If you’re a bowhunter, you’ve probably wounded a big-game animal or killed one that you never recovered. That, sadly, is part of bowhunting. We misjudge distances, we get buck fever, equipment fails. There are several reasons we don’t find an animal we are trying to recover.
In the last 10 years or so, more and more bowhunters are calling in a blood tracker when the blood trail disappears. The first name that often rolls off the tongue when the call needs to be made is John Engelken. Engelken makes his living tracking deer with bloodhounds. He tracks for outfitters, hunting celebrities, major league sport stars and Average Joes across the Midwest.
We spoke at length with Engelken to learn more about what’s required to become a top-notch blood tracker.
A Serious Commitment
If you want to get into the wild sport of blood tracking, you first must realize the level of commitment it takes. “It is hard to be a good tracker and have a great tracking dog while being a hard-core hunter,” Engelken explained. “I rarely hunt anymore because I am always tracking deer for other people. This is a requirement because it is my job and for a dog to be a great tracking dog, it needs to spend a lot of time tracking deer.”
Like bird dogs, a tracking dog is only going to be very good if it spends a lot of time in the field. “A person needs to decide before buying a puppy if he wants to track for himself and his friends or if he wants to take it to a whole new level,” said Engelken. “Most bird dogs only hunt a few times a year, and many hunters are fine with the result they get when they take Fido hunting. Many blood-tracking dogs are this way. However, for a dog to find a deer that no other hunter or dog can find requires an amazing level of commitment that most don’t have the time for.”
Choosing A Puppy
Whether you want to be a casual or hard-core tracker, Engelken believes it all starts with having a good dog. “I use bloodhounds because I believe they have the best nose for the job I do, which is often old trails,” he said. “There are many breeds available. The most important thing is making sure you get a dog from a quality breeder.”
When Engelken is looking for a new bloodhound, he doesn’t just throw down some money and pick up a dog. He studies a litter, looking for just the right dog for his needs.
“I think one of the most important things to look for in a new dog is how it uses its nose. When I am looking at a litter, I look for the puppy that is using his nose. I think that is key.”
After you have a puppy, the next step is training it. “Some say a puppy should be allowed to be a puppy for a while before you start training it,” said Engelken. “I like to start training a dog right away. A puppy doesn’t have a long attention span, so in the beginning the trail should contain a lot of blood, be short and exciting. It is important to note that early imprinting on a puppy is a necessity. From the time they are young, I want my dogs to know that blood is extremely important.”
Another thing Engelken believes is necessary when training a blood-tracking dog is finding out what type of reward the dog craves. “At the end of a training run, a dog must receive some type of reward,” he said. “Although food is the most popular reward, it is not the best reward for all dogs. Some dogs like a chew toy better than food; some prefer a lot of praise. Finding the thing that your dog loves is really important.”
After a person has a puppy moving in the right direction, repetition is the key to success. “I train my dogs almost daily in the offseason,” said Engelken. “Sometimes it might be a short training session under normal weather; the next day we may do a longer trail when it is raining. My goal when training is to create trails that will be just like trails I encounter in the woods in the fall. I try to cover it all during my training and do it often. Like anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it.”
Dealing With Distractions
Engelken trains his dogs on finding deer, being obedient, and dealing with lots of noises and people. “In my line of work, my dogs need to be able to focus on the task of finding a deer and ignore everything else,” he said. “I am constantly introducing them to new things so they get used to dealing with a wide range of distractions while we are tracking.”
One thing many dogs have a hard time focusing on when tracking a wounded deer is the tracks from the wounded deer when there are a lot of other tracks in the area. Engelken overcomes this by training his dogs in areas with lots of deer.
You can only train so much. Eventually, a dog has to figure the rest out on its own. “After hunting season arrives, I spend almost every day tracking for deer,” Engelken noted. “This on-the-job training really brings my dogs to the next level. They spend the entire fall looking for deer. It doesn’t take long for a young dog to determine what his job is after he has been on a few successful trails. By the end of a deer season, my dogs have been on many trails that are successful and end with a happy hunter. Every trail teaches the dog and me something.”