Using a Versatile dog to indicate deer in New Zealand bush
By Robert Dodunski

Printed with permission

The breeze was blowing softly from the South West onto the main ridge which ran East to West and was covered with sparse beech interspersed with patches of broad leaf in the damper depressions. From the amount of sign it was evidently a main crossing route for the moderate population of red deer.

Anja, my 6 year old Hungarian Vizsla, was quietly walking a few metres ahead, occasionally moving into the denser patches of heavy scrub off to the side of the ridge to check out the scent left over the previous few days of deer activity. With her dayglow collar I could easily keep her within my vision while she was moving through these denser areas and together with my own observation of the sign we were making a thorough analysis of the game activity around the ridge.

When we reached the high spots where side spurs met the main ridge, Anja would stand for a moment and test the air blowing up from the gullies on the left. Several times I thought she must have picked up the faint pungent scent of a deer when she lingered a tad longer testing the air, but she moved on each time and being confident in her ability I followed on.

We had moved into a thick area of crown fern which carpeted the East side of a high spot when she suddenly stopped and with her head held high indicated that she certainly had her nostrils full of game scent. She began a slow tail wag and moved in a kind of slow catwalk down the East side of the spur. I knew from past hunting trips that this particular spur ran down to a high basin of perhaps three hectares filled with a large swampy area and a small drain running down into a longish gorge on the near side, before cascading down a couple of steep drops and spilling into the main stream.

The floor of the basin contained several open areas with swampy grasses and sparce broadleaves and beeches; an ideal grazing area for deer and the occasional marauding band of wild boar. I had found deer there on previous occasions so knew there were many good browsing spots. My pulse increased significantly with Anja’s indication and my anticipation of there being deer in this area.

I followed four or five metres behind her and while keeping an eye on her movements searched the area ahead. After an uneventful ten minutes sidling down the spur we hit the basin floor and Anja moved off to the right in the direction of the basin head. Still moving cautiously she crossed the small stream through a deep worn rut in which the soil had been churned into a muddy quagmire with deer prints from both fresh crossings and from crossings past. On the other side was an area of damp moss and coarse grasses, cropped down to resemble a small grazed meadow. The edge of the meadow was lined with a stunted and twisted line of silver beeches growing on a thick mat of emerald moss. This higher ground was dry and covered with the bane of New Zealand beech forest hunting; a carpet of corn-flake like dried beech leaves which, for the hunter, are impossible to cross without announcing to all the immediate deer population that you are in the vicinity and likely to cause them harm. Anja moved up through this leaf covered area and as she climbed up the small rise I noted the deep, fresh deer prints embedded in the soil and easily identifiable on the leaf covered mat. I moved off to the higher side of the rise looking for quieter ground and followed a well worn path along the base of the spur we had come down. I knew we were heading into the true basin head where a small waterfall spilled out of a deeply etched gorge off the West side of the spur into a small amphitheatre containing an enclosed park like area.

I could see Anja’s dayglow collar to my left and just before entering the amphitheatre I noticed she had moved out more to the left and had stopped in a full solid point indicating up over the rim to the left of the amphitheatre and into a higher area of dense beech saplings. Obviously the deer had moved into their loafing area after their early morning breakfast in the basin proper. Typical of their strategy they were on high ground and within a dense enough area to afford them some protection from approaching danger.

“Thank you, Anja” I muttered under my breath and noted the breeze still coming from the left. I moved into the amphitheatre and climbed the rim well above the spot she was indicating. I knew she would stay on point unless the deer moved off, in which case she would re-locate and point again. Quietly I approached the top of the rim keeping low to the rim edge and lay down to search the immediate area through my binoculars. The density of the beech saplings made it an ideal loafing area but also made it difficult to identify any game which may be laying quietly. After several minutes of searching I still hadn’t found our target. No small red patches or movement amongst the saplings. I glanced back down at Anja. She was still in the same spot as if riveted by the pervading scent filling her dilated nostrils. However I noticed that her head was turned more to her left, so focused my binoculars more toward the area she was indicating and swept through an area of pepperwood on the edge of the beech thicket. There. Yes, the slight movement of an animal’s head about fifteen metres ahead of Anja. Amongst the pepperwoods I could eventually make out the form of an animal standing back well camouflaged in the depths of the scrub. The shape of the animal was indefinite but I could see the animal’s head and the odd patch of red of it’s body. I waited and spent the intervening time searching through the scope hoping for a definite and clear view of the animal. Eventually the deer moved a couple of steps to pick at some tasty morsel and gave me a clearer view of its body. I placed the cross-hairs of my scope on his rib cage and squeezed off a shot.

