Goodwood Standard Smoothes
A Day with the Dachshunds in France
By Claire Mancha
Being new to the sport of dogs, but raised in a family old on tradition, I think the stars have at last aligned so that my genetic predisposition for the blood sports has finally surfaced. On a recent trip to my other motherland, France, I was lucky to be able to participate as a guest onlooker in a blood tracking test put on by the Union des Conducteurs de Chiens de Rouge (UNUCR). Basically, this is the organization responsible for the testing and licensing of dogs on their ability to track, by blood trail, wounded animals from hunts. Literally, the Union of Drivers of Red Dogs. In essence: Blood Trackers, man and beast.
The UNUCR was founded 26 years ago by the Association for Large Game and the Eastern Club. These are both French hunting entities. In France alone, there are over 600 "conductor / handlers" who did over 1800 searches in 2005, most of these in eastern France.
The purpose of the particular test I observed is to qualify the team of handler and dog, as a unit, to be used in actual searches for wounded animals. Neither man nor dog qualifies individually. Both the handler and the dog must be tested as a team. They must both qualify and they receive their license as a working unit. If a handler wanted to take a different dog out to track, they would not be qualified to do so until they were tested and passed as a new tracking entity.
While this is a serious pass or fail examination, there are steps of this test which can be applied to earn a title for the dog. The number of conductors who chose to pursue that goal are infinitesimally small compared to those aspirants who want to be called out of their warm homes to gear up, grab their dogs and go blood tracking for real.
The test I attended was held in one of the most famously hunted forests in France, the foret d'Orleans. Located in the department of the Loiret, this massive collection of birch, pine, oak, elm and European hornbeam covers 35,000 hectares. That's a whopping 86,490 acres or 135 square miles! Nicknamed "the green lung" of the Loiret, this magnificent forestland is home to elk, boar, fox and rabbit. No wonder this was the private hunting grounds for generations of French kings and nobility. One of the judges told me that royalty historically settles where the hunt is good, hence the Palace at Versailles being one day's march from this forest. Even now, from September to March, the forest is in daily use by hunters on foot, with dogs, or on horseback using large packs of foxhounds. The French Office National de la Foret regulates the use of this forest. It is immaculately groomed and beautifully healthy.
The UNUCR holds 2 seminars each year to teach those interested in training to blood track. About 150 new people come to the seminars yearly. Of those, 20 actually become trackers. This job is not for novices! It was stressed to me that to be a good tracker requires a perfect knowledge of large game and blood dogs.
A blood-tracking dog is usually called out to 80 to 120 searches per year, all in the seven-month hunting season from September to March. In France, the wire hair Dachshunds are the most used tracking dog, followed by the Hanoverian and Bavarian Reds. The latter are used only in the wildernesses of eastern France or the Grand Massif as they are dogs with enormous circular hunting styles. They put their noses to the ground and follow them with a focus that could get them run over by cars in areas with roads and traffic. Labrador Retrievers are being used more and more as trackers. Retriever comes from the French retrouver: "to find again." The UNUCR thinks all dogs can blood track and encourages participation by anyone interested.
There are several significant differences between the American and European dog cultures. In France the government licenses animal breeders. A person can breed one litter at the professional level without being licensed. After that it is mandatory to be licensed and inspected. Veterinarians from The National Canine Veterinary Society inspect breeding facilities.
The pups are sold with no contracts or restrictions made by the breeder. The dog's pedigree is awarded by the state, not given by the breeder. The pedigree is needed to participate in most events. Here's how it works. The breeder informs the Canine Society upon the breeding of the bitch and within 15 days of the whelping of the litter. The breeder includes the name, sex and color of each puppy and their tattooed identification numbers, all within 6 months of the birth. At that point, the Canine Society will issue each pup a certificate. So far this seems vaguely familiar, but here is where the U.S. and France really start to differ.
The owners of the puppy must wait until it is 12 months old for small breeds and 15 months for large breeds to present the dog at an examination of conformation. This is usually held in conjunction with a dog show. A breed expert will examine the dog to see if it has any faults that would render it unfit to reproduce. If the pup is found to conform to the standard, the examiner will sign the certificate. The owner then sends this signed certificate to the Canine Society who in turn issues the pedigree.
The Ministry of Agriculture licenses performance and conformation judges as well. The judges' job in the field is to enforce discipline. One judge winkingly told me as an aside "We are Latins, after all!"
