Hunting Dog Articles

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    Posted: 08 Sep 2017 at 4:27pm
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Under this subject title I shall post a series of articles I have written for a New Zealand hunting magazine.      

The first article offers some valuable advice when selecting a puppy.

Selecting The Right Puppy
By Herb Spannagl

By the time you read this article spring is just around the corner.    It is during that time that more puppies are born than at any other time of the year.   It is also a good time to buy a puppy that with a bit of training will become your useful hunting partner when next bird shooting season comes around.   In the meantime you can use what is left of winter to do your homework because a dog is a long-term commitment and the decisions you make now will have a major bearing on how successful your hunting future will be.

So if you are in the market for a gundog puppy you will probably fall into one these three categories.     First time dog owner, experienced dog man replacing an old dog or someone wanting to switch breeds.    While a lot of my advice will be generic each of you will look at it differently.

First Things First
Take for instance the first timer.   Before worrying about specifics such as what sex or what colour you need to resolve what breed of dog is the right one for your personal circumstances.   

Ask yourself:
What game is my main target?
How much room have I got in my car or where I live?
How much money can I spend on the initial purchase and subsequent upkeep?
How much regular exercise can I give my dog?
Can I handle the hassle of a ***** coming on heat every six months?

The type of game you hunt should be the chief determinator of what breed of hunting dog you should aim for not what might be the latest fad.   

As an example if you are mainly after ducks than my own “no risk” choice would be a Labrador.    It is, and probably always will be, New Zealand’s number one duck dog.    Labs are big but because of their popularity are (kg for kg) the cheapest hunting dog on the market.   Surprisingly despite their size Labs are also fairly cheap to keep.   They can literally thrive on the smell of an oily rag.   But beware; Labs are typical garbage cans that at times of plenty find hard to stop eating.   Without regular exercise a Lab can easily grow into a barrel.   Of course there are other water dog breeds around but remember this:
1.You are selecting from a very small gene pool and because of this the breed could be saddled with some generic faults that hard to pick.   Skin allergy is one that I have experienced with one of my dogs.   As I found out later this condition is quite common with that particular breed.   It is a lifelong curse that isn’t just annoying for the animal it is also hard on your wallet because in general vets tend to be dearer than your GP.
2.You probably wont have any experience with this breed to compare it with others.
3.There can be all sorts of reasons why this breed isn’t so popular.    One more reasons to do your research first before you get too knotted on a lesser known breed.

Replacing an old dog
For those of you who need to start afresh, perhaps after your trusted mate has grown too old, the situation will be slightly different.   It is well known that among hunters, breed loyalty is legendary.    That’s why I assume that you will want to stick with the breed you already know so much about.   Your main concerns will be to find the best bloodlines and once you have tracked down a good breeder how to pick your next champ.    

Finding good field bloodlines of gun dogs (as opposed to top show dogs) isn’t easy.    I am hesitant to advise you to seek out breeders with strong field trial connections, since when I took part in the trial circus I have seen some dogs win as the result of relentless training rather than natural ability.   On the other hand there were dogs with great hunting spirit drowning in penalty points simply because they were too much of a handful on trial day.       

I am even less inclined to rely on the opinions of commercial breeders or hunters with an occasional litter.   Being in the $ business the former will overstate the positive and definitely understate the negative.    The amateur breeder on the other hand can be so biased about his dog that he is incapable of forming a fair judgement.   Perhaps the safest course of action is to listen to what other “non dog” hunters have to say about the performance of someone else’s dogs.   So tread carefully, keep your head and take your time.

Changing Breeds
In some respects the hardest person to advise is the man who wants to switch breeds.   Because of the legendary breed loyalty you will need to have a good reason why you want to take this drastic step.    Did you have a bad specimen of a particular breed, have you become unduly influenced by others or have your circumstances really changed to the point where another breed is the logical answer?

A good example would be if you moved to another district where instead of waterfowl the principle game species are rabbits and upland birds.    Imagine running your old lab over the parched hills of Otago in search of Chakor.   A more appropriate breed would be one of the European all rounders or a straight English Pointer or Setter.

Getting Down To Business
Once you have got the above-mentioned questions out of the way you will eventually face the task of selecting the right puppy from a litter of squirming juvenile dog flesh?
So what should you look for?   Here is a short list of do’s and don’ts of puppy selection.
As I have said in a previous article never buy the last of a litter or select on the basis of colour or be taken in by that cute patch over the right eye.   And while we are on about such cosmetic attributes never take your wife, girl friend or kids when you make such an important selection.    They are suckers for “looks” and will pressure you at a time when you are not sure yourself.   Much better ask another hunter with solid gundog experience along for a second opinion.    Two sets of eyes are better than one.   If nothing else you can always blame your mate if you both picked a dud.     Picking winners among pups is a bit like picking future champs at the annual yearling sales.    First come the proven bloodlines then a thorough inspection of the attributes that are important for future top performance.   With a well-bred gundog the desirable attributes are a good temperament, keenness, nose, courage.   You will notice that unlike equine conformation these attributes are not so visible to the eye; even less so in a six week old puppy.    At that age puppies don’t even look like dogs.   Picking a winner remains a bit of a lottery.

Take Your Time
There is a good reason why you should make your selection from the whole litter.   Allow plenty of time to observe the pups at play, at feeding time, their reaction to strange things and their behaviour to each other.    Ask if you can be alone with the pups so as not get sidetracked with irrelevant conversation or sales talk.     

This is what I look for when selecting a young puppy.
The most self-assured of the litter.    This puppy knows what it wants and does not muck around getting it.   If that means a bit of bullying than so be it.   This is not the time to get complicated about relationships.   In the natural world dominance matters.    However, be aware that a dominant dog will be harder to train and it requires a equally dominant person to bring it under control.   If you don’t fall into this category choose a puppy that has a more middle of the road temperament.   That is why you should observe the litter for a while before you settle on an individual.
Frequent fighting for no good reason could indicate a bad temperament or even deep down cowardliness.   Since I have already been down this track any sign of such behaviour gives me the frighteners.   Stay well clear as this could spell long-term trouble.
I like a friendly puppy that comes willingly towards me when I crouch down.    On the other hand I mark it down if it retreats with a worried look?
The less a puppy reacts to loud noise such as clapping hands or slapping of a rolled up newspaper the better it will cope with the introduction to firearm noise or other distractions.   The opposite is also often the case.
I like to observe how puppies behave out of their familiar run.    I prefer the adventurous, the explorer, the one that uses its tiny nose to fathom out what this new world is all about. Note how they behave on their own in unfamiliar situations.    You can learn a lot about their self-confidence.
It is very impressive when a pup carries things around but remember most pups do that and besides in most gundogs retrieving is strongly hereditary and can definitely be taught where it is not.    Don’t let this endearing behaviour overshadow your observations of other more important traits.

Don’t Forget The Parents
At that age picking a winner will always be a big gamble but following the above advise will increase your chance that your selection will turn out all right.   For additional peace of mind I should like to pass on a few pearls of wisdom I once got from a beau of the Viennese social world.   His advise: “If you want to know how a girl will turn out then have a good look at the mother”.    I can’t say if the same applies to fathers and boys.    It probably does since genetics govern all life on earth.

However un-PC and unrelated as all this may seem, looking at a puppy’s parents should be an important element of your selection process.   On an adult dog you can easily see a bad back, hip displacement, legs that don’t hang straight, an overshot lower jaw, bad teeth, an atypical coat, open paws, signs of skin allergy and a score of other faults that are impossible to pick at an early age.   Don’t neglect this valuable opportunity because as they say: “The apple never falls far from the tree”.
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POINTING OR INDICATING DEER?
Herb Spannagl

There can be little doubt that for hunting deer in our dense bush a good dog is such a valuable asset that it will significantly increase one’s hunting success when compared with a hunter stalking on his own.   In this context the most common hunting method is “pointing” or “indicating” as it is also sometimes referred to. By logical extension there is a widespread belief that the best dogs for such a purpose should be members of the various pointer breeds.   Why? Because their natural instinct is to “Point”.    Blinding logic, or is it?   Do dogs point deer and is that really what we want them to do?   To answer that question let me first explain how a pointer works and how it behaves when it points on game.