After the report I called Anja to heel. She came bounding up to me tail going like a windmill and full of pride in the abilities she had inherited from centuries of breeding. Grabbing her head in my hands, I stroked and fussed over her, letting her know that yes she had done good. I hadn’t seen the animal fall after the shot but just disappear with a ghostly silence, so suspected a non mortal hit or miss, perhaps the result of bullet deflection by the intervening scrub. Knowing that it’s best to wait for a wounded animal to stiffen up after having run some distance from the shot, I waited a good ten minutes in the meantime searching through the binoculars for any sign of a fallen animal. Eventually I decided it was time to begin the search and on the command “get away” sent Anja down to where the deer had been standing. She immediately put her nose to the ground and began tailing. I noticed a few smears of bright red arterial blood and deep splayed hoof marks where the deer had taken off straight down towards the small creek bed. The deer was evidently hit in the thoracic cavity but perhaps a bit low with a heart shot rather than the higher, more efficient aortic hit. I knew that deer can move quite some distance when hit in the heart so surmised that I was possibly in for a long search. I followed Anja as she slowly but systematically, with nose to the ground, worked her way along the almost invisible escape route. Every now and then I noticed small blood splotches on the ground amongst the leaves, twigs and mosses. After reaching the creek bed Anja turned down and sidled along the true right bank, following an indefinite trail on which I could occasionally see the hoof prints of the fleeing animal which indicated the animal was walking slower at this point. At one point where the deer had had to squeeze past a narrow gap between two small beech saplings I noted the smear of blood at about the animals chest height. As we moved down onto a flattish area of ferns and tangled undergrowth Anja slowed down noticeably and then flash pointed before diving into the tangle off at a tangent to the track we were following. I looked down through a tunnel of flattened scrub and there she was standing over a very dead spiker stag. “You little beaut” I muttered as I realized she had trailed the wounded deer perhaps 200 metres from the initial point of the shot and saved a lot of time searching for almost invisible clues of the fleeing deer.

Early in the morning we had left the Hi-lux on a cold, frost-covered pre-dawn after the short half hour drive from home. The sky had been clear and promised a beautiful fine, warm day. Anja was muscle hard after a great four month upland game bird season working the steep South Island high country of New Zealand and was a veteran of both upland bird and deer hunting. She had been trained since puppyhood on planted birds to be steady on point and to retrieve. Previous to that she had gone through basic training with a lot of emphasis on halting to command and to laying down quietly and waiting until released by command. Her inherent hunting instincts had been refined and controlled to ensure that she was a reliable and steady hunting companion. Exposure to a lot of hunting had ensured that the genes she carried from centuries of breeding by the Hungarian hunting gentry were given the chance they need to be expressed. Her evident joy in her own abilities when in the field was something to behold.

The change to big game after a season on birds has never been a problem, as Anja seems to know that when in our native forest a different style is needed to hunt deer. She remains close and walks quietly ahead, adopting a slow cat walk when sensing game until close enough to point. I believe the scent of deer being stronger than that of game birds incites her to adopt this slower, quieter style. When hunting upland birds she covers a lot more ground by quartering ahead and moving out further over open ground to scent likely patches of scrub.

However one requirement needed for both upland game and deer is a strong solid point without crowding the game too close. Vizslas being one of the “Versatile” or “Hunt, Point, Retrieve” hunting breeds were bred to handle multiple game species in different habitats and different situations. They should be able to point, retrieve, track, swim and even climb trees if need be. It is easy to teach them what game species you want them to target and what species to ignore. Plenty of work and consistent, clear commands with occasional returns to basic training help to achieve a reliable and consistent hunting dog. To be a good indicator dog for stalking deer, the dog needs to be under good control and should have been through a thorough training programme. The training shouldn’t be overdone but the training methods should be well thought out and formal training periods kept short and interesting. Use every opportunity in everyday situations to pre-empt what a dog is going to do and use that situation to reinforce a command. For example, if going for a walk with the dog and she decides to run out to your right give her the command to move out right. She was going to do it anyway but you just happen to have seen that and used your command to advantage. The result is a stress free and natural reinforcement of a command.

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Updated 9th Nov2002