Big game recovery dogs are a new hunting trend that is starting to gain momentum as a legitimate
practice in many parts of the Lower 48 states. Generally in most states it is illegal to pursue big game, especially deer, moose and other ungulates, with a dog. In a few states they have preserved a long standing American tradition of hunting bears, boars, and mountain lions with special hounds bred for the job. But they are the exception rather than the mainstream of state law throughout the USA. The primary reason for forbidding such a practice is simply because.... It Works! Sitting in a tree stand all day from sunrise to sunset often ends with no deer harvest. The season often closes with many a hunter going home frustrated, empty handed and disappointed. After all, when we go out to hunt, we do it to bring home some game for the freezer.
For thousands of years in Scandinavia, Russia and all of Europe it was a common practice of the wealthy to pursue deer, moose, wild boars, bears and wolves with dogs. The dogs would either circle the prey and herd it towards the hunter, hold it at bay until the hunter arrived, or simply run the prey to exhaustion so that the hunter could dispatch the tired animal. This was so successful that soon the wealthy realized that if all hunters used such methods, the game would be hunted to extinction, as human populations grew. So, as in many other issues, the wealthy and powerful reserved hunting with dogs for themselves as an aristocratic privilege. It was not uncommon for a peasant to be hung if he also pursued deer or other game with his dog, for it was treated as a serious crime.
As America was settled by old world Europeans, the push Westward often included hunting as a mainstay of survival. Frontiersmen and westward settlers hunted daily for the stew pot. Americans developed a new ethic of hunting distinctively different than the European Aristocrats. For Americans, hunting was like breathing; to outlaw it was like making breathing a crime. During that epic age of exploration and frontier independence, hunting with dogs in America reached a golden age. It was a time when distinctive american breeds and new hunting practices were developed. In the Rocky mountains hunting bears and mountain lions with large packs of specialized dogs (mutts by European standards) became so necessary to cattlemen, that professional predator hunters made a good living chasing their dogs as they pursued bears, wolves, and lions.
But back on the East coast, as Old world money began to invest in the New world economy, they began to immigrate to the North East, and bring with them their Aristocratic attitudes about game management. To the wealthy European immigrant, and new American moguls of wealth, hunting was a privileged sport. They didn't need the meat or pelts of game, for they were rich. They imposed upon themselves restrictions to make hunting more challenging, to display superior skill in competition. To them, the sight of a buckskin wearing pioneer chasing a deer with a deer dog was a scandalous scene. After all, the commoners were not worthy to own a deer dog, let alone hunt with one. They remembered their tradition, that ownership of such breeds was restricted to the nobility by law.
So two contradictory philosophies of hunting began to take root in America. The sport hunter and the pioneer subsistence hunter, hunting for very different reasons. They had little in common. But in the long run the sport hunting philosophy gradually spread across the country and pushed out that pioneer subsistence. After all, the wealthy have far more time to lobby legislators than a tired pioneer who is clearing land, planting crops and building a log cabin. The wealthy also had more money to donate to campaigns than the pioneer with dirt under his fingernails. It was inevitable that the pioneer subsistence would become nothing more than sentimental memories of bygone days.
So state after state eventually outlawed pursuing deer and other large prey with dogs. It was too successful, and hunting regulations generally have only one purpose... to reduce the success rate of hunters. If you crash your bush plane in the wilderness and you don't want to starve, then look in your state hunting regulation booklet for those practices that are illegal methods of taking game. Use those methods and your success rate will likely be greater. I am not advocating that hunters break the law, but only pointing out the real motivation for restricting hunting big game with dogs. It never passes through the mind of the average hunter the obvious contradiction, that it is respectable to hunt game birds with dogs, but a crime to hunt deer or moose with a dog.
With my moralizing speculations expressed I will move on to the title issue. In Alaska you may not legally allow your dog to track, chase, harass, herd or hold at bay any moose, deer, bear, muskox, caribou, or other large game. You are not legally allowed to tree a Martin or Lynx with a dog. It doesn't matter that Laika treed martin and Lynx for thousands of years, and that Athabascan natives of Alaska and Canada treed lynx with dogs for centuries. It matters not that Inuits routinely pursued polar bears with dogs. All is now illegal in Alaska, with rare exceptions. That leaves owners of fine hunting dogs, like Karelian bear Dogs, Laika, and Elkhounds frustrated. Their dogs are meant to hunt these animals in the ways that are outlawed by the state.
