A fantastic tracking ability means stalkers can use a variety of dogs for deer stalking and handlers are now taking advantage of new training courses.

By Sam Clarke

The British Deer Society (BDS) is at the forefront when it comes to training stalkers and those involved with the deer industry, so when I heard that the society’s south-west England branch was putting on a course called Dogs for Deer, designed to train handlers and their dogs for deer stalking, I was keen to go along and learn some more.

The training day was actually run by the Bavarian Mountain Hound Society of Great Britain (BMHS) and the course, officially titled “An introduction to Schweisshund training and testing” started with all 12 attendees gathering in a classroom at Haldon Forest near Exeter in Devon for a couple of hours.

BMHS chairman Pete Garraway, himself an experienced deer stalker and tracker, ran through a slick presentation that started with the basic theory of tracking, followed by the required equipment, ranging from the obligatory harness and tracking lead, to devices such as tracking shoes and irons used in the actual training stages to lay tracks for the dogs.

The final part of the session was to explain the purpose of, and the complex training methods used in reporting (the part where a loose dog returns to its handler and reports where the carcass or injured deer is). This area of the training probably caused more questions and uncertainty than any other, but as the day was purely an introduction to training, this topic couldn’t – quite understandably – be covered in enough detail to satisfy those who were hungry for more information.

The uninitiated might think you just take one dog and one deer leg and start training, but as Pete explained, the preparation for the training is key to its success and that includes all aspects of collecting, storing and preparing blood and deer parts for the training sessions. At first it appeared a time-consuming, fiddly procedure – making batches of blood, transferring to bottles, labelling, storing and so on – but it became apparent that once done correctly there would be enough material from one deer carcass to stand you in good stead for many months of training.

After the initial presentation, there was a Q&A session with Pete and Steve Coles, secretary of BMHS, for all the points covered in the classroom. This gave individuals the perfect opportunity to ask questions relevant to their own personal experiences and to their individual dog’s training level.

The deer dogs take centre stage

So far this had been a dog-free session, but from talking to the attendees it was clear that a wide variety of breeds was about to spill out of the vehicles for the next stage of the day.

With the indoor lessons finished, everyone was keen to get outside, so we jumped into our vehicles and drove convoy style for a couple of miles to a more remote part of the forest, where the dogs could have a leg stretch and the practical tuition could start.

Everyone was shown how to assemble and use tracking shoes (the large rubberised footwear with a deer leg strapped to the back), then each trainee took turns to use them to lay a trail, whilst squirting a blood bottle at the same time and tying markers on trees – it was definitely a case of multi-tasking.

Dogs for deer stalking

The size or shape of a dog is a secondary consideration – their nose is the most important thing in tracking deer. Credit: Tweed Media.

Once all seven trails had been laid, we grabbed a quick lunch and then it was dogs to the fore. One by one, the dogs were brought from their vehicles, and at first glance they appeared to be the dream bobbery pack: a vizsla, a wirehaired vizsla, a teckel (actually a pet-bred mini wirehaired dachshund pup) a springer, a cocker, a large munsterlander and a cross-breed.

Each one knew something interesting was up but looked taken aback when fitted in a harness and told to sniff the ground. At this stage I have to confess I had a few misgivings about the length of time the blood trail had been left on the ground for novice dogs, but despite that, every dog managed in some manner to pick up scent and follow it.

Not every dog tracked in the traditional style, but then that was hardly surprising with breeds like spaniels and vizslas designed to quarter and hunt up rather than track, so it was good to see all of them doing it successfully to some level.

As someone who has spent 25 years working with scent hounds and tracking, I know only too well the vagaries of scent are never an easy subject to explain to people who may be unfamiliar with its characteristics. I felt it was going to be a real uphill job for anyone to try to teach 12 people in one day, and give them enough tools and enthusiasm to make them want to go away and try it for themselves. Hats off to the instructors for doing a first-class job and inspiring their pupils to want to continue with this enthralling and necessary part of the stalker’s job.

Despite the torrential rain, which meant working in appalling conditions, everyone enjoyed the course immensely and left the day with at least an idea of what their dog was capable of.

For more information and future course dates, visit bavarianmountainhoundsociety.org.uk.