The classic pointer hunts into the oncoming wind in order to locate game by air scent. The most efficient way to cover the hunting territory is by freely quartering or zigzagging in front of the hunter.   At some stage the fine nosed dog will get a whiff of game located somewhere ahead.    Now here comes the rub; to be successfully pointed, the game must be stationary.   Most upland game such as pheasants, quail, hares and rabbits prefer to lie low, hoping that the danger will pass.   When danger comes too close, they bolt.   This tolerance to approaching danger, which is also called flight distance, varies with individual game species and with hunting pressure.    So here we have a game bird crouched low to the ground trying to make itself as invisible as possible to the approaching dog.   The dog on the other hand homes in on the invisible scent that is constantly wafting towards it.   In the wild when confronted with such a scene dingos, feral dogs, foxes and coyotes hesitate briefly for a final check before they jump and grab.   In our modern pointer breeds this natural instinct has been so extended that under the right circumstances this hesitation can last a very long time and becomes the “Point”.   While “on point” a pointer behaves as if it were in a trance.   It becomes so mesmerised that one can literally lift its hind quarter clear off the ground and put it down again without it breaking the point.    It is a raw instinct a pointer is born with but at what distance it starts to freeze depends on the flight distance of the game and the dog’s experience to adapt to it.

So how does all this compare with the so-called deer pointer?    However, before we make such an informed comparison we also need to clearly understand how a deer dog works.

In bush hunting (like in all hunting) we need to hunt into the wind to prevent deer prematurely becoming aware of our presence.   In dense cover the fine nosed dog   will smell deer at a considerable distance and long before the animal is sighted.   The hunter becomes aware of this by watching the dogs behaviour, in particular its pronounced sniffing of the air.   Unlike the free ranging bird pointer the deer dog must stay with the hunter at all times and it is therefore the hunter (not the dog) that decides when and how far to advance towards the origin of the scent.   The dog merely indicates whether or not the hunter is still on track towards the target animal.   Sure, the deer will be stationary, not because they are lying low or trying to hide or that the dog has fixed them to the spot but because they have probably heard the advancing hunter and are still undecided if the noise constitutes any danger.   The success of this stalk depends entirely on who reacts first; the hunter who has finally identified the target or the deer have had enough and have spooked prematurely?   During these final moments the dog has not only become completely superfluous but constitutes a real risk of being spotted before the hunter got a shot away.

Just imagine if the deer pointer did what a bird pointer does.   It would advance by itself and freeze at some point, irrespective whether or not the hunter has seen the deer. In a bird hunting scenario the hunter advances towards the pointing dog and it is this that causes the bird or rabbit to break.   With deer this is the last thing you want happening because it would force you to snap shoot at a heavily obscured running target. I am talking here in very general terms because in the bush a variety of situations will cause dogs to react in different ways.    However, our most common practice is for the dog to indicate deer rather than pointing them in the traditional sense.   

To show that this isn’t the only way dogs indicate large game for the hunter here is how the Scandinavian moose (elk) hunters use their elk hound or “Grahund” as the Swedes call it.   In the vast moors and coniferous forests of the north elk are only thinly spread and therefore very hard to find.   There, hunters are using the wolf like elk hound to lead them to the quarry either by homing in on the air scent or by following fresh foot scent. In reality such an approach can be very difficult if the hunter finds himself tracking in a downwind direction that is bound to give his presence away prematurely.    Then experienced hunters try to circle the moose in order to get into a more favourable upwind position or to push the animals towards a second hunter who is positioned to intercept the moving moose.   Throughout these stalking manoeuvres the dog stays connected to the hunter via a special tracking holster and a long lead. I could imagine that such a practice would be possible in our more open exotic plantation forests but have my doubts about the worth training a dog for such limited work.   

I hope the above sheds a little more light on the difference between pointing and indicating deer and gives a clearer direction of the necessary training programmes for such a valuable working dog.       

The moral of this whole story is that although traditional pointers can make great deer indicator dogs, any mongrel will indicate deer, providing it is trained to stay with the hunter.   However, be aware that indicating is only one desirable attribute.   The final package of a good deer dog contains many others, some of which I have written about in previous articles and will again cover in future issues.   

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BUSHSTALKING WITH A DOG
By Herb Spannagl

A well-trained dog is an enormous asset for the dedicated bush stalker.   With the right wind a dog’s nose can “quest” in advance the thick undergrowth for literally hundreds of meters in much the same way as radar detects objects that are beyond our normal vision.   

Despite such magic a hunting dog is really only a tool like a pair of binoculars or a rifle.    Its ultimate usefulness depends entirely on the hunter’s skill to interpret his dog’s reactions to a plethora of scents and to draw the right conclusions from the dog’s behaviour.   However, no matter how good the dog is in sniffing out deer it can’t do it if the hunter has chosen the wrong area, disregarded the direction of the wind or has little idea about the game’s daily or seasonal habits.     In short, a dog is only as good as its master.

Bush hunting is as logical as nymphing is for trout fishing.    For trout it is said that 90% of a their diet is made up of subaquatic “nymphs”.   One would not be too far off the mark to assume that about the same amount of deer tucker comes from the bush in the form of palatable seedlings, windfalls, dead leaves, bark and reachable browse.   Deer also use the bush for shelter and security so over a whole hunting year the daylight hours a deer spends in thick cover apart from browsing is even higher.    Both those facts reinforce the logic that bush hunting is well worth the effort if you want to bring home venison with a hight rate of success the whole year round.

To a novice and to many seasoned hunters the bush can be an intimidating environment.    With visibility reduced to just meters and often no view of distant landmarks the fear of getting lost holds many people back of venturing deep into the wall of green in search for the evermore-elusive deer.    If we are talking about “first things first” than this article must start with the need for good orienteering skills.    Theoretically today’s GPS technology makes this an easy task.    You can log in waypoints of previously productive areas follow the Go To programme and return to your car via the same route or by homing back on a different course.    However, when as DOC officer I used a GPS to position recreational structures in the Taranaki backcountry I became painfully aware of the soft underbelly of the GPS system and hardware.    The most obvious was that in tall bush, despite a two-meter extension aerial, it was sometimes impossible to lock onto enough satellites to get a good fix.    If you have the gadget on continuously it chews through batteries like a hungry paper shredder.   On some days or some hours the concentration and flight pattern of satellites above you is poor, adding to the problem of not receiving strong reliable signals.    Last but not least is the fact that GPS does not recognise bluffs, ravines, rivers or any other physical land features.    Unless you also use a topo map to plot a course you will need to learn to fly, walk on water and jump off high cliffs.

Understanding Deer Habits and Habitats
Understanding the habits and habitats of the deer species you are hunting is another important key to reliable success.     Red deer have different browsing habits than Fallow, Sika or Whitetail.   For all species even a smidgin of botanical nous (i.e. telling palatable plant from those shunned by deer) can point you in the general direction of where to start looking.   There are basically two forest types inhabited by deer in this country; beech forest and podocarp forest; the former often consists of even-aged stands that began life after some natural disaster such as wind throw, snow damage, fire or decease.    Depending on the stages of recovery these beech forest can be either very dense pole types where little light reaches the almost barren forest floor or more open to support an under story of shrubs and ferns, some of which are palatable.   Now that most beech forests have been depleted of nutritious plants, on their own they offer poor living conditions for deer.     Podocarp forests on the other hand are more complex and are made up of a number of tree and shrub species occupying the various layers between the canopy and the forest floor.   This greater diversity includes a greater number of palatable plant species than can be found in the various types of beech forests.   During the early stages of recovery milled over podocarp forests make excellent deer habitat as the opened canopy allows sunlight to reach the disturbed ground to stimulate new growth of palatable seedlings.   

So much for the general make-up of these generic forest habitats.    However, if you want to become a successful bush hunter you will need to be able to identify sub habitats within these forests that are particularly attractive to deer.   
Recovering slip faces contain grasses and seedlings of nearby forest trees.   
Sheltered gully heads between ridges tend to have better soils on which grow a variety of nutritious plants. They are also damper and are often the source of springs from which deer can drink.   
Throughout the beech covered North Island’s central spine one can find just below the upper bush line a belt of highly palatable Griselinia trees commonly called broadleaf.   In the warmer months deer often rest there during hottest part of the day to feed on the open tussock tops at night.
Forested limestone areas tend to support a more nutritious plant community including whiteywood, broadleaf and the larger leaved copromas.   Many trophy heads come from lime stone country.   A similar fertility gradient applies to river terraces.   Lower level terraces tend to be younger and are more fertile than older ones higher up.   During early morning and late afternoon they also become transit areas for deer to travel to and fro adjacent river flats.   

