This is a six-part series sharing the trials and tribulations of a successful sambar hunter training a dog for deer work.
When it comes to hunting Sambar with a gundog, the main thing to remember is we are using the dog primarily as an indicator of the presence of deer, the idea being to always walk the dog into the breeze so that it can pick up the scent of deer.
When it detects the presence of deer the dog’s body language will change, depending on the dog itself and the proximity of the deer.
The dog can, and should, also be used to follow-up wounded deer, but this should only be on command and generally on a lead.
You don’t want the dog bolting after the deer straight after the shot.
It will only push the deer further and more quickly and if your dog is not one to bark you may well lose both her and the deer.
A wounded deer could easily turn on a lone dog and badly injure it with hoof or antler.
I would like to repeat that it’s much easier to train a dog right the first time than it is to correct an unwanted behaviour.
In my rush to go hunting with my furry deer magnet I had not put enough time into training her to stay close.
The natural tendency of the under 12-month-old dog to stay close for security had fooled me into believing I had trained her well.
The first thing I needed to do was go back to the lead for all excursions whether that was down the street, down the paddock or into the bush.
This was certainly a pain, with her constantly getting the long lead tangled, but it had to be done.
We never went anywhere outside the yard without the lead for a while and eventually she worked out it was easier on her if she didn’t pull and checked regularly to see if I had made a change of direction instead of finding herself on the wrong side of a tree, a bush or a post.
During the second year I would recommend always having the lead with you, especially if hunting, and as soon as the dog starts to go outside the boundaries you have set connect the lead and leave it on until you are confident the dog has got the message.
If carrying a gun with the dog on the lead I’d recommend having it (the gun) unloaded. I always carry a lead with me and there are still occasions where I use it.
The next thing I needed to do was learn more about Bella’s behaviour when she hit scent and how to figure out how close the animal was, what it might be and how to control her once she got ‘in the zone’.
All this would have been easier if I had put more work into it when she was younger as by now she had formed her own ideas of what she wanted to do when she got on the scent, so again it was backwards to go forwards.
I took her to farms I had permission to hunt on and walked her on the lead up to dams where there were ducks. We would start about 200 m away with the wind blowing across us and walk parallel with the dam. I let Bella roam loosely on the 10 m lead and waited for her to hit the scent carried on the wind. When she reacted, I praised her and let her turn into the wind on her own and followed her, controlling the speed to suit me.
As we got close, I slowed right down quietly and repeatedly saying “sneak”.
By doing this regularly she eventually got to the point where I could leave her off the lead and now as soon as she hits the scent line, she stops to wait for me and adjusts her speed to mine. She even gets down on her belly to sneak the last few metres.
I also took her on her first quail hunt during the season and although my shooting was terrible, we got a few.
The day was a massive boost for the pair of us, which I put down to the constant “point”, “bang” and “retrieve” (or in most cases search for the bird I missed) giving us a hi-octane injection of teamwork you can’t get hunting Sambar.
For the Sambar component of this re-training I would use some Sambar back leg hocks, as these have a scent gland in them.
Wearing rubber boots (so as not to leave my scent on the ground), I would drag the hock on a string through a paddock or the bush and then leave it on the ground or placed in a tree.
Once again starting with the wind going across us and Bella on the long lead, I would work her parallel to the hock until she came across scent.
Again, I let her lead me but I controlled the speed we moved with the same regular stops I would make if I was stalking in on a deer.
Once we got as close as I wanted I would make her stand for whatever time I felt simulated getting ready to shoot a deer and when I was in a location where it was appropriate to do so I would fire a shot into the ground near the hock (generally I would use my shotgun, especially if on a farm).
I also walked her in on harvested deer whenever possible even if she was with me when it had been shot in the first place.
All this training, without the distraction of looking for Sambar, allowed me to pick up the subtle changes Bella went through as she worked a scent, and allowed me to teach her what I expected of her as we moved in on our prey.
This retraining of Bella and me took a fair while but eventually we got to the point where we should have been about a year earlier.
The lessons I learnt while bringing Bella back under control have led me down a different and far easier path.
I agree with taking the dog into the bush as much as possible as this is the place that he will enjoy the widest variety of experiences, but he must be under control.
If he is still in training, he should be on a lead.
If you think he is under control let him loose but have a lead with you and the moment he goes outside your boundaries put him back on the lead.
Always pay close attention to the dog and learn to watch him while you are still searching the bush for deer yourself.
You will find another advantage of having the dog on the long lead in the bush is you will be watching him more closely to try avoiding getting the two of you tangled around trees or each other and this will transfer to when he is off the lead.
It can be frustrating going slowly with your dog, and I understand the desire to get it out hunting with you as quickly as possible, but the effort put in during the first two years will pay off with 10 or more years of satisfying and rewarding hunting and companionship.
Enjoy the puppy training time as it is a wonderful and fun-filled period, even if it can test the patience at times. Remember the young dog looks to you for guidance, leadership and stability so if you set it up for success and make training fun it will be easier for both of you.
As I have said, gundogs aren’t a silver bullet for hunters struggling to get deer on the ground.
You can’t just buy a pup and go bush expecting it to lead you straight to deer.
It takes time and dedication to build the team and the hunter must learn to read the dog as well as have control over it in all situations.
The first 12 months are all about building the relationship with the dog and instilling into it the feeling it can trust and rely on you under any circumstance.
The second year is the battle period, where the dog can seem to be totally distracted and uncontrollable if given too much freedom.
The hunter who puts in the hard yards through these two years will be rewarded with the most devoted mate he could hope for as well as a very useful addition to his Sambar hunting kit.
While two years can sound like a long time, this period spent conditioning the dog to your way of doing things and proving to it what a great pack leader you are will be rewarded a hundredfold as these dogs will generally live 12 to 15 years or more.
The hard work pays off when you go hunting with your dog. Hopefully during the training period you’ve also been able to get out the bush a fair bit with and without the pup.
With any luck you’ve got a couple of spots you’ve begun to get a handle on and there is a good amount of sign indicating the presence of deer, or even better you’ve managed to get a couple on the deck.
Hunting deer with gundogs is primarily about having the dog indicate the close presence of deer by a change in her body language, triggered by her taking in scent on the wind.
While ground scenting may seem good it is not really that useful prior to the shot.
In areas with lots of animals it doesn’t necessarily mean a deer is nearby, as ground scent can remain for some time, especially in shaded areas.
Ground scent only tells us where the deer have been.
Wind scent tells us where the deer are.
For us to get real benefit from our gundogs, we need to put them in the right place.
There is plenty written about hunting into the breeze and when it comes to hunting deer with a gundog it is probably the most important thing.
I always aim to work Bella into, or across, a breeze.
This gives her the best opportunity to gather information about the animals in the vicinity and her reaction to the various scents is transmitted to me through her body language.
It is this exchange of information through her movement and posture, sometimes very subtle and other times quite obvious, that we developed in the early years of our partnership and it pays off when she detects the scent of deer nearby.
As I mainly hunt for meat, I always like to start off in my areas by walking the gully bottoms of an evening, these are the areas where the hinds and younger deer will usually be first out to.
It is also where the cooling air (known as a thermal) will be dropping into from higher up the gullies in the form of a gentle breeze laden with scent, perfect to work the dog into.
Walking the gully bottoms and creek flats also usually reveals a few preach trees and wallows and these are great places to commence a hunt if you happen to find that a stag has recently left a wallow.
The scent laden wet mud is easy for both you and the dog to follow and preach trees are often on a beat stags and hinds patrol in order to leave their scent or see who else has been past.
Contributed by Tony Cudmore