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Monday, November 24, 2008

The Nose Factor in Tracking Wounded Deer

This article was written by John Jeanneney in 2003, and even though it is somewhat outdated it still contains some good stuff.

“Nose” is one of those four letter words, but it is a lot more complicated than most of them. “Nose” is so complicated because we use it to refer to things that are really based in the brain, not just on the end of the muzzle. How a dog responds to scent, and how he uses his nose is even more important than the sensitivity of the nose itself. All these factors are so closely related that it is pretty hard to pick them apart.

The nose factor in tracking dogs for wounded deer probably has a lot in common with nose in cougar and bear dogs. We are often dealing with old, cold lines in both cases. In wounded deer work it’s called “blood tracking”, but as I have pointed out before there is usually little or no blood. If you have visible blood to track by, why do you need a dog?

Line Sense

Useful dogs need a brain wired to process scent so they know what to do with it. They have to have “line sense”, an instinctive awareness that scent leads from “A” to “B”. You would not expect or need this in an English pointer, but a scent hound or cur, which is going to track game, better have line sense. And it does not always happen.

Years ago I worked for about a year with a well-bred Leopard Cur. As you know the Leopards have a reputation of being the coldest nosed of the cur breeds and the most suitable cur for lion and bear work under tough conditions. I am sure that this reputation is well deserved, but this particular bitch was an exception, and she taught me something. We could go out on a couple of inches of snow, and I would show her a coon track from the night before. She would respond and her tail would swing with excitement. She could smell it very well, but she would not move with it. She lacked line sense and despite a lot of work, she never learned that a scent led somewhere. I never tried to use her for tracking wounded deer. She did not seem retarded in any other way, and I was lucky to have a friend who needed a yard dog.

Molly (picture taken in 1996) lacked a line sense required for blood tracking.

There are some dogs that can follow the line, sort of, but they lack focus and they will not gear down, dig for the scent and walk it slowly when necessary. They are smelling around all over the place. This is more a matter of temperament than a lack of nose.

Some hounds with good noses drift a track. They always seem to know where the scent line is, but they are not on it every yard of the way. These dogs are going to find wounded deer, but they are not going to show you all of the sign, blood smears and so forth, that you need to make your determination about how the deer is hit, and whether it is going to survive.

A few years ago I was tracking with a man who had a German shorthaired pointer. The GSPs were developed in Germany as a versatile hunting dog, and some American versions of the original breed have retained this; Bill and Buckshot found a lot of deer together and that GSP got better and better at it. This time I was tracking behind Buckshot with Clary, who was a very good wirehaired dachshund. Buckshot, out in front, was drifting the line pretty fast, not always right on it, but certainly following the cold track of the wounded deer. However, Buckshot completely missed a wound bed that Clary showed us because she was working closer. That wound bed told us something that we had not been able to determine before because we had not been able to start at the hit site. Blood and saliva, outside the perimeter of the bed showed that we were dealing with a jaw shot. These deer are doomed to die, but they remain strong for days and death comes slowly. You don’t have any chance to put them down unless you can get them out in the open for a shot. In the dense scrub oak and pine barrens where we were tracking, there was no hope of that. Clary showed us the sign that spared us from a lot of fruitless tracking.

I have seen individual bird dogs that stayed close to the line and were excellent trackers. But most spaniels and the various continental pointers do have a natural tendency to quarter back and forth on the scent line. There are various ways to train them out of this, but it is not simple. For a bird hunter who needs to track a wounded deer now and then, dogs that quarter or weave back and forth on the line can still be useful.

For the handler who puts finding wounded deer at the top of his priorities, tracking will be easier with a dog that works closer to the line. Particularly in bowhunting, you encounter many superficially wounded animals that are going to recover. Many miles of wild goose chase can be avoided, if the hunter can read the occasional drips and smears of blood over the first half mile. The dog will show the handler where the sign is, and then the chances of catching up to the deer must be evaluated.

A Cold Nose

A dog that has line sense does not necessarily have a “cold nose”, the ability to smell a very old or faint track. Every handler appreciates a dog with a great nose provided that this nose is used well. Still, in wounded game tracking too much emphasis can be placed on a super cold nose to the point that it outweighs everything else. In most wounded deer tracking situations you don’t need all that nose. To save a deer from spoilage or the coyotes, you generally have to get on the line before it is 24 hours old.

