The girls call him "cute" and the guys just nod and stare, but last week our whitetail tracking dog "Radar" recovered his first deer of the 2011 bow season. This 20-pound, whiskered wonder may not look like much but is a vital part of our whitetail hunting program.
The doe was well hit and would have been relatively easy to find for the bowhunter who shot her, but he knew I was eager to get Radar on his first blood trail of the season. Eager to see if our little wirehaired "dachsy" could do more than parlor tricks, our friend marked the shot and eased out of the woods. After dinner we made a quick call (by law) to the NY DEC to inform them of our intent to track a wounded deer with a tracking dog. Then we were off. My son Neil and I are both licensed to work leashed tracking dogs in NY. That night Neil would do the handling.
One sniff of the bloody arrow and "cute" little Radar was off like a shot. A few minutes later he was at the recovery site. Our "lap dog" had morphed into a snarling, tugging, fang showing pit-bull/wolverine cross intent upon transforming the doe's tibia into a well used chew bone.
Like so many other blood tracking wirehaired dachshunds, the smell of fresh deer blood had transformed our little buddy into a 100 percent DNA driven hunting dog capable of tracking a wounded deer all night and into the next day if necessary. Forget that he shares a bed with his owner, watches TV, eats yogurt and begs for treats from the bank teller.
I became exposed to whitetail tracking dogs a handful of years ago at a QDMA national convention. Dr. John Jeanneney gave a convincing presentation on the remarkable abilities of well bred and well trained deer tracking dogs. John and his wife Jolanta have been raising and training deer tracking dogs for more than 30 years and are national authorities on tracking wounded deer. He pointed out that dogs are used extensively for tracking wounded game in Europe but the practice is just catching on in the US. The dogs come in all shapes and sizes but the common denominator being they are amazingly effective in recovering deer that visual trackers (us hunters) would have lost.
Since then I had talked with a number of whitetail enthusiasts who kept and trained tracking dogs. I also became aware of the amazing work of Deer Search Inc.(a group Jeanneney help establish) and similar groups who volunteer their time and their dogs to track wounded deer that hunters are unable to find. The more I learned about deer tracking dogs, the more I liked the idea of having one.
I got hold of a copy of Jeanneney's book Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer and started drilling deeper. It convinced me that some of the deer I had lost over my 50 years of hunting could have been recovered if I would have had access to a well-trained tracking dog.
For starters, good tracking dogs don't necessarily need blood to work out a track. John has recovered hundreds of deer that left little or no blood trail on a trail that "dried up" within 100 yards of where the deer was hit. Seems deer give off all kinds of scent (especially a wounded deer) that a tracking dog will key on. These dogs can easily follow a day-old trail, work in the rain, or follow a snowed-covered trail with no visible sign of a deer.
John's favorite tracking dog is the wirehaired dachshund from European tracking lines. But, he is quick to comment that he and Jolanta have been breeding them for more than 30 years so he might be a bit partial to them. He further notes that many successful deer trackers use labs, pointers, beagles and bloodhounds. Curs are used in the south and "cow dogs" in Texas. In other words, many hunting and some working strains can be trained to track wounded deer.
I phoned John up and learned that wirehaired dachshunds are by far the most popular in my neck of the woods. He says that these small (20 lbs. or so) dogs are smart, adaptable and make great house and companion dogs. He also made sure I understood that a trained tracker is no substitute for a well-placed shot. A poorly hit deer is still going to escape. Over half of the tracking calls John answers end in a "non-fatal" conclusion.
I wasn't looking for shortcuts or simple solutions. Neil and I were looking to upgrade our hunting experience by avoiding as many lost deer as possible. By adding a tracking dog to our hunting program we were strengthening our commitment to conservation and ethical hunting. We were sold!
As hunters we are all aware that not all shots lead to a piled-up whitetail at the end of a bright red blood trail. We all lose deer, it happens. It's the uncertainty that kills us. That's what Radar is all about, reaching the end of the trail, knowing how it ended; that and having someone to share the couch with.
Note: You don't have to own a tracking dog to have one in your future. Volunteer organizations (and some paid private owners) with highly skilled dogs are turning up in whitetail country. Check them out and keep the number handy. Also, be sure to check your state's regulations before using a tracking dog.