While these sub habitats are prime hunting destinations in their own right they are of little value if you don’t know where they are or if you approach them wrongly.   That is where an intimate knowledge of the terrain is invaluable.    It follows that more you hunt a particular place the better a picture you will build up of its topography and the areas most frequented by deer.   Good hunters learn from their mistakes as much as they learn from their successes.

Deer like other animals don’t feed continuously and between feeding bouts need time to digest their food.   The areas chosen to rest are not necessarily those where they feed and the reason for this is safety or more particularly the lack of it.   Preferred rest areas afford a good view of the immediate surroundings and enjoy good direct airflow including a frequent back draft that brings advance warning of approaching danger from as many directions as possible.    Radial ridges or lee sides of ridge crests provide these conditions splendidly.   Deer that have bedded down at such sites are very hard to approach undetected.   You will be seen, heard or smelled long before you get there.

All the above are the base component of my hunting strategy.   As most huts are down low I always left at daybreak or shortly after.    At that time there is a good chance of catching a lingering bonus deer on a river flat or slip but my main reason for leaving early is that at that time of the morning the cold night air is still sinking and will still be in my face as soon as I start climbing.    Unless I had decided to hunt a particular area I would watch for fresh tracks in the sand of the riverbed and or any fresh air scent my dog picked up from deer that had already entered the bush before I got there.    Deer don’t hurry in the bush and many times I have caught up with them on their way up a bush ridge by keeping my eyes open and watching my dog inhaling the descending scent.   Sometime during the morning the air will warm and begin to rise out of the valleys but by then I would have gained enough height to approach any basin or gully head from above.   What’s more the rising air would carry any deer scent with it.   My dog would register that with a questing nose and heightened interest of the presence of deer somewhere below us.   Coming from above usually puts me in a box seat.   

The more you hunt with a dog the better you will understand its reaction and behaviour when it scents.   No two dogs indicate the same way or with the same intensity but you can be certain that your dog will smell a deer long before you can.    Chances are that an inexperienced dog will initially smell and indicate possums, goats and other non-target animals as well.   The best way to wean it off such unwelcome attention is to have good control over you dog and to ignore such unwanted animals yourself.   Hopefully, in time your dog will lose interest too. Incidentally this is one training topic where the judicious use of an “electric collar” can save a lot of time and patience.

You may wonder why I have not accorded the hunting dog more prominence?   The answer is quite simple.   This is not a dog-training article but an overview of bush stalking in which the dog plays an important but nevertheless subservient part.   The dog is like a fish finder that indicates at close quarters things you can’t see.   You would not dream of launching your boat and expect the fish finder to lead you to the fish.    Neither should you blindly follow your dog from the moment you leave the hut.    The dog is merely a tool; it is up to you how to use it.
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ETHICS NEVER CHANGE
By Herb Spannagl

When you look at your dog’s uncompromising loyalty doesn’t it make you realise how easily this devotion can be corrupted and put to the wrong use? The history of hunting dogs is almost as long as the history of man.    From the hunter/gatherer ages to the present day, dogs have been inseparable partners of hunters the world over.   With some instincts vastly superior to their masters and a courage that often belies their size, dogs have been used to hunt game from as small as quail, to beasts as fearsome as lions.   What happened out there in the field was not for the faint-hearted, but curiously enough, throughout these tough times hunters have accorded game animals a special, almost religious status.   This can be seen from cave drawings, traditions, stories and artefacts on almost every continent.    

Wherever the need to hunt for food, diminished ancient hunting practices have been retained as sport with new ethics, strongly founded on the principles of fair play.    It is therefore all the more surprising that quite recently some 400000 people from one of the most civilised countries on earth should take to the streets in defence of fox hunting with hounds.    Whatever you might think of foxes, this degraded practice of running to exhaustion a largely defenceless animal and then watching the pursuing pack of hounds tear it to pieces, has been rightfully banned in almost every European country.   It is such a gross departure from the principles of fair play; those of fairly matching opponents, that it is little wonder Oscar Wilde called it “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”.   It shows how hunting can be corrupted when the dog, which is man’s most trusting hunting companion, is heartlessly exploited for such inhumane work.    

Personally speaking, I don’t think our own practice of hunting hares with packs of harriers is much better.   One has to admire the stamina of the hounds and their unfailing scenting ability but this is where my regard for this form of hunting stops.   Many of the participants of such hunts are not hunters, as I know them, nor are they very interested in what ultimately happens to the prey.   To most of them this uneven contest is merely an excuse to ride over the countryside in fancy garb imitating haughty nobility.   It is only our warped attitude to so-called introduced pests that has not brought this form of dressed-up cruelty under closer public scrutiny.    

Ethics don’t seem to mean much in certain parts of the East Coast either.    There some locals use large packs of half starved dogs to run down deer.    They ride up the valley floor releasing first one pack and then another after the tiring deer.    While I wouldn’t even call this hunting, I guess this is the local way of putting venison on the table in communities that live largely off the land.    Like meat hunting from choppers, or animal pest control, the rules of the Marquee of Shrewsbury mean zilch when you are hungry, making money, or are on a holy mission.   Yet no matter how justified some of these operations might be, ethical bottom lines must always prevail if we want to distinguish ourselves from depraved butchers.    Only recently I have heard professional goat hunters brag with some amusement how their dogs tore the “arse” out of a bailed goat.    It tells as much about the organisation they work for as about their own standing as hunters.

Superficially, pig hunting with dogs appears similarly brutal.    Pigs are run down by specially bred dogs, held fast or are bailed.   However, there the contest is more evenly matched.    This is a tough and dangerous sport. Additionally, the pursuit of pigs in this fashion is arguably a valuable cultural component of our Polynesian heritage.   The razor tusks of a cornered boar have fatally wounded many a dog.    Even sows can inflict nasty bites into anything they can get their teeth into.   Pigs are fit and often give the dogs the slip.   The terrain pigs live in is also hard on the hunter.   But above all pigs are heavy cover animals that rarely offer a clean rifle target.    To my mind pig hunters not only works hard for their pound of pork, they can never be sure how the hunt will end.   . What I am getting at is the need for fair play, for a realistic fighting chance and for ethical restraint in the sport of hunting.    It seems quite odd that animal rights groups want to ban pig hunting with dogs but say nothing about groups that run hares to exhaustion with a pack of well fed hounds.   

As this is a dog article, I have tried to distinguish between what is and what isn’t ethical use of hunting dogs.    This distinction has to be made by the human hunter rather than left to the dogs, which would simply follow their instinct to kill anyhow, anywhere.   To them ethics is just another word they don’t understand.

Proof of how important the concept of fair play is, is in the increasing concern about the safari park philosophy to hunting.   The service at these establishments might be opulent luxury but promoting on “Campbell Live” TV the gunning down of 400 pen-reared pheasants in a mad killing spree as the sport of kings shows how far commercialised hunting can degenerate.   The dog handlers who volunteer their services cannot divorce themselves from this collective shame.   Similarly driving ex deer farm stags inside fenced enclosures in front of trophy hunters is in my view nothing short of blatant abuse of innocent animals.   Not only is this commercial fraud perpetrated on gullible clients its very existence now casts a shadow of suspicion over the origin of every set of antlers, horns or tusks that are presented at trophy competitions.   No amount of glitz or lies by big name promoters can disguise this commercial perversion of an ancient culture whose safekeeping our forbearers have entrusted us with.    If Fish and Game NZ wants to be a worthy custodian of this inheritance it must not promote forms of hunting that sink to such low levels.

Like other competitive sports, hunting and fishing also has its share of swindlers and cheats.    We hear of price-winning snappers out of the freezer, twenty pointers with a hole in one ear, a trophy bull thar allegedly shot from the chopper or a super trout with a worn tail.   The people behind such scams must not be allowed to contaminate a sport that stands and falls on the ethics of fair play.   If you are left wanting in this department it matters little how good you are with the rod, rifle, bow or dogs.    The value of a trophy is inseparably linked with the effort it took to obtain it.    This could not be better demonstrated than in the following story a good friend and veteran Fjordland wapiti hunter told us on a recent fishing trip.   A guy he knew kept badgering him to have a look at several big wapiti trophies he brought back from a Mongolian hunting trip”.   Knowing how easy some of these Mongolian hunts are, my mate refused to go there.   When he was finally asked why he had not come his blunt answer was: “If you had shot a head half as good in Fjordland I would have come straight after work because I know how hard you would have worked for it”.   

