April 09, 2021
By Jason Snavely
It wasn’t the smell of other dogs or even food that made their reward centers do backflips; it was human odor! It turns out, this “man’s best friend” deal is a two-way street. The scientists concluded that domestic dogs prioritize their relationship with humans more than anything else.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could leverage this to our advantage as bowhunters? Let’s face it; there’s nothing worse than shooting a deer (or other game) and not being able to find it. Things don’t always go according to plan, and whether it is a marginal shot or a perfect shot that just didn’t produce a good blood trail, sometimes we need a little extra help when it comes to following up on our shot. Thankfully, in many instances, tracking dogs can be the answer; allowing us to find animals that have been mortally wounded and gain the peace of mind in other situations when animals are likely to survive.
Let’s take a brief look at how state regulations have changed in recent years, making this option available to more bowhunters nationwide.
It’s The Law!
Legalizing the use of dogs for tracking wounded game has historically been an uphill battle, in part because of old verbiage in state regulations pertaining to the running of deer with dogs as a hunting technique. Obviously, there’s a huge distinction between using dogs to track and recover “known shot” deer and using dogs to chase perfectly healthy deer as a hunting technique. States such as Georgia and most of Texas allow tracking wounded game off-leash, as opposed to on-leash. For a handler/dog team, the ability to track off-leash greatly increases the odds of recovering wounded game.
The other uphill battle that has gotten in the way has been politics. For example, Pennsylvania tracker Andy Bensing is no stranger to the politics surrounding the legalization of tracking in his state. Bensing, members of the United Blood Trackers and many others fought a relentless, 16-year battle that finally ended in 2018 when Pennsylvania legalized on-leash tracking.
It wasn’t until New York legalized the use of leashed tracking dogs to recover wounded deer in 1985 that the tide really began to turn in favor of tracking dogs. Over the past 15 years, 26 states have legalized the use of leashed tracking dogs for recovering wounded game. As of the time of this writing in August, 43 states now allow tracking dogs to be used in big-game recovery. It’s worth noting that all of the states that have legalized tracking dogs over the past 30 years have legalized leashed tracking. Make sure to check your state regulations carefully before using a dog to track a wounded animal.
A Tracking Legend
Roy Hindes is a living legend in South Texas, and I know of no one better when it comes to tracking wounded game animals. Hindes reminds me of a combination of George Strait and Jack O’ Connor, yet he’s as approachable and gentle as a kindergarten teacher; a true class act. If you’ve made a marginal shot on a trophy whitetail in South Texas, Hindes and his amazing, off-leash tracking dogs are probably your best hope of recovery. When I asked Hindes recently how many recoveries he’s made with his dogs, he answered in typical Roy Hindes fashion, “I refuse to toot my own horn.”
The legendary Hindes’ tracking dogs of today are direct descendants from cow puppies that arrived on the Hindes Ranch in 1936, when Roy’s father was 9 years old. They made their way to South Texas with a herd of cattle that were driven on horseback from East Texas. “Dad started trailing wounded deer with them in the 1940s,” said Hindes, whose current dog, Rufus, is a 13th-generation deer-tracking dog.
So, what if you don’t hunt the Brush Country of South Texas? Well, Hindes thinks highly of trackers who are forced to trail wounded game with a leashed dog. Two of the best are Bensing and Damon Bungard of Tennessee. I’ve summarized some of the information I’ve learned from these guys so you can start considering who your tracking team will be this season!
The first thing you need to know about finding a tracking dog is to do it before you need one. Remember, once archery season begins, these handlers and their dogs are in high demand. When attempting to locate a wounded whitetail, time is of the essence. Hindes notes that the scent trail laid down by your deer is diminishing by the hour, and the sooner you can get a tracking dog on it, the better your odds of recovery. For that reason, make contact with a local tracker before the season begins, and keep his or her number handy in case you need it while afield.
The next thing to know is to call your tracker as soon as you suspect there's a need. “If a dog is to be used, give it a chance to be successful,” Hindes said. “Please, never do a grid search before calling a dog!”
Bensing echoed these thoughts, noting that a virgin scent trail is far better than one that has been trampled to the point of confusing the dog. Bensing added that if you’ve reached the point of considering making 20- or 30-yard circles in an effort to locate more sign, stop and call the dog!
So, how long is your deer’s track trackable? Well, it depends! Although Hindes likes trailing a gunshot deer within two hours after the shot, he prefers to trail bow-shot deer five to six hours after the shot; consider this when making the decision to call in the dog. Dogs do find wounded animals on older tracks, but don’t put yourself, or the dog, in that position.
Bensing also notes that, “Calling the dogs blood-tracking dogs is a misnomer, because most of the time, it’s when the blood trail runs out that you need the dog.” Rather, Bensing refers to blood, interdigital scent left by glands between the hooves, other gland scents and “fear scent” of a wounded animal as a “scent picture.” A good tracking dog can follow a wounded deer (differentiating it from other deer) even when there is no blood present.
Hindes agrees, adding, “Blood is not always visible on a track; however, it is there and with favorable scent conditions, dogs trail and recover many deer when no blood can be found.”
All the trackers I’ve spoken to ask that bowhunters provide accurate, honest information about their shot and the hit site. Pay attention to how the deer reacted when the arrow hit. Note the deer’s body language and behaviors, such as whether the tail was clamped down hard or flagging as the deer left. Did it race off or slowly walk away? Hindes likes to ask details of the shot scene, such as the position the deer was standing in, what angle the arrow entered, whether any hair was found, whether the arrow passed through, how high on the body the arrow hit, etc. If you find the arrow, note any smell from gut or bowel residue. Finally, trackers all report that videos of the shot and photos of the hit site are always helpful.
“Tell your tracker the complete truth about your shot when you call,” Hindes said, “As badly as you want your deer, your tracker also wants to successfully recover your deer. So, don’t distort the facts when you describe the shot.”
The final thing folks always ask about when it comes to tracking dogs is cost. Regulations vary, with some states prohibiting a fee to be charged but allowing for voluntary tips and donations. Many trackers, even in states where charging a fee is allowed, refuse payment for their efforts. However, make sure to have the “money talk” with your tracker when you call before the season. Personally, I insist on paying a quality tracker just for coming out (at least enough to cover time and expenses), and I’m tipping big time if his furry friend finds my trophy!