Mental Conditioning and Training Pups

©John Jeanneney

For Full Cry, July 2007

Doing what come naturally.”  That’s the refrain that appeals to every hound owner, myself included. But over the years I’ve come to realize that there’s more involved when you train tracking dogs to find wounded deer.

I suppose that I was “handicapped” by starting out with Clary, my first tracking dog and the best  I have  ever owned. It seemed as if Clary was born knowing how to track wounded deer. After a difficult adolescence, she suddenly became a success. All she had to do was patiently educate her somewhat retarded handler.

Without training Clary tracked and found the first wounded deer on her first opportunity. No blood, except a few drops at the hit site and the deer went 400 yards through open fields. I was tracking for a wildlife official with law enforcement credentials.

            This experience got me started but it  also gave me some misleading ideas that required years of experience to wash out of my system. Yes genetics is important (I was a devoted student of the late J. Richard McDuffie), but genetics is not everything. Today I believe that most dogs, and perhaps even the one in a thousand type dogs like Clary, develop even better if they are exposed to early mental conditioning and training.

So why am I confusing you with these old ideas that I’ve outgrown or expanded? My answer? Because I think I went through a natural process of learning that we all share if we decide to develop a new capability in some of our dogs to track wounded deer.

Tracking wounded deer is different from other kinds of scent work. Everything depends on staying on the right line and ignoring red hot lines of healthy deer. This is not so simple. Imagine going into a hayfield or food plot at night; it’s filled with healthy deer. But these are of no interest to you and to your tracking dog; instead you want to track a wounded deer that crossed 12 or 24 hours ago. If there was any blood at all, the occasional drops slipped down between the grass blades where you can’t see it. For this situation you need a smart dog, a dog whose brain has been developed to make distinctions. I believe that you can make that dog smarter if you begin early to develop the brain circuitry required to make those distinctions. Some of this does come naturally, and this natural part is a matter of genetics, but extensive research on human babies, at one end, and baby rats at the other end, has shown that learning capacity, the full extent  of the brain’s “wiring” also grows in response to stimulation and excitement. If this is true for humans and rats, as fMRI studies and dissections have shown, why wouldn’t it be true for dogs that stand somewhere in between rats and humans?

Even if you are persuaded that early mental conditioning is worth it, how do you work with pups in your own “Head Start” program? It’s not that easy because a five  week-old puppy’s powers of concentration are close to zero. He may have mastered finding his Momma’s teat, but beyond this skill finding the feed pan 10 feet way is about all he can handle. There’s a solution. Now is the time to start keeping and using all those deer livers that you have been leaving in the woods for the coyotes after gutting a deer. At least in my part of the country most deer hunters don’t keep the livers. Maybe they’re worried about cholesterol.

Even if you like deer liver, I think that it’s worth sacrificing it to the higher cause of mental conditioning young puppies. There is absolutely nothing like the scent of liver for turning on young pups. And child research has shown that the memory grows best when things are learned in a mood of excitement…with the adrenaline pumping. Most pups are fascinated by liver, even more than heart, or muscle meat.    

I attach a length of baler twine to a hole in the raw liver and swing it in front of the pups. They sink their little teeth into it and pull. Then I drag it a few feet, and they follow with their nose and eyes. They grab it and chew again.

After this you move out on the lawn, out of sight of the pups, and you lay your first liver drag. Mark the beginning well, because there won’t be any visible blood, and then drag the liver 10,  20 or 30 feet, whatever distance you think the pups can handle. Put an angle in it so they will have to change course. Leave the liver at the end. Wait a half hour and then bring in the pups, one or two at a time.

They may not do very well at first with the scent line but don’t worry. This is not a test or even a training exercise. This is mental conditioning. The puppies are frantic to get to that liver and sink their teeth into it. And in their excitement and desire those brain neurons are growing and networking. The pay-off will come much later.

It took me thirty years of experimenting to conclude that the liver drag is the best way to stimulate very young pups and introduce them early to the Great Truth that a ground scent line goes from “A” to “B”. You can accomplish this in other ways, but I find that deer liver works best. A dragged deer heart will work, but it does not seem to have the same acrid turn-on scent. A dragged deer leg will work too, but it is bulkier keep in the freezer, and it doesn’t leave as narrow and precise a line of scent.

In the next stage of development, which becomes training as well as mental conditioning, you will want to shift over to use of deer blood. More about this in a moment. The problem with fresh blood is that all the pups want to do is lick it right at the starting point. They are not as motivated to move out with the line to get to what’s at the end because they are getting good tastes right at the start. In contrast the dragged liver leaves an enduring scent that holds up at puppy level for several hours. I have seen a mature dog track a 24 hour liver line across mowed, wind-swept field with no difficulty at all. Liver has its own magic!

By eight or ten weeks you can shift over to blood. You will be aging it two to four hours now, so you won’t have the problem of pups hanging up on the line as they stop to lick wet blood. Use a sponge on a stick or a drip bottle and place a drop or a small dab of blood every foot or every yard. Adjust the distance to what you feel the “reaching” capabilities of the pup are at this point.

We get a lot of questions about blood. What kind of blood? For the wirehaired dachshunds I’m working with now, I find that deer blood definitely turns them on more. They have lots of what the dog psychologists call “prey drive”. On the other hand my black mouth cur seemed to be motivated just as well with cow blood. She was motivated by her desire to please and to some degree by her hearty appetite. Lab people, who train  their young dogs with blood, tell me that cow blood works just fine for them.

Bear blood, and hog blood can be kind of scary for some young pups. Deer blood seems “friendlier”, and they make the transition from deer to bear or hogs without any trouble later on when they are more mature.

In most cases deer blood is easier to get than anything else. Unless you do home butchering like my son, getting cow blood is all tied up in red tape. Even if you go to a small custom slaughter house, a government vet is supposed to fill out a lot of paper work guaranteeing that you are going to use the blood for honorable purposes.

Deer blood is no problem if you plan ahead. During hunting season it is easy to collect in gallon size Ziploc bags that you carry in your hunting coat. Take my word for it; use two bags, one inside the other. Between deer seasons there are always road kills. One of the best ways to get blood in this way is to go down to see the boys at the Highway Department. Many of them will be deer hunters, and they are usually willing to call you when they haul in a fresh carcass. Often you can dip two quarts of blood out of the chest cavity. That’s enough for a least eight advanced training sessions.

What I’ve written here has been directed at the breeder who has a litter of pups.

Right now there’s a very strong demand for tracking dogs, and those who raise certain types of dogs might consider developing a few with a high level capability for tracking wounded game.

            The methods mentioned above can also be used by the person who buys a single puppy for blood tracking and other purposes. The brain of a seven to twelve week old puppy is still developing, and much can be gained by applying some of the ideas I’ve mentioned in this article.

There are many ways to train dogs for blood tracking, especially when you get to the more advanced levels. The use of scent shoes, discussed in earlier articles, should not be over-looked for more advanced work. There is more information on this in my book “Tracking Dogs for Finding Wounded Deer.”


Puppy follows deer liver drag. Note plastic clothes line leash.


Puppy finds deer liver at end of scent line.


Puppy has a good chew on deer liver.