To a true hunter it is not the size of the head that makes a trophy but the size of the story behind the antlers, horns or tusks.   It so very often a story of blood, sweat and tears, mixed with a little luck and the occasional sweet triumph.   Without such a pedigree the mighty rack might as well be made of fibreglass.    
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The Deer Indicator Dog
By Herb Spannagl

I left my fly camp at the first signs of daylight hoping to catch a deer grazing on one of the many slips in the Tukituki River in the Eastern Ruahines.    The first crossing was freezing cold, temporarily numbing my undercarriage.    Troja, my GSP ***** forded below me.   Once on dry land she quickly shook the water from her hide then started to draw ahead.   I stopped, which caused her to look back.    With my left index finger I pointed to my left knee.    She looked at me with a cocked head and settled back into her hunting position without any further prompting.   Not a word had been spoken.   Our progress was hurried, yet at the same time quiet and measured.    Any deer still in the open would not stay there for much longer.

In the morning stillness I could feel just enough air in my face to know that we were hunting into the wind.   I rounded each bend in the river only after quickly glassing all open spaces before me. Majestic scenery but unfortunately without any sign of deer.    Our scent from yesterday must be keeping the deer on their toes.    On the fourth flat the dog started to sniff the shingled ground.    Before us were the fresh tracks of several deer.    I followed them to a patch of sand where I could make out the prints of a hind, yearling and fawn.    Troja couldn’t keep her nose off the tracks.     From her reaction I knew that they were super fresh and that the deer had passed only minutes before.

I followed her questing nose to a point where the deer had jumped onto a low bank and entered the bush.    Rising above us was a spur with a well-worn deer track.    The fresh marks were clearly visible.   No question about it, the deer were slowly heading uphill without stopping.   It was worth a try to catch up with them before the wind turned.     For the first two hundred meters the spur was fairly open allowing me to crack the pace without any fear of spooking the animals.    After that it flattened out and became overgrown with pepperwood and sapling beech.    Halfway through the thicket the dog started to wind strongly.   I slowed right down looking through every gap for a patch of deer hair, a shape or just a flicker of an ear.    Nothing yet. I inched on.    The dog, at my left knee, was deeply inhaling the intoxicating scent.   Another ten or so steps of stop, start stalking brought us into more open forest.    There between the heavy trunks of several silver beech trees was the creamy rump of a small deer.   A little further was the yearling.    Then the hind came out from behind a bush as the family group slowly ambled on.    There was no time to waste if I wanted to bring home a load of venison. I carefully closed the bolt on the BSA Hunter and tracked the yearling with the telescope.    The shot shattered the morning stillness and the yearling’s neck. It collapsed without making another step.    I doubt whether it even heard the shot.   

Throughout the final drama Troja stayed welded to my side, her neck stretched towards the kill. I sat her down to calm her for a quick training session of calling me to the dead deer.    I too calmed my nerves with a rollie.    Ten minutes later I sent the dog.   As always she was waiting for the signal and flew towards the carcass.    Once there she sat behind it, facing me and started to bark. I let her do that for a little while before I approached her.    That really set her off.   With every step her barking grew louder and more intense.    I made a great fuss of her and laid her off away from the kill.    When I had butchered out what I could carry I rewarded her with small lumps of meat from what was left over.

On the way down I noticed that the wind had turned.    The sun had come out, warming the face I was hunting on.   The warm air was now rising whilst early in the morning when I hunted uphill cool night air was still dropping towards the valley floor.   As is usual the deer had headed into it but the same wind carried their heavy scent directly to Troja’s nose.   Had I been an hour later my rising scent would have wafted straight to the deer and made a successful approach impossible.

This simple bush hunting strategy certainly helped but what really got me that deer was my dog’s reliable heeling or in her case “kneeing”.    It allowed me to concentrate on spotting during the critical moments of the stalk.    In bush hunting classic heeling is not the answer because you have to constantly turn around to see how your dog is reacting to the constant stream of airborne scents.    The best position for the dog is far enough forward that its shoulder is by your left knee    But beware, any further ahead and you are running the risk of the dog being spotted before you see the deer.    Besides the knee position anchors the dog to a clearly defined place.    You might think all that is too finicky but, believe me, if you let the dog roam it will be hard to keep it close.    Inevitably you end up worrying more about the dog than deciphering what is in front of you.

Reliable heeling is one of the very basic, yet most important tasks of an indicator deer dog.    No dog should be taken into the bush until it is rock solid in this exercise.    The actual command should be verbal and/or by hand signal.    Verbal around the home, silent hand signals in the bush.

There are facets of deer dog training that can be done concurrently with, or even before, heeling but heeling is the first disciplinary activity that forces the dog to do what does not come naturally.    Like all good training it takes time, patience and know-how.     Know-how not only what specific exercises to do, when but also the knowledge of how dogs interpret and react to what you are doing.    

Here is a quick primer for any novice dog trainer and a useful reminder for old hands at the game.

Dogs do not reason; they can not connect an action with its consequences if time or space has elapsed between the two.    It is therefore pointless to delay any corrective intervention until the dog comes to hand.

Dogs do not understand English (or any other language for that matter). So don’ read them the riot act expecting them to understand all the details.    What they will react to is the tone of your voice, your movements and your general posture.    If all that points to a painful experience in the past it will reinforce what they are facing at the time.    The fact that they then look wary is often interpreted that they feel guilty.

Dogs are highly sensitive to your moods, your state of health, anything that is out of the ordinary.   Never train your dog if you are agitated, in a bad mood or in a hurry.
     Dog training is most successful if you are relaxed, do it at the same time and in a familiar environment.    Initially anyway, the more routine you can make it the less the dog is distracted by novel things and the more it will concentrate on you.
Never punish your dog for not following a command.    The most probable answer is that the dog has not yet grasped what you want from it.    Either it had not had enough training or your methods were too confusing.   Simple exercises, repeated often coupled with lots of praise are the keys to creating a good working dog.

Last but not least, never give a command unless you have the means to enforce it immediately.    (Re-read point one).

The actual job of training a dog to heel is fairly straightforward, though time consuming.

It starts off with you clipping the collared dog on a lead after it has had a run to let off steam and relieve itself.    Always pet the dog while clipping it on the lead to let it know that the lead is not a threat.    

You may have trouble getting the dog to come in without a command.    Here is a little trick that works every time.     Just walk away.   No matter how busy the dog is sniffing about once it realises that you are going, as true pack animal, it will want to catch up with its leader.   As soon as it arrives make a fuss of it and quietly clip the lead on.    Now you are in control!!

To quickly reiterate.   Calling the dog and giving it a chance to disobey very soon tells it that you are not God and that your magic only works at close range.    Secondly growling or dishing out punishment when it does finally come will only make it “hand shy”.     You need to guard against both traps if you want the training to progress smoothly.

Once your pal is on the lead you have to be consistent.   On the verbal command “Heel” you guide the dog around behind your back so that it comes up from behind.    There you hold it so that its shoulder is in line with your knee.    Start walking, repeating the “Heel” command as you go.    If the dog wants to draw on by strongly pulling on the lead bring it back with a few sharp yanks while repeating the “Heel” command.    As soon as the dog is back in position pet and praise it.

A few sharp yanks at the right time are better than repeated gentle pulls to which the dog could soon get used to.   Tough dogs may need the choker chain but only if all else fails.   Never use this chain on young dogs or *****es.   

An extension to the Heel command is heeling from a distance.    
For this exercise make a longer lead of about 10 meters.    Let the dog drag it around for a while to forget any connection with what is about to happen.    

Start the exercise by allowing the dog to wander, then sharply call “Heel”!    At this very instance haul it in like a snapper and place it in its position at your left knee, then praise the hell out of it.     

From now on only call “Heel” when you can bring the dog in.    Doing it without the long lead risks having the dog disobey the command and thus calling your bluff.    Heeling means that the dog stays at your side whether you are running, walking or stopping.   Firm this by:

Stopping frequently and ensure that the dog does likewise.    Whenever the dog stops on its own accord pat it before going on, otherwise yank it back when you stop.

