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On the Hunting Trail with
“Man’s Best Friend”


Settled in for at least an hour of reading before anything was supposed to happen in the rural countryside of Choctaw County, I was engrossed in the first chapter of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods and enjoying flashbacks of my blessed youth, growing up outdoors in the South.

Anytime I take a book to the deer stand, I glance up on occasion to see if there is any activity, not expecting much until the daylight begins to fade. However, the first chapter of Louv’s book was as far as I got.

During one of those glances, I spotted movement and then, to my amazement, antlers. I slowly eased the book down and picked up my binoculars. When the view settled on the deer, the buck performed his best “turn your head for the camera” pose. My heart jumped into my throat as I pulled the binoculars down and started reaching for my muzzleloader.

Even though it was only 3:50 p.m., the buck was not skittish. He would look in my direction and then drop his head and switch his white tail to signal “all’s well.”

I eased the firearm up and the crosshairs settled nicely just behind the shoulder.

In the past, I’ve had my share of miscues in the blackpowder game, mostly the failure of the powder to ignite, as well as a hang-fire or two.

Therefore, this 85-yard shot was not a sure bet, causing my heart to pump at a rate that would concern a cardiologist. Yet, this was one of those times when everything worked as designed. The primer and powder ignited almost simultaneously.

When I was able to see through the cloud of smoke, my heart sank as I watched the buck stumble and race up the hill into a pine thicket.

I reloaded and headed to the spot where the deer had been standing, finding only three spots of blood. Easing toward the pines where the deer exited, I was anxious but didn’t panic. I could always call on Katie, an expert tracker with a proven record for recovering injured deer. Katie is a blood-trailing Labrador retriever owned by Larry Norton at the Shed Lodge.

After years as a hunting guide at Bent Creek Lodge near Jachin, Norton had experienced the frustration of not being able to recover wounded deer.

That’s when he bought Rosie, his first blood-trailing Labrador, and had her trained to blood-trail. Rosie’s trailing ability kept her in such high demand that Norton began charging for her services so he could get some sleep. “Nobody wants to let a wounded deer get away,” Norton said. “Lost game is a waste and goes against everything that hunters stand for. But sometimes it happens. That’s where a dog is so valuable. With a blood-trail dog, we’ll recover 95 percent of those deer. We occasionally lose one that gets in the river or crosses big creeks. There’s no way to recover every one. It is distressing for any hunter to lose a deer, buck or doe, and to lose the venison. We’ve found several first deer for kids and put some big smiles on their faces.”

When Rosie succumbed to old age five years ago, Norton found Katie and decided to try his hand at training her to blood-trail. “I remember that trainer in Florida told me that the best blood-trail dogs absolutely love to retrieve,” Norton said. “If you’ve got one that doesn’t love to retrieve, don’t even fool with it.

“That goes back to a dog wanting to please its owner. Everything it does, you want to praise it. You don’t want to give them treats, because when you’re out in the woods you don’t have a pocket of treats. You want to give them ‘attaboys’, pats on the head and hugs around the neck. That will get you farther down the road than a treat will.”

Norton prepared for the training by collecting deer blood and putting four to five ounces in 25 or so freezer bags along with several quarts and putting it in the freezer. “What I did with Katie – and I’m no professional dog trainer but it worked with her – the first week or two, all I did was take a piece of felt soaked in deer blood,” he said. “That was her dummy. I really didn’t want to use a piece of deer hide because I didn’t want Katie to relate the hair or scent of the deer hide to what we were doing. It took Rosie some time to figure out that it was the blood we were after.”

“When I first started, the first thing I did when she came out of the kennel was play with her. That way, every time they come out of the kennel, they think they’re going to get to play. Then I’d throw that dummy with the blood six or seven times but not enough to burn her out. The key is to keep it fun for the dog. Then I did what I called a ‘hey, hey’ drill. I’d take the dummy and slap it around in my hands and holler, ‘hey, hey, hey.’ She’s run grab it and we’d tussle with it for a few minutes. I’d settle it down and get to sit. Then I’d throw it six or seven times and get her to fetch it up.”

