Western hunters are lucky in a lot of ways, but whitetail hunters have an advantage in tools available for recovering game. If you draw a line along the western borders of Idaho, Utah, and New Mexico, you’re looking at the demarcation for legal use of dogs to aid in game recovery efforts.
Anywhere to the west of that line in the contiguous U.S., using tracking dogs is illegal, except for limited use in California (blood tracking dogs are allowed in Alaska and Hawaii). Almost any state to the east of the line allows some form of blood tracking with dogs. The only holdouts are a tri-state cluster in the Northeast composed of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.
This means that throughout much of the whitetail’s range, if you shank a shot and hit a buck in the guts, you can look up a local tracker to help you out. Or, as I plan to do this year, you can train your own dog to do the nose work for you. This, according to Jeremy Moore, a member of United Blood Trackers and an accomplished dog trainer, isn’t as hard as most people think.
“I don’t think this type of training is difficult at all,” Moore said. “It’s very similar to training a good gun dog or bird dog. It just takes time, patience, and opportunities for experience.”
The key to starting this process, whether you have a pup or an older dog, is to understand that most of what the dog needs is already built in. This goes for pretty much all dogs. It wasn’t that long ago when if they got scent of a wounded game animal, it likely would result in a full belly.
While we often falsely assume that dogs are solely following the scent of blood droplets, what they are actually doing is keying on the scent left from the deer’s interdigital glands. These glands, located in the hooves, release complex scents that aids in communication between deer. A buck that passes through will leave a trail that tells other deer when he walked the trail, which direction he went, whether he is dominant or subordinate, and a host of other bio-chemical markers such as whether he is stressed from a wound.
There are other olfactory markers that signal a wounded, stressed deer as well. It really doesn’t matter where the scent comes from because our dogs know how to use it. The ability to fully process this scent is gene-deep in wild canids as well as our domestic dogs. It’s also the first step toward realizing that we don’t really need to train dogs to track game. Instead, we need to train them to obey us while we expose them to enough successful (read: easy) tracking jobs. This solidifies an understanding of the task and is crucial to a deer dog’s development.
The obedience part is what Moore mostly focuses on until a pup is 10 or 12 months old: “Foundation work, basic obedience, is my primary focus with young dogs, even though I will build in a ‘hunt’ command early on with pups as a verbal cue,” Moore said. “I think that helps unlock their noses and it helps me to understand the dog’s hunting and tracking style so I can read him better.”
Moore starts this work by sprinkling kibble in an isolated patch of short grass. He then leads the dog in downwind. After that, he sits back and watches to see how the pup uses its nose to find the treats. When the dog locates the kibble, he or she receives a positive reward. Eventually, Moore will use a scent he produces through his Dog Bone company to create “trails” with tennis balls that increase the difficulty of the track and offer the reward of a retrieve. All of this happens while engaging in a lot of basic obedience work to ensure that the dog will have a solid recall and an understanding of the working relationship with its handler. While Moore does recommend some of those simple training drills for encouraging nose-work, it’s the on-the-job experience that really helps dogs understand what’s being asked of them.
This reinforcement, like the first few times a bird dog sets off in the CRP for roosters or along a big-timber logging road for ruffs, is crucial to making the whole thing click. Moore (and every other game-recovery dog trainer I’ve ever interviewed) always looks for opportunities to take his dog on a successful trail.
Initially, the best tracking jobs involve deer that you shot perfectly and tipped over in sight. Even though you don’t need four-legged helpers to find these deer, the dog will get plenty of practice with scent, and knowing where the deer is ensures a positive outcome. Heap on the praise, make it a big deal, and allow the essence of their job to congeal in their brains. Just like with upland or waterfowl hunting, early, positive experiences breed success throughout a dog’s entire life.
Perhaps the best part of this, besides the fact that an experienced game recovery dog is 1,000 times better at the task than we are, is that it’s a bolt-on skill. It won’t take anything away from your bird dog and it won’t cause him to be a deer chaser.
To illustrate this, consider the pup I have at home right now. Sadie is 10 weeks old and she’ll hold many job titles. She’ll work the uplands for pheasants, sharpies, grouse, quail, and doves. She’ll spend time in boats and blinds waiting on greenheads and woodies as well. She’ll probably be a shed dog too, because I just can’t help but train that in.
On top of all of that, she’ll add deer-recovery to her resume. That way, when the inevitable poor shot happens from me or someone in my deer hunting circle, we’ll have a hell of a lot better chance of a grip-and-grin photo at the end of the day.
Feature image via John Hafner.