German scent hound expert Thomas Müller looks at the initial procedure and evaluation technique when first attending a possible tracking situation
Before starting a search with a tracking hound, it is imperative to establish that the hound handler is in charge of the whole search until either he decides to quit, or the animal has been found and killed. Nobody else should give orders, and the only person finishing the wounded animal at bay should be the hound handler.
I always ask a number of questions when a hunter calls me to track a wounded animal. This is quite a sensitive topic, so be supportive when questioning the hunter. A good scent hound handler is a person of trust and integrity. Be respectful and above all reliable.
Questions one should ask include:
Was the rifle sighted in correctly, i.e. was a test shot fired
Calibre and ammunition used
Confirmation of what species was shot at
What was the shooter’s position and approximate range
Where did the animal stand
Which side of the animal or which part was probably hit
How did the animal react to the shot
Weather conditions at the time
The information you gather will help plan the search. Then the tracker should adhere to the following rules:
Remain calm at all times
Memorise an animal’s position and posture when shot
Mark the shooting position with an indicator
Wait at least 15 minutes before you look at the shot strike area (unless there is danger of losing sign – such as in falling snow, etc.)
Never let loose any dog directly after a shot!
If you cannot find any sign call a more experienced scent hound handler
Never disturb the area where the animal was initially shot at
The next step will be going to or establishing the shot strike area. Only the hunter who actually fired the shot should accompany you here, to avoid disturbing the area. If he or she is carrying a gun, insist it is unloaded. If the shot strike area can be located, drop your hound 20 to 30 metres and look for sign alone. Decide if or where the bullet has actually hit the animal. Look for a bullet mark in a tree or on the ground, cut hair, blood, skin, bones, teeth, flesh, gut content, hoof or antler parts and anything else to help build a picture of the hit and what to expect. Shot animals usually dig in their hooves and rip the ground when fleeing.
If you cannot find the exact strike area, take the hound on the long leash and let it search for any signs and spoor. Keep the leash fairly short so you can see what the hound shows you. Allow for wind drift when finding hair. Start around the strike area and work in circles going wider and wider to find either the shot strike area or the track of the animal.
If you find lung blood – a light pinkish colour and frothy – the animal is usually found within 200 metres, depending on the bullet and species shot. Start tracking after half an hour – this is enough time for the animal to die calmly. Any other signs, such as liver blood or pieces of bone, require at least three hours’ wait.
Wounded animals tend to hide and wait to see if they are being followed up. The animal will soon stiffen and be less inclined to run if left a while. Disturb them too early and most will run on until they drop, resulting in a long and difficult chase.
I prefer tracking alone. If I am not familiar with the terrain and the area, I will permit a local guide to accompany me, but he should be physically fit enough to follow me without any stops. I have lost too many ‘guides’’ especially when the animal was just ahead, the hound was slipped and I had to run to keep up.
There are some general rules as to how animals might react when they have been struck by a bullet, but remember these are just indications and not gospel. The same applies to different types of blood, hair and bones found. If the hunter was able to see through the recoil, he might have noticed how the deer jumped off. If hit high close to the vertebrae, an animal usually drops on the spot, but might get up and run away after kicking violently – a sure sign the vertebrae have been hit or shocked.
The same can happen when throat shot or the antlers have been hit. Head shots missing the brain will see animals shake their heads when bolting. There may be saliva, teeth and pieces of bone. A shot through the lungs will produce light-coloured, frothy blood with some short hair from the flanks of the animal.
Liver shots show dark brown blood, most often with pieces of liver tissue in it. The best way to confirm liver blood is to taste it. Liver or gut shot animals hunch up at the shot and walk or run off with their backs raised.
If you are not sure of the blood indication, rub it between your fingers to see if it is just blood. A shot through a muscle may show some fibres when rubbing it between the fingers, a stomach or intestinal shot may smell and be bitter to taste.
The best way to learn is by examining shot animals thoroughly. Look at the different types of hair from different parts of the body, colour, and length in seasonal pelage. Try to memorise the hair, shape and layout of bone structure, colour of the organs and the blood coming from them. The best way to memorise this is by preparing lots of animals for the table.
If no signs have been found, this does not necessarily mean you have missed the animal. Follow the track for at least 400 metres, and if you haven’t found any sign then quit the search. Never quit too early, though – there is nothing more disappointing than calling it a day only for the dead animal to be found days later. This has happened to most professional trackers – due diligence always applies.