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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Jack Russell Terriers as Blood Trackers

© John Jeanneney, October 2008

We get quite a few inquiries about Jack Russell Terriers over the phone or by e-mail. Are they good tracking dogs? Should I train mine to find wounded deer?

Russells have recently acquired quite a reputation as tracking dogs. This is based largely on the fact that they are used by professional hunters in Africa to find shot game for their bowhunting clients. If an antelope doesn’t go down within sight, a few Russells are turned loose on the hot line. They quickly find the animal dead, or if alive, they hold it at bay so that it can be finished off.

Some of these African critters, like the big gemsbok, have long, lance-like horns that they can use with precision to skewer the attacking dogs. It’s dangerous work for the terrier and many of them are killed before they learn to have some caution. The Russell has a heart as big as his head, and is not by nature a cautious dog.

This use of Jack Russells works on the plains game of Africa. The animals are generally shot by bowhunters out of blinds as they come in to drink at water holes. The guides and the terriers are close by and ready to go. This is very different from the use of cold-nosed tracking dogs in North America where they are used only when necessary and generally many hours after the deer, elk or bear has been shot. The question is: Does the wide use of Jack Russells on plains game in Africa prove that they are going to be useful over here where our conditions and hunting traditions are so different. I have my doubts, and I have some experiences to back up my concerns.

About twenty years ago I owned a small, very good Jack Russell. Banner weighed eleven pounds, and I used him mainly for underground work on woodchucks, often called groundhogs. There were also some coons and a fox. One summer I took enough groundhogs to seriously reduce my dog feed bills. Teddy Moritz’s column, “Working Dachshunds” gives you a good picture of how small dogs, with the right attitude, can take out a lot of nuisance groundhogs and offer some very good sport.

I had plenty of fun with Banner until one night when I was coon hunting with my Black Mouth Cur. Banner had come along for exercise; he lagged behind a couple of hundred yards, investigating something. Then I heard him yelp, and a coyote gave his chattering laugh. When I rushed back to the spot, there was nothing to be seen but some of Banner’s white hair on the ground. I searched for several days but never found a trace of him.

Anyway, before Banner disappeared he taught me quite a bit about the breed. I don’t base my conclusions about any breed upon one individual dog, but Banner’s underground skills helped me get to know a number of Jack Russell groundhog hunters, who used to come up to work the horse country near where I lived. Teddy Moritz would join us with her mini-dachshunds. The small dogs, dachshunds and little Banner, really held the hunt together. The area was full of groundhogs whose dens made the fields and pastures treacherous for horses and their red coated riders of the Millbrook Hunt. This was during the period when coyotes were just beginning to filter into the Mid Hudson Valley area, and before these invaders largely cleaned out the groundhogs.

I saw a number of Russells work, and game they were. They would battle and dig under ground, and they had no quit. But they didn’t seem to have much in the line of nose. After all, the breed had been developed in England primarily for underground work, with a little rat killing on the side. One of the problems of groundhog hunting was deciding which dens were occupied so we could send down a small dog to locate and work the chuck. If the groundhog could be located and harassed, he wouldn’t be able to dig away. Then we could dig down to the spot with shovels so that bigger, stronger dogs could draw and kill the chuck.

The best dogs to show what dens had a chuck in them were the dachshunds. My tracking wirehaired dachshunds excelled at this. They would come up to a den entrance that a Russell had checked out with little interest. With a finer nose the dachshund could tell that the den was occupied, and then the fun would begin.

All this reinforced the impression that I had gained from trying to tree squirrels and coon hunt with Banner. It seemed to me that Jack Russells didn’t have such great noses for either air scenting or ground scenting, Certainly they had better eyesight than the dachshunds; they could see a squirrel twitch high in a tree, but they had neither the nose nor the patience to work out an old, cold line.

I talked this over with the then president of the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association to which I belonged at the time. He was certainly an experienced fox hunter, and he didn’t agree at all with my opinions. “Russells have excellent noses”, he said. As proof he told me a story of hunting foxes. The terriers had bolted a fox; it came out of one den, ran about 50 feet and down into another den. The Russell came out of the den shortly after the fox and then tracked it into the second den. “That proves something about the terrier’s nose”, said the President. Does it? Obviously these Russell folks were living in a scenting dog world very different from my own.

Sometimes I wonder if Jack Russells and their owners don’t have a character trait in common. Both are confident that they can do just about anything. Jack Russells can certainly track easy, wounded deer, but they are not the dog of choice on a tough scent line.

Banner, a Jack Russell Terrier who excelled underground


Anonymous said...

