Working dogs are not confined to the shooting field. Glyn Ingram of the British Deer Society (BDS) takes a closer look at the crucial role of ‘deer dogs’.
Author Glyn Ingram
Photographer / TWEED MEDIA
Man and his best friend have been hunting large herbivores together for a very long time, at least 20,000 years and possibly as long as 30,000 years. In fact, humans and dogs have evolved in tandem. From our very first beginnings we were hunter-gatherers and only began to domesticate livestock around 9,000 years ago; the relationship between man and dog started long before that. Dogs appear in ancient cave art from many cultures around the world and invariably the scenes depicted relate to hunting.
Skip forward to about 6,000 years ago and we would start to see recognisable breeds such as pointers, mastiffs and greyhounds. Of course, hunting techniques have changed over the years, largely driven by developments in weaponry from primitive spears and slingshots to bows and finally firearms, but at every stage the dog played its part.
The last few years have seen a huge rise in the popularity of ‘deer dogs’ but, in reality, keen stalkers have been using dogs in pretty much the same way since our modern style of deer management came to the UK in the years following the Second World War. Our practice of stalking individual deer, in both the Highlands and lowlands, differs from hunting techniques in other parts of Europe where driven shooting is more common.
A hunter’s companion
So what does a modern deer dog do to earn his or her keep? Well, basically the job spec falls into two categories. Firstly, before a shot is taken, the dog may well stalk alongside the hunter and can be a very useful indicator of unseen deer. The Hunt, Point, Retrieve (HPR) breeds fit this role very well, but it is surprising how often others will learn to point or at least indicate deer by their mannerisms; it often takes a while for the hunter to get to know the dog and pick up on these subtle traits.
A dog that accompanies the hunter all the time will also generally be trained to sleep under high seats and obviously needs to be very steady to other game and wildlife. As stalkers we probably spend far too much time on our own in the woods, and the companionship of a good dog is a very much understated benefit and certainly adds another level to our hunting experience. Some stalkers choose to leave their dogs at home or in a vehicle and only collect them once a deer has been shot.
On the trail
The second and very important role of the deer dog is to track a deer after it has been shot. We generally shoot deer in the chest as this is a large target area and gives something of a margin for error if our shots aren’t perfectly placed but, whilst it gives a very humane kill, it does mean the animal sometimes runs a short distance in its final second or two of life. If the animal was standing on the edge of cover or it was shot at last light, both of which are often the case, then it can be quite difficult to find even if it has only gone a few metres. This is where the dog comes into its own.
In most cases, once a deer has been shot, the hunter will wait a few minutes and then approach the place where the animal was standing rather than going directly to the point where he last saw it. This is important as it allows us to examine the evidence as if it were a crime scene; what we find here will determine how we proceed and the experienced hunter becomes very good at assessing the evidence. If we find light-coloured blood from the lungs or bright red blood from the heart then we can be fairly confident of a good outcome. I keep my dog on a very short line at this stage as we both need to assess the situation in our own ways. There is always far more evidence at the strike site than we realise (if you want to prove this then shoot a deer in the snow) and it is useful to let the dog have a good check around before it begins tracking.
Proceed with caution
If the evidence that we find at the strike site does not indicate a good shot, which can happen to the best of us, then we must be cautious of how we proceed. If the deer has unfortunately been hit in the leg or the gut for example, it may well be wise to pull back and seek further help rather than push an injured deer on.
Personally, I have my dog on a line and harness when we are following a track as I like to know what is going on and, if I am honest, despite having well trained dogs, I do not want to lose them in the woods – especially at night. Other people are happy to let their dogs track off the line and some now use GPS collars to aid location if the dog and hunter get separated.
Typical deer dog breeds
Most breeds of dog will follow a blood and scent trail and, assuming the deer is dead, even a very average dog will find it quite easily. It is when things haven’t gone quite to plan that the more specialist breeds shine. Labradors are probably still the most popular breed of deer dog and certainly tick all the boxes for trainability, steadiness and, importantly, also make great dogs for the 95 per cent of the time they are not out stalking. It is perfectly possible for a dog to work with both deer and game and be a family pet too.
The HPR breeds probably come next in the popularity stakes with German wirehaired pointers and German shorthaired pointers leading the group. The area that has probably seen the fastest rise in recent years is that of the specialist hound breeds, the Bavarian mountain hounds and Hanoverian hounds. These breeds are tenacious trackers and will pursue an injured animal for many miles. Other breeds such as Teckels or wirehaired dachshunds make great deer dogs too and it is not at all uncommon to see crossbred dogs working well as deer dogs.
Training a deer dog
As with all things, the more training, preparation and experience that both the dog and the hunter gain, the better things will be. Following basic obedience training we move on to blood tracking by laying trails which get progressively longer, use less blood, have more turns and are left longer before working the dog on them. The dog is also following the ground scent left by the deer’s feet and the soil and vegetation disturbance created. We simulate this by using special shoes that clamp deer feet onto them. Like all dog training, it is important that it is fun, rewarding for the dog and results in success. The British Deer Society often runs dog training and shot site awareness days, usually in conjunction with the specialist deer dog organisations, which are highly recommended as great sources of instruction and advice.
A dog is as important as a knife
For me, having a deer dog is as important as having a rifle or a knife, although not all hunters enjoy circumstances which allow them to own and train one. Fortunately, there are organisations and individuals who are willing to assist with the recovery and humane dispatch of lost or injured deer. They offer an outstanding free call out service covering the whole country and their only interest is in working their dogs and the welfare of the deer. Importantly, the service is confidential and totally non-judgemental.
I always recommend that people call them as soon as they think they have a problem. Despite having my own dogs I have used the service when I have suspected the injury to the animal will require the more advanced approach provided by a highly experienced dog and its handler. Call out details can be found on the BDS website (www.bds.org.uk/index.php/advice-education/deer-recovery-register-main)
Glyn Ingram is the Deer Officer for the BDS. The BDS is a national charity involved in training, education and promotion of best practice. For all enquiries please call 01425 655434 or visit www.bds.org.uk