Each day before Norton put Katie back in the kennel, they did the ‘hey, hey’ drill again. “That trainer told me the things they remember the most are the first thing when they come out of the kennel and the last thing before they go back in, that they had fun,” he said.

In the next step, Norton tied the felt to a piece of string that allowed him to drag the dummy in a straight line 25 to 30 yards. He also drizzled blood along the trail. After a ‘hey, hey’ drill, Norton settled Katie down and then had her fetch the felt. “The felt was in full view, but as she’s running to it, she’s smelling blood,” he said.

A week later, the training moved into high grass where Katie couldn’t see the dummy and the leash is introduced. “I’ve got her on the leash so I can be with her,” Norton said. “If she gets off the track, I can guide her back to it and let her know what I want her to do.”

The next lesson involved making a 90-degree turn with the blood trail in the high grass. “What I was teaching her was how to circle,” Norton said. “The first time, when the blood trail turned she went straight and stopped because she couldn’t smell the blood. Instead of circling her straight to the blood, I circled her away from it so she would have to cross the blood she had already trailed on. So when she tried to backtrack, I led her around a little farther until she picked up the fresh trail. You try to teach them that when they hit the backtrack they’ll know what they’re doing.”

More turns were added to the trail as the training continued until Norton was ready to take Katie on a “hike.” “That’s when I took a quart bag of blood, poked a small hole in it and then dripped it for about 150 yards, taking turns and zigzagging,” Norton said. “And while you’re doing that, take a little toilet paper and mark the course occasionally because sometimes you’ll lose the blood. Then I fetch her up and put her on the leash. I let her work, but if she gets too far off the trail, I’ll help her a little bit. I did that about two or three times a week, taking her to a different set of woods. And you want to do this in the woods and not in your yard. This was a lesson I learned the hard way with Rosie. When you get a young dog gets in the woods, they’re smelling stuff they’ve never smelled before.”

With Katie, Norton allowed the retriever to learn the smell of the other critters in the woods before the first deer recovery effort. Norton also said it’s crucial for the dog to have success early. “On the first three or four field recovery attempts, start the dog on deer that have already been located,” he said. “You want her to find that first three or four. Then you just love them to death. I let them lick on the deer a little bit, a reward for finding it. It may sound easy, but it’s not. You’ve got to work with that dog every day. You’ve got to play with them. And another thing, a couple of times they’ve torn away from me in the briars and thick stuff. That’s where that ‘hey, hey’ drill saved me. When they’re on that blood trail, they’re going. I happened to think and started hollering, ‘hey, hey, hey,’ and come running back to me with their tail wagging.”

Although both Rosie and Katie have trailed deer up to two miles, with several recoveries, the odds of finding a deer start dropping quickly after 250 yards. “My advice is to learn to trust your dog,” Norton said. “If she takes you on a wild-goose chase, fine, because it happens to even the best dogs. But nine out of 10 times your dog is going the right way and you’re not. I’ve pulled her off of several trails and wound up going back to the way she wanted to go and she ended up finding the deer.”

“One time, a fellow I know shot a deer in a field late one afternoon. We met him the next morning. I get the dog out of the truck and take her into the field where the deer was shot. She drops her head down and I know she’s trailing. I said, ‘The deer went this way.’ He said, ‘No, the deer went that way. That dog is crazy, the deer went that way.’ He walked the way he thought the deer went. Rosie and I went the way she wanted to go and about 20 yards out of the field we find this real nice buck. I put Rosie back in the truck and the boy comes back and said, ‘Where’s your dog?’ I told him I put her back in the truck. Your deer is laying right out there, the one that ran ‘that way.’”

When Norton and Katie showed up at my hunting spot, she quickly stuck her nose to ground and headed into the pine thicket. With Norton in tow, not 30 yards later, Katie was sitting next to a nice eight-point. It wasn’t a difficult recovery, but one that both Katie and I relished immensely.



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