This will ensure that in the field the dog remains at your left knee when you check out something of interest or ready yourself for a shot at a deer that is already on full alert.     It has been my experience that in the bush deer are nearly always aware of an approaching hunter but without his scent they tend to stick around for other confirmations before they bolt.     It is during those critical moments that the careful stalker gets a shot away.    Needless to say a dog that is noisy, moves around or draws on spoils that opportunity.

Once the dog responds well to the “Heel” command it is time to introduce the hand signal. When you say “Heel” also point to your left knee with your left index finger.   In time the dog will respond to the hand signal alone.

Heeling and Sitting training combine very well.
With the dog on the leach walk it at heel and stop.    Face the dog, push with your right hand against its chest, with the other press down on his rump.    The dog will fold up into the sitting position like a pocketknife.     Combine this action with the “Sit” command, later with a down motion of your open palm if you want the dog only to react to a hand signal.
It wont take long before the dog reluctantly folds up by itself.    Once the dog thoroughly understands the command speed up its response to the “Sit” or hand signal command with a well-directed whack on its rump with a rolled up newspaper.    This creates maximum noise with a minimum of pain and works like magic.     
To enforce the command at a distance have an assistant lead the dog away from you at an angle.     Every so often give the command but have your assistant enforce it if the dog does not respond immediately.    As long as the dog hears only your voice it will believe it is your hand that forces it down.   Gradually increase the distance between you and the dog.   However, return to basics if the dog shows any reluctance to comply.

You should combine the heeling exercise with that of letting the dog know when it is all right to “go on”.    Every time you let the dog off the leash say “GO ON”.   It will quickly cotton on that this command releases it from being constrained in the heel position.

A training session should not last more than 30 minutes, less to begin with.    

Vary the pace, break it up by letting the dog off for a run and then start again.    Throughout make sure that training stays, if not a pleasant than at least, a non-threatening experience.   If done in this mode the dog will look forward to such outings, especially if you vary the venue later on.   Do not combine basic training with hunting; you almost certainly will make a lousy job of both. This does not mean that during hunting you should not correct an occasional memory lapse.   However, if such lapses persist (i.e. the dog does not heel properly) mark them for formal revision training at home.   

The above is the very basic performance level of any good deer dog.    Once your dog is solid in heeling I can not see any reason why you should not take it hunting........ as long as you do not ask any more of it than what you have taught it; in this case heeling.    If you do take the dog with you let the trainee drag a thin, but strong nylon cord of about 10 meters.     Every time the dog draws ahead simply step on the cord to bring it up short.   For the dog this is a constant reminder that your hand can reach it wherever it is.    Needless to say with this control line you can stomp out any tendency of deer chasing in an older dog.    Just let him charge in while you dig in your heels and hang onto the other end of the lead.    When the cord suddenly comes taut the surprised dog will be thrown in its tracks by your invisible hand and the bellowing “Heel”.    Immediately thereafter unceremoniously drag it back to the heel position with the repeated “Heel” command and then ............reward it (for being at heel)!!!!!

Quite simply successful dog training comprises a sound knowledge of dog behaviour, an ability to always be one step ahead of the game, a knack to dissect a training programme into small, easily digestible bites and an untiring patience with your four legged partner.
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CONDITIONING A PUPPY
By Herb Spannagl

More puppies are born in spring and early summer than at any other time of the year.    If you are one of the proud owners of such a youngster than you are about to enter a period in your young dog’s life that will either make it or break it as a future gundog.   The habits, good or bad that your dog acquires over the next year will stay with it for the rest of its life.    From a training perspective the bad habits it will discover by itself whether by accident or by simply following its canine instincts.     As they say with kids prevention is better and definitely easier than trying to redirect a wayward rebel.     The same logic also applies to guiding a puppy into a useful working gundog.    

This is one reason why I do not believe in waiting for six month before starting formal training as recommended by a number of books on the subject.    I think this advice originates from professional trainers whose relationship with their pupils is very temporary and businesslike.    Like horse breakers they do not form an emotional bond with the animal, relying instead on very thorough understanding of how to make the animal submit to their will.    Some methods border on cruelty.    

It is equally misguided to think that a dog performs for you out of sheer gratitude because you love it.    Dogs don’t think that way.    Your dog will submit to your training only if it recognises you as being the more dominant member within the pack hierarchy.   Quite naturally every dog aspires to become a pack leader.    You only have to go to the nearest park to witness that many dogs do dominate their human owners despite their own often-miniscule size.

A child’s education begins long before it enters school.    It constantly learns from its own experiences and from its interaction with others.     A young puppy learns in much the same way by discovering its inherited attributes and by finding out how best to fit into the environment of its human pack members.   Logically it is easier to establish the all-important dominance over the dog when it is young and physically and mentally immature.    This has nothing to do with the application of force or other inhumane methods.    Rather it is a gradual conditioning that begins with the introduction of a routine decided at all times by the owner/trainer.    Take feeding for instance.    It is a bad mistake to leave food out so that the dog can help itself whenever it feels like it.     Instead when the owner decides the feeding time and place the dog automatically has to submit to that procedure.    Even affection must be given out on your terms and not when demanded by the dog.    When the dog realises that you are the key to what it needs and loves than you have established your dominant position and can build on that through further training.    It is hard to believe by non-dog owners that this initial conditioning can be carried out with body language only, with hardly a word being spoken let alone being shouted.     It is highly educational for the owner too; as this gives valuable insight into how dogs watch every move you make and how they interpret it very accurately.    Ultimately your body language and hand signals will supplement your verbal communication with your dog.

Begin with by establishing trust between you and the puppy.    This may take two or three weeks, during which the utterly dependent animal becomes familiar and confident with its surroundings.    Always feed it yourself at a certain time and in the same place.

Gun Noise
To ensure that the dog does not become gun shy start your introduction to loud noise as soon as possible.    Initially clap your hands before you allow the puppy to feed to get it used to noise.    When the puppy associates this with food and gets excited increase the noise by banging a pot lid.   Once the dog reacts positively to that graduate to a mild cracker and after that to the real thing.    It is a bad mistake to wait with this introduction until the dog is mature, perhaps as late as Opening Day because you can never tell how a dog reacts to loud crack of a gun that is fired over its head for the first time.    This is the best way to make a dog gun shy, which is a condition that is incredibly hard to cure.    For a prospective gun dog it could be the end of the road literally before it has had a chance to impress.    If you live in town be particularly wary of the period around Guy Fawke’s when crackers go off for weeks.    If you have conditioned the puppy to noise beforehand it will not be alarmed when WW3 breaks out in your neighbourhood.

Swimming
Most of our gundog breeds love the water.    Nurture that love by splashing about with the puppy at every summer opportunity.    Chose the shallows at first, later in water deep enough to make it swim a short distance.   Make it a plaything by running and splashing and having lots of fun yourself.     Do the same in running water to develop a sound river sense.   While you play around in shallow water encourage the dog to pick up a small floating dumbbell (to teach it balance a load) and if that goes all right try it on some sunken objects such a tasty piece of food.    You will be amazed how readily a dog puts its head under if is conditioned and can see the object just under the surface.    This diving habit will be invaluable later on when the dog needs to retrieve a wounded duck.     And while we are with swimming never, never throw your puppy in the water in order to force it to swim.    Dogs are not born heroes; they develop into this role with every success they notch up.   

Tracking
Even before their eyes open the tiny puppies find their way to the mother’s teats with the help of their superior sense of smell.    So refined is this faculty that dogs literally see the world through their noses.    The ability to follow a scent trail is inherited from its wolf ancestors.   You can develop this by laying short trails with food.    Whilst this is play-acting it also gives you the opportunity to introduce the appropriate command.    I started my own dog off this way and now when I say “Search” her nose goes down sniffing for a scent trail.    Most importantly, make sure there always is some titbit left at the end of the trail.

Carrying Objects
Most puppies carry things around especially soft objects such as slippers socks and soft toys.    This is quite natural behaviour as in the wild, dogs carry the kill back to the den.   Encourage this play but do not fall into the trap of trying to take a toy off a keen puppy.   If your chase is unsuccessful ( which it probably will be) the smart animal has just found out that you are not God.    However, if you should succeed the resultant tug of war could easily make the dog hard mouthed and quite possibly make it reluctant to give up retrieved game later on.    Vary the play objects in order to accustom the puppy to pick up a variety of game.    The actual art of retrieving follows a different training path that incorporates other disciplines such as coming to heel and sitting.     For puppies that are reluctant to pick objects up try to arouse their hunting instinct by dragging a soft dummy on a string in front of their noses.    After a short chase let them “catch and own it”.

