The Dog Journal

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Scent Tracking

Man’s Best Friend on the Trail: Using Dogs to Track Wounded Deer

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If you’re an avid deer hunter, you’ve probably experienced that situation where you’ve released a shot, only to realize with a sickening feeling that it’s not a perfect one. Thoughts of a long fruitless search, coming up empty handed, and knowing there’s a wounded animal out there plague your mind as you sit there, trying to cope with the “if onlys.” 

Thankfully, a growing number of these wounded animals are being found, due to the rising popularity of scent tracking. The practice of tracking deer with dogs has been around for centuries. In fact, some of the oldest cave paintings depict humans hunting with dogs, indicating that dogs have been used for hunting for thousands of years. 

The use of dogs for deer tracking specifically dates back to the Middle Ages, where they were trained to track deer and other game for royalty and nobility. During the colonial era in America, deer hunting with dogs became more widespread, as it was an effective way to hunt. Today, the practice is still popular among hunters and perhaps one of the biggest reasons is for tracking wounded deer. In writing about this subject, we’ve gotten to know Dexter the Dog and his owner Mike Beck, from Central PA. Following is a story about this dedicated team of wounded deer trackers.

The Journey of a Tracking Dog

November 8th 2021 at 8:40 am, Dr. Strangelove, the decoy, was in place and I had just finished a violent rattling session, in hopes of attracting a good buck. This would be my last day to hunt here as I was leaving to hunt the midwest at the end of that week. A few minutes had passed and all of a sudden, the silence was broken. I could hear the all so familiar walk of a buck on a mission. I could barely make out movement in the thick brush 75 yards away, so I left out a grunt from my call and immediately followed up with a snort wheeze. The buck changed direction and was now heading my way. 

A giant PA whitetail emerged from the swamp, and the buck of a lifetime was heading in my direction. He was the largest whitetail I have ever laid eyes upon while hunting. He spotted Dr. Strangelove and left out a snort wheeze of his own. He bristled up with ears pinned back and continued to march straight to his newly found adversary. 

I readied my bow and came to full draw. The giant stepped out at 31 yards, but I did not have an opening. He began to circle Dr. Strangelove and presented a wide-open opportunity at 41 yards. I steadied the bow, and the arrow took flight. At impact, I had believed the shot was good. It was not. The buck had changed his angle and I had failed to compensate for it, and I had hit him just a little too far forward. The blood was great for about 600 yards and then just disappeared into the leaf cluttered forest floor. My heart was broken. I searched for him for 3 days with the help of a couple of buddies, and many tears were shed in that swamp over that time frame. I looked to the heavens and asked for forgiveness for wounding such a magnificent creature, and I also asked for guidance as to how to make this gut-wrenching experience good. 

At the base of the tree that I had taken the shot from 3 days prior, Dexter The Deer Dog became a concept. The trip to the midwest still happened, but my mind was consumed with this new path, my new journey, and the research began.

Using tracking dogs to find wounded game was and still is fairly new to Pennsylvania. It’s only by the efforts spearheaded by Tracker Andy Bensing, from Berks County, Susan Edwards, from Armstrong County and The United Blood Trackers, that legislation has recently been passed in 2018. Without their efforts we probably wouldn’t be privileged with this valuable service, Wounded Game Recovery, that is currently legal in 44 out of 50 states. 

I began my search for information, and this when I discovered Dogbone Hunter, Jeremy Moore’s Channel on YouTube. It was loaded with valuable information on training, and Jeremy’s style of training really appealed to me. He was definitely a man doing exactly what he was meant to be doing. Everything I was looking for was right at my fingertips. 

I began researching breeds suited for the task at hand and one thing that stood out from the information that I had been gathering, was family dog first. At the time, I was also a single dad of a toddler that was soon to be 3 years old.

Side view full body of male hunter aiming rifle while hunting birds with Irish Red Setter dog In woods

A Labrador Retriever was a no brainer and I had always wanted one to be part of my life. Dexter is a Silver Labrador Retriever and just recently turned 16 months old.

Our training began as soon as he arrived home. Obviously, we did not start with scent work. Remember, he was a family dog first, and Kyler’s first puppy. My priority was creating our bond and trust, and so we focused on our foundation and obedience; without it none of this would be possible. Patience, consistency and determination drove our training. Dexter excelled at everything, and his calmness and willingness to please was evident from the start. He would definitely let me know when I moved on too quickly and the wheels would blow off. When training a puppy, you have to expect setbacks and respond accordingly. A formula of our foundation, incremental training and revisiting the basics, have been paramount to our success.

Dexter was soon to turn 5 months old and we were loaded up in the truck and heading to Pulaski, Wisconsin to attend a handler’s workshop with Dogbone Hunter Jeremy Moore, Chris Smith and his team of trainers. It was a glorious weekend filled with so much information. We showed up as strangers and on Sunday left as friend’s, filled with confidence and eager to continue this grind.

