December 05, 2022
The doe stepped into the clearing around 5:30 that October evening. I slowly raised my crossbow, and when she stood broadside at about 15 yards, I placed the scope on her vitals and released the arrow. The shot seemed solid, and the doe bounded off to my right toward a field. A few minutes later, I found the blood trail and easily followed it through the field, but lost it when the doe apparently veered left toward a thicket.
I have hunted the property for many years and have recovered numerous whitetails from that familiar copse, but after 90 minutes of searching I still had not found the deer nor any more blood. That’s when I called friend Blair Smyth, Virginia’s Allegheny Programs Director for the Nature Conservancy. Blair owns Enzo, a deer-tracking dog. Smyth’s advice was simple: Go home, take a nap and meet him at the property in three hours.
When Blair and I arrived at the spot where I had last located blood, Enzo immediately put his nose to the ground, sniffed about for a few seconds and made a hard right. All of 45 seconds later, Enzo found the doe, dead on the edge of the field. Why had that deer taken a hard turn right when all of the other whitetails I had shot on that property always gone left into the thicket? Who knows. But the advantages of a deer-tracking dog couldn’t have been more obvious.
“That night was the perfect example of why I like to give a wounded deer some time,” Smyth says. “If we had gone earlier, she’d have gotten up and gone. The shot was a good one, but just a tiny bit back. That inch or two often means it’ll take a deer 3 to 4 hours to die instead of 3 to 4 minutes. That hunt showed how tracking dogs can help find deer, why their noses should always be trusted and the benefits of being patient.”
Train a Tracking Dog
Fadi Bahouth, a retired chemical engineer from Huddleston, Va., owns a deer-tracking dog named Zander. Like Enzo, Zander is a German wirehaired dachshund, a breed famous for its ability to track deer. Other trackers prefer Labrador retrievers, Bavarian mountain hounds, German wirehaired pointers, Jagdterriers, beagles and Southern blackmouth curs. My son-in-law and I have worked some with his yellow Lab, Max, and the dog has been quite enthusiastic about his training.
What is more important than breed, though, says Bahouth, is that the canine shows a tendency to want to learn how to blood trail. Other traits include intelligence, responsiveness, good genetics, a work ethic, energy and excitability, stable temperament and courage, prey drive and a desire to track, nose power and use of nose, and the dog wanting to please his or her owner. Bahouth says that many dog trainers prefer that their animal come from a reputable breeder, but old-fashioned mongrels have proven themselves to be apt trailers as well. Although older dogs can learn how to blood trail, pups often prove to be the best and quickest learners.
“As a puppy’s world expands, tracking training should begin,” Bahouth says. “Seven to 10 weeks of age is the ideal time to start a young dog. I like to begin the process with deer liver drags, steadily increasing the length of the drag from 25 to 50 yards at the beginning, then continually increasing the length of the drag as the dog develops confidence and skill.
“Also, give the dog a chance to enjoy the finding of its prey. Fresh raw deer liver is fun for a dog to track and chew on once he finds it. A good chew at the end is an especially good reward.”
Bahouth adds that it is also prudent to expose a puppy to various smells and sights related to whitetails. The smell of other deer organs as well as whitetail tails and hooves are prime examples for this training step.
The next step involves a pooch following an actual blood trail.
“A dribbled blood line of 25 to 50 yards should be created,” Bahouth says. “A small sponge screwed to the end of a stick can be used to drip blood. It’s best to introduce this after a week or so of easy liver drags. Let the blood dry so that the puppy does not stay in one spot and lick the blood.
“Gradually extend blood lines to 100 yards with right-angle turns,” Bahouth continues. “When the pup is about 10 weeks old, introduce a light, 20-yard tracking leash (states often require tracking dogs to be on a leash). At the end of the blood line, place a strip of deer skin, say a foot or so long, or use a deer tail. Let the pup play with it.”
The next step is to make the tracking more difficult. Attach the bottom third of a deer leg to a stick and lay down a trail by periodically “walking the leg.” As the young pooch becomes more adept at following and finding the leg, increase the distances between where the leg touches ground.
The last step in the training process is for the puppy to “locate” a deer that another dog or hunter has already found. This past season, I helped a friend accomplish this stage. It was a thrill to observe the dog’s excitement when she found the deer I had killed earlier in the evening. Later in the fall, that same dog helped me find a doe whose trail I had lost, once again making me glad that using a blood-trailing dog is legal in my home state.
If you’re interested in training a dog to track and recover wounded game, consider joining United Blood Trackers (unitedbloodtrackers.org). The group offers a wealth of infor-mation about tracking dogs, and maintains lists of state contests, workshops and local contatcs.