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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Versatile Tracking Dogs

© July 2007 John Jeanneney

There are a number of breeds, particularly the scent hound breeds, which were never specifically developed for tracking wounded game, but which produce individuals that can do an excellent job. Examples within this broad category include beagles, coon hounds and Labs.

There are other breeds bred specifically for tracking wounded big game. The best known breeds in this specialized group are German: the Hanoverian Bloodhound and the Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound. There are a few Bavarians doing very impressive in the USA right now, and there are a number of younger Bavarians in training.

However, this article deals with a third category of dogs, which are described in their official breed descriptions as “versatile” with blood tracking being one of their capabilities. Currently in North America it is easier to buy one of these so called versatile dogs as a tracking prospect, but there are both advantages and pitfalls in following this route.

First, you have a choice of many versatile pointing breeds of “Continental” origins; the best known of these are the Kurzhaar and the Drahthaar that have been Americanized here as the German Shorthaired Pointer and the German Wirehaired Pointer. Others are the Wachtelhund, which resembles a big, long-legged spaniel, the large and small Munsterlanders, also in the spaniel family, and then of course the Dachshund, especially the wirehaired coat variety, and the German Jagdterrier. This list is already confusingly complex, and there are many other breeds that might well be added to the list of dogs that are supposedly bred to do blood tracking as well as other things.

Versatility is a breed ideal, but in reality it is rare that a “versatile” dog excels in all of the categories of performance. It is even rarer for such versatile dogs to transmit all of these working abilities to their offspring in equal measure. For example in the versatile pointing breeds the majority of dogs tend to be too big-running, high-headed and birdy to be ideal blood trackers. It does not come easily for them to get their heads down to work an old, cold ground track. Generally close-working grouse and woodcock type dogs are more likely blood tracking candidates than big-running quail dogs.

Another example is the dachshund. As bred in Europe he is supposed to go underground to bay or drive out foxes and occasionally a badger. The same dog is supposed to work the old scent line of a wounded deer or boar. The underground work, on one hand, requires a great deal of fire and aggressiveness. The tracking work requires calm, steady patience. You can see that it is difficult to breed both qualities, at the highest level, into the same dog. Aggressiveness and patience support one another only up to a certain point; then one trait begins to block the other.

The ideal of versatility can be a trap for the purchaser of a tracking dog. Many breeders will assure him that their dogs can do anything in their breed’s official repertoire. “That’s what they were bred for.” This may be an expression of honest ignorance of the breeder’s part, since he often lacks serious experience with all the types of work that the dog is supposed to do. Of course it is possible to purchase a versatile breed puppy that fulfills all of your dreams when he matures; I have seen only a few such dogs in my lifetime. Most of the time, however, he will have superior gifts for just one or two types of work, and will be just “fairly good” for other things. Just “fairly good” in tracking ability, for example, may not be good enough if you are really serious about tracking.

When you are talking to a breeder of versatile dogs listen to everything he has to say, but listen most to what he has to say about how his own dogs work in the field. If the breeder does mostly bird work, or mostly underground work, and this is most important to him, then he has probably selected for these traits in the dogs he breeds.

If you are seeking to buy a “versatile” dog, chances are that it will be of German origin. The Germans have always been interested in the “do everything dog”. You will find that in the German versatile dog tradition working tests are taken very seriously. Consistently high hunting test scores mean as much as field trial wins in our own American tradition. To the Germans, and to other Europeans, the test scores validate the versatile qualities of the dog that earns them.

These test scores are certainly useful, but they can also mislead people, who seek to evaluate breeding stock on paper. Hunting test scores should be studied closely but with some healthy skepticism. Skilled training for the tests, and handling in these tests, can make a dog appear strong and well-rounded in all types of work. Actually the dog may not be all that good when it comes to doing the real thing in a natural hunting situation. This is particularly true when it comes to blood tracking tests.

There is no way that I would generalize about all blood tracking tests. Some are very realistically designed and rigorously judged. Unfortunately some tests are dumbed down to make the rank and file dog owner happy. Buyers beware! Test scores can be very useful, but they are not a solid gold guarantee that a dog, or his ancestors, have useful natural abilities for blood tracking. If you could see the dog’s actual work as he got these scores, you would be so much wiser.

Many versatile dog owners in Europe, and even some handlers here in the United States, make passing tests the most important part of their sport. On both sides of the Atlantic I have met dog owners proud of their dog’s blood tracking scores. Well, how many real wounded deer have you tracked?, I’ve asked. Oh, a couple over the years, they reply. I don’t have much time for that.
With many versatile dog owners, who take tests, these become an end in themselves. Testing becomes a social and competitive sport, and the link to actual hunting does not seem very important. Without reality checks on natural work, a dog trained to follow from one regularly laid blood drop to the next, may have a fine record of test scores yet never have what it takes for the real thing in terms of patience, initiative and intelligence.

I am not condemning the versatile category of dogs. I raise and train Dachshunds for tracking myself. Personally, I think that it is a good thing that in North America the hunting Dachshunds are segregating into two specialized types. If you purchase a standard sized, European-type Dachshund, bred for hunting, you pretty much know that the breeding emphasis in this country has been for tracking. The American red fox is much smaller than his European counterpart, and it can seldom be worked underground by a dog over 16 pounds. Most other American ground game is also small. The serious underground folks, like Teddy Moritz, use a mini dachshund.

The Drahthaars and Kurzhaars are the original versions of what became known as the German Wirehaired and Shorthaired Pointers that are registered by AKC or NAVHDA. In contrast to these American dog registries, extensions of German breed organizations like VDD and DKV have made a greater effort to maintain the entire working repertoire from Germany. However, the majority of American-based members have not shown a great deal of interest in going beyond the blood tracking tests to actually finding wounded deer. There are very important exceptions. For example Marty Vlach in Nebraska has an excellent tracking Drahthaar and takes a lot of deer calls. Forrest Moore in western Georgia is an all round judge who actually tracks many wounded deer. Forrest gets all over the country and he is probably the best source of advice on where to find a young Drahthaar tracking prospect.



As a whole Wachtelhund breeders in the Midwest write much more about upland bird hunting and duck retrieving than about blood tracking. The Wachtelhunds can be very good big game trackers, but ask the breeder lots of questions. Is he breeding dogs that he actually uses successfully to find wounded deer in situations with little or no blood?

Wachtelhund at the UBT Trackfest 2008

In Denmark some trackers use a strain of Wachtelhunds bred with a primary emphasis on finding wounded game. My Danish tracker friend assures that me they are very good. Of course these dogs also do other phases of the breed’s work, but the breeders select first for tracking ability.

If you are looking for a “versatile” tracking dog, search carefully to find the breeding emphasis you are looking for.

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