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After the Shot, Dogs Can Aid In Finding Deer

by Richard P. Smith

Michigan-Out-of-Doors, November 1998

A new law that went into effect this year sets the stage for Michigan hunters to be better able to recover deer they shoot with gun or bow.

The long-overdue regulation permits hunters to use leashed dogs that are under the handler’s control at all times to help find wounded deer.

One very important provision of the new law, according to Capt. Curt Bacon of the Marquette office of the Department of Natural Resources, prohibits a hunter from carrying a gun, bow, or arrows while using a dog to find a deer.

Also, a dog that barks while trailing a wounded deer cannot be used on public land, Bacon said. Since most dogs used for this purpose don’t bark, that should not be a problem, and hunters already are allowed to search for wounded deer after dark with the aid of flashlights or lanterns.

The use of dogs for deer hunting has been outlawed in Michigan since 1887. That is generally understood to mean free-running dogs chasing deer in front of hunters. But the legality of using dogs to recover wounded deer has been open to interpretation. Technically it was illegal, but hunters who asked permission from local conservation officers were frequently given the go-ahead.

Despite the superior scent-tracking ability of dogs, hunters understood it was up to them and the members of their party to first use their eyes and logic in trying to find deer that had been shot. In most cases, that was good enough.

Now that dogs can be used for the task, whitetails that run out of a hunter’s sight before dying, which occurs in almost every case for bow hunters, could be recovered much more quickly. Some deer that hunters might have been unable to locate on their own will now be recovered with the help of a canine companion.

Anyone who doubts this should consider an example from the state of New York, where specially trained dogs on leash have been used to recover wounded deer for years. A dedicated group of volunteers from that state formed Deer Search, Inc., in the late 1970s. Since then, the group has recovered about 1,000 deer.

The late Don Hickman, one of the group’s original members, told me that when Deer Search was in its infancy and using dogs to trail wounded deer was not yet widely accepted, an opportunity arose to compare the abilities of the group’s dogs with those of experienced local hunters.

Hickman went to a local bow hunting organization for support. Its members were skeptical and many were expert trackers. Their response was, “It’s a good idea, but we don’t need you.” So Don challenged them.

“OK, guys,” he said, “let’s have two of your people lay out a blood trail and we’ll take two of our people and lay out a blood trail. Then you take two of your best trackers and we’ll take one of our dogs and we’ll see who finds the target. We’ll let you go first and give you half an hour.”

The experienced bow hunters failed to reach the end of a skimpy blood trail in the allotted time. When the trained dog took its turn, it completed the entire trail in about three minutes. The hunters were impressed and have been strong supporters of the program ever since. So has everyone else who has seen Deer Search dogs work.

Most of the dogs used in the New York search efforts are German wire- haired dachshunds, and the best performers are females. These small, funny-looking pooches seldom fail to elicit a chuckle or at least curious looks among hunters who call Deer Search for help. Some hunters even express skepticism upon seeing the canines that are supposed to find their deer, but once they see them in action, their attitude quickly changes.

There are a number of advantages to using small dogs on leashes for tracking wounded deer. For one, it’s easier for the handler to control dogs of that size. And if there’s a question about the line a dog is following, it’s a simple matter to pick up the animal and carry it back to the starting point. That would be impossible with a big dog.

Small dogs also are easier to care for, feed, and transport. When Deer Search officials were gathering support for their efforts, they discovered another big advantage of using small dogs: The public doesn’t see small canines as a threat to deer.

Larger breeds of dogs can be and have been used to blood-trail deer, and they pose no more of a threat to deer than do the dachshunds. The use of a leash at all times ensures that the dogs will always be under control. Other breeds used to track wounded deer include German wirehaired pointers, German shorthaired pointers, Labrador retrievers, beagles, and larger hounds. Pioneer bowhunter Art Laha of Wisconsin used a female beagle to successfully track many whitetails wounded by hunters staying at a camp he maintained for years.

German breeds are often the best blood trackers because they were bred for that purpose. Blood-tracking big game with dogs has been a longtime practice in Germany.

Dogs used by Deer Search are trained to follow blood trails on courses of the scent laid out by members with blood collected from deer. Before a dog is certified, it must be able to follow an artificial blood trail that’s aged for 24 hours. To be certified, a handler must pass a written test and complete an apprenticeship under a certified volunteer, including handling a lead dog on six calls during a year. Dogs that are going to be used to recover wounded deer also can get valuable experience by being taken on an obvious blood trail from a deer that has already been located. Once the dog reaches the dead deer, it should be praised to encourage and reinforce the blood-trailing experience.
Not all of the whitetails Deer Search members seek with their dogs are recovered. Some aren’t mortally wounded, in spite of the fact the hunters may think they are. Even then, the service is valuable by assuring a hunter that the injury wasn’t serious and the deer will survive.
Wounded deer that are often the toughest for hunters to follow-those hit in the paunch or stomach-are generally the easiest for dogs to trail because there is normally a lot of scent associated with such a wound.
With enough interest in using dogs to blood-trail wounded deer in Michigan, it may be possible to establish a state chapter of Deer Search. (…)

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