Every fall Brady Hesington disappoints Kansas hunters struggling to find a deer they’ve shot.
“In November I average 10 to 15 calls and I just have to tell them blood tracking dogs are illegal in Kansas,” said Hesington, of Monett, Mo., the owner of two dogs that specialize in trailing wounded deer. “Some are in Kansas from other states, like Michigan, where dogs are legal. Quite a few are Kansas residents that end up wishing it was legal in Kansas.”
Some have thought so for quite a while.
“I think if you shoot a deer, and need help recovering that deer, you should be able to (use a dog) and recover that deer,” said Tim Donges, an El Dorado hunter and Quality Deer Management Association member. “Anytime we can help a hunter recover a deer, we should do what we can.”
According to unitedbloodtrackers.org, the website of a national group that promotes dogs for recovering big game, more than half of all states allow such methods. Kevin Jones, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism law enforcement chief, said the agency has heard from supportive hunters like Donges at assorted public meetings.
He also said many discussions have included some who fear legalization of dogs for trailing deer could lead to abuse of the privilege, and people letting free-ranging dogs chase deer toward other hunters.
John Jeanneney, probably America’s top expert on tracking dogs, said that’s a common public perception he’s dealt with for 40 years.
Tracking, not chasing
It was about that long ago, while in Europe, Jeanneney met German foresters who told him blood tracking dogs were legal in most of Europe and were required by most hunting clubs to reduce the number of unrecovered animals. Upon his return he talked with New York wildlife officials about legalizing tracking dogs. Many were hesitant, because of the fears of free-ranging packs of hounds.
“It wasn’t easy, but I got a research permit from them and we started doing research,” said Jeanneney, of Berne, NY. “I got some good people to come in with me and I guess we found some deer for the right people.”
Rather than long-legged hounds running on their own, Jeanneney proved the method’s worth with his imported wire-haired dachshunds always leashed. What dogs could accomplish also impressed many.
“They’re not just trailing blood, they’re trailing the individual scent of the deer,” he said, adding that glands between a deer’s hooves leave scent on the ground and every deer has its own unique scent.
Dean Harre, a Missouri Department of Conservation law enforcement supervisor, said there were similar pros and cons discussed when tracking dogs were legalized about five years ago. He said that “a culture” existing in parts of southern Missouri where some use packs of free-running hounds to illegally chase deer, hurt the cause.
Jeanneney said most states that allow tracking dogs have fairly specific regulations, including that dogs most be on a leash and trespass is not allowed. In New York, Deer Search, an organization he helped found, has chapters scattered around the state to help hunters.
In New York, hunters contact a state-licensed tracker, who notifies local game wardens of where, and for whom, they will be tracking. Landowner permission is required at all times and dogs must remain on a leash throughout the pursuit. Also, their dog handlers are allowed to carry firearms, and can kill a deer deemed mortally wounded or dangerous.
“I’ve been charged and knocked down by a (wounded) buck,” Jeanneney said. He currently has a dachshund recovering from being injured by a deer.
Harre said Missouri does not require trackers to be licensed, but hunters must have exhausted standard trailing methods, dogs must be leashed and permission gained from the local game warden. The law specifically states trespass laws apply and hunters and dog handlers cannot carry a gun or bow.
Hesington said most hunters find his contact information on the United Blood Trackers website. He is allowed to charge a nominal fee to help cover some travel expenses. Jeanneney said Deer Search volunteers may not accept money but the group does welcome donations.
Both trackers said it’s common for their dogs to locate a deer 24 hours after it was shot, and 48-hour finds aren’t uncommon. “The (scenting) conditions are more important than the time that’s passed,” Jeanneney said. Some trails have led for several miles.
Success rates for the two trackers and their dogs runs about 30 percent, though they estimate most of the deer they don’t recover were not fatally hit and many later appear on trail cameras or are shot by other hunters. Jeanneney said he and his dogs have helped recover about 300 deer or black bears through the years.
Many popular dog breeds are used for blood trailing, as are some few Americans have heard of.
Jeanneney still uses wire-haired dachshunds and said the breed is popular for trailing in Europe. Hesington has a Bavarian Mountain Hound, a breed largely developed for tracking, and a wachtelhund, another German breed that’s bred for great diversity afield. He said many trackers use European breeds better known for bird hunting, like German shorthairs and German wirehairs, because the dogs have good tracking instincts.
Jeanneney said beagles, basset hounds and Labrador retrievers are commonly trained to track game in many parts of the country.
Hesington began training his dogs at 10 weeks of age, having them trail where raw liver was dragged through the grass with a piece of the meat at the end. Eventually trails become more complex and involved frozen deer blood and eventually long trails left by deer hooves attached to a trainer’s boots.
Its very rare that a well-trained dog takes off tracking the wrong deer, or the wrong species of game.
“Every time I put the tracking harness on my dog, he knows what he’s there for,” Hesington said. “They know they’re tracking wounded game, and that’s their job at the time.” Hesington also uses his dogs on other game and has recently shot several rabbits with their help.
Through the past four decades, Jeanneney said he’s see the development of a group whose prime outdoors passion is using their dogs to help locate game shot by others.
“It can be a lot of work, and some long hours, but it is very enjoyable and rewarding for people who like working with dogs,” said, Jeanneney, who at 78 has given up some kinds of hunting but is still regularly tracking with dogs.
“I’ve been known to climb down out of my treestand during the peak of rut to go help somebody recover a deer,” Hesington said. “I know guys that do 300 tracks a year or more. We have a lot of blood trackers who aren’t even hunters, they’re just people who want to work with their dogs and help make the best use of the resource.”
Is Kansas next?
Both experts said they’re hearing from sportsmen in several states, including Kansas, who want to get tracking dogs legalized for wounded game.
Chris Tymeson, Wildlife and Parks attorney, said while the use of dogs to recover deer has been discussed at several meetings, his department has never been asked to investigate the topic thoroughly.
Jeanneney said of Kansas, “… you need that one point man to lobby the state.”
Hesington said the biggest problem he sees in other states “is a lack of education on the legislator’s part.”
In Missouri, all has been going pretty well since tracking dogs became legal about five years ago.
“We don’t really hear any issues from our agents in the field or from other hunters,” Harre said. “It’s actually gone over quite well.”
Several states have recently asked to look at Missouri’s model for allowing the dogs afield.
Donges thinks if tracking dogs are legalized in Kansas, hunters will see few additional problems afield.
“If guys are going to hunt illegally they’re going to hunt illegally. They can already (run deer with hounds) and just say they’re hunting coyotes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, when you say you’re going to change things people get alarmed, but if we can help people recover their deer, we should.”