Tracking, Seeing What We Can’t

2020 Opening Day of the Iowa Gun season will go down as one of the most memorable ever for me. Not because I killed a giant Iowa buck or that I even carried a gun or hunted at all. No, it will go down in history for me because for the first time I was able to share with others what I have known for years. Ol’ Dan, our black English Lab, is not only an integral part of our family, with his never complaining attitude, his desire to go with us whenever or wherever we go, but also for a talent that very few realize he has. 

What many don’t know is Dan is one of the best tracking dogs I have ever witnessed. 

Last night I received a call from a good friend and a multi state chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), AJ Duchene. When he called I could hear the concern in his voice and the sincerity of how bad he needed some help. AJ had shot the biggest buck of his life and had been able to follow blood for several hundred yards only to lose the blood trail when the big buck crossed a mowed Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field. A difficult place to find a sparse blood trail. Add the loss of light and now you have a large predicament. 

I assured AJ that Dan is not a miracle worker, but if you have a deer that’s been fatally hit and the trail hasn’t been torn up yet, I wouldn’t bet against him. 

When Dan and I arrived around 7:30pm, we met up with AJ and his friend. The worry and disappointment was evident as I looked at AJ.  A place where many hunters have been and a place none of us ever want to return to. The two of them took us to where the blood trail started. I collared Dan, hooked on his lead and gave the fellas a few instructions on how Dan works and what I would need from them. At that point I brought Dan over to a leaf covered in blood and gave him the words he loves more than any other, “Find It”! 

We were off, as I listened to Dan’s nose absorbing the frosty air we moved quickly from one draw to the next, passing pink ribbon after pink ribbon where AJ had marked blood earlier. Thus confirming that Dan was dialed in and was making no haste in scooting up the ravines and through the thickest of cover. If the deer went left, so did Dan. If it went right, he was on it. As the pink ribbons trickled out, so did the blood, or at least to the human eye it did, but to Dan this was just part of the game that defines him.  Without any hesitation, Dan headed across the big field. Nose down and like a man on a mission, he took me deep into the field only to make a hard right hand turn. I hadn’t seen blood now for that last couple hundred yards but I could tell my buddy was confident in where he was taking us, so without question I followed. We entered another section of timber and there it was like a glowing beacon, a red speck on a leaf confirming we are on this deers heels. I can hear Dan sniffing but I also hear my comrades several yards behind us talking in disbelief about how dead on Dan is. Right about then we head out into another field and again to the human eye blood is non-existent,  to Dan it’s like reading the newspaper and he continues to pull us closer and closer. Again, I want to doubt because I can’t visually confirm what he knows, but again I trust him, and sure enough we enter the next section of timber and again, I see a drop of blood on a leaf. 

We are now thirty minutes or more in on this journey and at least a half mile from the start of the blood trail. Then, it happens, two or three big washouts and Dan is obviously struggling to stay on the long trail. I recognize he needs dad’s help and I turn him around and we go back twenty yards to find our last blood. Now, the track is back on. It was as if he said “dad, appreciate the help, but I’ll take it from here” and we cruise through this section of timber until we hit a fence, Dan stops, and for the first time I can see him looking at me confused as if he is trying to tell me something. I assume it’s the fence that is giving him pause, so I ask my buddies to look closely around the fence for any evidence the buck might have gone over or under. I am going to circle Dan back again and see what’s going on. Not wanting to worry AJ, I don’t say anything to anyone about how confused I am by Dan’s demeanor as he seems to have lost drive to keep going, which is extremely odd since he has been so confident. 

So Dan and I start to head back up the trail we came down, only this time Dan is working just down wind of the trail, so we are probably 4 to 5 yards west of our original path. At that moment I was in disbelief, there in front of us was exactly what Dan is trained and so talented to find. Dan had not lost interest nor had he lost his drive, he was simply trying to figure out why we weren’t hooping and hollering! For the last 2 or 3 minutes we had been standing about 5 yards from the deer! 

At the moment when I hollered “Boys we got ourselves a deer” is when it became emotional for me as I could hear the relief in AJ’s voice as he asked the question we all ask, “are you sure?” My answer was, “yes AJ, unless someone else also shot a big buck tonight that followed your deer’s blood trail, we have found your deer!” AJ dropped to his knees, both to admire an absolutely beautiful buck, but also to thank his new found friend. I listened as AJ thanked Dan in the dark almost talking to him as if he was a young child, “thank you Dan, thank you for bringing me here.” 

What a trail it had been, I could not have been more proud of Dan. As I drove home I called another good friend to tell him how excited I was about what had happened and what Dan had done for someone. I guess he could hear the excitement as I explained every little detail when he interrupted me and said you sound as excited as when Warren and Easton killed their first deer. All I could say is, “I am, I am so glad God gave us Dan and that I got to witness him bring two grown men to tears!”  Man I love this dude. It would be wrong if I didn’t thank Dan for being the faithful, loyal companion friend, and healer he is. But it would also be wrong if I didn’t thank the landowner that allowed AJ on to have this experience. The two biggest thank you’s have to go to Jeremy Moore of Dog Bone Outdoors & Sporting Goods Company, the most amazing dog trainer I have ever come in contact with, and the state of Iowa for finally hearing the voices of the Iowa Blood Trackers Association and giving dogs like Dan a chance to make dreams come true. Thank you all. You have made us more ethical, better as people and as hunters, for allowing us to utilize one of the greatest tools God ever gave us. 

But most of all thank you God, for giving us Dan, and all the other dogs that find their way farther into our hearts and souls than we ever dreamed possible.

David Holder 

Founder, Raised Hunting 

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