In Europe, with the exception of England, the country that developed the dog is held to be the owner of the standard. The French acknowledge the German standard as the definitive description of the ideal Dachshund. I was given a very snorty lecture on the disaster wreaked on the Dachshund by the English, the Australians, the Japanese and the North Americans. I was told that among the purists, the dogs from those countries were not considered Dachshunds and could not be interbred to the European Dachshund. It seems that the Dachshund world has its work cut out for it if we are all to come to any agreement about the dog we all love.
The formal title given for qualifying in this particular blood-tracking test is the SchwhK. This is a German title: Schweisshund, Kunstlich, literally Sweat Dog, Man Made (Dachshund has been observed to follow blood on artificial trails.) To participate in this SchwhK test the dogs must be more than 12 months old and unless given special dispensation by the club, must also have their pedigree papers. This test was on a blood trail 24 hours old. There are also 40 hour and natural SchwhK tests. For the tests of 24 and 40 hours, you have 3 judges. Judges are not paid to ensure impartiality and avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. The natural tests, SchwhN, Schweisshund, Naturlich, or Sweat Dog, Natural, (Dachshund has been observed to follow blood on natural trails) are rare as they involve the Office National des Forets calling and relaying the tracking opportunity right away. The trail is usually around 4 hours old, and you need 2 judges and your team. The logistics are usually too difficult to arrange.
As we all know on this side of the Atlantic there is a lot of work that goes into preparing for any event and the SchwhK test is no different. The track is laid 24 hours in advance. The blood used can be either deer or boar's blood. The track is laid by a cane tipped with a 4 cm by 4 cm square sponge. 250 cc of blood are used for each test track, brushed onto the ground with the cane every 50 cm or so. The trail must be a minimum of 1000 meters long, have at least 3 angles and 2 reposers or couchettes (places where the game laid down to rest or sleep.) On the blind side of trees along the trail the tracklayers pin directional arrows, each track with its own identifying color. Tacked to a tree at the head of each track is a 3 x 5 card with information on it (time laid, which number trail.) There is a track laid for each contestant, plus an extra in case one is damaged by real game. I was told that the elk and deer in April have huge antlers and prefer to stay in the cleared areas so the dogs were given more brushy tracks to help them focus on the scent of the blood rather than the elk. The only people who know the way of the trail are those who laid it. The judges can look backwards at the colored cards on the trees to make sure they are following the trail correctly. More on this later.
We all gathered at the forest ranger's clubhouse at 8 AM on test day. This charming old building used to be a hunting lodge and is located in a small clearing at the edge of the forest. The blood trails had been laid the day before so they were the proper age. The dogs' papers were turned in to the event chair and organizer, Mr. Lucien Masson. Mr. Patrick Mestadier was there as the French government's representative. He is the head of the Department of L'Isle de France of the Club des Amateurs de Teckels, basically the French version of the Dachshund Club of America. Mr. Mestadier brought with him his adorable black and tan longhair Pharon (Pharaoh) who is the most decorated Dachshund in Europe. His list of titles would fill this page, so I'll just say that he was as useful as he was handsome. There were 3 judges, Mr. Remy, Mr. Pierre Ziegler and Mme. Isabelle Ziegler. We also had an apprentice judge, Mr. Moquelet. Mr. Perigal and Mr. Jean Leporce were there as working members of the local chapter of the UNUCR. They would be driving contestants and judges to the trails. Frankly, this was a big job in itself as I was completely disoriented in this vast forest and hats off to anyone who could drive it and not get lost. Just like all those old fairy tails of children getting lost in deep dark woods, believe it when I tell you this is that kind of forest.
Each local chapter of the Club des Amateurs de Teckels puts on one test per year. In the whole of France there are about 26 such events per year. The cost for a member contestant is 48 euros, for a nonmember, 60 euros (at the time of this writing $61 and & $76 respectively.) There is a maximum of 8 contestants per day. Each team is allowed a maximum of 1 1/2 hours of working time. The first four to work on Sunday were all wire Dachshunds. The judges would be the same for every test that day.
The contestants run in the order that their entries were received. I was able to observe 4 runs. I stayed back with the inspector and the card remover. The teams are taken out to the trailhead in one car and the judges in another. At the start of the track, the judges check the tattoo on inside of the ear of the competing dog. The dogs wear a leather hunting collar called a "botte" which has a swiveling ring on the topside of the collar. The leads are 10 to 15 meter long leather straps. They are snapped on to the swivel ring on the botte. I was interested to see that the leads are kept completely loose, not held with tension as we do in our tracking here in the U.S.
