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Using Dogs to Track Wounded Deer

by C.J. Winand

A number of years ago my cousin invited me to hunt a piece of property “littered” with deer. By 8 a.m., sitting in a treestand, I had seven deer, all bucks. This was turning out to be a really good day. Then suddenly, I saw a hunter running along what seemed to be a well-used deer trail at the bottom of the hill. Fifteen minutes later I saw him heading back the other way. What was he doing? Something was going on, but I could only ponder what?

Finally, curiosity got the best of me and I climbed down from my treestand to investigate. The excited hunter explained that he had a decent 8-point down, but he couldn’t find the buck. We eventually located the bedded buck, but as we tried to slip in on him, the buck sprinted down the hill and crossed a fast-running river. We jumped the wounded buck a couple more times, but to no avail.

As the sun began to set, we decided to back off until morning. But circling one last time, I located the buck, still alive, hiding in the brush. After the coup de grace, the culmination of eight hours of looking and searching was over. The thrilled hunter and I could finally relax. My satisfaction in telling him that this was HIS deer seemed to be the right thing to do. Needless to say, I’m probably still his best friend.

That hunter’s story has a happy ending, but I’ve often wondered what would have happened if we hadn’t recovered the deer? And at one time or another, most bowhunters will find themselves in a challenging blood-trailing scenario like that. Interesting enough, as I researched some data I discovered that, although specific conditions apply, a total of 17 states (mainly in the Southeast) and three Canadian provinces allow the use of dogs for tracking wounded deer. Considering that the loss of one wounded deer is one too many, the idea of allowing tracking dogs may warrant more investigation.

Searching the scientific literature I came across a South Carolina study conducted by Richard Morton to determine the efficiency of archery equipment in conjunction with tracking dogs. In his study, 22 experienced archers shot 61 deer (29 bucks, 29 does, 3 fawns). Twenty of the deer (32.8 percent) fell within sight of the hunters. If bow hunters didn’t see their deer fall, the services of a trained tracking dog were utilized one hour after the shot. In total, 60 out of the 61 deer (98 percent) were found within 24 hours of being shot. The one deer that wasn’t recovered was reportedly hit in a non-vital area.

Morton also found that most deer reacted to being shot by taking off with their tails down (72 percent) and left a blood trail (68 percent), blood spots (23 percent), rumen material (5 percent), bone fragments (2 percent), meat (1 percent), and hair (1 percent). The average distance traveled by a shot deer was 109 yards. Most deer were not spooked (96 percent) during the search. In fact, 95 percent of the harvested deer were found dead. It took an average of 30 minutes to recover a deer once the dogs were released and 95 percent were found within 4 hours.

Morton concluded, “Our results do confirm that archery hunting can be a highly efficient means of harvesting white-tailed deer when shot selection and shooting skills are emphasized and using trailing dogs is required as part of an organized management approach.”
Another study in South Carolina by Charles Ruth, Deer Project Supervisor for the South Carolina DNR, also reflected the benefits of using trained dogs. Hunters in this study used rifles rather than bows. As in Morton’s study, trained tracking dogs were brought in to recover animals that ran beyond the hunters’ sight. A total of 493 deer were harvested – 305 bucks and 188 does. Ruth determined that trained trailing dogs deserved credit for the recovery of 15 to 20 percent of all those deer.

Both of these studies point out that dogs can be very beneficial and Morton’s study once more prove the lethality of bow and arrows. The most obvious benefits in using dogs are in searching the woods for wounded deer when there is no blood or other signs to follow, or when conditions such as darkness; rain or snow; rough/dense terrain; or water/wetlands enter the picture.

This explains the gaining popularity of using trained dogs to recover wounded deer. A nonprofit group called Deer Search, Inc., (DSI) has a membership of 150 volunteers who use trailing dogs to help people recover wounded deer. In 1989 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued an official regulation to implement a Leashed Tracking Dog bill. Vermont has regulations similar to New York. Indiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan, Texas and British Columbia also have provisions for the use of tracking dogs, as do many Southern states where it’s actually legal to hunt deer with dogs.

The use of tracking dogs started and was highly developed in Germany and other central European countries, but, World War II disrupted many of the top breeders and handlers. Fortunately, enough dogs and handlers made it through the war years to carry on the tradition. Today, many breeds of dogs used to trail deer include bloodhounds, beagles, southern black mouth curs, labradors and golden retrievers, and the favorite of many handlers; the German wirehaired dachshund. Yes, one of those little hot-dog-looking dogs! In fact, the mighty wirehaired dachshund is the backbone of the DSI program.

This breed of dog offers many advantages. It can easily go under the thickest undergrowth, it is non-threatening to most all landowners, which is especially important when permission is necessary; and it has a tendency to stay close to the trail. The wirehaired dachshunds coat also naturally protects it in cold, wet weather and it repels brambles and thorns. John Jeanneney of DSI says, “Most hunters almost laugh at me when I take my little dog out from under my coat and point him in the right direction. But, once we hit the trail, their attitude changes very quickly as they realize that these little dogs simply don’t give up!”

DSI members regularly hit trails that are 24 hours old or older. Properly trained dogs must ignore the fresher scent of healthy deer and stick with the main trail. DSI volunteers regularly recover more than 125 deer per year. For more information about DSI, visit their web page at www.deersearch.org. Although not all DSI members are hunters, they all consider themselves “dog people.” This organization is not tied to one state. In fact, members are more than willing to work with you in setting up a branch for your neck of the woods.

Should more hunters be able to utilize a deer search organization? I think so, just look at the buck I help recover. Chances are neither one of us would have recovered the buck. We got lucky! No one would ever want a deer, yet alone a good buck to be unrecovered.

Obviously, hunters should not rely entirely on dogs for trailing deer. In the South Carolina studies, biologists’ utilized dogs within an hour of those deer were shot and many of those deer would have been recovered without the use of dogs. Still some would not have been recovered and the dogs almost guaranteed recovery. In contrast, DSI dog handlers get involved only after a hunter performs a through search and has basically given up because of no visible sign. Thus, DSI members do not achieve a success rate as high as the rates in the South Carolina studies.

Jeanneney reports a DSI recovery rate of approximately one-third of all tracking attempts. This is remarkable since the hunter or hunters have already accounted for many, many hours in the woods. He believes many of the unrecovered deer do survive. Jeanneney polled bowhunters and found that they were in favor of tracking dogs as long as the dog was kept on a leash at all times. It is his hope that a national federation of blood tracking organizations will be established to incorporate the specific practices and bylaws of DSI.

Tracking deer is an art and often is a major part of the hunting experience. But, for those tough tracking jobs, utilizing the services of DSI, or your own tracking dog, may be a step in the right direction. Maybe you should be pushing your state to follow the lead of New York and other states and provinces. And maybe your next dog should be a wirehaired dachshund!

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