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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tonguing on the Line

© John Jeanneney, December 2005

John wrote this article three years ago, and the dogs mentioned here, Bob and Mickey, have passed since then. Sabina is gone too.

The amount of voice, or lack of it, that a tracking dog uses on the scent line is a matter of personal taste. Sometimes, as in the case of Michigan, it can even be a matter of what is legal. Prick up your ears as I explore the range and variety of loud talk that we hear coming from tracking dogs. And let’s not forget that dogs speak to us with heads and tails as well as with their voices.

Let’s begin with “Bob”, the most vocal and one of the better dogs that I’ve see work an old, cold line. Bob belongs to Randy Vick, who lives in Pavo down in South Georgia close to the Florida line. Bob is a cross of Treeing Walker and Beagle, stands about 18 inches at the shoulder, and is truly a fine-looking hound. Randy handles Bob in the thick privet undergrowth on a 30 foot tracking leash that he got from a tracking nut up North. This works fine because Bob is a steady, patient hound who works as a team with his handler.

When I stayed with Randy for a couple of days in January ’05 we went out on a call five hours after the buck had been wounded. There was very little blood to be seen, but when Randy took him to the line near the hit site Bob claimed it immediately with a booming bawl. The shot had probably broken the big bone below the shoulder blade; these deer can often go a long way. We did not catch up to this one.

Randy Vick with Bob

Far to the north in Granville, New York, on the Vermont border, Tim Nichols tracks wounded whitetails and black bears with a registered beagle called Mickey. This is a 15 inch hound that opens, Tim says, when the line is less than 20 minutes old under good scenting conditions. This means that the Mickey is silent as he starts the line at the hit site, but if the deer is still alive and begins moving out from the wound bed, then Tim has a nice hound voice to let him know what is going on and how far ahead the deer is moving.

Tim Nichols with Mickey

Mickey is the star of Deer Search Inc., a New York State organization with some members in other states. Last year he led the organization with 27 finds out of 73 calls and in this season, just past, he found 19out of 52. Mickey is half out of hare hound, large pack breeding, and as you might expect he steps right along. Tim, who runs road races and snowshoe races in the off season, steps right along with him. They are a great team, but in his early years Mickey was more hound than many people would want to handle.

From my perspective Mickey was not as “user-friendly” as a wirehaired dachshund at the beginning. But once he learned what it meant to stay on the right line, he was awesome. He found a wounded bear in a big hole covered with leaves, after a pack of Plott hounds had searched the area to come up with nothing. When an old lady lost her senile Lhasa Apso that wandered off, Tim showed Mickey the dog’s bedding and he tracked a half mile and under an overpass to find her 16 hours later.

But any great tracking dog needs a great handler, and Tim is just that.

When I think about tracking from the standpoint of a handler, I would enjoy some hound music to accompany the work. This takes me back to my time as a youthful coonhunter. But dedicated deer hunters, especially bowhunters, often view it differently. When they are hunting they want the woods to be quiet with no barking dogs to make deer spooky. Periods of deer movement, at dawn and dusk are a particularly sensitive time. Night work presents less of a problem.

The State of Michigan actually has a line in their tracking regulations that reads: A dog the barks while tracking the deer shall not be used on public lands. Vocal hounds like Bob and Mickey would have their problems in Michigan.

You can expect most tracking dogs, such as Labs, the continental pointing breeds and dachshunds to be silent when tracking. Dachshunds will whine and bark when their noses tell them that the wounded deer has moved out right ahead of them. Even if the handler didn’t hear or see the deer, this is a signal that he better check for a wound bed and evaluate what he sees in it.

A dachshund will open on fresh healthy deer lines until he learns that a healthy deer is not of interest to his handler and tracking partner. The dog has to be smart enough and responsive enough to learn this and of course some never learn.

You may prefer a hound that voices on the line, but little is lost in communication if the dog works silently. If you are working the dog on a leash, body language tells you everything you need to know. The tempo of the tail wagging, the ears, the head carriage and the arch of the back all let you know what the dog is sensing. Reading the dog becomes intuitive, and you don’t even have to think about it consciously. You just know whether the dog is searching or has the line. You know when the dog is returning to the point of loss, and when it has picked the check and has things moving once more.

Our Sabina was rather tight-mouthed but she would open when the trail was hot. The picture was taken when John and I were tracking wounded bear in the Catskills. The cover was very thick and the blood trail sparse. All of sudden Sabina opened and we knew that we jumped the bear and it was moving ahead of us. The bear went through this swamp as on the other side we found a drop of blood. We found it very useful to know that the bear was really close.

1 comment:

Kevin Wilson said...

Great article! I love reading this stuff. Quenotte will occasionally sound-off when close to the downed deer. Thankfully, this does not occur very often because we track in a suburban bowhunting environment.