Training your dog to track and recover crippled game.
If you're up for it, I have some suggestions for training your dog to associate a certain cue or command like "hunt dead" or "track" with the act of focusing his attention on ground scent to search out crippled game. This training is an ongoing process and something we can even work on during the hunt -- and it's rewarding as well. The dog gets a bird to retrieve, and you get a bird that might otherwise have been lost.
Conserving wildlife is one of the more important functions of our gun dogs, and most hunters agree it's important for their dogs to be able to locate and follow a scent trail to retrieve crippled birds. So let's consider how we might build the idea into our training as a way to help our dogs be more effective.
Before starting, let's talk about what the track is, or more accurately, what we think it is.
Most agree the scent path left by a crippled bird has two fundamental parts. First, there is the warm, free-floating, lighter body scent of the bird's breath and body warmth itself; and second, there is the "heavier" scent, spoor from the bird's body, feathers, etc., mixed with disturbed soil, damaged vegetation and possibly blood smells. This heavier part of the track tends to hang in the cover and on the ground as the bird passes, while the lighter portion will lift and float on the wind.
As you progress with these lessons, you will find your dog may track very deliberately with his head down, or he may be the type who runs with a high head and follows the lighter body scent drifting downwind of the actual path the bird took. The method or style of tracking your dog uses makes no difference. We just want him to follow the track and retrieve the birds. The only problem with relying on the lighter, drifting scent is that it dissipates a good deal faster.
The Command Word
Before you start, choose a command word. Most bird hunters use "hunt dead" or "track-track" as a command when they have birds down and want their dogs to settle into and focus on an area.
INTRODUCTION TO TRACKING
Our goal is to be able to bring our dog to an area, command him to hunt dead or track, which he associates with understanding he must slow down, concentrate and work the area closely to find where the bird dropped to earth, along with the scent trail left as the bird moved away. Once the dog locates the track he again has to concentrate and use his nose to follow the scent path.
Most hunting dogs worth their salt quickly associate your command with a natural instinct to track. When this is coupled with a few successful sessions, the understanding is fixed.
And please don't get hung up on the idea that your dog will run with a low head once he has learned to track€¦that's jut not true. This exercise will not alter his normal style of hunting,
For these training sessions you will need to have someone work with you. You will need your check rope, a five-foot cord, and two or three dead pigeons or gamebirds. The area used should have good cover, eight to ten inches in height.
Let's teach your dog to run a simple drag track first, as this is a great way to get him to understand our cue or command word.
Take the length of cord, make a loop in the end and attach it to the bird. Ask your helper to walk out about 15 yards and stand ready with the bird.
Now attach a check rope to your dog and hold him in position. For the first few times it helps if the dog can see the bird fall and the direction of the track. Remember, as we said earlier, tracking takes concentration, so try to keep your dog calm as he watches. Have your helper pull a few feathers from the bird and leave them where the bird will fall.
Next, as the dog watches, have your helper toss the bird in the air while holding the cord, then walk off dragging the bird downwind for about 20 yards. Then your helper should take the cord off and circle downwind back to you.
Keeping the check rope on your dog, walk him to the area of the fall. Using your command, "hunt dead" or "track-track," show the dog the feathers. If the dog tries to leave the area without tracking, pull him back with the check rope and show him the track.
Note: When you set up it helps to run the check rope from the collar down and back between his legs rather than hooking to the collar on top as you would normally hook a lead or check rope. This way, when you apply pressure it pulls the dog's head down rather than up and away from the scent.
Most dogs will soon find the track and begin to follow it. Don't say anything at this time; just move along with the dog, holding a loose check rope. If the dog moves off the track, pull him back and encourage him to follow by moving your hand along the track to draw attention to the spot.
As your dog moves along and finds the bird, praise him and run back to the start of the track, calling his name as he follows with the bird. When the dog returns, don't grab the bird immediately, but praise him first, let him enjoy his success for a few moments, then say "leave it" and take the bird.
Now you're ready to set a few drag tracks the dog doesn't see and run the same drill.
Another way to build on this process is with longer drags and at different angles to the wind so the dog gains experience working scent trails and connects his efforts with success.
Also, please realize training on drags is a lot easier for the dog than tracking actual downed birds, but you now have a command or cue as a way of focusing the dog's attention to a particular spot, along with an understanding of the reward for concentrating on the track.
Finally, as you are hunting you can apply the same technique and you will find things really start to click with your dog after a few successful recoveries.
Bottom line, you now have another "tool" in your trick bag and have greatly improved your odds of coming home with dinner!