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Friday, August 21, 2009

Labs as deer trackers

by John Jeanneney, Full Cry August 2008

The origins of the Labrador retriever breed actually go back to Newfoundland in the 1800s; it was the intelligence, trainability and willingness to please of these early imports that made them gun dogs of choice in Great Britain. Back in North America they had been developed from a gene pool of dogs that were truly versatile in multiple tasks on land and in the ocean.

Today the Lab is more than just a bird dog. Of all the breeds registered in the USA the Lab ranks first, and this is in good part due to his good temperament and suitability as a family dog. This popularity has exposed the breed to the expected risks. Unfortunately, a good proportion of registered Labs have been modified, we could say “dumbed down”, for the purposes of show and pet breeders who could care less about hunting. In these suburbanized dogs the original toughness and can-do drive have been lost. On the other hand, the responsiveness and intelligence of the original Lab has led to some good things too without threatening the basic qualities of the breed. Labs have become the favored breed as guide dogs for the blind, search and rescue dogs and drug dogs.

In view of its origins and adaptability, it’s not surprising that the modern Lab can be highly useful as a tracker and finder of wounded big game. Hank Hearn of Vicksburg, MS demonstrated the new Lab possibilities while he was working as a hunting guide on the 27,000 acre Tara Plantation near by. In the 1980s Tara was becoming famous for its quality bowhunting for whitetail deer. In 1988 Hank took his Lab puppy J-J and began to develop him as tracker for Tara’s hunters. J-J was a highly intelligent dog out of Mississippi duck hunting stock. He was constantly with Hank, and after a few uncertain puppy attempts they both found their calling as wounded deer trackers.

J-J was a hunting dog that could do almost anything. Duck retrieving and coon hunting were minor parts of his repertoire, but by the time of his death in 1998 it was his fame as a wounded deer tracker that had spread across the South. Bo, currently the top tracking dog at Tara, is a great grandson of J-J. There are many other blood tracking Labs at work in the South that come out of J-J’s duck retriever bloodlines. Today Mississippi and Louisiana are probably the best places to look for American Lab litters from strong blood tracking backgrounds.

Al Wade in Bogalusa, LA has a chocolate Lab named Scout that is carrying on the Hearn/J-J tradition with modern equipment. This Lab shows the characteristic balance of responsiveness and initiative that is so important in practical tracking. He knows what Al wants, but he will override Al’s instructions if that’s what it takes to find the deer.

Scout has been wearing one of the new Garmin GPS units for dogs, and this turns out to be very handy when the wounded deer goes a long way, off lead in the dense cover of the Delta. Generally Al starts Scout on the right line by working him on the long lead. Then when the cover gets impossibly thick, or when he jumps the live wounded deer, he turns Scout loose. The GPS allows Al and Scout to always stay in touch no matter how poor the visibility becomes.

Scout, a chocolate Lab, with one of his finds.

One of Al’s posts on the United Blood Trackers web site gives us a sense of how he and Scout work together to find a deer. This particular call was over in Alabama, and in some other ways it was not typical. Expect the unexpected!

“The hunter told me that he had shot a doe and that it was dead, but he couldn't find it because the rape (a plant like a turnip green) was too high. I told him no problem; we would take Scout and let him wind it. I figured since the deer was dead I didn't need that tracking vest with the gun, the gps, the spear, etc. I did grab my head light, put Scout in his vest and put his beeper collar on. When we got to the spot where the hunter thought it was standing, I let Scout go. That rape was knee deep and I could see how the hunter couldn't see the deer. Scout was working around pretty close and suddenly he started working straight down the field. The hunter said "it wasn't that far down." Does this sound familiar? He seemed to have a good mark for where he shot it so I called Scout back. It didn't take long before Scout was headed back the same way.

This time I let him go and within a couple of minutes he stopped in the center of the field about 100yds down. When Scout finds a deer he stops so I headed that way. The closer I got the more excited he became, and he was jumping around. Suddenly two sets of eyes. I yelled back to the hunter that it was still alive. About the time this came out of my mouth the doe got up and headed towards the woods with Scout in close pursuit. The deer was almost to the wood line when Scout caught up to it and tackled it. They cut a flip and the deer got up first, took off again and hit the woods. I was closing in and got in the woods just in time to see another take down. This time the deer stayed down and Scout started baying it. I called Scout back, approached the deer and got close enough to see that it had been hit high on the neck and wasn't bleeding much. That's right about the time she took off again. Again Scout goes for her and caught her quick.”

My special interest in Labs and my long-time obsession with all tracking dog breeds led me back to Europe this fall after snow ended tracking work here in up-state New York. One of my objectives was to see the work of an outstanding Lab in the Vosges Mountains of France right on the German border. I took ten wounded boar calls there with Patrice Stoquert and Raoul, his seven-year-old yellow Lab of Scottish bloodlines. Patrice is a French forester, who tracks back and forth across the border, speaks German and is equally at home in the forests of both countries. The Germans call him Hundeflusterer, dog whisperer, because of his ability to communicate with dogs.

Patrice Stoquert’s Raoul, a yellow Lab

What I saw of Patrice and Raoul re-enforced what I had already learned from 32 years of practical tracking in New York State. Nose is important, but the quality of intelligence is even more so. A dog that uses his nose intelligently on an old, cold line of ground scent can be more effective than a dog with bloodhound quality nose lacking intuition and persistence to search or “dig” for the right scent beyond the point of loss.

