Training a versatile hunting dog may require the use of mammals in your training program; here’s what you’ll need, where to find them, and what ethical considerations apply
If you own a bird dog, you’ve heard the adage that “it takes birds to make a bird dog.” Regardless of advances in technology and training devices, you can’t avoid the fact that it takes real birds to teach a dog about the expected behaviors while on a bird hunt. Finding suitable birds can be a challenge, which often leads to side projects such as housing your own pigeon flock or building quail recall houses.
Versatile hunting dogs that will be used to hunt small game or track big game come with additional training needs beyond just the birds. Finding suitable furred animals or blood for tracking brings a whole set of unique challenges and considerations.
What types of game animals are needed?
For many dogs, retrieving furred game is a separate skill from retrieving feathered game and, if the skill is desired, must be practiced during the course of force fetch or retrieve training. If you plan to hunt rabbits or squirrels, your dog will need some furred game for training.
Some versatile hunting dog testing systems also include furred game as test subjects. For example, the JGHV introduces the retrieve of a dead rabbit at the HZP (intermediate) level and a predator—fox or raccoon—retrieve at the VGP (utility) level. If you’re training for one of these tests, you’ll soon find yourself in need of dead rabbits, raccoons, and/or foxes. It’s at this point that you’ll inevitably pause and ask yourself, what on earth did I get myself into?
Blood tracking is another subject that requires specialized training aids, including blood and a deer hide that is used to signify the successful find at the end of the trail. If you plan to track and recover wounded big game with your dog (where legal) or if you plan to test in a system which includes blood tracking (such as the JGHV system), you will need to find a source of blood and perhaps a hide.
Most, if not all, of these training needs involve dead animals rather than live ones, as the primary focus is on the retrieve or, in the case of blood, tracking the past location of a wounded animal.
How is this game legally and ethically obtained?
A dog trainer looking to obtain their own dead animals for the purpose of training needs to be aware of local laws and regulations related to trapping or shooting these animals. If trapping is legal in your location, this can be an easy way to obtain rabbits or other small mammals. Same goes for hunting. Done within the appropriate season and with legal methods, this is a cost-effective way to get fur for your dog training needs.
If the do-it-yourself approach isn’t practical for your situation, you can find suitable game from other sources. Your state may publish a list of nuisance-animal trappers. Their ability to legally sell or give you an animal depends on the location, the season, and their license. I once called all the way down our list in search of a raccoon for our dog’s VGP training. My inquiries were met with a fairly equal mix of bewilderment and intrigue, but ultimately never resulted in a raccoon for us. I’ve accepted being known as the crazy lady who wants to buy dead raccoons. I eventually found a couple of foxes for the test by means of a trapper who was willing and able to ship the frozen animals for a sum of money that only reflects the desperation I felt as the test date loomed closer and closer.
Mail order is perhaps the easiest, though definitely not the cheapest, option for getting animals such as rabbits. Companies like RodentPro primarily serve the feeding needs of snake owners, but there’s nothing stopping a dog trainer from ordering off their menu of frozen rabbits grouped neatly into size categories. A fair warning, though—this purchase will lead to the delivery of a large box labeled “RODENTS” that slowly leaks melting ice on your front porch. If you wish to maintain the ability to make eye contact with your mailman or your close neighbors, consider the long-term ramifications of such an order.
Salvaging roadkill is another viable option, depending on your state’s laws around collecting and/or tagging roadkill and your own tolerance for getting a little weird. Obviously you’ll want to pay close attention to the condition of the animal and the safety of collecting it. I have a particularly memorable story about an absolutely stunning find that turned out to be crawling with ticks, but that’s a story best left to be shared with laughter over a drink somewhere.
Obtaining blood for tracking training can be challenging if you are not a big game hunter. If you are, be sure to set up a bucket to collect the blood as you butcher your animal and stick it in the freezer for another time. If this isn’t an option, you’ll need to reach out to local butchers for cow or pig blood. Again, their ability to sell or give you blood depends on local regulations and their own policies. Be aware that their initial reaction will be to assume that you are part of some cult or involved in unsavory practices that involve blood. Approach gently and, if the situation warrants, consider having your dog along in the truck and offer to introduce them. Understand that they get bizarre requests from all types of people, so being upfront about your intentions will go a long way toward building trust.
At this point, you will surely feel fully invested in the training of your hunting dog and have shed any idea that the rest of the world considers this to be “normal.” Welcome to the hunting dog training journey.
Ethical considerations and perception
Any discussion of using dead animals to train a dog needs to address the ethics and perception of such activities, especially as perceived by those outside of the hunting community. Hunters and dog trainers carry a responsibility to not only act within the law, but also within the standards of ethical behavior. We must be sensitive to how our actions are viewed by others.
A perfect example of this is in the Spring 2021 issue of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine. There is a wonderful article about the JGHV testing system and how it produces dogs that consistently hunt well. One of the photos shows the ceremonial display of game animals and foliage at the successful completion of the VGP. This display has a rich history in German hunting traditions and is meant to honor the animals who gave their lives. One of the animals in this photo happens to be a fawn deer, which was used in the blood tracking evaluation. This particular deer was a casualty of a vehicle collision and was legally obtained with a roadkill tag issued by the state agency. However, without this context, it raised genuine concern about the role of the dog in the death of a fawn. As editor of the magazine, it was my responsibility to identify and mitigate this misconception with a disclaimer; my failure in that regard resulted in justifiable concern about how this might be perceived outside of our community.
As to the question of the ethics of using trapped or hunted animals for dog training, I always point back to the bigger picture of why we are doing this in the first place. A well-trained dog that will retrieve every shot animal and track down wounded game will ultimately help to conserve resources and prevent needless waste on a hunt. If it takes a few animals to bring our dogs to that level, then it’s a small investment in the larger return of reliably recovering the animals that we kill.
However, just because the animals are used for training doesn’t mean they are worthy of any less respect than the animals we kill for food. Be mindful of how you treat and store your training animals and how they may be viewed by non-hunters in the areas where you train or in photos that you share online. Consider the example of how the Germans display the utmost respect for their game animals, even in a hunt test, by honoring them in their death and appreciating the role they play in our world… just make sure you always keep an eye out for perception and provide appropriate context.
Jennifer Wapenski is the managing editor of Hunting Dog Confidential Magazine and co-host of the Hunting Dog Confidential podcast. She has a lifelong passion for the outdoors, dogs, and wildlife; as an adult, she discovered that upland bird and waterfowl hunting were natural extensions of these pursuits. Jennifer lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their two Deutsch Langhaars.