Let me tell you about my dog Ghost. He's a larger Jack Russell, actually I believe him to be a Parson Russell Terrier of not part Patterdale Terrier as well, He's all white (except for brown spots on his skin, but not his fur!) and a "smooth coat". He's got one icy blue eye, one brown. He's a bit overweight so he's just shy of 26 pounds, his lean weight is somewhere in the 22-23lb range. Well, he's got a really good nose. I'll tell you how I know. I live in an apartment but walk my dog several times a day. However, he doesn't walked for about 12-14 hours during the night, when he sleeps. Well, one night I was out having a smoke on my balcony which overlooks the parking lot. We had just gotten back from out evening walk. It was drizzling lightly and I saw a black cat run across the parking lot under a piece of wood that was leaning against the building. I then watched the cat run from the wood off the property as it wasn't staying dry I guess. It rained throughout the night. The next morning, I walked him and as we crossed the patch the cat took to the wood, he honed in on it like a slot car. I let him pull me and he followed that scent for blocks. He eventually got distracted by some squirrels as we were walking but he tracked the cat with his nose to the ground for over a mile and I know this because we followed the exact path the cat took off the property and down the street.

Another example, we were walking one night through the park, it was dark and the grass needed to be cut. It was windy and cold too. As we were walking he stopped suddenly and before I could even turn around I heard a squeak. He had plucked a mouse from up out of the grass. There's no way he saw it, it was nearly pitch black.

Another thing he's really good at is honing in on where stuff is, using is nose. My wife has this pink teddy bear. She doesn't sleep with it or anything, she just likes it. Well, apparently Ghost likes it too. No matter where we put it, he seems to know where it is even when it he can't see it. There's no particular reason why he should be able to single this stuffed bear out except for the fact it has a cotton rope around it's neck that he likes because the end is frayed and bushy. No matter where we put it or try to hide it, he'll "point" towards it, even when it's up high, and try to scratch at the various closets, trying to get it.

He's done dozens of things that lead me to believe he's got a really good nose. He can smell the difference between an unopened can or corn and an unopened can of sardines, for instance. If I put two cans down, he always chooses the can that has some sort of meat in it over the vegetable. And if I put down to unopened cans of vegetables, he just walks away. My wife didn't believe me until i showed her and he's even able to pick out the meat when I peel the labels and wash the cans with hot water and Dawn dish soap. It's not the shape either, because he'll pick out chili from vegetables with he same size/shape of can.

Sometimes, it's even a bit uncanny. For instance, he can be in any other room in the house, dead asleep but he can "smell" when I'm getting ready to go out, no matter how quiet I try to be or if the TV or radio is blaring. I think he can smell my wallet being moved or my shoes. And it's not like I'm using cologne or deodorant just before I go out or anything.

I'm diabetic and he knows when my blood sugar drops or gets to high. He licks my face like a crazy dog if it's high and I'll check my sugar and sure enough, it'll be high. When it's low, his reaction is a bit different-- he'll "nibble" at me, not hurting but sort of the same nibble dogs do when they use their teeth to scratch an itch or get at a flea. My wife and I have never trained his to do any of these things and at first we didn't notice some of the stuff he does but eventually we noticed a pattern. He's a very quiet dog and even though he's only 2 years old, he's a very serious and stoic dog. Nothing fazes him. He's as loving as he is demanding.

He's always watching, always listening and always sniffing. His name is Ghost we got him from a shelter in TX and he'd be named The Ever-Vigilant White Ghost of Justice if my wife would let me.

Anonymous said...

I would respectfully disagree. I run a commercial hunting operation on my family's ranch in deep South Texas and use my Jack "Tex" for all tracking duties. He is a variation of the breed called an "Irish Shorty", he's a little shorter and longer than a standard jack, but weighs 22 lbs and solid as a rock with jaws like a pit! He is 19 months old and as of right now has been on 23 trails, successfully locating the wounded deer 19 of those times. Just 3 days ago I had a hunter barely graze a buck in the brisket, the shot resulted in only 15 or 20 white hairs attached to a pencil eraser sized piece of hide. Tha was it, no blood, no bone, no fat, no nothing. I put "Tex" on the trail 13 hours later not expecting much, boy was I surprised! He trailed the deer for nearly 1000 yards through thick brush before jumping him in a mesquite mott, he then bayed the 220 lbs buck who was barely wounded for several minutes until I could get there and dispatch the buck. This dog also retrieves doves for me and will hunt anything I ask him too. Once had a friend say " Tex wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees a lion!" Irishn Shorty Jack hell of a dog!

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

It sounds like Jack is an excellent tracking/hunting dog!

Anonymous said...

Mine sniffs out crawdads in river rocks.........

Unknown said...

I have a half jack and terrier mixed great ranch dog he weighs 17 pounds and hard as a rock his name is Buddy he like Tex looks in the mirror and not afraid of anything will track and go get my doves for me never taught him to go retrieve my birds.

Unknown said...

I have to also disagree, I have been running hounds of all kinds since I was a kid, I have been running JRT's now for twenty years and own and operate a game recovery service as well as I hunt them on coon, squirrel, dove, quail, ground hog( and I sure as hell never had to have a bigger dog kill anything for them)a lot of the problem is that JRT's require training to use their noses and I would gladly put mine up against any hound out there, they are small strong, smart and can go where larger hounds can not go, mine work "cold" and "hot" tracks, they work it out. I will argue this point or haul my dogs to wherever it takes to make you eat your words. in short 90% of the problem is the trainer not the dog!!!