“Yes” And “No” Command
The meaning of those two short words is as important to the dog than it is for us humans.    The actual words are meaningless for the dog.    It is the association with a subsequent action and the accompanying tone of voice and body language that the dog interprets as good or bad.    A painless way to teach both is with a titbit held in a closed hand.    The dog is instantly aware of it and tries to free it.    It gets a clip on its nose that is accompanied by a threatening sounding “No”.    Try teasing the puppy to have another go so that you can repeat the procedure.     When it is sufficiently impressed open your hand and repeat, “Yes” with a friendly voice.   After the previous knock backs you may have to hold the now visible titbit right under its nose.    If done with sensitivity these two exercises are quickly learnt and will stand the dog in good stead for the rest of its life.   

What I have described is not training as we know it but a conditioning to allow the puppy to develop and be comfortable reassured in doing so.

Next issue I shall progress to a more formal training programme, which will seamlessly build on what the puppy already knows.
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How to teach your dog to find dead deer
Herb Spannagl

The heading isn’t quite correct because the dog will find a dead dear quite easily by itself.   What I should have said was “How to teach a dog to help you find a dead deer”.   It sounds much the same but in reality there is a world of difference.   It is one thing that the dog finds the deer but quite another for the dog to actually get you there too.

What mostly happens is that the predatory canine tracks down the deer on its blood trail.   When it gets there it has a few sniffs, maybe a few shakes to determine that the animal is really dead, then it returns.    You may see some signs, such as a bit of blood on the muzzle or deer hair in its mouth but that is usually all the indications that it has found the kill.   The dog has now lost interest and is keen to go on.   Of course this scenario does not happen with all dogs.    A few have a strong proprietary instinct and don’t want to give up their find to the point where they are prepared to defend it against other dogs including an owner who has not quite established his dominance over them. Such dogs are keen to return to the kill and remain there in close proximity often growling as they do so.    If you have such a possessive natural than all you need to do is control the pace that the dog wants to return to the deer.    You can do that with a long leash or by stopping the dog when it gets too far ahead and/or before it gets out of sight.

For the great majority of hunting dogs a different form of training is required.   This training has to be reward based.    The overall objective is to make the dog understand that it only gets a reward at the deer and then only from you.    For all this to happen it needs to either call you or guide you to the reward site, which is the dead deer.

Lets look more closely at a “Caller” or “Dead Barker” as it is more commonly known.
In the field this may involve a sustained period of barking if the carcass is some distance away and/or your progress is slowed by rough terrain.    Quite obviously this demanding task rules out individuals or even breeds that hardly ever give voice.   
Training a caller will only be successful with individuals that bark readily.    The actual training initially breaks down into three separate exercises that are later combined:

Barking on command
Going to the deer
Staying at the kill

For ease of starting lets begin with teaching the dog to bark on the command (you guessed it) “Bark”.   The actual word does not mean a thing to the dog.    It only does when it becomes associated with a reward for barking.     The simplest reward for a dog is food especially when it is hungry.   So before you start make sure that someone else in your household has not fed the dog already.    Cut a piece of meat into several small bits so that you got a supply for rewarding the dog a few times during an exercise session.    

Start with the dog sitting in front of you and teasing it with the meat in you closed hand.    During this tease repeat the word “Bark” over and over again.    This will frustrate the dog, which can smell the meat but which it cannot get.   Keep teasing it until it makes a sound, any sound even if that is only a whimper.   Immediately give it the meat and a pet.    You can repeat this straight away hoping that the dog has cottoned on but if it has not just carry on teasing until you again trigger a sound.    For the first few sessions keep this exercise quite separate from ordinary feeding but as soon as the dog understand the command and responds you can transfer it to the above.    Just put a weighted down lid on the food bowl and let the dog bark before you remove the lid to give it access to the food.   

Most dogs are smart enough to make this connection very quickly but this is not the end of the training.   You final objective is to have the dog bark continuously for an extended period as could be required in the bush.   Such prolonged barking would not be advisable in an urban area as it would most certainly invite a visit from the dog ranger as well as alienating the neighbours.    For that it is better to select some outdoor setting.   

Going to the deer and staying there involves an exercise of visiting a lidded training box into which a piece of meat has been placed.     Choose whatever command you like as the signal to send the dog on it way. My own command is “To The Deer”.    For the first few times you will have to take the dog to the box on a lead and once there sit it behind the box facing you.   This is very important, as later on you will want the dog to sit behind the deer when it calls you

You will progress quicker with the task of the dog staying behind the box if you have already trained the dog to stay put while you walk away.   Keep taking the dog to the box and leaving it there as a separate exercise giving the command as you are walking.    If the dog makes any attempt to follow you as you walk away from the box take it back to its original spot and firmly tell it to: “Sit”.    

Let’s recap the above.   Hopefully the dog is now barking on command and in a separate exercise is sitting behind the box while you walk away.   When you are happy with this progress place a bit of meat on top of the box in full view of the dog then send it to the box.   You can be sure it will go there and help itself. So far so good; repeat that once or twice until the dog cottons on that there is always food at the box.   After that put the food inside the box and make sure that the dog cannot get it out.    Now send the dog.    When it gets there let it sniff the box a bit to convince itself that a. the meat is in there and b. that it cannot get it out.    Sit the dog down and wait, hoping that it might make the connection with his other exercise and bark on its own accord.    If not give the “Bark” command.     As soon as the dog barks slowly walk towards the box, constantly encouraging the dog to bark.   If it stops barking you have to stop walking.   Again give the bark command and have the dog respond before you advance further.

What you are trying to get across is that the more the dog barks the quicker you will come to free the food from the box.

Make that your daily feed time exercise, which ensures that the dog is hungry and will look forward to this routine.   You can also nail a piece of un-tanned deerskin to the box to make the transition (at least in your eyes) with the real thing a bit more realistic.    Use the opportunity to carry out this exercise at different outdoor venues.   At first do it in full view but later on increase the difficulty by hiding the box and encouraging the dog to search for it.   Have some observer hidden close to tell you how the dog behaves and if to correct any unwanted behaviour at the box.   

By breaking this task down into three parts you will not only get to the end quicker but you will also have the tools to intervene when one of the parts is not carried out correctly.    However, always be aware that the ultimate aim is that the dog does the whole combination.   

Let’s assume that your deer dog it is already indicating deer and that you are looking to broaden the usefulness of your hunting companion.   So sooner or later you will a dead deer to test the success of your training on the real thing.    Choose a carcass that you can see in full view so that you can watch the dogs reaction and to help it make the transition from the inanimate wooden box.   Wait until the dog has calmed down then send it as per the box exercise.   You have the tools to gently correct any failure but never punish the dog for it, as this could make it scared to ever go near a dead deer again.    Always reward it by the carcass and if it is keen repeat the exercise one more time.    

From now on use every dead deer situation for this “live” training while ticking over the home training at feeding time.   As they say you get what you pay for or in this instance your dog will only be as good as the amount of time you devote to this training.    

The late Sam Bollinger of Taupo was one of my hunting mates when I lived near the Chateau Tongariro.   He had trained his Shane, his golden lab to dead bark with good success.   Then one day one of the chefs from the Chateau wounded a deer in a swampy flax clearing just on dark.    He could not find a trace during his initial seavh and so the next morning asked Sam to help out with the dog.   I accompanied the pair to provide another set of eyes looking for that elusive smudge of blood.   All we saw were red blotches on the flax where insects had damaged the leaves.   Not a drop of blood or even foot prints anywhere.    We began to doubt that the deer had been hit at all when I heard a faint bark.   Yes, there it was again coming from deep within the beech forest.   We made our way towards the sound by pushing through tangles of bushlawyer, fallen trees and thick undergrowth.   Finally we arrived on top of a deep ravine and there below in a shallow pool was a dead hind with Shane barking his head off nearby.    It was a sight for sore eyes and a sound that will linger long in my memory.    All the training had paid off with Shane becoming an excellent dead barker that found many dead deer for Sam and other locals.    Sadly both Sam and Shane have long since departed this world but will no doubt carry on chasing game in the eternal hunting grounds in the sky.    

