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Sunday, February 7, 2010

Some misconceptions about blood tracking

John Jeanneney © January 2010 for Full Cry

We are stuck with the term “blood tracking.” It has been used for a long time, but these words do create a lot of confusion. More than one hunter has asked, “What good is a blood tracking dog? If there’s blood to track, I can track my own deer. You’re a lazy hunter for sure, if you need a dog to do the work for you!” Well, these guys do have a point. And up North it’s a point of pride to find your own deer all by yourself.

Of course the real value of the experienced “blood tracking dog” is that he can go on tracking when the visible blood on the ground runs out. The dog actually works on a lot of things in addition to the blood that the hunter can see. In some situations the dog detects the faint scent of ground disturbance. More important are the microscopic scent particles that come down from the wound and the dead skin particles that drift down from animals and humans, whether they are wounded or not. Then there is the scent given off by the various glands of the deer.

To our feeble human noses the strongest scent glands of a deer are the tarsal glands located inside the rear hocks. During the rut bucks deliberately urinate on their own tarsal glands, and the combination of gland secretion and urine is so strong that even a human can follow it in the air if it is fresh and the scenting conditions are good.

I suspect my dogs pity me for my own weak nose, but over the years and 930 calls they have patiently taught me a little bit about how deer scent works for tracking purposes. Sabina taught me that tarsal gland scent, strong as it is, can be a confusing factor. Yes, it tells you where a buck went, but it might be any buck. Tarsal gland scent is so overwhelmingly strong, that sometimes it blocks out some of the more useful, more individual scents like the scent from the interdigital glands at the top of the foot between the cloves of the hoof.

A few times I saw old Sabina correct herself and go back after tracking over a hundred yards on the wrong line. This would always happen when we had a buck moving right out ahead of us at the peak of the rut.

The interdigital glands seem to be really important. When I’m training dogs on lines made with tracking shoes with deer hoofs attached, they can distinguish one set of hoofs from another. I have made a scent line with one set of hoofs, and then changed the hoofs and laid cross tracks. When we tracked to the junction of the two scent lines, the dog would hesitate a moment, but then continue on the original line.

Sometimes a hunter will say, “I didn’t call you because it rained and the blood was all washed out.” Well, a blood tracking dog isn’t tracking by eye. As any coon hunter knows, a gentle rain on a scent line actually improves it. When it rains hard for a long time, things get tougher, but for a good, experienced dog, following the line can still be possible.

I can remember when Max, who was an experienced, but not an exceptional dog, took a line over a cedar knob in a driving rain with the water running in sheets through the poverty grass. There was water almost everywhere, but he could pick up enough scent to follow down a long hill, across a road to where the buck was lying, still alive, on the edge of swamp. The line was only four hours old.

And then there was Clary, who was both experienced and exceptional. With two inches of water in the rain gauge we went out to track a deer that had been gut-shot the day before. The hunters had tracked the deer about three hundred yards before running out of blood sign. They marked the point of loss, went home and then it began to rain. Clary began at the hit site the next morning, tracked to the point of loss although no blood was to be seen anymore and continued on without any problem. Two hundred yards more and there was the deer, still alive.

It’s pleasant to reminisce about old experiences of tracking without blood, but to be honest I have to dredge up an experience in which a very good dog, the same Clary, couldn’t track with visible blood. It was a sultry, grey day, and a storm was brewing. We were tracking a big doe that had been gut shot. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but just enough so that I could follow the big, brown drops by eye. Clary couldn’t smell a thing; she was useless, and we didn’t find the deer. I’ve had the experience a number of times since. With a storm front coming in and the barometer falling, the dog’s sense of smell was powerless.

I wish I could be a dog for a week and learn more about these things. I’d be glad to eat dry kibble and sleep in a crate. I’m tired of being an idiot in these matters that my dogs know so well. They have taught me quite a bit, but not nearly enough.


Sally Marchmont (left) of Vermont writes of “a beautiful, 200-pound, 8-pointer we found for a lady who had shot him in the pouring rain. The rain had washed all the blood away so I had no choice but to trust Petey completely. He made short work of it, so it was a lesson well learned for me.”

Scott Semrau with a buck his “Buddy” found after a hard rain in Ohio.

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