By John Jeanneney
Full Cry March 2005
Personal decisions about the best size for a tracking dog are in good part a matter of personal taste. Many of us grow up, I think, as either big dog or little dog folks. Much of this is a product of what we became accustomed to at an early, impressionable age. A handler, who grew up with 80 pound blueticks, would most likely feel ridiculous if he set out to find a wounded deer with a 20 pound dachshund at the end of his tracking leash. He would feel the same way, if he took a .410 duck hunting.
Your personal taste in hunting dogs will be subjective, but this doesn’t mean that you should try to shrug it off as unimportant. One of the fundamentals of tracking is that you must trust your dog and be in tune with him. For a new tracking dog handler this is easier said than done, but it really does help if the size of the dog fits in with your own unconscious feelings of what a serious dog should look like.
Charlette Curtis, a member of Deer Search, has recovered many deer with her mini longhaired dachshund.
Looking beyond these matters of personal taste, there is much that can be said about the concrete and practical advantages of different sized tracking dogs. Maybe you shared my good fortune of living a mixed-up childhood; I hunted woodchucks and squirrels with terriers or feists, and coons with Redbones and farm collie types. A background like this puts you in a position to make more objective decisions about the best-sized breed of tracking dog for you own needs.
The wounded game tracking regulations in your own state will be a major factor in the decisions that you make about appropriate size. In the “new” tracking states of the northeast and mid-west, the laws and regulations legalizing the use of dogs to find wounded big game specify that the dog must be kept on a tracking leash at all times. In the states with “older” tracking traditions, dogs are generally allowed to work off lead.
If you are required to keep your tracking dog on a leash at all times, there is no special advantage in having a big dog. You don’t need 80 pounds of muscle and bone helping you over barbed wires fences and through multiflora rose faster than you want to go. You can’t travel in the woods at more than a fast walk or a jog, and for this a 20 pound dachshund or Jagdterrier has all the strength, desire and stamina necessary to follow that wounded deer for four miles or more. A leg-hit deer, with the leg broken and swinging, will often go that far before you walk it down and bleed it out. (Better this than letting deep snow and the coyotes do the job later.)
In leashed tracking dog states, there is one situation that can tip the balance in favor or the larger, longer legged dog. In extensive swamps and freezing, or near freezing temperatures, a Lab-sized dog, with its greater body mass and longer legs, will hold up better. The little dog may be able to swim and take scent off the swamp vegetation as you wade behind, but it’s a tough proposition if you have to go more than a hundred yards or so. I spent thirty years in a nearby county that has lots of swamps and beaver ponds. In these situations I would wade the water and work the wind with my southern black mouth cur. Such conditions would have been very tough for my 20 pound wirehaired dachshunds.
When we get into the South and Texas, regulations usually permit use of a tracking dog off lead. (These state-by-state regulations are too complex and variable to summarize in this article.) In these states the vastly superior bay power and pull down power of a big, Lab-sized dog can really make a difference. Typically a buck with a smashed shoulder will be bayed by a big dog within 200 or 300 yards from where he is jumped. The northern tracker will have to follow a deer hit in the same way for a least a mile to catch up to the deer. And for the northerner this job of walking him down will be done more easily with a smaller dog.
There are many sides of the big dog, small dog discussion; snakes are a big factor too. For a southern hunter the word “snakes” refers to the poisonous ones, which are the only ones that he has to worry about. Such snakes are bad news for a little dog, which is likely to die if struck in the neck or shoulder. A bite on the leg is more likely for a big dog; this will put him out of commission for a while, but it won’t be life threatening unless a coral snake was involved. Down South snakes are not a big threat in the winter months, but bow seasons for deer usually start in warm weather when snakes are active.
We came across this rattler snake in the woods at the NATC blood tracking workshop in Reading, PA.
In the North we have very few poisonous snakes. For example in my state of New York, the timber rattler is officially considered an endangered species, and you will pay a big fine if you brag to the conservation officer about how you killed one. Up North little dogs are pretty safe from big, bad snakes.
Transportation considerations must also be considered when decisions are made about the appropriately sized dog for a given situation. If you can drive to your hunting area in your pick-up, then any size is good. However, if access to the hunting sites is restricted to ATVs, which can negotiate rough, narrow trails, then the smaller tracking dogs have their special merits.
Our wirehaired dachshund Billy loves ATVs. Here John and Billy are being transported to a hit site on one of the deer calls in 2006.
I have found that our wirehaired dachshunds love to travel for miles on the ATV gas tank in front of me. No matter how rough the ride they seem totally at ease and are ready to start tracking once at their destination. Most of the time I keep one hand on the dog’s collar, and it is a good idea to have a small, rough-textured mat beneath the dog to assure a good surface for his claws to hang on to.
There is a good chance that leashed tracking dogs are going to be legalized in some of the Rocky Mountain states where a lot a Federal Land is used by outfitters for elk hunting. Sometimes there is no access for motor vehicles into these areas. How could you get a tracking dog back into that big country if you needed one?
I’ve discovered that our laid-back wirehaired dachshunds are about as comfortable on a horse as on a four-wheeler. I did some experimenting with my son’s horses, and these self-assured German dachshunds were very much at ease in that new situation. It didn’t seem to matter to them whether they were riding a horse or a four wheeler. The next step will be to get a packsaddle, with panniers or a pack, to see if a harnessed dog will ride alone on top for a few miles. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.
Getting a large dog to trot along with a pack train headed into elk country would require the right temperament and quite a bit of training. Probably a Lab would be better suited than a hound. Labs would better resist the temptation to take off after game on the ride into the hunting area than would the typical hound.
Among the tracking dogs being used in the United States, I would view the dachshunds, beagles and Jagdterriers as the most promising of the small dogs at the present time. All have their stronger and weaker points.
In the mid-range category I would place the Bavarian Mountain hounds, the Blue Lacy dogs and the smaller Labs.
In the heavy weight division I would include the large Labs, Catahoulas, black mouth curs and other cattle dogs, the German versatile pointing breeds like Drahthaars, and finally coonhound breeds of the “pleasure”, rather than the “competition” type. Good prospects are to be found in other breeds not named here.
Catahoula Indy belongs to John and Elly Hoinowski.
If you want to get into tracking dogs, you have plenty of choices. There is no “best” for everyone. Select what suits your needs and what you are comfortable with.