Evaluating Dachshund Puppies for Blood Tracking  

by Jolanta Jeanneney

 From Dachshund Club of America Newsletter
Above And Below Ground: Dachshunds At Work  
December 2002

Lynne Dahlén, DCA Newsletter Editor, asked me to write a quarterly column for the newsletter on field activities for dachshunds. This request was a result of informal discussion on Dachsforum on hunting and tracking with dachshunds. I have accepted Lynne’s invitation and will try my best to cover a wide variety of topics on working dachshunds – hunting, field trials, earthdog activities and tracking. Your feedback is always welcome and I would love to include stories and pictures of your dogs in action. Also, I would like to hear what your areas of interest are and what questions you might have. You can reach me at jola@born-to-track.com .

Before I go any further let me introduce myself. I have owned dachshunds since 1977 and have been involved in breeding and field trialing since 1990. Eight years ago, I moved to the USA and married John Jeanneney, co-founder of Deer Search Inc. At the time, we combined our kennels and breeding programs. We breed wirehaired standard dachshunds for tracking wounded big game and our kennel’s combined name is “von Moosbach-Zuzelek”. I am an AKC field trial judge, North American Teckel Club field judge and a licensed New York State handler of leashed tracking dogs for finding wounded deer and bear. Field triailing is one of my favorite activities and I have been lucky to co-own with John nine standard wires awarded Absolute wins at field trials. Two bitches of our breeding were number #1 field trial dogs in 1997 and 1999. But enough about me, let’s talk about working dachshunds.

For my first column, I would like to write about evaluation of puppies for blood tracking. This was a topic of discussion on Dachsforum and I was asked to elaborate on this here – how we test our puppies before we sell them to hunting homes. Before I go into details, a short introduction to blood tracking is needed.

Blood tracking is a method of using tracking dogs to find wounded big game such as deer and bear. Sometimes a hunter fails to make a shot that kills deer on the spot. A deer is wounded and may die later or may recover. If a hunter cannot find the wounded deer by following its tracks, blood or other signs available, a tracking dog can be of a great use. The dog tracks by following the blood scent and other body and footprint scents of the individual animal being tracked.

Blood tracking has been an integral part of hunting in the European tradition. In some European countries it is illegal to hunt big game unless a hunter can enlist help from a handler with a tracking dog. In most of North America, for quite complex reasons, tracking wounded game with dogs has been illegal. However, in the last 20 years in many states such as New York, Vermont , Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Wisconsin and Maine the law has been changed and the use of tracking dogs has been growing. For more information go to the website put out by Deer Search at www.deersearch.org.

In the Northeast and Midwest , where a tracking dog has to be kept on the leash, the dachshund has been a breed of choice for many trackers. This is not the only breed of dogs used, but because dachshunds are small and easy to train and handle, they are by far the most popular. However, not all dachshunds make good tracking dogs, and it is not because of the lack of nose. When a tracking dog is brought to the field and asked to track a specific wounded deer, this is not an easy task. Usually quite a few hours have elapsed, and in many instances, Deer Search handlers get on a track, which is at least 12 -24 hours old. Frequently hunters have already exhausted all other means of finding the wounded animal and the track has been trampled by many feet. Often healthy deer and other game crossed the wounded deer’s old track and left fresher scent, which can be very enticing and tempting, especially to a young dog. This is probably the biggest challenge for a tracking dachshund – to ignore hot lines of healthy deer and focus completely on the cold track of the wounded game. A wounded deer can go a long way, it can bleed very little, and the way it travels is quite unpredictable. It can go uphill, through thick brush, swamps, can cross a road; it can back track. When a tracking dog locates the wounded deer, in some cases the deer is already dead. The job of a tracker is done and a dog is praised and rewarded with pieces of meat from the deer it found. In some situations, however, the deer, though mortally wounded, is still alive and has to be humanely finished with a gun. Needless to say, a tracking dog should not be gun-shy. Considering what is demanded of a tracking dog, it is not difficult to come up with a list of attributes that are required of a good tracking dachshund. It is a long list, but let’s look at it more closely. The characteristics are mentioned in no particular order.

A dachshund used for blood tracking has to have a good functional conformation, i.e. conformation that will allow it function well in the field and woods. The dog has to be able to track for several hours in a thick brush and briars and withstand such punishing cover well. The dog may have to go through streams and swamps, may be asked to track during rain or snow. Stamina and endurance go a long way. A good working coat is a big plus. The dog’s temperament is important because in many cases it has to track with a group of strangers (hunters) following. Other characteristics of great importance are desire to track, line sense, intelligence, concentration and focus, good nose, patience, courage, initiative and desire to please a handler. Tracking wounded deer is a team effort and a handler and his dog interact during tracking a lot. A handler may see some other signs that a wounded deer left behind (smears of blood left high on the shrubs) and when a dog is in doubt a handler will help the dog to figure out the track. Hence, a dog’s willingness to cooperate with a handler and its desire to please are not to be ignored.

It is our breeding goal to produce dachshunds that can function well in hands of hunters and trackers, but bear in mind that in a majority of tracking homes, these dogs are also family pets. This is one of the great appeals of the dachshund to a hunter and handler – the dog can be so useful in the field and at the same time, it can be a cherished and beloved family companion.

