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Scent to Help

Trained dogs lead hunters to wounded deer.

By Henry Chappell
Photos by Earl Nottingham

Hunt deer long enough, and it’ll eventually happen.

Maybe you simply shot the buck poorly. Maybe he jumped as you squeezed the trigger. In any case, the deer bolted, and you didn’t see him fall.

After a half-hour wait, you follow up. Sure enough, you find blood spots, but the trail disappears after a few yards. A careful search turns up nothing.

You mentally replay the shot and try to convince yourself that you just nicked him. But you know the truth. If you don’t find him, coyotes will.

You could call in your buddies to help with the search, but that’ll take time, and the trail is growing fainter by the second. You’d best mark the blood spots and bring in a tracking dog.

Hunting deer with dogs is illegal in Texas, but using as many as two trained dogs to recover wounded deer is legal in all counties except a few in East Texas.

On a warm March day, I try to keep up with Bliss Lay and her dog Kya, a young blue lacy, while they work a blood trail across hilly, brushy ranchland near Hamilton. As the team disappears over a hill, I remind myself that Bliss is a little younger than I am. And my daughters. And she’s five months pregnant.

Don’t worry, we aren’t hunting out of season. Kya is following a trail laid 12 hours before, part of a test sanctioned by United Blood Trackers (UBT). A deer hide awaits at the end of a winding trail. Between “first blood” and the end of a (minimum) 800-yard run, the testers had dribbled a maximum of 8 ounces of deer blood from a squirt bottle. The trail had been laid out with a GPS, so the testers knew every turn.

dogs

In the training, deer blood is dribbled along a trail for the dogs to follow.



Kya splashes across a creek. Marlo Ondrej, the UBT judge, nods and says, “Good girl.”

Marlo shows me the blood spots after Kya moved on. Dry and pale in the late morning sun, they could’ve passed for natural coloring on the grass and rocks. I wouldn’t have seen them on my own. Eight ounces of blood spreads awfully thin over 800 yards.

Young Kya looks uncertain in the high grass at the base of a hill. After a few minutes Bliss brings her back across the creek to “last blood.”

Kya regains her intensity and crosses the creek again. Back in the high grass, she tries working air scent more than ground scent this time. After a short search, she finds the deer hide. High-fives and whooping all around. Kya sniffs the hide excitedly while Bliss fusses over her newly credentialed tracking dog.

Back at the barn that serves as test headquarters, Bliss talks with me about Kya, hunting and blood tracking. Born and raised in a ranching and hunting family, Bliss now ranches with her husband near Stanton. She has also worked as a hunting guide for several years.

“I wanted an all-around ranch and hunting dog,” she says. “I did some research and found the blue lacy, and just wasn’t prepared for the energy and prey drive. Before that, I had a Lab, and he was like ‘doe-de-doe-de-doe.’ Just laid back. I was completely in the dark as to how to control her [Kya].”

She sought the help of Mike Chittum, a Fort Worth-area hunting dog enthusiast. After six weeks of obedience training, Kya returned home to start serious tracker training.

“The biggest thing is to trust your dog,” Bliss says. “Most of the mistakes I’ve made on trails have come from second-guessing Kya. You have to build their confidence by not setting them up to fail.”

Bliss started training Kya’s puppies on a hot-dog trail at five weeks.

“We started on a two-foot trail,” she explains. “I laid out a thick line of blood and let it warm up a little, and then laid pieces of hot dog on it. You just slowly make it longer. As they get older, make sure to have a big reward at the end, not in the middle. They have to finish the trail to get their reward.”

Before her UBT qualification, Kya had already found two deer under actual hunting conditions, one after a 400-yard trail.

“I had shot a deer — not the greatest shot,” Bliss says. “I had no idea where she went, but Kya found her really quick.”

As we talked, other dogs and handlers awaited testing. I noticed a German shorthaired pointer, a Rhodesian ridgeback, a wirehaired dachshund, a German wirehaired pointer and, of course, other lacy dogs.

dog

These beagle/feist puppies play in the East Texas woods, honing their skills for the day they can become tracking dogs. While early training is important, basic obedience should be instilled in a dog before heading afield for serious training, let alone real tracking.

Wherever you find more than a few lacy dogs, you’re likely to find Marlo Ondrej, surely the world’s No. 1 lacy advocate. A lifelong hunter, hunting guide and hard-core dog nut, Marlo manages the Covered Gate Ranch near Uvalde. Since 1998, she has owned and maintained the Lacy Game Dog Registry.

Marlo’s first tracking dog was an Australian shepherd mix.

“He just happened to be awesome at it,” she says. “But I knew that it was just happenstance and that I’d need to find a dog bred for the job.”

