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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How we evaluate dachshund puppies for blood tracking.

Recently a breeder who is raising his first litter asked me "Are there certain things you see in the pups that help lean the odds in your favor when picking a top quality pup?" Eight years ago I wrote an article on how we evaluate dachshund puppies for their potential in blood tracking - see  I thought it might be useful to include a slightly modified section of this article here. The article is somewhat dated; now we start working with our puppies earlier. One thing has been constant though - we test our puppies at ten weeks and this way we can compare not only pups within a litter but also we can compare various litters.

A dachshund used for blood tracking has to have a good functional conformation, i.e. conformation that will allow it function well in the field and woods. The dog has to be able to track for several hours in a thick brush and briars and withstand the punishing cover well. The dog may have to go through streams and swamps, may be asked to track during rain or snow. Stamina and endurance go a long way. A good working coat is a big plus. The dog’s temperament is important because in many cases it has to track with a group of strangers (hunters) following. Other characteristics of great importance are desire to track, line sense, intelligence, concentration and focus, good nose, patience, courage, initiative and desire to please a handler. Tracking wounded deer is a team effort and a handler and his dog interact during tracking a lot. A handler may see some other signs that a wounded deer left behind (smears of blood left high on the shrubs) and when a dog is in doubt a handler will help the dog to figure out the track. Hence, a dog’s willingness to cooperate with a handler and its desire to please are not to be ignored.

It is our breeding goal to produce dachshunds that can function well in hands of hunters and trackers, but bear in mind that in a majority of tracking homes these dogs are also family pets. This is one of the great appeals of the dachshund to a hunter and handler – the dog can be so useful in the field and at the same time, it can be a cherished and beloved family companion.

Most dachshunds are very good with kids but there are some individuals with dominant and aggressive tendencies that should not be placed with families with young children. A responsible breeder will know his puppies and which ones are suitable to live with kids and which ones are not.
We start observing our puppies from their birth. All puppies have ribbons of different colors around their necks and this way we are never in doubt about “who is who”. At seven weeks, we perform the standard puppy aptitude test, which can predict temperamental tendencies quite well, but is not error-proof. We have had our share of surprises. We make sure that puppies are exposed to a wide variety of noises like a lawn mower, vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, blender, a whistle, TV etc. Once puppies are up and mobile, we take them for walks in the field and woods so they are exposed to a variety of natural scents. It is important that they are accustomed to heavy cover, wet grass, drizzle, and that they go outside when it is dark. A mild stress is beneficial at this stage.

We start to work our pups on deer blood early. Usually when we track for hunters, we end up with a freezer full of deer blood and deer organs (liver and heart). They are excellent for testing and training purposes.

Five-week-old puppies enjoying a deer liver
First, we thaw out the deer liver and we drag it across the lawn. The liver is placed at the end of line, which at the beginning is just about 20 yards long. We age the line for 15 minutes and then we test puppies individually. If you let all the pups come to the line in a group, there is just too much commotion, play and competitive racing. It takes time, but pups have to be tested individually. We score their performance on the scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best. We pay attention to such questions as:  
  • Is it nose oriented?
  • Does it concentrate or is it easily distracted?
  • What kind of line control does it show?
  • What working style does it demonstrate?
  • Can it finish the line without help?
  • How does it react to the liver or other deer parts at the end?
We do this kind of conditioning/testing around two-four times a week. Notes and records are kept on each puppy’s progress. The scent line gets longer and is aged more with every week. One can say a lot about the puppy by the time it is 12 weeks old, not just its natural tracking ability, but also its intelligence, focus, courage, sensitivity to noise, self control. At the end of the testing session we let all the puppies play with the deer hide and observe them as a group and how individual puppies interact within the group. We watch if the pup is possessive of the hide. Does it growl at other pups? Is it determined to claim the hide as its own or does it walk away from it under pressure from other puppies?

What kind of performance would we score as a ”10”? We would like to see an intense interest in the scent of deer blood. A puppy should be able to figure out pretty quickly that there is a line of scent i.e. scent leads from point A to point B, and be able to follow it. If a puppy gets off line, it should be able to correct itself and get back on it. We like a relatively calm and slow pup, not a speed demon that overruns its nose all the time. Focus and intensity are very important. A pup that gets very easily distracted by other things around and cannot focus on the track is a rather poor prospect. We like to see a pup showing interest and some aggressiveness towards the parts of deer left at the end of line. The pup that acts fearful or is turned off by them does not score very well. Not all good tracking dogs are intensely interested in the “find”. There are some that just love tracking and do not care much about what they find at the end of line, but they should not be afraid of a piece of deer hide.

Some pups are very precocious and at 9-12 weeks show an amazing aptitude. There are also some that, even though not precocious, show a steady progress. And then, occasionally, there are puppies that do not show any promise at all and in this case, we sell them as pets.

In a 2002 litter, one of the six pups was apprehensive when approaching the deer organs and hide, and even though he tried to follow the line, he was all over the place and was getting distracted very easily. At 14 weeks, we sold him as a pet and received a letter from the buyer few weeks later: "The last week with Gipper has been just great. He is eating well, playing boldly, and only showing occasional stubbornness on the leash. He takes to the water very well, and has seen and smelled his first deer. I think the only thing limiting his tracking ability is his concentration--he gets distracted very easily." Most likely, this lack of focus will stay with Gipper for a long time to come.

We keep in touch with the buyers and we get a lot of feedback on the dogs we have sold. This really helps to evaluate our breeding decisions. Since we, ourselves, can only work with few dogs at a time, we rely on what we hear back from the hunters. In many cases, we make a hard decision not to keep the best dog for ourselves because we know we would not be able to realize the full potential of the dog. Such a dog would be better off with a hunter, where it would be the only dog and would get a lot of work. In cases like this, we usually arrange to keep breeding rights on the dog and ask not to neuter/speay the pup.

The testing system described is not carved in stone; it evolves constantly. We have not invented it all by ourselves – it is derived from what we have learned from others plus our own experience. It has been serving us rather well. The records are also very helpful when it comes to planning future litters.

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