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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Blood tracking tests: pros and cons

By John Jeanneney, Full Cry September 2009

In much of the tracking dog world, blood tracking tests are very important in people’s minds. They sometimes become more important than natural tracking of the real thing. In Germany, for example, I have talked to handlers of some of the best performing dachshunds at the National Blood Tracking Championships for dachshunds. They had not taken many game searches the previous season, generally only two or three. Part of this was no doubt due to the fact that there are not enough wounded animals in Germany to go around! Also there are political factors involved; you have to own certain breeds of dogs, tested of course, before you can be certified to get in on the best tracking situations. Dachshunds, believe it or not, are generally excluded from this privileged circle.

In Germany the National Blood Tracking Competition is a prestigious event. The picture shows a closing ceremony of Bundessiegersuche Chorin 2006.

Hunting in Germany is a privilege for which you must pay dearly unless you have connections. Many owners of “versatile” dogs like the Deutsch Drahthaar (original German version of the German wirehaired pointer) spend a good deal of time on training for a series of tests that establish the merits of their dog. If they have such a dog, hunting opportunities will come more easily and probably at a lower cost.

Fortunately, circumstances are not the same yet in the USA, but the “culture of tests” can be found here nonetheless. I have done a number of workshops with the Deutsch Drahthaar organization in the United States, and met dedicated people with a lot of dog savvy. However, when it came to the blood tracking test most of them are interested in passing it, primarily because this is a requirement for attaining the highest German rating for a versatile hunting dog. Certainly they are willing to take on a wounded deer situation, if it comes up, but they are primarily bird hunters.

There are some notable exceptions in the well organized Deutsch Drahthaar Group in the United States. These people are strongly dedicated to the idea of developing their dogs as natural blood trackers. Marty and Mikki Vlach of Nebraska are two of these, and Forrest Moore of Georgia is another. I have seen some superb Drahthaar trackers of the real thing, but a majority of the Drahthaars in the US are too high-headed and birdy to work well on old, cold lines. They need special training to lower their head and their velocity in order to pass the blood tracking test.

By this time you have realized that I have some reservations about artificial blood tracking tests, but certainly, all things considered, they are a very positive influence in the blood tracking world. Let’s consider some of the positive aspects: For one thing a test deadline creates a motivation to train your dog, and learn to read him, even though you have dozens of other things to do. It is tremendously important to learn your dog’s body language as he goes off on a hot line or regains the correct scent line after a tough check.

Tests bring together handlers who ordinarily would not meet. They can compare notes and observe the working styles of one another’s dogs. They end up understanding their own dogs better.

Blood tracking tests are sometimes the best means we have to separate competent handlers and trained dogs from these who simply want to shake down a hunter for a few bucks. A few years ago I made a sampling, by phone, of the trackers listed on the Georgia Outdoor News web site, which lists trackers in that state who are ready to help hunters find wounded deer. The majority of the handlers I spoke with were knowledgeable and experienced, but I encountered a few who had no clue about the service they planned to offer for a price.

Blood tracking tests are needed, but they do have certain limitations; they are not a guarantee, in themselves, that a dog is capable of finding wounded big game under difficult conditions. Nor do they accurately establish which dogs are going to be the best at natural tracking when times are tough. When tracking the real thing, problems arise that would not be encountered in an artificial test or in the training done for that test. Long stretches with no blood and dead spots where there is no scent make up part of these problems.

The best means I have to illustrate certain problems with artificial tests is to draw upon a few of my experiences with my own dogs. Sometimes taking a test was exhilarating and sometimes it was humiliating. My happiest test adventure was with Gerte vom Dornenfeld, a wirehaired dachshund that I imported from Germany as a puppy.

I entered Gerte in a German JGV blood tracking test which was administered in New York State by German judges. Most of the dogs entered were big Deutsch Drahthaars from all over the country. My little 18 pound dog looked ridiculous and out of place, but she managed to rack up a Prize I, 100 points and be recognized by the German judges as the best blood tracking dog at that event.