Next issue I am going to describe how to train a dog to lead you to a dead deer.
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Blood Trackers
By Herb Spannagl

To most of us the name “Blood hound” conjures up movie images of packs of hounds tracking down escaped slaves in alligator infested Louisiana swamps.   The only other time the name comes to the fore is at dog shows where English Blood Hounds pop up from time to time.    How the breeds got the name “blood hounds” is open to speculation but it most certainly had nothing to do with tracking down human blood.   More likely it is the ancient European connection with big game blood tracking hounds.    That trail is well documented in paintings and in prose right up to the present day.   

As far as I know “blood hounds” have never been used for hunting in this country.   Pity really because certain breeds of hounds are ideal for deer stalking and are potentially far more useful than our so-called indicator deer dogs.

Be that as it may the hounds I want to write about in this issue are the European Schweiss Hunde ( Schweiss means game blood in the traditional German hunter language).   Unlike their close cousin the English Bloodhound, which has been totally ruined by show breeders the European versions have remained pure working dogs.   Their performance has been honed through selective breeding, which is closely controlled by clubs dedicated to individual breeds.    As a rule only dogs are registered that have undergone demanding field tests.   And then only the very best are entered into the studbook as approved breeding animals.    What counts are results and some of these border on the unbelievable.

In most European countries access to a performance tested bloodhound is not only a traditional obligation but also a legal requirement for any big game hunter.    This is founded in very strong animal welfare laws, which make it mandatory that any wounded animal is followed up and put out of its misery.   Not surprisingly this also includes game that is injured in car accidents while crossing busy motorways.

The origin of bloodhounds goes back to the days of the Celts who hunted large game with packs of dogs not unlike how our own pig hunters do in New Zealand.    From this ancient ancestry originate all the hounds we know today.    In the middle ages before the advent of firearms the large feudal houses of Europe elevated deer hunting into a huge festive and social occasion.     You might think such hunts degenerated into a great free for all where everything was fair game.    Not so as such events were highly organised by professional huntsmen.    They chose the target stag long before the actual chase began.   Throughout the hunt they used a specially trained tracking hound to ensure that only that deer was hunted.

Preparations started at daybreak when huntsmen observed the stag take shelter in one of the dense wood lots that dotted the great estates.    They let the lead hound take the scent from its fresh tracks.    Then they circled the thicket with the hound searching ahead on a long leash.   If the stag had only passed through the hound recognised the scent at the exit point and followed it to the next thicket.    This exercise was repeated until the stag was firmly holed up.

It was at that stage that the other hounds and riders were summoned.    The stag was jumped from its resting place by the lead hound and was then chased by the pack.    The specially trained lead hound never took part in the chase.    Instead the rather sluggish hound was carried along in a basket in case the pack lost the trail.   When this happened the fine nosed animal soon found the connection after which the hunt started all over again.    Eventually the exhausted stag bailed while bravely defending itself against the frantic pack.    While preoccupied it was lanced with a broad bladed spear.

With the use of firearms hunters badly needed a dog with a superb nose to track down wounded game.    The obvious choices were the traditional lead hounds.    However, it took some development to turn these specialist trackers into courageous, trail loud endurance hunters that could single handedly track and bail dangerous animals.    From such centuries old breeding endeavours involving several remnant breeds originate several modern bloodhounds the most famous are the Hanoverian Bloodhound and the Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound

Even though several other hunting dog breeds have very good blood tracking abilities and throw up excellent individuals the two-abovementioned bloodhounds are the preferred big game recovery specialists throughout Central Europe.

The Hanoverian Bloodhound
Like all European feudal households the German House of Hanover has had a long history of hunting big and small game.    During it’s heyday in the nineteenth century it’s professional hunters bred superb hunting dogs of which the Hanoveraner Pointer (Grey Ghost) and the Hanoverian Bloodhound have survived to the present day.

This large, 60 centimetre high, reddish to fawn coloured dog is the undisputed blood hound for red deer and wild boar in the rolling hills of non alpine Europe.   Its bloodlines include the French black and tan Saint Hubertus hounds which had been bred by the monks of this famous monastery right through the Middle Ages.     

The modern Hanoverian is a placid but serious dog much like our very popular Labs.     Recent breeding directions aim for a lighter animal with good legs and closed paws to improve endurance during extended chases of wounded animals.    The Hanoverian excels on the long blood leash.    His methodical working habits and extremely fine ground nose ensures that this dog can follow the scent of wounded animal hours, and given the right climatic conditions, days after the animal has past.   Once locked onto its target scent it can distinguish that from other warm or cold, sick or healthy trails.

It goes without saying that such remarkable feats do not come out of the blue.    They are the culmination of centuries of breeding, careful training and good field leadership by experienced hunters.

The Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound
Near the end of the nineteenth century intensive hunting for red deer became very popular in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps.    With the widespread supplementary winter feeding red deer herds survived at high altitude hunting blocks that hitherto had been the domain of the chamois and ibex.    In this testing terrain, where traditional leash work can be severely restricted, long free chases are often the only way to bring a wounded animal to bail.   The heavy Hanoverian Bloodhound was just not agile enough to climb and jump in pursuit of such sure-footed game.    Many valuable dogs fell to their death or got badly bluffed.

In Austria breeders developed the Tyrolean Hound and the Styrian high mountain hounds for this purpose whilst in Bavaria Baron Karg of Reichenhall crossed the agile Tyrolean hounds with the heavier Hanoverian Bloodhound to create the lighter and faster Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound.     Not only is this breed safer in the rugged mountain terrain many of them are natural “Dead Barkers”; a tendency to remain with the dead animal and calling the hunter through continuous barking.

A common heritage of all hounds and in particular blood hounds is their fanatical trail passion, trail voice and trail loyalty.   Without these attributes the work on the “red trail” would end in dismal failure.    During my rabbiter years in Hawkes Bay I acquired a couple of reject Harrier Hounds from the local hunt club.   I remember them as the most maniacal and tireless trackers I had ever worked with.    During the hot summer period we used to start work at 5am to make the best use of ground scent before it burned off in the searing sun.   By 1pm we hunters and our dogs literally dragged our backsides over the scorched hills back to the distant Land Rover and it’s welcoming shade.   No such needs for the Harriers, Billy and Queen.    While all the other dogs trotted behind us the two loped ahead forever sniffing the ground.    Many were the times when they jumped a hare within sight of the vehicle and took off after it as if their hunting day had only just began.    There was little use yelling, whistling or firing shots trying to call them back.   Once the sods were locked onto a scent they were in a world of their own.    The first few times this happened we waited sometimes for an hour or more.   Later we just drove off and returned the next day to where we left them.   There they were happy as only dogs can be rejoining their pack.

Our hunting bloc extended from the coast to the edge of the Ruahines.   Without any encouragement from us these hounds developed a taste for deer.    Several times they picked up fresh trails in the grassy paddocks and followed them into the bush.    Minutes later came the first howl, then more as the chase led to higher ground.     On one particularly trying day we could hear their faint howls from near the main range; still in hot pursuit.

After my dismal failures to use my GSPs for tracking wounded deer I had visions of crossing the Harriers with Beardies to create a tough dog for all aspects of deer hunting.   But alas about that time I got appointed as a ranger to Tongariro National Park where dogs were strictly out of bounds.     While I still think such a cross would make a good all round deer dog it would be less risky to start with a proven breed such as the Bavarian Mountain Bloodhound.   I know there are great quarantine and transport hassles importing dogs but considering the many useless mutts that manage to find their way to our shores the task is not insurmountable.   

While the reality of our free range hunting scene means that few hunters will spend a lot of time chasing after wounded animals when it is easier to find new one further on.    However, with the rapid expansion of the trophy hunting industry a good stag represents a substantial investment to the hunter as well as to the game farm manager.     As there is no guarantee that a well heeled client is a better shot than the bloke from down the road there it would pay for a hunting guide to have a canine backstop up his sleeve.    I would go as far as saying most genuine European hunting clients would expect no less.

Let’s guard against a possible confusion.   Bloodhounds indicate deer like any other dog but in addition to this well understood function they are capable of performing near miracle recoveries.    I am quite certain if these bloodhounds became available in New Zealand hunters would use them because in my opinion the only hunter that doesn’t need them is the one that never wounds an animal.    I probably have more chance to find a moose in Fjordland than to meet such a Mr 100%.
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WHAT MAKES A GOOD DEER DOG
By Herb Spannagl

It has been several years since I have covered this subject, easily forgetting that new hunters enter the sport every year.    Not only is it important to cater for them but also New Zealand’s oldest hunting magazine needs to reflect changes in this country’s deer hunting scene.     

