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Friday, April 16, 2010

Den work as a school for character - Gerte's Day

I heard from Teddy that she got some really good e-mail response to her piece on digging woodchucks with dachshunds. I think it would a good idea to follow her article with the one that John wrote in 1997. In his introduction to his article he said:

"Our standard wirehaired dachshunds specialize in tracking wounded deer and at 20 pounds plus most are too large to be practical on foxes and woodchucks unless they work with a mini-dachshunds or small terrier that can get right up to the quarry and bay it. Still I do some hunting underground with the standards, because I find that the bonding experience that comes out of this is important for close dog handler cooperation in other types of work.

Underground work can also be a test of character. The great French blood tracker Hubert Stoquert once told me: "I want my tracking dogs to be willing to go head to head with a fox underground. A dog like that won't be afraid to push a wounded wild boar." I learned from my experiences with my old tracking dachshund Max that work on underground quarry can also be a school for character and even a form of shock therapy. Let me tell you the story of Gerte vom Dornenfeld, a wire dachshund bitch of about 17 pounds and you be the judge. "

Gerte vom Dornenfeld and Fausto del Grande Futaie (1993)

Gerte's Day
by John Jeanneney, 1997

Gerte vom Dornenfeld was what modern day teachers call an underachiever. Her gifts were everything her breeder Frau Lore Schlechtingen could have hoped for: intelligence, nose and desire. But, for reasons not clearly known, Gerte did not put all this together. A catalyst was missing.

The problem did not emerge right away. As a young dog she tracked and found two deer in situations of respectable difficulty. She also knew how to charm and for a long time her social gifts covered up her failures in the field. She could carry on little barked "conversations". Her personality was especially admired at my university office and at the veterinarians. But Gerte was bred to be a blood tracker not a party girl; we wanted her to live by the stern code of the bumper stickers on the battered pick-ups: "when the tailgate drops, the bull shit stops." In the stern, rough world of deer hunting it is not enough to "sparkle".

In her second and third years we tried to bring Gerte along carefully. When you are developing a young dog, you try to select calls with well defined scent lines and a high probability of success. If you can help it, you don't put a young dog down on the wild goose chases where the deer may or may not have been hit well, where the dry leaves and scent are blowing around in the wind and the dog has nothing very definite to work with. I used old Max for these uncertain situation calls. Princess Gerte got the "dead deer for sure" calls on which she looked composed, competent, even stylish. She showed us everything but the deer. In frustration on five different calls I hiked back to the car and got old Max. And old Max, fumbling and bumbling on in his "Detective Columbo" style found the five wounded deer that Princess Gerte had missed. It took me longer than it should have to figure out what was happening.

There seemed to be a pattern. Gerte would start out well, but within a half mile she would make a check and then start working another line. It would be a real line, an old deer line, but not the scent line of the wounded deer we wanted. We would methodically track another mile, working checks, following deer runs, going where a deer would go, but there would not be a drop of blood and the deer would never bed down.

When all this dawned on me, I knew that Gerte's "mistakes" were not mistakes, but quite deliberate. Back-up dog Max, with less nose and less brains, would pick through Gerte's checks with little difficulty and show us a line headed in a different direction. Eventually he would show us the deer. Gerte was too intelligent and too fine-nosed to unconsciously change to another line in such a situation.

I could only speculate about what had gone wrong. Maybe Gerte had become deer shy. I have known one blood tracking dog that tracked ghost lines to avoid confrontations after one scary encounter with an angry eight pointer. There had been no similar incident in Gerte's life, but she seemed to be "blinking", as the bird dog people, say when a pointer deliberately ignores bird scent to avoid failure and reprimand. Something had turned Gerte off, but I could not put my finger on it.

I had other dogs that could do the job, so after her five failures Gerte stayed home. She went to field trials where she seemed to model her behavior after the old nursery rhyme:

There was a little girl who had a little curl
right in the middle of her forehead;
when she was good she was very, very good
and when she was bad she was horrid.

She was usually "very, very good" on hot, dry days and "horrid" on damp, easy-scenting days when faster, more aggressive dogs dominated her.

From age three to age seven Gerte got few tidbits of recognition. She was not abused, but she clearly sensed that dogs and humans did not take her too seriously. Among our adult dogs she settled to the bottom of the pack hierarchy. She could still turn on her social sparkle, but she seemed a little brittle and desperate. In the house she languished with the sad air of a European aristocrat exiled in a raw, cold country where no one understood her. Here a good animal psychologist or a handler with more time and fewer good dogs to rely on would have given Gerte more support. Instead, things just took their natural course and circumstances led Gerte to cure herself. The cure might be called "shock therapy" but no one planned it that way. This is how it came to pass on Gerte's Day, November 22, 1995.

