Deer dogs: The suitability test

Rudi van Kets puts a new crop of deer dogs through their paces on a new test devised by his tracking group

The suitability test our tracking dog association runs is based on the national recognised test for tracking dogs. The test must be taken by each new member of the association or member who has bought a new dog.

The new members receive the necessary material and practical rules about this test at a previous meeting. To avoid confusion, we use the guidelines that apply to an approved test. Everything is very clear and everyone knows what to expect.

Our base for this suitability test is Oizy, a village in the province of Namur. One of our members, together with his wife, runs a B&B there, which is surrounded by a beautiful hunting area. The hunting area contains a nice mix of deciduous trees and pine trees with plenty of open space – the ideal location to produce a varied track for dogs to follow.

On a Friday in the late afternoon, the first members of the association arrived. It gave them the opportunity to enjoy a local beer on the terrace, to talk through the plan for the next few days and divide up the necessary tasks.

On Saturday, the real work began. The first point of order was to lay the tracks. The owner of the B&B, Rik, had indicated some forests on the map of the hunting ground that would make ideal locations for the track. We planned to lay them in such a way that there would be minimal disruption for the game in the area.

The plots Rik had chosen were far apart. This way, there was no risk that the different tracks would run over each other – and as they collectively covered a greater area, there was a higher chance animals would pass over them after they were laid. If this happens, there’s an extra temptation on the track, which increases the level of difficulty.

The structure of a track is always the same: make a shot scene, prepare track shoes for the track, and head off with GPS in hand to check the distance of the tracks. As we set the trails, our main observation was it was very dry in the woods. It promised to be a difficult test.

Around 6.30pm we finished up the tracks, leaving plenty of time for the wildlife that was present to add the necessary temptation overnight. We retired to the terrace – a pleasant place to be at dusk. There was time for us to exchange stories and conversation topics over the evening – though it was inevitable that the main discussions were about the upcoming test.

The day of the test dawned, and gradually the members from the different corners of Belgium arrived. Once everyone was gathered, two of our members sounded the traditional hunting horns. Musical notes reverberated over the quiet forests of Oizy; now things were serious.

Rik gave the initial announcements, explaining what had happened the day before and that everyone would draw their participant number by means of a lottery. Further explanation was not necessary.

One of our members had had an accident a few years ago, while the training of his young dog was only partially complete. Right then, we all made a promise to help him, whatever the circumstances.

A surrogate hunter was provided to assist the dog and man in training and prepare for this test. It was a challenge to learn how to work a dog for two different people, but no trouble was too much to help a friend and fellow hunter.

The dogs – and their handlers – showed remarkable maturity on the track

When this dog took to the track, he handled it with such confidence, like it was just a practice session. Anyone who has seen the dog Bara work knows that when he puts his nose to the ground, things are going well for him.

Everyone was full of praise for the work of the dog, his owner Bert, and Benny, the man who assisted the dog and owner several times in training. A more than deserved Waidmannsheil for all three.

On to the second track, which ran through an open pine forest with light vegetation. There was a lot of temptation for the dog – among other things, this was a common location for wild boar to congregate. A whole group of followers watched on, eager to see a young Hanoverian at work.

And they got what they wanted. The young dog worked his track in silence. Towards the end, he encountered the fresh smell of wild boar. The young dog hesitated briefly, but recovered and took the right track to get to his reward a few dozen metres further. Mission accomplished!

The third track was for a young member of the group. He was taken to a difficult starting point. On his trail there would have been a lot of passage from deer and wild boar.

But it was a flawless performance – without any problem the dog took the track and proceeded quietly and at speed. Some jurors even had difficulties keeping up with the dog.

Now, the fourth track. I have to say that there was a ‘pitfall’ in every trail. This track that ran parallel to a forest road, then suddenly changed direction.

The turn did cause the duo some trouble. But in the end, the dog handler worked it out and nicely corrected the direction. A short time later, the end of the track was in sight. A sense of relief appeared on the face of the handler.

It became clear to the jurors that there had been proper training, that the owners of the dogs had retained all the information they had taken in during the many training courses, and could also put that information into practice. This was a sign that we are giving our new members a decent education.

After a short break, a short journey to another part of the hunting ground followed. The next track was for a new member with his first tracking dog. Of course you are nervous in such a situation, and the pressure of being watched by a group of your peers does not make things any easier. But since it is not an official test, we are allowed to work in this communal atmosphere.

This one took place in a beautiful forest complex consisting of pine trees. The duo concentrated on the track. Behind us, we heard whispers that this could be a slow trail. This is not a problem – what counts is that the dog completes his track accurately.

The young Hanoverian gets to work on the test track

The dog seemed to move in slow motion, absorbing every morsel of sensory information. He was unwavering on the track. The more the track progressed, the more the dog’s pace went up. Even in close cover, the dog continued steadily. Just like the rest, the track saw a successful conclusion.

We returned to our base, where we could fire up the barbecue. The party could start, but not before the findings of the dogs were shared. Thankfully, everyone’s experience was positive, thanks to a new approach to supervision and optimal preparation for the official test.

It was a fantastic day that everyone had been looking forward to, and will definitely have a sequel next year. 

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