There is perhaps nothing more frustrating, angering and morale-sapping for a deer hunter than losing a wounded deer.
Every hunter worth their salt — archery or firearm — makes every effort to place the shot well, to kill the animal as quickly as possible and to track it relentlessly until they find it in the woods.
But sometimes, especially when there is no snow on the ground, the track runs cold. Sometimes the blood trail ends. Sometimes the animal just goes farther after being hit than you could imagine.
"I know guys who have quit hunting when they lose a deer they know they hit. Especially for first-time hunters, it can be devastating,'' said Chris Neutz.
That's why Neutz, of Esko, decided to train his yellow Labrador retriever, Ivy, to track wounded deer.
While the use of dogs to track deer in Minnesota had for decades been illegal, Minnesota lawmakers moved in 2019 to allow dogs to track wounded deer, with several caveats to prevent unscrupulous dog handlers from chasing deer that are not wounded.
A Facebook page called Minnesota Tracking Dogs now lists 25 Minnesota-based dog owners, and a few from nearby towns in neighboring states, who will come to the aid of hunters to find wounded deer. Neutz and Ivy are the only team listed in Northeastern Minnesota. The Wisconsin Deer Trackers group also has a Facebook page. A national group called United Blood Trackers, unitedbloodtrackers.org, also offers listings of dogs available to help track.
Neutz, who works as an electrician at the CN ore docks in Two Harbors, said Ivy, now 3 years old, had been a solid bird-hunting dog before he got the idea to add deer tracking to her training regiment.
“I started a couple years ago just for my own use, and my friends. But then I noticed that there weren’t any tracking dogs listed in our part of the state, so I decided to put us on the list,” Neutz said.
The term blood-tracking dog is a bit of a misnomer. Usually by the time the dogs are called in, there is no blood trail, so the dogs must rely on other scent left behind by the deer, like they would finding a live pheasant or grouse in heavy cover.
“You could train any dog to do this. But she (Ivy) just seems to have the drive for it,” Neutz said. "She's got a working dog mentality. … She just lives for this."
Already in her early career, Ivy has 10 deer finds to her credit. She was three-for-four during Minnesota’ archery hunting season in September and October. Over opening weekend, Neutz and Ivy were called to a spot near Mille Lacs Lake to help track a deer. They didn’t find it, but confirmed it wasn’t badly wounded.
Calvin Rowley, of Iron River, Wisconsin, has been using his German shorthaired pointer, Abby, to track deer for four seasons. Abby has recovered 20 deer already. Calvin, 17, and his dad, Josh, will work in Wisconsin or Minnesota and have used Abby to track wounded deer as far away as Hibbing and Virginia in Minnesota. They have also been called out on bear searches in Minnesota.
“She’s (Abby) at about 55% success right now,” Calvin Rowley said. “Some guys will only go out if they know they are likely to find it, so they may have a higher success rate. But we’ll go out on any call, anywhere, so a lot of times the problem is that the shot wasn’t good to start with and the deer isn’t down.”
For training, Calvin Rowley says he will often strap deer hooves to his boots and walk through the woods, then bring the dog back in later.
“Usually by the time we get called in, there is no more blood trail. … So the dog will key in on the scent that the deer leaves from a gland between their toes. … That’s all she needs to go on,” said Rowley, who operates Cooper’s Kennels with his dad.
Neutz, too, uses a deer hoof, but taped to a stick, sometimes with added deer scent, that he dabs on the ground as he walks, leaving an old deer hide at the end. Then he brings in Ivy who quickly goes to work, following the trail to the hide.
“Good girl!” Neutz said after a recent training session in the woods behind his house. “She wants to keep looking for the deer, though. Sometimes the hide isn’t enough for her to think it’s over.”
Neutz advises hunters who know they have lost the trail of a wounded deer to stop walking over the trail that may hold scent, back out of the area and call him. The less human scent on the trail the better.
“And a lot of times, if they walk through the blood trail and get it on their boots and spread it around, it just confuses the dog when I bring her in,” Neutz noted. He said the old adage of not pushing a wounded deer usually holds true. Move too soon, or too fast, and the deer will keep moving ahead of you. The hope is that the deer stops, lays down and doesn’t get up again.
Neutz, Ivy and the hunter who made the shot go out to the last place the hunter knows there was a trail. Neutz asks the hunter to remain there, as a marker, then lets Ivy pick up the scent trail. Minnesota and Wisconsin laws require the hunter with the deer tag to accompany the dog handler.
“I’ll ask the hunter to stay at the last spot where we have a good scent and then move up from there,” said Neutz, noting that Ivy is on a long leash all the time. State law requires a leash no more than 30 feet long.
Netutz doesn’t have a fee but gladly accepts any free-will offering to cover gas expenses. The Rowleys charge a flat fee of $150 per search.
“It’s a chance for us to use our kennel and our dogs to provide a service for hunters, to recover a deer that otherwise wouldn’t be recovered,” Rowley noted. “There’s nothing worse for a lot of guys than losing a deer.”
If you need Ivy’s services, contact Chris Neutz in Esko at 651-769-7146.
If you need Abby’s services, contact Calvin Rowley in Iron River at 715-979-1042.
Rules of deer tracking dogs in Minnesota
The Minnesota Legislature in 2019 moved to legalize the use of dogs to locate and retrieve a wounded deer or bear, with these regulations:
The person attempting to locate the wounded deer or bear must have a valid hunting license in their possession. Dog handlers who do not have a license must be accompanied by the licensed hunter with the license in their possession.
The licensed hunter and dog handler must be on foot and wearing blaze orange or pink.
Any light used must be an artificial light carried in the hand or attached to the person.
The dog must be on a leash no longer than 30 feet and the hunter or dog handler must control the leash at all times.
The dog owner’s name and telephone number must be on the dog while it is used to locate a wounded deer or bear.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.