The adventure began with no dogs present; I was deer hunting with a friend on a large cattle farm. We hunted by making short drives to one another through small draws (valleys) of brush and briars. I flushed a red fox and my friend shot it with his .22 caliber revolver since he did not want bisect to it with a heavy deer slug. The fox seemed hard hit but it struggled to a nearby den and escaped. We returned home and brought back Fausto, a twenty-four pound male and Gerte. I expected that Fausto would have the simple work of retrieving a dead or weakened fox. Gerte, smaller and somewhat less aggressive, was held in reserve in case the den proved too tight for Fausto.

The den was indeed too tight for Fausto. He did make contact with a fox and was bitten, but he could not counterattack because a rock prevented his advance. We dug down ahead of Fausto, only half a yard down, and there was the fox which Jim shot with his handgun and I drew. It was a vixen and not the right fox; there was but a single bullet hole and she was a lighter color than the original wounded fox.

There had to be another fox inside somewhere, but the den, with its single modest entrance, was actually more complex than I had thought. There were at least two long horizontal galleries, and also a near vertical pipe plunging down five feet to another level. I suspected that the wounded fox was down deep on the second level which would be very difficult to access. Everything was too small for Fausto, so I entered Gerte to verify where the second fox had gone. Gerte was not interested in the steep dive down to a lower level, and quickly located and bayed the second fox out at the end of one of the horizontal galleries. We dug down to the entrance of a regular chamber or Kessel and opened things up to see Gerte baying furiously right in the fox's face. She had taken a good bite across the top of the muzzle, and didn't seem to notice. She was not up to throttling the fox, but she had certainly held him at bay and prevented him from escaping to a safer part of the den. The fox was actually in pretty good shape; when he bit my well-gloved hand he had excellent jaw power. When we finally exposed and shot him, we found that he was wounded in the rear in a way that would not have killed him for a long time.

I was surprised and pleased at Gerte's performance, but this was just the beginning of her heroic day. While we had been digging the foxes, two of the deer hunters on the farm, the Lynchs, father and son, drove by on one of the internal roads. They helped in the digging and the father reminded me that I had found a deer for him nineteen years ago with Clary. His son had just wounded another deer, had tracked it several kilometers and then had run out of blood trail and lost it. Would I find it for them? They felt that the buck could not go much farther since it had lost so much blood.

Gerte was tired, but she was right at hand, and it should not take long. Gerte and I were trapped into the situation; there was not much point in trying to explain to the Lynchs that fox work is psychologically very different and that Gerte had not blood tracked for two years. I had a long tracking leash with me and we drove almost all the way to their point of loss on the wounded buck. The line was only four hours old, but scent in the area had been thoroughly muddled by the hunters searching back and forth. Gerte made several big circles around the last drop of visible blood, took a scent line and at a hundred yards showed us a smudge of blood on a weed stem. Then we went more than a thousand yards with no visible blood. I hoped that we were on the right track. Then suddenly the scent warmed up and I knew that we had a deer moving ahead of us through the abandoned, overgrown fields. There were expanses of dense, low wild rose briars and when I began to see drops of bright fresh blood the first thing I did was check Gerte's nose and ears. She was clean. She had him!

The buck went another two miles. The first time that we sighted him I could see that one hind leg was dragging. We were now in a combination of open hardwoods and briars. I tried to get the hunter, Jim Lynch, out in front to intercept him, but the deer would always change direction at the critical moment. Once the buck doubled back on his track for fifty yards and then went off in a new direction. Gerte came to the dead end which was marked with a few drops of blood; she made two small quick circles and tracked back on the line to where the buck had exited in the new direction. She had recognized the double almost immediately.

We saw the deer again and then he went into a big marsh. Gerte was visibly tired, but she kept working methodically as the buck zigzagged back and forth through the shallow water and high weeds. Then I saw the buck lying down within five yards of Jim Lynch who was peering off into the distance and did not see him. When Jim finally made eye contact with the deer it leapt up one last time; all ended in a volley shots and great splashes of water. I was the most pleased, Gerte was a very tired second and the Jim Lynch was very impressed too.

Two days later Gerte had completely recovered from the bites and exhaustion. She made it clear to us all that she was enormously pleased with herself and what she had achieved. Gerte pushed herself up the social ladder of adult dachshunds in the house and began to growl at any dog who became too familiar. She began to guard my special deer searching coat from the others. Surprisingly they seemed to understand and tolerate this assertiveness which would have been unacceptable before "Gerte's day".

Since that day two years ago Gerte has been our tracking dog number #1. The psychological lift that came from her successful fox den and tracking experiences has seemed to stay with her. She has not always been the wonder dog, but she has done some remarkable tracking, particularly when the scent was old and the conditions were difficult. Gerte, the underachiever, has found herself.


Jules said...

I just re-read this Jolanta and it is a great read.

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

Thanks Julie - I agree :-)