It is very difficult to say what role genetics plays in controlling the attributes that make a good tracking dog. It is an interesting topic, which could be addressed in a future column. However, since we guarantee our puppies for “tracking ability”, we need to be able to evaluate their potential. Of course, a lot will depend on what kind of training they will receive, but by early conditioning and testing, we can improve their odds of success.

We start observing our puppies from their birth. All puppies have ribbons of different colors around their necks and this way we are never in doubt about “who is who”. At seven weeks, we perform the standard puppy aptitude test, which can predict temperamental tendencies quite well, but is not error-proof. We have had our share of surprises. Starting with the day #35 we start to condition puppies to the firearm sound on tape. We also make sure that they are exposed to a wide variety of noises like a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, blender, a whistle, TV etc. Once puppies are up and mobile, we take them for walks in the field and woods so they are exposed to a variety of natural scents. It is important that they are accustomed to heavy cover, wet grass, drizzle, and that they go outside when it is dark. A mild stress is beneficial at this stage.

We start to test our pups on deer blood at 8 weeks. Usually when we track for hunters, we end up with a freezer full of deer blood and deer organs (liver and heart). They are excellent for testing and training purposes.

First, we thaw out the deer liver and we drag it across the lawn. The liver is placed at the end of line, which at the beginning is just about 20 yards long. We age the line for 15 minutes and then we test puppies individually. If you let all the pups come to the line in a group, there is just too much commotion, play and competitive racing. It takes time, but pups have to be tested individually. We score their performance on the scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the best. We pay attention to such questions as: 

Is it nose oriented?
Does it concentrate or is it easily distracted?  
What kind of line control does it show?
What working style does it demonstrate?
Can it finish the line without help?
How does it react to the liver or other deer parts at the end?

We do this kind of testing/conditioning once a week for at least 4 weeks. Notes and records are kept on each puppy’s progress. The testing line gets longer and is aged more with every week. One can say a lot about the puppy by the time it is 12-14 weeks old, not just its natural tracking ability, but also its intelligence, focus, courage, sensitivity to noise, self control. At the end of the testing session we let all the puppies play with the deer hide and observe them as a group and how individual puppies interact within the group. We watch if the pup is possessive of the hide. Does it growl at other pups? Is it determined to claim the hide as its own or does it walk away from it under pressure from other puppies?  

What kind of performance would we score as a ”10”? We would like to see an intense interest in the scent of deer blood. A puppy should be able to figure out pretty quickly that there is a line of scent i.e. scent leads from point A to point B, and be able to follow it. If a puppy gets off line, it should be able to correct itself and get back on it. We like a relatively calm and slow pup, not a speed demon that overruns its nose all the time. Focus and intensity are very important. A pup that gets very easily distracted by other things around and cannot focus on the track is a rather poor prospect. We like to see a pup showing interest and some aggressiveness towards the parts of deer left at the end of line. The pup that acts fearful or is turned off by them does not score very well. Not all good tracking dogs are intensely interested in the “find”. There are some that just love tracking and do not care much about what they find at the end of line, but they should not be afraid of a piece of deer hide.

Some pups are very precocious and at 10-12 weeks show an amazing aptitude. There are also some that, even though not precocious, show a steady progress. And then, occasionally, there are puppies that do not show any promise at all and in this case, we sell them as pets.

In a recent litter, one of the six pups was apprehensive when approaching the deer organs and hide, and even though he tried to follow the line, he was all over the place and was getting distracted very easily. At 14 weeks, we sold him as a pet and received a letter from the buyer few weeks later: "The last week with Gipper has been just great. He is eating well, playing boldly, and only showing occasional stubbornness on the leash. He takes to the water very well, and has seen and smelled his first deer. I think the only thing limiting his tracking ability is his concentration--he gets distracted very easily." Most likely, this lack of focus will stay with Gipper for a long time to come.

If we decide to keep a puppy for ourselves, we will also test it for voicing ability, as we want our dachshunds to open on rabbits. We cannot test pups of 12-14 weeks for voicing ability; this comes much later. When we talked to some breeders in Germany , they claimed that they want to see pups voicing at the age of 4 months. This is early for our dogs. Occasionally, a pup will open at the age of 3 or 4 months, but usually they start later. We expect the dogs we keep to open before they are 12 months old.

We keep in touch with the buyers and we get a lot of feedback on the dogs we have sold. This really helps to evaluate our breeding decisions. Since we, ourselves, can only work with few dogs at a time, we rely on what we hear back from the hunters. In many cases, we make a hard decision not to keep the best dog for ourselves because we know we would not be able to realize the full potential of the dog. Such a dog would be better off with a hunter, where it would be the only dog and would get a lot of work. In cases like this, we usually arrange to keep breeding rights on the dog.  

The testing system described is not carved in stone; it evolves constantly. We have not invented it all by ourselves – it is derived from what we have learned from others plus our own experience. It has been serving us rather well as we get very, very few tracking puppies returned The records are also very helpful when it comes to planning future litters.