A harsh reality in the bow-hunting fraternity is; eventually, you will experience a marginal hit on a deer. Despite hours of practice and using quality equipment, things can still go awry. Anything from an undetected branch to “buck fever” can happen in the nanosecond between the release of an arrow and a deer.
My son Logan experienced his first marginal hit last fall. Because the shot was further back than optimal, we waited eight hours before taking up the trail. After finding only two smears of blood, we lost the deer’s track in a picked cornfield and spent the next two hours searching nearby woods and thickets without any sign of the buck.
With darkness fast approaching, we trudged back to the vehicle in silence and an indescribable ache that one experiences in times like these. Giving up on a deer is one of the hardest things a hunter has to face and it is never easy to accept.
Before leaving, I called a friend who gave me the phone number for Kyle Walker. Kyle owns a dog trained to track wounded deer and has helped several hunters find their deer.
I did not expect him to answer, let alone help a couple of strangers, but soon I was explaining our location to him, and he agreed to meet us with his dog, Charlie.
When Kyle and his brother Kurt arrived, I expected to see a floppy-eared dog the size of a small horse jump off the tailgate, but there was not a dog in sight. When I extended my hand to introduce myself to Kyle, a small head poked out from underneath his coat.
My initial reaction was, “What the heck?” but I kept that thought to myself because I did not want to appear ungrateful, but this was a tiny dog.
I had envisioned a hound like the ones that trail escapees and other “bad guys” in the movies. Instead, our headlamps illuminated a short-legged, long-nosed “wiener dog.”
We led Kyle and Charlie, who was tethered to a long, retractable parachute cord, to the spot where Logan shot. As soon as Kyle set Charlie down near the blood spots, he took off. The paracord zipped out, sounding like a marlin pulling the drag out of a fishing reel. With renewed spirits, we followed Charlie through the darkened woods.
Months later, Kyle agreed to meet for lunch so I could learn more about Charlie and the art of tracking wounded deer. We ran out of time long before running out of things to say.
Charlie is a medium hair Dachshund, a breed from Germany originally bred to trail badgers and wild boar. Kyle chose a Dachshund because of their short stature, which naturally puts their noses closer to the ground; thus, closer to the scent.
Training a dog to trail deer requires patience and time. Kyle explained that he makes “trails” from diluted deer blood and places pieces of hot dogs every 15 yards as a reward. He stressed the importance for staying positive and using rewards and a calm voice as keys for success.
Contrary to popular belief, these dogs do not necessarily track deer by only smelling blood. Kyle said that while there are times Charlie detects miniscule drops of blood, he also smells other substances from the deer. Most of the time, Charlie actually tracks slightly downwind of the deer’s path.
Like humans, animals have a physiological response to stress, resulting in the release of pheromones, a chemical that when mixed with dried skin particles, produce microscopic material called “scarf.” Consequently, scarf wafts from the body to the ground or mixes with blood as it drips down a deer’s body, leaving a scent trail.
Each animal has a distinct aroma, thus a dog’s superior olfactory abilities allow it to detect those differences and stay on the track of the wounded animal. Many times, when trailing a wounded deer, blood droppings will cease, but the dog continues to track the animal by smelling the scent left in the deer’s path.
Kyle has learned that when a wounded deer stops or ascends a hill, the trail oftentimes goes cold. From a biological standpoint, this makes sense. The deer’s body has a chance to rest and settle down; their vital signs return to normal, and then, in a less stressed state, move off relaxed. As a result, the deer produces less, if any, of the fear pheromone.
Charlie and Kyle crested the hill that led to the cornfield and took off at a fast jog. However, Charlie slowed his pace at the end of the field and appeared to lose the trail.
We stood back and watched Charlie work through the long grass. Suddenly, the sound of the paracord whirred in the night air; “The game’s afoot!” With renewed hope and excitement, we followed, for Charlie was back on the trail.
He was about to cross into someone else’s property, so we obtained permission before going in. Unfortunately, shortly after entering the woodlot, Charlie lost the scent. Kyle remained persistent and patient however, but realized that the trail had indeed, gone cold. Charlie’s night was over.
Logan and I returned the next morning at first light and started a grid search, beginning where Charlie stopped the night before. After a few passes, we found the dead buck within 100 yards of where Charlie lost the scent.
Without Charlie, we would have never found the deer; so much for my disparaging doubts about his stature. This dog has heart, intelligence and is a determined, hard-working ally in the woods.
Words cannot express our appreciation and gratitude to Kyle, his brother, and especially, Charlie. Although we started the night out as strangers, I think that sharing in the solemn experience and journey of trailing a wounded deer forms a unique bond between the hunters. In this case, with a little dog, too.