This winter I had to put down my old Southern Black Mouth Cur, who came as a pup from Howard Carnathan. Cleo did not have a great nose for ground scent, but she taught me that great intelligence can be more important than great nose when it comes to finding wounded deer. Cleo, with her cowdog smarts, was not distracted by the hot lines of healthy deer, which is the biggest problem for most dogs. She was just fine on deer lines up to four hours old, and she was an excellent wind scenter. She was the wounded deer finder of choice on days when the wind was roaring, and there was no ground scent. She was my deep swamp dog. Cleo had a warm nose by hound standards, but she would have been an excellent dog for a southern deer lease where wounded deer are usually tracked within a few hours.

Cleo was John's loyal hunting companion. She excelled at squirrel hunting but she also recovered a number of wounded deer. She did not have a cold nose but she was very intelligent and learned quickly to stay on a right line.

Size of the Nose; Size of the Dog

In beagling you hear the term “big nose”. A dog with a “big nose” is a dog that can recognize the rabbit line and move it while other hounds in the pack don’t even know that it’s there. As used the term has nothing to do with the physical size of the dog and his nose. Early in my tracking career it still seem logical to me that a large dog, with a large nose would have better scenting ability than a small dog. Later experience, and the scientific articles that I have read, both indicate that there are many other factors, in addition to the size of the nose, which determine scenting power. This doesn’t mean that a Chihuahua and a Bloodhound are equal is scenting power, but it seems that the relationship between size of the dog and his nose power is not as close as I once thought.

From what I have seen in competition beagles and in tracking dogs, there is little or not much relationship between size of the dog and scenting ability. In field trials beagles are separated by sex and into two size categories: either 13 inches and under or 13 to 15 inches. The two sizes seldom run together in brace or in a pack, but when they do, the larger hounds have no special advantage when it comes to nose. A good beagle, 12 inches at the shoulder seems to have just as much nose power, as a 15 incher, who weighs nearly twice as much.

Steve Nappe of Westerlo, NY has a miniature wirehaired dachshund, Zin, who weighs only nine pounds. He found three wounded deer last fall under tough circumstances, but no one expected what Zin did this April (2003) in the Annual Deer Search Blood Tracking competition. He more than held his own; he won the competition and the runner-up was a 70 pound Deutsch Drahthaar, the original German version of the German wirehaired pointer. Zin was very well handled by Steve, who contributed to the win, but it was clear that Zin’s “miniature” nose was not a handicap, and that his “miniature” brain processed the scent data just fine.

Steve Nappe's Zin is a very accomplished blood tracker. He is a dapple wirehaired miniature dachshund.

In 1996 two researchers, Laurie Issel-Tarver and Jasper Rine at the University of California, Berkeley published their research on the genetic basis for scenting ability. They compared the DNA of ten scent hounds, including American foxhounds, bluetick coon hounds, bloodhounds, beagles, bassets and dachshunds with that of 10 sight hound and 6 companion/toy breeds. They found that the genes controlling the scent receptor cells in the nose were surprisingly similar for all 26 breeds. This implied that differences in scenting ability were based upon other factors.

Issel-Tarver and Rine also pointed out that the size of the scent reception area in the nose of some breeds was 16 times greater than in others but that the size of this area, the olfactory epithelium, was “not simply a function of body size”. They cautiously concluded that the size of this olfactory epithelium and the number of nerve ending to be found there might influence scenting power. They also offered some other complex genetic possibilities that had not yet been researched. Folks, it ain’t simple!

Without getting hung up on this heavy scientific research, there are certain things that we can conclude:

1. You do need line sense in a tracking dog, so don’t select a breed that has been bred exclusively to quarter back and forth and scent birds on the wind.

2. Nose is necessary, but you don’t need the coldest nose for practical deer tracking. In my opinion brains and the ability to recognize and stay on the right line is even more important.

3. The biggest dog is not necessarily the best for tracking work, and it will not always have the best nose. Work with the size of dog that you are comfortable with. A man who has worked Walkers and blueticks all his life may feel a little bit ridiculous with a 20 pound standard dachshund or Jagdterrier. A man who lives in the suburbs may not want a 75 pound Catahoula as a family dog.

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