There is one loop hole though! You may use a dog to track wounded game on a leash. At first this seems to offer little satisfaction. But after 18 years of experience hunting in Alaska and many more hunting deer in the Midwestern lower 48, I know of many hunters who have shot moose and deer, yet never recovered them. They tell common stories of shooting a deer or moose. They are sure it was a killing shot, that the animal would surely die eventually. Yet after hours of searching for blood sign and tracking, the animal is never found. Once I found the bones of a deer that has long been cleaned of meat by animals and maggots. Lodged in a bone of that deer was a razor sharp broad head. I knew the area and where the shot was likely taken, less than a mile from where the deer laid down and never got back up again. That hunter probably looked for that wounded deer, but once the blood sign stops showing, there is little human senses can do to find a deer desperate to get away.
Had that hunter had a trained big game retrieval dog, he would have found that deer and likely filled his tag. I have witnessed moose hunters make lethal shots, only to have the moose slip into willow and alder thickets, never to be found. Moose have a strange ability to pass through very tight thick brush without leaving signs that they passed through. Some critics may say that poor marksmanship and irresponsible shooting is to blame for such losses. But I would respond by saying that many experienced hunters have recovered lethally shot game that were able to travel a mile or two before expiring. I once witnessed a moose survive a lethal lung shot for 24 hours, and was able to get up and stumble away the next day when we found it. If you loose such an animal in deep thick brush or swamp environments where bogs and muskeg leave no discernible visible signs, a recovery dog may be the only solution.
After 18 years of hunting in Alaska and talking to many hunters over the years, I feel confident in saying that at least 50% of regular hunters sooner or later shoot large game and fail to retrieve it with their best efforts. Often they give up and move on to shoot another moose, while their lost moose dies in some obscure thicket and rots. That moose should be in a freezer being put to good use. Ethical hunting should include the use of a recovery dog. The snobbery of some that look upon it as some sort of cheating are merely advocating for letting a perfectly good moose go to waste. The one fish and game regulation that seems most ethical to me is the wanton waste law. The state requires the hunter to harvest all edible meat, and not hunt merely for trophy antlers. Big game recovery dogs could and should be encouraged when all human efforts have been exhausted.
This ethic is logical and consistent. Many countries in Europe legally require deer hunters to either have their own wounded game recovery dog, or seek the services of someone who does, if a deer is shot but not found. Yet in some states in the USA using a tracking dog to recover deer is illegal, such as my home state of Iowa. This is simply an ignorant prejudice that causes many deer to rot in the woods when they could have fed a family. As far as I know, it is rare to use recovery dogs in Alaska, but I hope that begins to change. In the early days of Alaskan pioneer exploration, it was common to use dogs to flush out wounded bears from alder thickets, a practice brought up from rocky mountain states that had a long tradition of such. But in Alaska is was common to use huskies, particularly Malamute and other Inuit breeds to work bears. But for this post I am primarily concentrating on recovering moose, for recovering wounded bears with dogs is an entirely more dangerous practice than recovering a moose. Bear recovery requires it's own detailed post that we do not have room for in this post.
Here at St. Hugh's Mountain Kennel we have some dogs capable of tracking moose, and one that excels in recovering wounded moose. As each new litter is born and gets about 8-9 weeks old I test each pup for potential hunting work. These tests are not a guarantee though, and some that fail the test while young sometimes later turn into great hunting dogs with proper experience and training opportunity. With that in mind though, not every puppy has what it takes. And I have sold some excellent puppies that were never trained to reach their full potential by the new owners, who often are too busy or unable to train a pup for tracking. Many people are obsessed with particular breeds, as though each dog of that breed is the perfect dog. My experience has been that breed matters less than the individual temperament of each puppy. I once had a Siberian husky that would track deer and other game very well. It was a strange sight to see a Siberian Husky track wounded game like a blood hound. She had an excellent nose and could track for 1/4 mile without lifting her nose from the trail. This is an example of an individual dog that was as good as any tracking dog, yet not a typical tracking breed. I learned a lot from that dog about working with a tracking dog.
So what does one look for in a big game recovery dog. First of all you must understand the difference between pursuit, baying and recovery tracking. Those three hunting skills of a dog require different temperaments. It is a rare dog that does all three. Pursuing game merely means to run after game and try to catch up with it. Some dogs naturally do this, others do not. Among those that do, some will cooperate with the hunter, and others will totally forget about their hunting partner. The later are useless to the hunter and only scare away game. The good pursuit dog will silently close the distance between the dog and the game.