John and Gerte are shown here after earning a Prize I in a German JGV blood tracking test. In the German tradition they are wearing Oak Leaves as the badge of success.

I never had another dog that did as well as Gerte in a blood tracking test. Did that mean that she was my best tracking dog ever? No! After a slow beginning she gave me several years of very good but not exceptional work. What she lacked was mental toughness. She quit on me one afternoon in a snow storm, and I retired her. She was far from being my best dog on real wounded deer.

Gerte’s daughter, Sabina von Moosbach-Zuzelek was very different, thanks to her sire who was a Czech import that we located in British Columbia. Sabina had a slow, meticulous style, but on old, difficult natural tracks without blood she would correct herself when she recognized that she was on the wrong deer. She would come back as much as 200 yards on her own until she was sure that she was on the right line again. When it came to staying on the track Sabina was as tough as they come. In a snowstorm she plowed though snow, following old scent on the ground beneath for a half mile before she found the deer dead under a drift.

As a puppy Sabina was a very good test dog. At six months of age she scored 92 and a year later she scored 90. Both of these were Prize I performances under the Deer Search test rules that are similar to the German ones. As Sabina got older and more experienced on natural tracks, her performance on artificial tests declined. She knew that these tests were fake, and she had little interest in them. At age five she got a Prize III, 50 points in Germany, barely passing, and she later failed a German test in the USA. On that last test the judge had me pick her up for lack of desire and progress. It would have been a mistake to evaluate Sabina as a natural tracking dog, solely on the basis of her test scores.

The most frequent pattern that I have observed in tracking dogs, as a handler and as a judge is as follows: A dog will do quite well in demos or in tests as a puppy before adolescence sets in. Once the dog has had a strong experience in natural tracking, there will be a decline in test performance since the dogs has learned that artificial blood lines are not as much fun as the real thing. Usually at maturity, around four, the dog will realize that tracking in any form is the greatest thing in the world. At this point he will track a natural scent line, a faked blood line or a line of marmalade. It doesn’t make much difference.

Fortunately or unfortunately, hard-headed Sabina did not follow this classic pattern. And it was the same thing at dachshund field trials running rabbits. At three she had the best winning record of any dachshund in the country. Two years later she decided that running rabbits at a field trial was nonsense. She would still run rabbits at home, but not at a trial where she knew some judge would say “pick ‘em up” as soon as she nicely got started.

What these tracking dog stories suggest is that you have to look at the big picture in making decisions. For example what can you learn about the parents of a tracking pup that you might buy. Check the test records, but ask also, “What is the story on natural tracks?” And watch out for the guy who says his dog always finds 90% of the deer. Probably many of these deer could have been found within 40 yards by his four year-old grandson.

Some tests are better than others. I would like to have more experience with the tracking shoe test. I have used tracking shoes in training, and I was impressed. In the German tracking shoe test the line is laid over 1000 meters, the same as in the regular blood tracking test. But much less blood is used, and the dog is basically tracking the interdigital scent carried between the cloves of the hoofs attached to the tracking shoes. This is more realistic, and in consequence many experienced dogs are more motivated to work well.

In Europe there are also natural tests conducted on actual wounded animals. These are the best in my opinion, but they are hard to set up logistically. It is not easy to get three qualified judges together to evaluate a dog in a situation, which by its nature cannot be planned ahead of time. Natural tests work best after big organized drives of a sort that we don’t have in North America.

Certainly the best way to judge the worth of a dog is to observe him yourself as he operates on the real thing. Don’t be in a hurry to buy a puppy, or an “experienced” dog (if you can find one). Ask lots of questions.

May 2006 - Andy Bensing is shown with Arno von Gronenwald (right) who scored 92 points and Prize I on the NATC overnight blood tracking test and Arno's grandsire FC Asko von der Drachenburg (left) who got a perfect score on a blood tracking part of the versatility (Vp) test. Andy handled both dogs.

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