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Find Your Track

by | Feb 5, 2018

I enjoy the company of dogs immensely. A day of hunting, fishing, kayaking, hiking, socializing at a brewery or just relaxing on the couch, is made better by sharing those experiences with a well behaved, happy dog.

But not every experience is for every dog. I have two wirehaired vizslas who are very different. They both love to hike and ride in the car. My female is a wonderful kayak companion but is not comfortable around crowds. My male, a therapy dog, can calmly spend all day at a festival but will flip a boat if he spots a fish. They each have strengths and weakness, passions and preferences, and finding them is one of the most rewarding aspects of dog ownership. So we find ways to spend quality time together doing what they love most.

But they are getting up in age, so last year I decided to add a puppy to the crew. I’ve been watching litters of miniature wirehaired dachshunds coming out of Zoldmali Kennels in Hungary, premier breeders of wirehaired vizslas too. I’ve never been a small dog person, but these little guys seemed different. And not just in a Big Dog in a Small Body way, we have a Jack Russell for that. But this breed, particularly dogs of the European hunting bloodline, ‘Teckels’ as they’re called, are little badass, outdoorsy hunters.

A litter was born. A male was chosen. His wirehaired coat color is called wild boar. I named him Winslow before we even met, an homage to Winslow Homer, a favorite artist whose paintings of the wilderness and nature’s raw power have captivated me since I was a boy. And when he arrived from Hungary with his breeder, he terrified me. He was tiny, the size of a hamster. I wore out many pairs of socks sliding my feet around the house for those first weeks, terrified of stepping on him. How was going to be my rugged little outdoorsy dog?

But before long he was fitting right in with the other dogs, somehow convincing them all that he could do whatever he wanted to them without consequence. He grew to a lean, mean, thirteen pounds. He hikes steep trails alongside my big dogs and it’s fun to watch him work out obstacles and overcome them, never looking for help. His wiry coat came in perfectly and helps him push through grass and weeds and everything else a dog with a two-inch ground clearance encounters. And he is tireless. But what does he want to do? What is his passion? I needed to find it.

I read an article online about some folks in Vermont who track wounded deer using wirehaired dachshunds, who can be particularly suited for the task. As a deer hunter with many hunter friends, this seemed like an activity with a lot of potential to spend time with my dog in the woods during my favorite time of year. I did some more research, joined a great group called United Blood Trackers, and purchased what is almost universally considered the bible of blood tracking, John Jeanneney’s Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer.

But before I even got very far into the book, I wanted to do a simple test to see if Winslow would show any interest, enthusiasm or aptitude for the task. I tied a piece of deer hide to a rope and a long pole, and dragged it through tall grass, making a couple turns and leaving the hide at the end, about a hundred yards out. I put him at the start point and he RAN down the line to the hide. Tried again, longer with more obstacles and turns, through taller grass. He made quick work of that one too. Soon we graduated to just tracking a few drops of diluted deer blood every five or ten yards through the woods for hundreds of yards. He could do this, I thought.

But we both grew a bit bored of the practice tracks, so as deer season approached I put the word out that we would like to try a real track, even if it was to a known end. We got a few opportunities, a friend knew where his deer ended up but gave Winslow a chance to track it. He found the hunter’s arrow, then with just one trouble spot, located his first deer. He didn’t quite know what to make of it, but we praised him enthusiastically.

Then there were three more very different tracking experiences from which we both learned a lot.

My friend shot a big buck with a muzzleloader and the deer ran through “very thick cover.” It was dark out, but I really wanted to help my friend find this deer. When I got to the location, I couldn’t believe the cover. It was a huge field of six foot high honeysuckle, left untouched for many, many years to weave itself into a near impenetrable web of wickedness that I could barely walk through. I lifted Winslow over a hedgerow and placed him down so I could climb over. When I did he disappeared into the growth. We never even found blood to start, but I asked him, “Where is it?” and he excitedly bounded through the stuff on the trail of something. Or nothing, I never knew. But watching him disappear under the deer-trampled honeysuckle, then jump up like a dolphin getting a breath and disappearing again, over and over for hundreds of yards, was exhausting. We followed deer trails through that stuff for an hour until I was afraid of getting hopelessly lost just 200 yards away from my truck. On that night I learned this is one tough boy.

On another occasion, a man I don’t know got my number from someone and called me about a monster buck he put a good hit on with a compound bow. He had found blood, though only a few drops, in three different spots in a large expanse of sparse woods. The deer ran fast and bled little, and I saw no evidence of a fatal hit. But we were there, though the track was 60 hours old at this point with a small snow shower and melt in between. But the hunter found the first droplet on an overturned leaf and Winslow put his nose to the ground. In 200 yards he found a second spot of blood, and in 100 more he came to a creek. He crossed it at an odd angle and I asked the hunter if that seemed right. He said that was exactly how he saw the deer cross. On the far side was the last blood drop we could find. We tracked in the dark for another half mile or so, but then I just couldn’t tell from Winslow’s body language if he was still on the same deer, or a fresher deer that crossed the track, or if we were just out for a walk at that point. So I called it off. But on that night I knew he had the nose for it.

So he was showing some skills, but I didn’t have the experience to read him, and he hadn’t had much success to get excited about. The season was winding down and I almost dreaded resorting to more training tracks. Plus, my freezer was empty. I needed a deer for both of our sake. Then one day after work I spotted a spike buck on my property. I grabbed my muzzleloader and shot it from about 100 yards out. He ran less than a hundred more and disappeared into a creek bed.

I grabbed Winslow and put on his tracking collar and bell (he wears a bell so he can easily associate the equipment with the task). We approached the hit spot from the opposite direction as the deer ran, and we were still thirty yards out when Winslow got extremely excited. He pulled his tracking lead like a freight train straight past where the deer was shot. I tried to slow him down to look for blood, but he insisted with every fiber of his being that he knew where the deer was. I didn’t have to worry about finding blood. He brought me straight to the deer and proudly circled it, sniffing and tasting it. For the first time in his life he reached a deer before any human. And he had an absolute blast getting there.

Time will tell if he and I will make a good tracking team, we both have much to learn. But this season was cause for encouragement. And maybe a dog with two-inch legs standing on a little spike buck in the creek bed in my front paddock isn’t exactly the stuff of a Winslow Homer painting, but watching it all ‘click’ for him after training and trying and coming up empty, watching him run full of purpose and excitement to his first real deer, is a memory I will cherish forever.

~ Ed Felker