“Kill,” says Mark Pope, owner of Southampton Outfitters, as he points to a small puddle of blood on a single browned leaf. He looks to his left and finds a small drop five yards beyond the first and another drop thirty yards beyond that. Hokie, Pope’s male chocolate Labrador, quickly smells the first, second and third drop before racing forward, visibly dragging Pope to the deer’s final resting place. This same tracking routine helped to locate 13 kills during the 2013-2014 hunting season–several of which would have remained unrecovered without Hokie’s help.
While Southampton Outfitters does not hunt using dogs, Hokie does help to track game quickly, ensuring the humane harvest of every kill. Hokie’s purpose at Southampton Outfitters originated with Mark Pope and was implemented by Jack Bunn IV of Newsoms, Virginia. Jack recently agreed to answer some questions regarding the use of Labradors to track game, and their training process:
Southampton Outfitters: How is having a Labrador different than having “hunting dogs”?
Jack: “I feel that a Labrador is different than a ‘hunting dog’ because of the connection you form with a Lab. Of course, you love all of your dogs, but during training you have your Lab out every day, multiple times and it definitely becomes man’s best friend. Training is not exclusive to Labs either, lots of dogs can be trained, but Labradors are the only dogs I have ever worked with.”
SO: What are the positives of having a Lab to track game?
J: “To me, the positive is simple. Any deer hunter who has ever had the blessing of pulling the trigger or letting an arrow fly on a trophy buck and later, after countless hours in the dark with a flashlight, had to give up your search and call it a miss, would give their left arm to have that tracking dog for one more chance at finding the deer. A dog’s sense of smell is far greater than that of a human’s visual sense, so the dog definitely has the better chance.”
SO: What were the challenges you faced when training Hokie? How did you overcome them?
J: “Labradors have a natural instinct and love for retrieving, so normally you would use this to your advantage when training tracking dogs. The dog would run the track to the end and you would throw a bumper for the dog as a reward. But Hokie was lazy. He had no retrieving drive, so he didn’t work the track because he didn’t care about the reward. So with Hokie I had to train him with food. The only time he got to eat was when he was tracking deer blood. I placed food along the track until he made the association that the smell of deer blood meant food. After that, his expectation of eating was the drive needed for him to track successfully.”
SO: Is this the first Lab you have trained for deer hunting? Do you consider Hokie a success?
J: Yes, Hokie was my first blood tracking Lab, but with a little training of my own from experts on the subject, I was able to learn the techniques required for this type of training. I do call Hokie a success, considering the transformation he went through during his training and his success in finding deer when he returned to Mark’s care.”
SO: How is the training different for Labs when training for deer versus water fowl?
J: Training Labradors for retrieving game or tracking blood is a completely different training process, but is rooted on the same basis. For retrieving, you teach your dog to mark and retrieve all of the downed birds so you conserve game (ducks, doves, or whatever you are hunting) while deer tracking dogs are schooled in finding and following a trail of blood all the way to the deer, again conserving game. In both cases, these Labs are taught a conditioned response through the time and effort of quality training.”
SO: About how many Labs have you trained? Have you had any requests for training tracking dogs?
J: “For as long as I have been able, I have assisted in the training of many dogs that my father has trained for other people and himself, but only recently have I been taking on the full responsibility. On my own, I have trained five Labradors and so far everything has gone pretty well. I enjoyed training every one of them and I am always looking forward to my next opportunity.”
“Just recently I talked to a man with a six-week old female Lab who would like to turn her into a tracking dog. I have to consult with an expert again to see what age is best to start her, but usually seven months is the desired age to start training. Seven months is old enough for a dog to learn the skills you are teaching and young enough that the dog hasn’t developed any undesirable habits.”
SO: Finally, would you advocate having a Lab for deer hunting?
J: Yes, having a dog that can quickly run down a trail of blood and find a deer makes the job of finding your kill a lot easier. Although it is not a necessity, if you have the means and desire for a tracking dog I would recommend its extra help. It was hard work and required a lot of patience, but it was fun training Hokie into a reliable tracker. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Jack can be contacted for training inquires at firstname.lastname@example.org.