Most serious bush hunters use a dog of some description to at least indicate deer.    Bush hunting became increasingly popular during the helicopter venison recovery days when few animals remained out in the open after the first hint of daylight.    With the temporary demise of wild venison recovery helicopters are used more to ferry hunters into the backcountry than as deadly shooting platforms.   Once again deer are shot in increasing numbers above the bush line, on river slips and along the farm/forest interface.    On the face of it the need to have a dog for deerstalking has diminished.    So why do I still think that a good dog is still an invaluable asset to every serious deer hunter?

Well, there are two good reasons.   Firstly when hunting into the wind a dog with its highly refined scenting ability will smell deer over a long distance regardless whether or not the deer can be seen by the hunter.   Terrain features do not stop scent they just deflect it.   This comparison with sight is of major significance even in so-called open country where deer are often hidden from view behind bushes, undulating ground or other obscuring landscape features.   They may be hidden from view but their scent travels on with the prevailing air stream.    Without prior scent warning a hunter runs the risk of walking onto the animals and putting them to flight.    In the bush with visibility often down to a few metres, deer can remain hidden until they suddenly bolt without giving the surprised hunter any chance for a shot.    Not so if you hunt with a trained dog which would have sniffed out the animals and alerted the hunter.    Instead of being a chance encounter, with the help of a dog’s nose it becomes a planned stalk that has a high probability of a terminal ending.

My second reason concerns the recovery of lost or wounded deer.    When you read the many hunting stories you could easily conclude that nobody wounds deer and that all animals shot at even utopian distances are killed cleanly and always lie where they have been struck down.    Such is the power of the pen or the keyboard that the gory side of hunting can be glibly glossed over.   The reality is somewhat different and is increasingly focussed on by animal rights activist and the government’s own animal rights advisory committee.    The days of “f…..it, it will die anyway” are gone forever.    Despite many claims (usually at the pub or around a camp fire) to the contrary the only realistic chance of tracking down a wounded deer or finding a dead one that has seemingly been swallowed up by the earth is with a trained hunting dog.

A deer dog is primarily a working dog and while it can also become a beloved pet, when out in the field it has to do its part in securing a pack load of venison.    It should not become an image accessory like the many labs that adorned the vehicles of just about every Wildlife ranger that I ever worked with during that era.   And talking of breeds let me assure you that I have seen too many good deer dogs to worry about their parentage.
The only problem with such an assertion is that selecting your next deer dog by throwing a dart into the dog pound is like buying a raffle ticket.    In a raffle it only takes a week or two to know if you have a winner.   With a dog it might take a year and a lot more money to discover if you have bought a dud.    

You can shorten the odds considerably by selecting from a range of breeds that have the right attributes to make good deer dogs.    To shorten the odds even further I shall restrict my review to the gundog breeds that are currently available in New Zealand.

Hunting Instinct
You should look at this as a predatory instinct.    Luckily most working gundog breeds have it in good measure.   However, some of these breeds are increasingly bred as pets and dog show candidates.    The maintenance of the predatory hunting instinct is not an essential breeding goal for such breeders.    Some breeders purposefully select against it to breed out an attribute that can often lead to trouble for non-hunting owners.    Even within working gundog breeds, there are now kennels that breed purely for the show ring.

Courage
To be an all-round deer dog an individual must have courage to bail a wounded deer with endurance and determination.    Not a few yaps with tail firmly clamped between the legs but with sufficient aggression to prevent a wounded deer from fleeing on.    Courage is an inherited gift of individuals rather than of gundog breeds.    The lack of it and of some other important attributes can most likely be attributed to faulty genetics of some imports of a new breed in this country rather than a general weakness of the breed worldwide.

Nose
After watching the work of many hunting dogs I am coming around to the belief that nose and hunting instinct are closely related.   Chicken and the egg you might say but I doubt if one can exist without the other.   Dogs have a fantastic olfactory sense with even a stub-nosed Pug outperforming ours thousands of times.    The elongated nose of hunting dogs has many more scent receptors and is said to smell a million times better than humans.    The size and shape of the nose and what lies within it can’t be all because many dogs not known for their scenting ability have similarly shaped handles.   There must be more to it than simply recognising a scent.    Its what the dog as a “predator” makes of it that makes or breaks it as a hunting dog, which once more leads us back to the importance of the retained “hunting instinct”.

Appearance
When thinking of a dog’s size you need to relate that to the size of the game that the dog might have to confront.    Therefore a cocker spaniel, no matter how good its nose, is not the right match for an adult wounded deer.    A bigger dog that is also faster and is capable of great endurance comes much closer to the ideal.    

Whilst for most gundog work a dog’s colour is of little importance this is not true for a deer dog.    When moving, dogs with solid colours that strongly contrast with the surroundings are more obvious to colour-blind but movement sensitive deer than if they were broken up in patches.    And even there large white patches are still highly visible when the dog is moving.   Considering the popularity of camouflage hunting apparel, the ideal jacket a deer dog can sport is covered with a broken pattern of two or three muted colours.    If you can make that a warm (not too long and not too short) water proof one than your four-legged mate will be endure the discomforts of our bush into a ripe old age.

Physical Ability/Agility
Some dogs are water babies some are not.   In the sixties I often used to hunt with a guy whose dog was that water shy that he had to carry it every time we had to cross a river.   One trip up the Mohaka from the Hot Springs to the Makino junction Ron, who himself could not swim, carried Dick across, God only knows how many, hair rising crossings.   The same goes for dogs that cannot climb in steep country either through fear of heights or physical inability to jump.    It isn’t particularly funny when you have just lowered yourself down a little bluff and have your dog still up there howling its head off.

Stealth
There is little point to creep through the bush wearing the “silent” fleece gear and soft soled “sneakers” when your dog puffs like a steam engine and mows down the tops of crown fern with its thrashing tail.    Lets face it some breeds like Labs are noisy (and even more so when on a scent) and some like the pointing breeds are very quiet.    Better still, the fresher or stronger the scent the more cautious pointers get.    Watch them home in on a pheasant and their behaviour comes close to stalking.    Making haste “slowly” is the kind of stealth deer stalking in the bush is all about.    Your dog’s behaviour can help or hinder that big time.

Trainability
I consider this more as a relationship between individual dogs and their handlers than a characteristic of certain gun dog breeds.   All breeds have dominant animals, which are hard to subordinate and thus become difficult to train by all but very dominant personalities.

Where To Now?
Lets distil this wish list into some attainable reality, in other words narrowing down where to look for your next deer dog with a reasonable degree of reliability.    

Without wanting to offend all the owners of one off “wonder deer dogs” of known or unknown parentage, my reasoning is based on what I consider essential attributes for a deer dog under New Zealand hunting conditions.

For me, the various breeds of Continental “All Purpose” Hunting Dogs meet most of the above-mentioned attributes.    They also go by a relatively new term of Versatile Hunting Dogs.   They point, retrieve from water and land and can track down wounded game.   Most individuals are courageous enough to firmly confront large wounded game animals.

Several breeds like the German Shorthaired Pointer and German Wirehaired Pointer are well established and the most proven of the Continental hunting dogs in this country.   Muensterlanders and Hungarian Viszlas need a greater distribution to show that these breeds meet the needs of our deer hunters.   Weimaraners, which were originally bred for big game, have unfortunately been captured by the pet/show fraternity and are rarely seen in the hands of serious hunters.   

I have hunted small game and deer with GSPs and GWPs.    Both breeds make good deer dogs, although some of the GSPs are a little soft and flighty.    I think that fault dates back to some suspect genetics that came here with the early imports.    Fortunately the GWP foundation stock was more carefully chosen and their subsequent progenies are more reliably endowed with desirable attributes.    In my experience GWPs are more steady and thoughtful hunters and therefore make better trackers.   Their coarse outer coat protects a fine undercoat and this combination serves them better in our wet and often cold bush than the GSP’s ultra short hair that has practically no insulation value at all.    

You may have other ideas about what constitutes a good deer dog but if you agree with my list of desirable physical and working attributes you will find it hard to go past the German Wirehaired Pointer.    
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