We began introducing Dexter to scent work at a fairly young age. Now it was time to start running drag lines with bumpers wrapped in scented deer hides. At 5 months old Dexter couldn’t get to the finds fast enough. He was literally dragging my 215lbs through the fields, and his natural abilities were just oozing from him. At this point we also started collecting and using training aids from road killed deer. The training tracks became more difficult, and we increased set times and distance as the summer went on and the upcoming season approached. We threw in 90 degree turns, cutbacks, wound beds, water crossings and using hooves only. All of this, while we were still focusing on Dexter’s foundation and obedience. Training tracks were run at different times of the day and night, rain or shine, and even sometimes with 35lbs of Kyler, my 3-yearold, on my back.

Dexter was now 9 months old and the season was here. We took our first call and the nerves set in. With Kyler on my back, we went to work. The buck was hit way back and left no visible sign. Dexter took the track well and showed us where the wounded animal crossed a powerline and entered a jungle of thorns, but it was difficult to maneuver through this cover with the additional tiny human attached to me. Dexter continued to work but then seemed to lose interest, so we took a break and talked with the hunter. 

Suddenly Dexter began to drag us up the hill, and we could tell he was definitely back onto the scent, but as luck would have it, a flock of thunder chickens disrupted everything. This was an area that our training lacked, and it was something I hadn’t really considered. Now, dealing with a cranky toddler, and a puppy that I felt just wanted to chase turkeys, we decided to end the track. The hunter went back out in the afternoon with a friend and recovered his trophy within 60 yards from where we had left off. It was on that first day that I learned a valuable lesson…Trust Your Dog. 

For our next call, we were contacted by a good friend telling us that his 5-year-old had put a shot on a doe that he described as being far back. Clayton was a huge fan of Dexter and had been watching our videos from day one. We arrived the next morning and it took Dexter a little to settle in, but once he did, he was on the track. I restarted from some sign just to confirm his direction of travel, and it didn’t take long before we were celebrating with this young hunter and his father over his first whitetail. Unfortunately, the coyotes got to her and nothing was salvageable, but even so, Dexter will always be a part of Clayton’s first successful whitetail hunt. 

During that first season, we accepted 25 calls out of the 100 or so that we received, and I learned very quickly that you cannot help everyone. Out of the 25 tracks that we ran, we recovered 12. Two were confirmed by game cameras to still be alive, and some of the others were very much alive as the sign did not back up what we had originally believed prior to our arrival. The sign showed that these animals were hit in nonfatal regions and are most likely still walking around today. There were 3 tracks that definitely left us shaking our heads, and I believe we left deceased animals behind. That is a bad feeling and is our driving force to continue training and developing as a team. The national average on recovering wounded game is around 30-35%, so we were still very happy with these numbers.

Dexter’s furthest track this season was a gut shot, 9 point, that occurred during the rut. The animal traveled a little over a half mile before deciding to lay down. Our oldest track was 27 hours old and was rained upon twice over that time frame. Dexter made surprisingly quick work of that track, and not long after, we recovered that hunter’s best public land buck. Finally, on November 7th of this past season, Dr. Strangelove was again stashed away in the same swamp anxiously waiting to be deployed….

 

the following day, and I was looking forward to hunting that very tree on the anniversary that led us down our path. The night before the hunt, a young lady called us frantically, saying she had hit her first buck poorly and that they had jumped it from its first bed. We talked and discussed the events, and then left the decision up to them, as they were unsure at that moment if they wanted to bring us in. Honestly, at first, I was hoping to be hunting the next day, but then a very strong realization came across me… this is exactly the reason we began this journey. We began this journey to help other hunters not experience what we had exactly one year ago. I called her back and told her we would meet at 8am the next morning, and the next day, we recovered her first whitetail buck at 585 yds. To see her and her family’s smiles and excitement over that find was overwhelming for me. It was a very emotional experience, because the journey that began exactly a year ago was now a reality! The worst hunting experience in my life had now become my best. Without it, Dexter would not exist, Kyler wouldn’t have his first puppy, and the deer that were recovered may have been lost for good.

This journey will continue, the training will continue, we will continue growing together as a team, and we are looking forward to the challenges our second season will bring. “The obstacle in your way is but a stepping stone on your journey” by Marcus Aurelius. 

If you’re interested in becoming a tracker, do your research and realize the commitment it takes. Feel free to contact myself at 814-525-4540 email me at [email protected] or check out my Facebook page @dexterthedeerdog. 

Now, here’s the exciting part. Dexter the Dog is coming to town! That’s right, if all goes well and plans hold out, Mike and Dexter will be attending the PAWS seminar on August 18th and 19th held at the Solanco Fairgrounds in Quarryville PA. Mark your calendar, and plan to meet this team and participate in this exciting demonstration/presentation!

Hunter man hunting with his dog outdoors on the field. Hunt season concept.

Looking For More To Read?

Lehigh Valley Pet Expo

Held at the Allentown Fairgrounds in Allentown, PA, from Friday, Feb 2, through Sunday the 4th, this event had something for everyone who loves pets, from snakes to dogs to cats and more.

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