Research led her to the blue lacy. After she’d gotten involved with lacy dogs, she learned that she’s a great-great-granddaughter of Frank Lacy, one of the breed’s founders. Thanks to Marlo’s lobbying, the Texas Legislature designated the blue lacy the official state dog breed in 2005. Although “blue” or slate or gunmetal gray is the color most associated with the breed, lacy dogs can also be yellow, red or tri-color.

“For Texas conditions, lacy dogs are ideal,” Marlo says. “Their short hair is perfect in our heat and in brushy, thorny country. They’re big enough and gritty enough to run off-lead, have a good nose and are very intelligent.”

Marlo’s first advice for beginners: Study Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer by John Jeanneney (www.born-to-track.com). “It’s the bible of blood tracking,” she says. “After that, it’s exposure and consistency.” Her lacy dogs get plenty of both.

Marlo stresses that while early training is important, basic obedience should be instilled in a dog before heading afield for serious training, let alone real tracking.

“But you have to make the training fun, get the dog up to a high energy level and make sure he knows why he’s out there,” she says. “Otherwise, he’ll think he’s just stumbled across some scent and there happens to be a deer hide at the end of the trail.”

A.J. Minns, a dog handler in Hunt, puts it this way: “When a dog is successful, handlers need to be acting like kids on Christmas morning. It has to be fun.”

Ten years ago, A.J., a longtime deer hunter, had to call in a tracking team. The dog work impressed him so much that he decided his next dog would be a tracker. Research led him to the Bavar-ian mountain scenthound and, ultimately, a trip to Poland to fetch home a puppy — Triton.

“The breed was developed in the mid-1800s, specifically for tracking wounded game,” A.J. says. “Triton is a very methodical tracker — much slower than lacy dogs and some of the other breeds — but he really shines on an old track.”

Sure enough. Most years, Triton and A.J. track down 20 to 30 deer.

dog

Marlo Ondrej runs a blue lacy on a scent trail during a field test in Hamilton in which dogs underwent training and certification for tracking.

Texans can run deer-tracking dogs off-leash. In many states, dogs must be kept on-leash, a less-than-satisfactory approach when the deer can still run.
Robbie Hurt, a South Texas rancher and houndsman, recovers around 60 wounded deer every season. More than half of those deer are still alive and have to be brought to bay.

“We’d almost never catch a deer if we had to keep dogs on a lead,” he says.
Robbie runs a pack of bobcat hounds and always keeps a pair of deer dogs on hand. His first deer dog was a hound/border collie cross. Although some of his deer trackers are hounds, he likes hound/cowdog crosses because they’re gritty enough to bay a big buck.

Robbie’s dogs learn on the job. He sets up no artificial blood trails. He simply introduces the young dog to blood and encourages him to do what comes naturally, although he usually starts a young dog with an experienced dog.

“My pair of deer dogs usually consists of a solid dog and an up-and-coming dog,” he says. “Just watching my older dog, I can see when my young dog gets off-track and I can correct him.”

Like most handlers, Robbie wants his dogs silent on the trail to keep the deer on its bed as long as possible. Although hounds aren’t known as paragons of obedience, Robbie expects his deer dogs to handle well.

“The thing I worry most about is one of my dogs getting off on a neighboring property when the hunters haven’t alerted the landowner and gotten permission to pursue. That’s about the only time I’ll put my young dog on a lead,” Robbie says. “I don’t want to get into a trespassing situation.”

Just how effective can deer-tracking dogs be?

dog

Bavarian mountain scenthounds such as Triton are bred to track wounded game.

A few years back, at daybreak, Robbie started his dogs after a wounded mule deer in the dry Trans-Pecos, near Sanderson. The track was 48 hours old. The dogs picked up the blood trail and tracked the deer into a dry valley while Robbie followed their progress with a GPS tracking collar. After two mountain crossings — and a distance of nearly 10 miles — the dogs brought the buck to bay so that it could be dispatched by the hunter.

That’s exceptional dog work under harsh conditions. Even the best dogs can’t pull it off every time. Fortunately, they’re rarely called on to do so. Deer mortally wounded by a rifle shot rarely go more than 500 yards.

“Hunters can help a tracking team by being honest with themselves,” A.J. Minn says. “If you’ve made a bad shot, you know it the instant you pull the trigger. Mark the spot the deer was standing when you hit him, note the direction he ran and don’t walk on the blood trail. The second you realize there’s a problem — that’s the time to contact a tracking team.”

Hitting the Trail

The best way to learn about training blood-tracking dogs is to attend seminars and tests held by breed clubs and tracking organizations:

United Blood Trackers

Texas Lacy Game Dog Association

Lacy Game Dog Registry

For a list of tracking teams in your area:

Texas Blood Trackers

United Blood Trackers

For county-by-county regulations regarding the use of tracking dogs, consult the TPWD website, www.tpwd.texas.gov

 

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