Over the years I've written a pretty good number of an articles on "developing deer dogs". More specifically a deer dog that helps me in pursuit of my big game and more often than not, that big game is the whitetail deer. So, what is a "deer dog"? This used to be a pretty common question, although in recent years the understanding is seemingly growing as much as the popularity. My definition of a "deer dog" is one that will shed hunt in the spring and track or aid in game recovery in the fall. Particularly this time of year, the game recovery dog is worth more than their weight in gold and the frequency that a game recovery dog is discussed is obviously magnified.
I wanted to point out that when it comes to game recovery, the dogs themselves have the majority of what is needed from a "nuts and bolts" aspect already inside of them. We, as trainers and handlers, are simply trying to bring that out. I also hoped to make it very clear that training a game recovery dog is something that is not only effective and efficient, but also relatively simple or dare I even say "easy" to do?
Far too often I hear concerns that training a dog for game recovery is "too complicated", "too difficult" or can only be done by a "professional". My hope is to help convince you that you and your dog have what it takes to at least give it a try. To start out, I thought it might help to eliminate a few excuses I hear all too often like "my dogs not bred for that". I truly believe that inherent traits impact and influence a dog's ability to be a competent game finder or game recovery dog. However, the nice part about that is the fact that I really don't believe the specific breed matters. In fact, as it relates to the actual ability for a dog to find or locate game that may otherwise be lost, I not only disregard the specific breed, but I believe that most dogs are capable, right down a "rescue" dog from the shelter that you may or may not know exactly what their genetic lineage even consists of. The reason I say this is simply because a dogs actual ability to use their noses effectively is just so great, despite pedigrees or titles. In researching a dog's ability to smell, there are so many things that I've found interesting but a few things really stood out:
All dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses. (Humans have about 6 million) The part of a dog's brain that is designated to analyze smell is, relatively speaking, 40 times greater than ours. A dog's sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it's 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute, The ability for a dog to use their nose in relation to vision would look like this: what you and I can see at a 1/3 of a mile, your dog could see as well at more than 3,000 miles away. I'm by no means discounting a nice pedigree. I believe 100% in quality breeding is worth every penny and I will always put a great value on what I believe pedigrees' offer in regards to health, trainability, disposition, confirmation, etc. But I really don't think that the pedigree itself limits any and all dogs abilities to smell.
So ask yourself:
Do you have a dog?
Does your dog seem to use its nose around the house or yard?
Does your dog show you signs of intelligence and a willingness to please you?
Do you have an interest using your dog to help in game recovery?
If you have answered "yes" to any of these questions, I would say you have what it takes to do it. Now it's putting it all together and executing the plan, keep reading!
Step 1. Keep it simple and bring out their natural predator-prey instincts
If you're reading this and deer season is open, put out a message that you are looking for a fresh deer liver. If you can't get a hold of one, a beef liver will do. Have a helper hold onto your dog. Simply drag the liver quickly away from the dog and after you get a good head start have your partner let the dog go. Almost instinctively, your dog will take off on the line for you. When they finally get caught up to you and the liver, let them lick on it some and give them a ton of praise. Repeat this a few more times (3-4) with each repetition allowing a little more distance. Follow this session later on that week with one similar, except at one point with one of the repetitions, don't let the dog watch. Cover their eyes of keep them in the house or kennel until you've made the drag.
Step 2. Add in additional scent elements
The liver has a very distinct, strong, appealing scent. That will peak interest early on and help ensure success, but it will not allow introductions to other scent clues that may be found while on the track. In this next step, I like to switch to using real deer hides and a scent that I make myself called "Blood Trail". Don't be confused, our Blood Trail scent is not simply just blood. Think about it, if there's strong visible blood on a track, I don't need the dog. Instead, it's when there is none or very little that I need the dog. Repeat step one using the Real Hide and Blood Trail scent and continue to lay the trail without your dog watching you. At this point, be sure to leave your dog something to find at the end. My personal choice is a deer-hide wrapped canvas bumper.
Step 3. Wounded deer don't always run straight
So, we have to start to teach our deer dog to work turns, angles, backtracks, etc. Once our deer dog is taking tracks confidently in straight lines, it is time to keep the honest and remind them to not outrun their noses. By incorporating simple turns to start, then more turns and different scenarios of the line, our dogs will have to force themselves to slow down in order to continue to successfully follow the line. You will be amazed at how naturally your dogs do this if you just set them up correctly and give them the chance.
Step 4. Don't pass on a real training opportunity
The next time you harvest a deer (as long as you know the animal will be recovered) be sure to bring your student along and allow them to have that experience and success. Don't be critical or concerned if your dog struggles. The most necessary skill of any trainer is PATIENCE. Use this as a great training opportunity and help your dog find success with the real thing. You will be amazed what this king of experience will do for a dog and their handler's confidence.
I challenge you to follow these four steps and see what happens. Will that alone make you and your dog a great tracking team? No, probably not "great", but I would argue that it will undoubtedly increase your chances of finding a deer that otherwise may not be recovered. In order to become truly great it will take time and experience. But, if you try those simple steps and have some success I wouldn't stop there. Instead, I would continue to work on other challenges and scenarios that you're likely to encounter in the field.