Peter Cheeseman gives an introduction to dogs for deer tracking, including the history, considerations for choosing the right breed and a brief evaluation of some of the main breeds as tracking dogs and companions.
The origin of dogs being used to hunt large game probably stems from around the early 1100’s, when man really started to use dogs’ ability to hunt and find food. However, it wasn’t until sometime in the 1800’s that man decided to breed dogs specifically for the purpose of finding wounded animals by means of tracking. They realised dogs that air scent could quite easily find a freshly injured or wounded animal, especially if it had laid up or expired. But they also found that those that ground scent, that is keeping their nose to the ground, had a greater success rate at following a trail that the animal had taken.
More specifically, if conditions were right an air-scenting dog could pick up scent in the air and would eventually lead them to their find. These type of dogs would generally use a quartering action to cover the ground and are still a very popular choice today with game shooters and in search-and-rescue situations. On the other hand, a ground scenting dog would follow a trail. Not only a trail of blood, but the scent from the animals feet, vegetation that had been recently crushed by the weight of the animal and even the disturbed soil left on its path. The recognition of this led to a process where breeds were developed that had very moist noses, to help the olfactory receptors in their noses work to their full potential. They also had slightly larger ears than normal, so that when the nose was down scenting the ears would help act as a funnel for the nose, scooping up as much scent as possible. Because of the breathing effort involved whilst using these receptors, combined with the physical demands of tracking for long distances, over often rough terrain, these dogs also had large lungs concealed within a deep chest. They also had to be fit and agile with a solid bone structure to cope with this kind of work.
Over the last few years the use of dogs for deer tracking has become increasingly popular. This may be due to the internet and social media giving us far more insight as to what is happening in different parts of the world with regard to stalking, hunting and the various types of dog work associated with these activities. Here in the UK it may also be partly due to the stalker training that we are given, such as DSC 1 & 2, combined with associations like B.A.S.C. and the Deer Initiative with their Best Practice Guide, meaning we are now more aware than ever of our responsibilities as a trained hunter to ensure we have not only taken the shot as humanely as possible, but also, if we think we have missed or wounded the animal, that the correct follow up procedure is carried out to prevent unnecessary suffering to the animal. Added to this, we must also think about the public’s perception of what we do. Imagine the consequences of a person out for a walk coming across the horrific sight of an animal that had been severely wounded, whether dead or alive. This could certainly start a chain of events that could escalate against shooting as a sport and profession, or seriously effect how we carry out conservation and wildlife management. Whatever the reason for this increased interest in deer tracking with dogs the benefits are clear.
So what makes a good tracking dog and which one should you choose? Well to be honest there are no real rules here, just a few basic guidelines. And of course it depends on your own personal requirements. Do you want a stalking companion as well as a tracking dog? Do you want a dog that will be a family pet as well as a worker? Will the the dog be living with other dogs? Do you want a dog that will be used occasionally for tracking or on a more full-time basis? Do you need a large dog that can pull down a wounded red deer or a smaller dog that could easily sit in your vehicle whilst you are stalking? Do you need a dog that will generally follow up on a deer within a short space of time (hot track), or would you be better suited to a breed that has been developed to track after in excess of 24 hours (cold track). Will most of your tracking be done on the open hill or in thick cover?
There are many breeds out there and they all have noses that work (well most of them), but they also each have their own breed characteristics that need to be considered. So lets take a closer look at just a few of the popular breeds in the UK and see what they have to offer. Please bear in mind though that there are always exceptions with any dog and one that should be a great tracker may turn out to be best left at home. Then there are those designed to be nothing more than a lap dog that can prove to be the best you could find.
Dachshund or Teckels
Quite simply they are they are born to hunt, with amazing noses. Since they are small they are a really useful choice. They may not be able to pull a large deer down, but they will follow it to the ends of the earth. They are well suited to both hot and cold tracking. Although a determined one will find its way round any obstacle they have a definite height disadvantage when it comes to tall cover which can be a problem in some areas. That said, they are well adept at going under thick undergrowth like brambles.
