A blood-trailing dog is precisely what the name describes—a dog that will unerringly follow a blood trail (often just the foot scent) left by a wounded animal, usually a deer, though these dogs are used to locate a variety of big game including exotic species.
Blood-trailing, as a specialized form of animal recovery, has long been an integral part of the European big game hunting tradition. Although not as widespread in North America, the use of blood-trailing dogs to locate mortally wounded game is gaining momentum in the United States and Canada. Blood-trailing’s European heritage is clearly evident in some of the breeds favored for tracking: Wachtelhunds (German spaniels), Jagterriers (hunting terriers), European wirehaired dachshunds (not the American pet variety), German-bred drahthaars (in the United States this breed is used mainly as an upland gun dog) and occasionally German shepherds (trained as Shutzhunds). U.S. blood-trailers encompass these breeds, but also include little-known dogs that are uniquely American, such as the various curs or feists (treeing, mountain and black-mouthed curs), Catahoula dogs, blue Lacys and other regional breeds developed in rural areas. Then there are dogs familiar to all of us: Jack Russell terriers, Labrador and golden retrievers, the occasional German shorthair and hounds such as beagles and bloodhounds.
A list this size suggests that a blood-trailer can be any dog that sounds interesting, especially if you happen to own one that shows an aptitude for tracking, whether it be a pet or hunting dog. But it isn’t that simple. For one thing, some of these breeds are unusual in the United States and difficult to obtain except by importation. Others are dogs you might not want to own; by that I mean they were developed to meet specific needs and might not fit into a typical sportsman’s lifestyle. A major factor, especially with the upland bird and retrieving breeds and the working hounds, is you don’t want to create a deer-tracker unless it’s a single-purpose dog. The last thing you want to do is encourage your ruffed grouse, quail or pheasant dog to trail deer. Same thing with a trained rabbit hound; a deer-tracking beagle isn’t a good thing. A case could be made that a nonslip retriever—a waterfowl dog—could be successfully trained to track wounded deer and never be in a position to run them. Another gun-dog issue involves breeds, such as pointers and setters, that hunt with high heads. A good blood-trailing dog is one that puts its nose to the ground.
A reasonable question is why would a hunter want a specifically trained blood-trailer when he’s restricted to just one deer each season? Under most conditions, sportsmen in states that allow the harvest of a single deer would have a hard time justifying the training and maintenance of a dog on the chance he might need it to locate a wounded animal. However, in view of burgeoning deer populations, many states now issue multiple deer tags. Combine the possibility of several in-state deer with the large number of sportsmen who hunt in more than one state and a blood-trailing dog begins to make sense, particularly when that dog does double-duty as a family companion.
Given the right breed, a blood-trailing dog can integrate easily into daily household affairs. And that ability to thrive as a companion is one reason why breeds such as the wirehaired dachshund and Jack Russell terrier have become popular as personal blood-trailing dogs (see sidebar). They’re small but quite sturdy, require limited physical maintenance, are easily transported and are people-oriented. Both breeds tend to be strong-willed and require control and exercise—Jack Russells in particular are high-energy dogs—but respond to a fair, balanced training program. On the whole, these hardy dogs blend tracking skills and no-quit drive on a trail with a family-friendly personality. Indeed, bowhunters can have it all in one small, dynamic package.
A potential restriction that sportsmen should factor into a decision on whether to invest in the purchase and training of a blood-trailing dog is does their primary deer hunting state or states allow the use of dogs to track wounded big game? Currently, there are approximately 20 states that in one form or another permit tracking dogs to trail wounded deer. Some states are clear about blood-trailing’s illegality, others have certain limitations, and in a few the law is cloudy. Be sure you’re on firm legal ground before putting a dog on a deer’s blood trail.
Developing a blood-trailing dog isn’t as complex as training an upland bird or waterfowl hunter, but it requires persistence and concentration by the animal and patience on the part of the handler. True blood-trailers are usually worked under the hands-on control of their owner—a requirement in most states that permit tracking deer—on a long lead or a check cord that won’t tangle in brush.
Although training methods vary among handlers, a generic program begins by laying out a short, straight, heavy blood trail (any type of blood will do, whether from game or a meat processing plant) of 10-20 feet with a treat—pieces of a hot dog work well—at the end. Using a check cord or lead, bring your dog near the trail’s beginning and point to it with your finger to drop the dog’s nose to the blood. Give the command “Find” or “Track,” then encourage the dog to walk along the trail, following it with its nose, until the dog reaches the treat.
A key training element is to always have something for the dog to find, a reward, if it successfully reaches the trail’s end. Along with a suitable dog’s genetic inclination to track, rewards and plenty of praise build desire. Each day, give the dog new and longer trails to follow. As the dog gains proficiency, increase the difficulty of the trails by using less blood laid out over rough ground with obstacles like logs, brush and creeks. Add turns to the trail and use small blood spatters, allowing them to age several hours before bringing your dog to them.
Once a dog is consistently following man-made trails, you can begin to work it on the real thing, whether that’s small game shot for the purpose or actual big game. The bottom line is to get your dog on as many blood trails as possible while it’s learning the job. Most bowhunters know a fairly wide circle of kindred spirits who’d be happy to let a young dog work on wounded or downed deer.
In the years ahead, it’s likely more states will legalize blood-trailing as an effective, humane means of recovering wounded or lost game. Whether in Maine spruce bogs, northern Midwest big timber or on sprawling archery-only Texas game ranches, blood-trailers are proving their worth.