen as the best for us.  We took our new buddy, Oskar, home at 8 weeks old and he rapidly progressed from short, easy artificial bloodlines to aged tracks of several hundred yards with twists and turns in only a few weeks.  He found his first deer at 12 weeks old, a doe I harvested in the early Indiana archery season, and he lit up like a kid that just discovered what Halloween is about.  Through the fall and winter, we continued training Oskar and used him for live tracking whenever possible.  The most difficult part of the process to date has been to increase the difficulty of training tracks quickly enough to provide a sufficient challenge for the dog – compared to what we, as visual trackers, can do on a blood trail a dog is simply amazing.  We have learned a lot about the practical side of using a dog for wounded deer recovery in a short time and, hopefully, I can communicate some of that information here.

Short and tall, big and small….

 

            There is no one breed of dog to use as a blood tracker – although there are some ways to increase the odds of selecting a new pup to develop into a useful tracking dog.  The nose work is easy for a dog, and almost any dog has plenty of nose to follow even several day old bloodlines.  Other critical aspects of a dog’s personality will dictate whether or not he will use that nose.  The key traits of a good tracking dog, regardless of breed, are prey drive and focus. 

Prey drive, and secondarily prey aggression, is the aspect that differentiates the pet from the true hunting dog.  Prey drive is considered to be a non-trainable trait, and is where selection of a pup from a proven working bloodline is imperative.  Prey drive is what forces the dog to follow the scent, pursuing an animal for the prey or food aspect, and not simply as a game to play with the handler.  Prey drive is an inborn trait, and not trainable, so as a result a dog without prey drive will never be able to develop as a tracking dog that can still perform in more complicated situations. This is the primary importance of finding a good breeder who carefully breeds for prey drive and assesses this instinct in the pups at an early age.  Pups lacking sufficient prey drive will be placed in pet homes, not hunting homes, by any responsible hunting dog breeder. 

             Prey aggression is less critical to a blood tracking dog than to an earthdog or an animal used to bay game, but is still a desirable trait.  The concept of prey aggression must not be confused with general aggressiveness in a dog.  Prey aggression should never spill over to either humans or other dogs, and should turn on like a switch when the animal is in a prey aggressive situation. Some tracking dog owners brag that their dogs will not allow a person near the recovered game – even to the point of biting someone other than the handler if the game is approached. I believe this is a fault, however, and experienced breeders have described this behavior as a lack of self confidence on the part of the dog, not misplaced prey aggression.  In the end, the handler should never expect or accept aggression towards humans by a tracking dog – the job is to find the wounded game, at that point the dog’s responsibility ends.  In short, prey drive is what forces the dog to pursue the wounded game, and prey aggression is the trait that drives the dog to fight or bay, or in the case of the tracking dog, to chew and shake, the game animal. 

            Focus is another trait that is critical to a good blood tracking dog, but not necessarily to a working dog used for other purposes.  Focus enables the dog to work for hours on a difficult line amid distractions ranging from people, rabbits, or other unwounded game crossing an old line, and to complete the job in varying weather or terrain conditions.  A good blood tracking dog should have focus bordering on stubbornness and the self confidence to convince the handler that he is on the right line.  Many of the terrier breeds, for instance, have plenty of prey drive but can lack proper focus as they tend to prefer a more exciting type of hunting involving live game than blood tracking. I own a rat terrier that is from world champion hunting stock but there is no way she can focus to follow a boring bloodline when there are squirrels to chase or moles to dig out of the ground.

            Assuming the dog has the proper traits to excel as a blood tracker the choice of breed is virtually limitless.  There are some realities, of course – a chihuahua may not be the best choice for tracking deer in freezing conditions, and most people would not enjoy skiing through the woods being dragged by a mastiff, but many types of dogs can, and do, track very well.  The bulk of blood tracking work is carried out by hounds, but Drahthaars, or German wirehair pointers, are very popular with owners desiring a versatile hunting dog to pursue both birds and game. In addition, labs, German shepherds, Jagdterriers, Jack Russells, and many other breeds are commonly used to track and recover wounded game.  At a recent blood tracking seminar handlers were present that worked everything from dachshunds to beagles and a shepherd dog to Petit Basset Griffon Vendeens  that look like a cross breeding between a terrier and a dust mop, but are used as pursuit and kill dogs in France.