Jack Russell or Terriers
These are great little dogs and like the Teckels they are most certainly born to hunt. They have great characters and will take on anything that confronts them. Their ability to scent wounded animals is often overlooked, but most of them have incredible noses for the job. They are small, often live well with other dogs and children and make good pets in the home, but can just as easily be kennelled. In general they would be considered best suited to hot tracking.
Often overlooked in this country when it comes to deer work but they are formidable tracking machines. Sturdy and compact they have boundless energy, stamina and determination. These are a useful size in the house and will be well suited to both hot and cold scent work. Be warned though, if keeping one at home make sure your garden is secure as they are tremendous escape artists and once their nose is down on a scent they are gone. As a breed they will often give tongue whilst tracking and can be a noisy dog at home.
Similar in size to the beagle, spaniels are often a good choice for those who require a dual purpose dog, that is one that can work both small game and deer. They are cheerful happy and friendly dogs that blend well with the family. They do tend to need to be kept in check by their owners as they can soon get out of hand if given the chance. They have a willingness to please and can be kept indoors or kennelled without to many problems. Generally suited as a hot tracker.
Just as the spaniel, a good choice for a dual-purpose dog, and one that fits in with family life indoors or is just as happy kennelled. They, like the spaniel, will make a good stalking companion as well as a dedicated deer tracker. They too have great noses and stamina. They easily make great hot trackers, but with the correct training will become competent cold trackers. An ideal all rounder.
Bavarian Mountain Hound (BMH)
Placed somewhere between the spaniel and the labrador size-wise. The Bavarian is a breed that is better suited to a one-dog household and they don’t take well to kennel life. Like the beagle, they are a vocal breed and take to using their voice when reporting, which could be a problem if you have many neighbours. They thrive on exercise and stimulation. Be warned: if they don’t get it they will find a way of venting their frustration. They will live in their owners’ pockets given the chance, and make good hot and cold scenting dogs.
A broad, deep-chested, powerful dog with big lungs and plenty of determination. This dog is similar in character to the BMH but with the size and power to work on the larger species of UK game. They love to live with their owners and love to please them. Again, exercise and stimulation is a must or you will suffer. Will work in cover or on the open hill and have the drive to keep going until the job is done. Suited to both hot and cold scent work.
German Shepherd Dog
Large, strong, fearless and with a good nose. They can be a sensitive breed and will be very much in tune with their owners. Overall this is an obedient breed with the ability to pull a deer to halt should it be needed. They will take to kennel life but love to live indoors. I have known these take to tracking work very well, but they are probably more suited to hot tracking.
Hunt, Point and Retrieve (HPRs) – German Shorthaired Pointer (GSP), German Wirehaired Pointer (GWP), Hungarian Vizsla, Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla, Weimaraner (to name a few)
I don’t like to categorise dogs to a group, but if I don’t this list could be endless so please forgive me. In general all HPR’s are great tracking dogs. They have been designed to be a competent all-rounder and they do it well. Because of their air scenting ability they make a great stalker’s dog, as they have a strong tendency to point out unseen deer. However, you need to make a decision pretty early on if you wish to use one for tracking work as they ideally need to be trained to ground scent first. An HPR that will ground scent is a terrific all-rounder that has the ability to hot and cold track.Whatever breed you choose, please check out its breeding and background to make sure you get the healthiest and best choice for your purposes. Although getting a dog that comes from the best tracking lines you can find is a great advantage, that alone will not get you a great dog. You have to put the effort in. You will need to build a strong relationship of trust, form an unbreakable bond, work well together as a team and, most importantly, give the dog the correct training. Do this and you will be rewarded with success.
Never consider a tracking dog a tool that just sits in the box until you need it. Like most working breeds they do need plenty of exercise and stimulation and if they don’t get it you and your dog will surely suffer!
All photographs courtesy of Vicky Gamble Country Photography.