Living Off the Land: Gun Dogs for Finding Deer and Wild Hogs
Bob McNally 06.30.15
Donald Denmark had been a lifelong deer hunter with over 30 years of whitetail gunning experience. He’d seen it all, or at least he thought he had.
He was in South Carolina hunting with friend “Neilo” Gifford when someone in the hunt club shot a nice buck, but couldn’t find it.
“Neilo called his golden retriever, loaded him in his pickup truck, and said ‘let’s go find that deer!’” explains Donald, a retired Florida fireman. “I’d hunted deer a lot with hounds, but never with a retriever. So I was a little skeptical.”
It was full dark night when Donald, Neilo, and some other hunters pulled up to the spot where the gunner said he’d shot his buck. The golden retriever was called to the place where the buck was last seen, and in a flash he dashed across a field into nearby woods, and the men followed. Shortly the dog bounded out of the woods, looked at the following band of hunters, then turned and dashed back into the timber–taking the men directly to the dead buck.
“There was no blood trail, and although we might have found that deer the next day, there’s no way to know for certain if we would have,” Donald recalls somberly. “I’d been on many all night deer trails for hit whitetails, and they all weren’t recovered. But that golden retriever sure made my mind up about training dogs to locate down deer, and I decided I’d have one, too.
Neilo’s golden was used primarily for ducks and doves, and the dog had a natural trailing instinct for deer, according to Donald.
“I wanted a Labrador retriever because I hunted ducks a lot, plus doves, and I figured if the Lab had good sense and was from quality hunting stock, I could train him to trail wounded deer, too,” explains the veteran outdoorsman.
Donald checked around and located a Labrador breeder with puppies from top hunting blood lines, and chose an all-black male he named Hoss. He was a good-natured dog and trained easily according to Richard A. Wolters’ classic book “Water Dog.”
“Everything in that book was right on target about training Hoss,” says Donald. “The most important thing was teaching the dog basic discipline–sit, stay, come, heal, and eventually fetch, plus all the other things a good hunting Labrador is suppose to do. But I wanted more, because I wanted Hoss to also hunt wounded deer. I didn’t want him to chase deer like a hound, but to trail only wounded deer by their blood scent.”
Don figured he could train the dog to trail by using a fresh deer hide he acquired from a taxidermist. While Hoss was still a young puppy, just a few months old, Donald would get the dog excited about the deer hide–chasing it, playing with it, much as he would with retrieving bird dummies. Eventually, Don dragged the fresh deer hide behind an ATV or golf cart while the dog was hidden from view, stashing the hide in a bush or brush out of sight. In a very short time the puppy learned to trail the deer hide by command and was just as happy doing that as making long-distance retrieves for bird training.
Don kept the deer hide fresh between training sessions by simply freezing it in a bag, which preserved scent in the hide needed for training the Labrador to trail blood, a critical element in teaching the animal not to just trail any deer scent, but only an injured animal.
That September, in the hot opening days of South Carolina’s deer season, young Hoss was pressed into action. The dog was only 9 months old, and a hunter in Donald’s camp shot a small buck, but couldn’t find it. Donald offered to try his young dog trailing it. Donald kept Hoss on a leash, and the puppy trailed and found his first whitetail that night in a surprisingly short time.
That was 14 years ago, and a lot of whitetails have been added to Hoss’ credit in the ensuing years.
“I kept close records, and Hoss found 232 whitetails and many wild hogs,” Donald states proudly. “He simply didn’t miss anything that was shot, and he never lied. If he found an animal, he stayed with it until we showed up. If the shot was a miss, and there was no blood, he snooped around awhile, then loaded back up in the truck because his work was done.”
To keep track of young Hoss, Donald fitted the dog with a large bell. Hoss wore a loud beeper collar that helped locate the animal should he find a hit whitetail far from the shooting site. Hoss had trailed whitetails for over a mile and found them, though he never fought or bit a deer or wild hog, as a hound might. He simply stayed with the down deer until Donald got there. Hoss was so good at finding wounded whitetails that Donald put the Lab on a wounded deer trail as soon as possible, preferring not to wait as is the norm with “iffy” hits on big game.
“Late one afternoon in South Carolina five different deer were shot at by hunters in our club,” Donald explains. “One buck just dropped, so he was easy to find. Two others, the hunters knew they hit, and Hoss found them lickety-split. But two more bucks showed no sign of wounding, and the hunters thought they likely missed the deer. But we put Hoss on the spots, and in just minutes he discovered both deer. That’s important, because no game is wasted with Hoss around.”
Hoss was not kept on a leash for whitetail trailing, but Donald tethered the Lab when trailing wild hogs, since wounded pigs are dangerous, and he valued his dog.
Hoss is retired from tracking deer, no longer physically able to accompany Donald and his pals in the woods.
But Donald’s sons Darrell and Donny have Labs, and their dogs track deer well, too. Harley is a two-year old black Lab owned by Darrell, and already has tracked over 50 deer to recovery success. Donald’s daughter Donna also has a yellow Lab Abby with 10 whitetail trailing jobs accomplished.
“I’m convinced any good bird dog that’s got sense and is trained properly, plus taught how to track deer [with a fresh whitetail hide], I think can be made into a deer-tracking dog,” Donald states. “Labs and goldens are great, and I believe Chesapeakes, springers, shorthairs, Brittanys, and other good bird dogs could work, too. Heck, we trained a friend of mine’s Australian Shepard to trail deer, and he was outstanding.”