           A large percentage of the blood tracking in the United States centers on dachshunds of European hunting lineage – or teckels as they are called in much of Europe.  Teckels are the ubiquitous hunting dog in Germany and France, used for everything from hunting foxes and badgers underground (“Dachshund” translates to “Badger Dog” in German) to pursuing rabbits and other small game, baying wild boar, retrieving ducks in some situations, and of course tracking wounded animals.  Many folks still smile when they see the “Doxie” on the tracking lead, but be assured this is certainly NOT your Grandmother’s dachshund!  When developed from the appropriate bloodlines these dogs have all the focus, drive, and heart needed for hunting, and a good dose of stubbornness as well.  There is also a lot of talk about coat type for working dachshunds in the United States – wirehair, smooth, or long.  Some breeders even go as far as to suggest that the only teckels that will hunt are wirehair dogs.  The reality is that coat is irrelevant to the ability of a dachshund to blood track, and with the exception of some limited cases – for instance the nightmare of a long haired or improper soft wire coat in cockleburs – really gives no advantage or disadvantage.  Our smooth teckel tracked one deer at temperatures around 5 °F with six inches of snow and 20 mph winds for over four hours when he was six months old and never showed any affect from the weather.  His strong prey drive and focus kept him warm, not his coat.

           In the final analysis the blood tracking dog will be first and foremost a pet and will only be used for hunting a relatively small part of the year.  Choose a dog with the right bloodlines and breeding, but be sure the breed is one you can live with the nine months of the year when there is no hunting season as well as a dog that fits your lifestyle.  Also keep in mind, as my friend Stephan Fuss, a German breeder and dog trainer, says: “Color does not put meat on the table, coat does not put meat on the table, PREY DRIVE puts meat on the table!”

 

Who trained who?

 

            Many new owners of a pup they wish to develop as a blood tracker (including myself) worry a lot about training – this seems almost an insurmountable task.  How do you convince a dog to find your deer for you? There are many good resources out there, but the reality is a dog of the proper bloodline is already able to track game and your breeder will know which dog will be the best prospect.  The new owner or handler’s job is simply to enable that instinctual trait and correct it when it is misguided.  I do not want to belabor training, I am as green as grass as far as dog training goes, but remember canines have been pursuing game, both wounded and unwounded, for much longer than they have been domesticated.  You only need to provide the opportunity and lightly nudge the animal in the right direction; he already knows what to do.  The primary requirements for a new trainer are an open mind, patience, and a commitment to put forth the time and effort the dog deserves.

            The REAL training focus, and a large part of the early learning curve for a handler new to working with a tracking dog, is developing the dog/handler team. The handler must trust his dog 100% and know how to read him under different circumstances.  The body language of the dog will communicate to a good handler whether he is on or off the scent, confident or confused, and whether he needs a bit of help or is locked onto the scent line and should be left alone to do his job.  Handler training never ends, and friends that have developed many tracking dogs tell me your dogs will continue to train you as long as you keep an open mind.

Another common misperception about blood tracking dogs is that you just hold onto the end of the rope and the dog takes you to the downed game – just that easy.  As in so many aspects of life the reality is more complex.   

            As I stated above, any good blood tracking dog and handler MUST work as a team to be effective.  When the handler brings his/her knowledge and experience of blood tracking, with or without dogs, to the mix and is able to read the tracking dog and work in concert the outcome can be fantastic.  Sian maintains that much of our early success with Oskar has been due in large part to our own experience blood tracking without a dog.  Combining our knowledge of wounded deer behavior and an ability to read our dog on lead enabled us to recover twelve deer out of thirteen attempted tracks this year, with the single unrecovered deer being verified as a non-fatal brisket injury. The use of our husband and wife team was a huge benefit as well since the handler is able to focus on the dog while the other human member of the team can follow behind and verify the line with visible blood confirmation.  A tracking dog is not, however, a miracle worker or magician.  He cannot change your marginal, non-lethal shot into a killing wound.  He also cannot find a deer in impossible conditions.  What he CAN do is find wounded game that may otherwise be wasted and confirm non-lethal injuries to provide peace of mind to the hunter that the animal will survive.

           Working with a blood tracking dog has greatly increased my enjoyment in the deer woods and has added an entirely new dimension to my own and my wife’s involvement in the outdoors.  The ability to help other hunters recover wounded game while also pursuing and promoting a hunting tradition with hundreds of years of history is a bonus.  On top of the hunting aspects we ended up with a pet and companion that has turned into a real buddy who may actually be verging on becoming spoiled, but that is another discussion.  I believe that the responsible use of a tracking dog to recover wounded game is not only of a great benefit to us as ethical hunters, but also to the game we pursue, and that is the most important point of all.

 

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