A good pursuit dog is quiet and subtle. It understands that it's job is to get that animal and the hunter close enough to each other for the kill. Ideally a pursuit dog should pass beyond the game, circle in front of it and cut off his escape. This gives the hunter a chance to catch up. At this point a pursuit dog can do two things... A.) herd the game towards the hunter, or... B.) bay the dog, which means to bark and distract the game so that it stays in place. I would say that a dog that will not circle is no good. Dogs that pursue only in a straight line, and then confront the game while the dog's rear is facing the direction of the hunter, are dogs that only spook game further away. If you have such a dog, leave him home when you go hunting. Circling the target game is fundamental to all canine hunting skills, and a dog that does not naturally learn this quickly will only frustrate the hunter in pursuit.
A pursuit dog uses sight, smell, and hearing, and defers to his nose when nothing is available to the other senses. When hearing or sight can be used he abandons scent tracking and travel straight to the sight or sound to close the distance. This is useful because game often wander in zig-zag paths as they feed, so scent only tracking would be slower.
This is the kind of hunting that Karelian bear dogs, Laika, and Elkhounds are used for in the old country. But we can not legally hunt like this in Alaska.
Tracking on the other hand is legal on wounded game, provided you have a leash. Tracking dogs are slower, and depend primarily on scent. Their noses are down to the track most of the time, and they look up less than a pursuit dog. A pursuit dog ranges far away from the hunter using his speed to catch up to wandering game. A tracking dog must prefer to work within leash distance of the hunter, so it is a, "hang tight," kind of dog. Baying dogs bark or, "bay," as it is often called. But a tracking dog must be quiet until his nose has found the animal bedded down. He must use silent cues to tell the hunter that the game is near, such as freezing and starring in the direction of the game, or stopping to look back at the hunter. Some may have the hair of their back raise up and get real stiff. Others may utter a very soft low growl.
A good tracking dog does not attack the game, but stops the hunter by signal, in case the game needs a finishing shot or two. A good tracking dog will not spook a wounded moose bedded down. I have seen video of elkhounds baying live moose and it is a spectacular sight to behold; but a recovery dog is very quiet and cunning. More than once I have had a recovery dog so obsessed with scent and track that it tracked right up to the dead moose or other game and didn't look up until their nose bumped into the game. It is sort of funny to see the dog jump back startled, surprised that a moose or other game would actually be at the end of the track.
With these factors in mind the list of qualities to look for in a good tracking dog are... 1.)Dominant sense of smell. 2.)Quiet and calm. 3.)Hang tight cooperation with handler by leash. 4.)Good nonverbal communication by body language. 5.) Self restraining dogs that do not spook game.
A pursuit dog is very different. The list of traits to look for are... 1.)Use of all senses, with the tendency to break away from scent to follow sound and sight of game. 2.)Quiet in pursuit, and annoying bark in herding or baying. 3.)Free ranges far out from hunter to cover more ground. It must operate and make decisions independently. 4.)The dog need not be restrained, but rather aggressive in harassing game and herding them.
So when you are shopping for a puppy or adult dog to hunt with, look for the traits that are appropriate to the kind of hunting you are looking for. That is the foundation upon which to build a
good hunting relationship with your dog.
I have written briefly about big game recovery with a northern dog in previous blog posts. As a reminder from before, the reason I call it, "big game recovery," is because in the state of Alaska it is illegal to pursue big game with dogs, either to harass, hound, or hold at bay until the hunter catches up. This means that for owners of Northern Spitz hunting breeds, such as Karelian bear Dogs, Elkhounds, and Siberian Laika, it is illegal to use their natural hunting temperament as they were originally bred to do. I think it is important to establish that such laws are essentially outlawing a class of breeds that have been hunting big game longer than mankind has been writing, forming governments, and legislating law. It would be similar to outlawing cat's hunting mice, birds flying or fish swimming. It is putting something nature has produced by thousands of years of refinement into the category of criminality. This is typical of the domesticated legislator who lives in a suburb and works from a desk, completely cut off from the natural world.
This sort of legislation will eventually cause the extinction of such dogs. Yes, we will have dogs called, "Karelian Bear dogs," and, "Elkhounds," for many more decades. But they will be that only in name, not in reality. For if dogs are not bred by working hunters who hunt with their dogs, and are only produced in AKC kennels for urban pets, they loose their hunting genius. Once a breed has lost that hunting drive, it is very hard to recover it. I would hope that readers of this blog would advocate for making big game pursuit with dogs legal in Alaska, and take their dogs hunting when they can legally do so. These breeds will be ruined beyond recovery if the law does not change and hunters