Article submitted by Nell McKim, Saskatoon Gun Dog Club, Versatile Hunting Dog Federation – Canada, United Blood Trackers
It started like any other spring morning in rural Saskatchewan; up and at ‘em to get a good start on the day – then the phone rang. On the way to work, my husband had seen a mule deer cross the road and make its way into the grove around our neighbour’s farmyard. The deer was badly injured; moving slowly, dragging one hind leg, and it needed to be humanely dispatched.
I called the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment Inquiries Line and promptly got a call back from Conservation Officer Bruce McLarty who works out of the Humboldt Field Office. After he made a visit to the site, Bruce let me know that he had been unable to locate the injured animal and had to leave the area. If we could find the deer, we were not to leave it to suffer but should shoot it. I agreed to continue looking for the deer, but also had a question for Bruce. If I was unable to find the deer, would he allow me to search again using one of our trained tracking dogs? The dog would be under my control and supervision at all times, in harness and on a long line. I would be unarmed. He agreed and asked me to give him an update later in the day.
When I looked through the area, I found just what Bruce had described: a lot of deer tracks, but no marks from the dragging leg and no blood sign. It was time to call for expert backup!
I put Willow into her tracking harness. She is our 10-year-old Brittany, a seasoned bird dog who has done many practice blood tracks but this time it was the real thing, with an injured animal at the end of the trail. Because I knew where the deer had crossed the road, we could begin by casting across the area where the scent trail led into the corner of the shelterbelt. She immediately put her head down and began tracking in earnest, pulling hard in her harness and working her way between the rows of trees. We had good ground moisture and scraps of snow, so scenting conditions were in our favour. About 50 metres along, Willow made a sharp turn towards the center of the yard where the ground was dry and we lost the track in front of the fuel tanks. The invisible highway of scent had petered out.
After casting around that area with no luck, we took a little break, then decided to search outside the perimeter of the grove to make sure the deer hadn’t left the yard. This resulted in Willow picking up the deer’s scent on the air, so we knew it was still in the yard and we cast about to pick up the trail again. She began to work; head down and pulling hard, then suddenly stopped as the doe slowly stood up out of the long grass between a seed drill and cultivator. No wonder neither Bruce nor I could find her.
We backed out of the area and watched the doe relocate a short distance to a small bunch of brush. In a few minutes, my son arrived and he was able to kill the doe with a safe shot. On examination, she had a closed fracture of the left femur. Her thigh was filled with a huge hematoma and she had a couple of fresh skin abrasions which were not scabbed over. Hit by car? Caught in a fence? We couldn’t tell. Like many deer last winter, this deer became food for coyotes, but at least she met a quick and humane end before they found her. Later that day, it felt good to let Bruce know how we had been able to find the doe and that she was no longer suffering.
It took a team to make this happen: Bruce McLarty C.O., my husband, our son, myself, and of course the key player was the little dog who worked out the puzzle.
At this time, Saskatchewan does not allow the use of leashed tracking dogs to recover legally shot and wounded big game animals during hunting season; however, it is possible to train dogs and handlers for this task. Leashed tracking dogs are presently used in many countries all over the world, including 40 of the U. S. states and in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, and we are working to make it happen here in Saskatchewan. Changing the regulations to allow leashed and supervised dogs to track wounded big game will aid in the recovery of many animals that would otherwise be lost and wasted, and will ensure the most humane harvest possible.
Almost any dog from any breed can be taught to track. In support of this activity, the Saskatoon Gun Dog Club and the Versatile Hunting Dog Federation Canada offer coaching and training opportunities which help handlers and their dogs learn to track effectively and improve the recovery of wounded big game animals.
This article was submitted to Outdoor Canada Magazine and an edited version was published in the January/February 2020, Western View issue.