Using Tracking Dogs for Deer Hunting

What They Do and Why They Should Be Legal Nationwide

Editor's note: This is a guest blog by Realtree.com contributor Michael Pendley.

(Michael Pendley photo)

We have all been there. The shot looked good, or maybe it didn’t, but you still hope. The blood trail starts out strong, big splashes here and there, enough small drops to keep you on the right line between them. Then it stops. No amount of circling, grid working, or frantic searching of nearby thickets and water holes turns up a deer. For many of us, that is pretty much the end of it. Sure, we can watch the sky for buzzards over the following days, or sit out and listen for coyotes singing their song in hopes they might lead us to the carcass, but those methods are pretty much a last grasp, a fleeting shot, not really a surefire method of recovering a deer.

But more and more often these days, there is another option available. Call in someone with a trained tracking dog. These dogs can find deer that human hunters might walk right by. They are able to scent trail deer, even when there is no blood spoor to follow. A trained tracking dog can lead its handler to a deer even several days after it was shot.

Regulations vary from state to state, and, according to United Blood Trackers, at least 15 states still prohibit the use of tracking dogs altogether. One of the reasons listed for disallowing the use of trailing dogs is that they might follow game rather than the intended target animal. To prevent this, many states require the dog to work on-leash, absolutely preventing any chance that it might chase down a non-target animal.

If you find yourself in need of a tracking dog’s service, what are some of the steps a hunter can take to make the search as productive as possible? I posed that question to a couple of longtime dog handlers. Garrett Russell, owner of Festus, a trained deer-tracking bloodhound. He says one of the first things to do is to mark everything well. “Mark where the deer was standing, and the location of the last spot of blood,” says Russell. While things may seem fresh in your mind just minutes after the shot, Garrett says that the details may fade during the time it takes the dog and handler to get on site.

Ron Slifer, owner of another bloodhound deer tracker name Dio, adds that it is extremely important to not walk directly over the blood and scent trail, as the spoor will be spread by the hunters while they search in ever-widening patterns, making the trailing job more difficult for the dog. “Try to stay off the direct trail as much as possible, walk well out to the side of it if you can,” Slifer said.

He also recommends being proactive by locating tracking services in your area before you need them. “If you see that the trail is getting weaker, and you know there is a dog available in your area, get in touch with the handler as quickly as possible, before the area gets disturbed,” Slifer said.

Some hunters, myself included, have taken it a step farther by training their own trailing dog. Our bloodhound, Teddy, has been training to track deer since he was a puppy. While, like every hunter, I hope to never need his assistance on a deer, I realize that sometimes things don’t always go as planned, and a trained tracking dog can mean the difference in a lost deer and meat in the freezer.

(Slifer photo)You don’t have to own a hound to train your own tracking dog. Any breed with the nose to follow a trail can be trained. I have seen everything from labs to Jack Russell terriers to dachshunds trained to trail deer. Start out your training by making a game of it. We used a piece of hotdog tied to a string as our first scent marker. To make sure the dog was following the hot dog’s scent and not ours, we tied the string to the end of a long pole to drag it well away from our own scent trail.

As Teddy became more adept at following the trail, we began to make it more difficult by hopping the hot dog along the ground and lifting it for several feet between touches. Once he mastered that trick, we moved on to blood trails (check with your local butcher as a source of blood, or save and freeze blood from your deer). Drip the blood from a squeeze bottle, making the trail harder and harder to follow as the dog gains ability. Slifer recommends adding in a section of deer hide as the training progresses. He also adds that a tracking harness should always be used during trailing sessions, even quick backyard practice runs. “Using a specific harness each time lets the dog know that it is time to work when it goes on. That way, they are more inclined to start searching for scent as soon as they reach the location,” says Slifer.

Whether you train your own, or find a tracking dog in your area, the time has come to allow tracking dogs nationwide and embrace them as an additional tool in the hunter’s arsenal for locating deer.

Bonus read: Interactive Guide for Blood-Trailing Deer

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