Getting a good start on the right line is an important part of tracking. When the wounded animal is a wild boar, this can be especially difficult. Boars, when shot on drives, are usually running in a group so there is individual scent from many different pigs lingering in the same place. Also wild boars, even when shot with big center fire rifles, generally don’t bleed very much. Patrice had a unique way of starting his Lab in these cases with the scent of many animals and little or no blood.

He would release Raoul at the general hit site and then let him cast slowly in a 100 meter circle as he stood and watched. When Raoul found the right scent line he would sit down and bark. If Patrice did not approach him quickly enough, Raoul would go to Patrice and nuzzle the tracking collar and leash in Patrice’s hand. Clearly this dog understood that the cold tracking itself was to be done on the long leash. It was Raoul’s job to follow the line; Patrice’s function was to observe and interpret what little blood was there to be seen.

I’m not suggesting that this is typical Lab tracking work. Stoquert is a gifted handler, unconventional in some of his handling techniques, and it must be remembered that Raoul is a mature, experienced dog, thoroughly in tune with his human partner. Close cooperation, built on intelligence, and a close bond, are necessary in all effective tracking dogs, but the psychological make-up of the hunting Lab facilitates this.

In Europe it is customary and legal to release dogs if the wounded animal is still alive and departs from his bed in front of the dog. On larger boars, over 100 pounds, and on big red deer, the dogs act as bay dogs rather than catch dogs. Even in bay situations Raoul has taken a pounding from wild boars that are very aggressive.

Raoul mixes it up with a wounded wild sow.

I had a chance to watch Raoul track and catch a sow of about 100 pounds. She had been wounded in both front legs during a big drive in Germany. There was amazing little blood for about 300 meters to the wound bed. A whitetail, wounded in the same way, would have left much more sign. Raoul worked on lead until he jumped the sow; then once released, he caught her in a 100 meter chase. She had no tusks, but you could see that Raul was experienced and not taking unnecessary risks as he held her for the knife. He knew his game well.

I think that Hank Hearn in Mississippi and Patrice Stoquert in France would understand one another pretty well. Their own languages may be English and French, but they both speak the same dialect of “Lab”. Both men agree that responsiveness and brains are the most important things to look for in a tracking dog. Hank believes in a tough, patient duck dog sort of Lab, not the hyper field-trial type that has to be trained with heavy applications of e-collar. Patrice would agree although he uses the British Lab rather than the American type.

Tracking wounded big game is not a command and obey exercise like the classic American retriever trial. It’s a matter of working in partnership with your dog.


retrieverman said...

Golden retrievers actually were originally used to track wounded deer as their side job.

I have a story from Guisachan, the estate where goldens were developed, where a red deer stag was wounded and it leaped into a bog. A golden retriever named "Saturn" was on its trail, and he'd been trained really well as a grouse retriever.

It was his first deer, so he jumped into bog and then tried to retrieve the deer--all while leashed and harnessed for tracking!

Most goldens have really good noses. Indeed, training them often involves trying to get them to mark rather than follow their noses.

British working Labs are a good choice, too, because they are bred for "game finding" ability, which means their noses are rather good.

I think it would be wonderful if we had tests for blood tracking for retrievers.

kim said...

hi i am kim from denmark I have spent many years Labrador to blodt track
my Labrador and I have over 200 deer track, each year,
and they are amazing 40 hours old track with 1 / 10 liters of 1 kilometer, no problem
the oldest track in carrying out together with laradore was 4 days and Labrador kn also chasing and pulling them down is wounded but will try to run away.
I have with my labrador won the Danish Elite Track Championships, it is a championship will be settled every year, and in all the years it has held Labradors are the dog breed that has won the most times, i could visit me and my dogs but website or email me
you can have a go track days

Housecarl said...

Thank you Jolanta and John for all your work with deer tracking dogs you have many supporters here in Britain and Europe.

I would like to introduce myself, my name is Steve and I’m a deer tracker from England. I use my 19 month old Labrador bitch Mildred to track deer. So far so good, we are tracking blood trails up to 48 hours old.

Many British hunters use Labradors for both game and deer recovery and have done so for many years. I’m using Mildred exclusively for deer and training her using the Danish tracking system. Labradors are held in high regard by many Danish trackers as they are capable of tracking over great distances in all weathers and can also be trained to pull down wounded deer without any hint of aggression or being overly possessive of the deer carcass.

I hope that you can find the time to come over to Great Britain and give some tracking lectures. I am certain that you would be very warmly received.

Many thanks Steve.F

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

Hi Kim,
Thank you for the link! I took a look and was impressed. I will need to spend more time on the website and its links and translate it through google. I'll let you know if I have any questions.

Jolanta Jeanneney said...

Hi Steve,
I really appreciate your kind words. If you have any pictures and stories about your Lab, we will be happy to post them on the blog. Have you read the article on Labradors by John Phillips? They are very popular in some parts of the US. Tara Wildlife uses them almost exclusively. See

I wish we could come to the UK but it is not likely. It is just two of us here - breeding, taking care of 12 dogs, working them, tracking, publishing, blogging, being involved in workshops and clubs etc etc. So much to do and never enough time!

Housecarl said...

Hi Jolanta,

Thanks for the information on Tara Wildlife and John Phillips. I will send you one of my blogs once I have something interesting to write. I train Mildred on Muntjac deer they are very small but tough little deer and difficult to find even when shot cleanly.

Kim the Danish tracker is my mentor and with his help I have set up my own deer tracking Labrador kennel, 'Kennel Housecarl'.

Now that I have found this website I hope to write a few blogs and learn from John and yourself and your fellow trackers the American system of tracking and the various breeds you use.

Many thanks and kindest regards Steve.F