Everything you need to know about calling in a tracking dog to recover wounded game
When it comes to following difficult blood trails and recovering game you may have thought was lost, there’s nothing better than help from man’s best friend.
If you’re reading this, you might already have an animal down in the field, and you’re wondering how to pick up a blood trail that seemed to vaporize into thin air. Or, like most hunters, you know that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know you’ve hit an animal, and you can’t seem to track it down. Either way, there’s one thing you can do: Call in the dogs.
Blood tracking dogs are worth their weight in gold when it comes to locating wounded game. But there are a few things you should know to make sure you’re giving a dog and its handler the best shot at picking up the trail. (If you’re looking for immediate assistance in locating a wounded animal, please go to United Blood Trackers and locate a tracker near you.)
Know when to call.
Especially if you have a few seasons under your belt, you know a strong blood trail when you see one. You know a good shot based on an animal’s reaction to the hit and their body position at the time you hit them. (More on that later.) In other words, you generally have a “feeling” about how good a shot you put on that animal.
The best time to call a tracker is when you get the feeling you’re not going to find the animal you wounded. Whether it’s a patch blood trail that simply disappears, evidence of a paunch shot or liver shot, or something else that makes you think that animal might be beyond your capabilities to find, follow the old creed: When in doubt, back out.
As closely as you can, mark the location where your arrow or bullet hit the animal, and where you’ve located blood, on a service like onX, or with orange tape or another visual marker. However, do not do anything that might bump the wounded animal. Dog or not, bumped animals are way harder to find.
Finally, consider the weather. If there’s a strong chance of precipitation soon, that rain can wash away the visual cues you use to track—like blood and hair—but also the olfactory cues dogs use, like interdigital gland residue.
Archery or gun, what you learn from a deer’s blood trail can go a long way toward determining whether or not you should call a tracking service.
Don’t consider a tracking dog the last resort.
Tell us if this sounds familiar: A blood trail disappears on you, but you’ve diligently marked the last location you were able to find blood. You call in anyone and everyone you can to work a grid around that last blood, counting on boots on the ground and close observation to get back on the trail.
While this may seem like you’re just performing due diligence in trying to recover that animal, what you’re really doing is destroying the trail for a dog. Not only are you introducing a lot of human scent to the site, blood, hair, and scent from, for example, a whitetail’s glands will be picked up and tracked all around an area, creating a knotted mess the dog will have to pick through just to get on track. Here’s the hard truth: A dog can smell way better than you can see, even if you bring in a bunch of buddies to help you.
So what do you do? First, make sure and clearly mark the point where you hit the animal. (Most trackers prefer to start their search here, not at the point where you found last blood. That way, their dog can get your deer’s unique smells in its nose and the handler can get a feel for the track’s quality.) Then, as you follow the blood trail, stay to the side of the trail and on the downwind side.
The moment you get the feeling you’re not going to find the deer, back out and make the call.
To sum it up, make a grid search your last resort, not a tracking dog.
The night this hunter hit the deer, he tried following a tricky blood trail, with obvious liver blood on his arrow. (His path is marked in blue.) When he felt he wasn't going to find the animal, he backed out and called a professional tracker to meet him the next morning. The dog, whose path is marked in yellow, made quick work of the search. Get the full story here.
Remember the details.
Most trackers are going to ask you questions that might seem strange at first: Was the deer on alert when you shot, or relaxed? What was their body position? What was their reaction after the shot?
They’re asking you these questions because the answers can help the handler know what to expect before they even arrive on the scene. A tense deer, for example, is more likely to jump the string on a bowhunter, leading to impacts that could be off target. How an animal’s body is positioned can cause it to bleed more heavily as it runs, or it can close up the wound channel, causing the wound to potentially coagulate and clot. And, of course, an animal hit in the liver or paunch will likely react very differently than one hit in the boiler room.
As you’re sitting in your treestand or blind, take a few moments after the shot to calm down and think about these details. Snap a quick photo using your cell phone to mark the shot location from your treestand's perspective. If you must call in a tracker, it could be the difference between a lost animal and a recovery. Based on your account, and any blood you find at the point of impact, a tracker knows to, for example, wait for a liver shot deer to expire before beginning the tracking.
Do your research before your hunt.
Carry the contact information for a few local tracking services into the field with you, rather than waiting till the last second. During peak season, tracking services can get busy, taking calls from all over your state.
Have a plan, and a backup plan, to make sure you’re giving yourself the best shot at recovery.
Want to learn more about blood tracking, and the relationship between dog and handler? Checkout this podcast on the art of recovering wounded game. Want to learn more about why you missed that shot? Checkout this blog to improve your accuracy.
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