Present for each test were contestant and his dog, the 3 judges, the state representative and the person who removed the directional arrows from the trees as we progressed. As we walked I was treated to a lovely natural history lesson from the state representative Mr. Mestadier who showed me fox's earths, ground completely rutted up by packs of boar, and reposers, the resting places of the deer and the elk. The men and women who participate in these activities are truly lovers of nature; they knew the trees, the grasses, the habits of the animals and could identify what animal made any hole in the ground. I also got the dish on the human players in the game from Mme Cellier. There is very little difference in the politics or the gossip in the French dog world from ours!
Mr. Mestadier, himself a Corsican, France's version of Italy's Sicily, regaled me with tall tales and instructed me in the French and German hunting social rules. He complained that the French were lax in their respect for the forest. He favored the Teutonic rigidity and tradition which dictates that hunters arrive to the hunt fully dressed in the traditional green boiled wool suits, correct hat decorated with loads of medals, sturdy brogues and fine dogs. He was a stickler for the hat especially, why, I learned later in the hunt.
The dog and handler follow the trail of blood, visually by the human and the dog by scent. I noticed some of the handlers carrying rolls of toilet paper with them. I was a bit taken aback by this, but learned that the tissue is used to mark blood spots if a conductor needs to backtrack to help his dog pick up a lost scent. The toilet paper decomposes quickly and does not litter the forest for long.
The dog / handler team is allowed to lose the scent only twice. The judges are the ones to give the redirections if the team gets too far off track. The person taking down the colored arrows marking the trail for the judges stays put on the trail until the dog either finds its way back to the scent line or is redirected there by a judge. The humans being tested are supposed to avoid looking backwards and thus seeing the colored arrows on the trees indicating the trail. Mme Cellier told me the judges are pretty wise to that kind of cheating.
There is no further opportunity "training" by finishing the track once the judges have decided that the team has failed. The test is simply over for that team. A contestant pair had to be redirected twice (the limit) and lost the trail once again so was excused. I learned that sore losers exist everywhere! I was sorry for the dog who had tried hard, but it was obvious that the team was not trained enough. I was told that the club may not turn down an entrant even if they know that team isn't ready.
The most interesting and successful track of the day was that of young Nicholas Benezit and his young wire bitch Ulfie. She was one of Mr. Mestadier's breeding, and he jokingly remarked that he should never have sold Ulfie to Nicholas. There was much good natured teasing before the test. It is traditional in France to say merde (and in Germany to say scheisse) to the conductor at the start of his test. It is like "break a leg;" a lucky wish. I told the judges that in American field trials, handlers often give their dogs water before their runs, as it is believed to help the dogs scent more efficiently. I asked if such was the custom in France. I was answered "No! It is better to give the handler wine!" In Germany it is schnapps. This is a custom I'm thinking we should adopt!
Ulfie and her handler were a wonderful team. Ulfie had placed 2nd in her "voicing on rabbit" test. Nicholas was obviously extremely proud of his partner. She never lost the track and she worked hard the whole time. Nicholas read her body language beautifully. It was quite exciting when they reached the prize at the end of the track: a boar's haunch! The wild boars for these tests had been hunted in the southern part of France the year before. The quarters and blood had been frozen all winter to rid them of trichina. Apparently boars, being swine, are also carriers of this parasite.
When Ulfie found her boar Mr. Mestadier pretended to blow a hunting horn. He probably inwardly cursed the French for not having a horn handy as the Germans would certainly have had. Things got quite medieval as the judges broke off two pieces of the holly tree under which was the haunch and presented them to the conductor. One piece was to put in his hat (hence the need for a hat) and the other to put in his dog's collar. This is ancient tradition and quite wonderfully emotional. It is a badge of honor that is treasured by the recipient and jealously coveted by all.
Mr. Mestadier discussed real hunting scenarios regarding the actual use of dogs to find wounded game as we walked back to the clubhouse. While bitches are allowed to be tested and used for finding wounded game in France, in Austria and Germany they are not. Intact bitches go through emotional and seasonal changes and are considered not reliable enough to be called in at a moment's notice to do serious, timely work.
Mr. Mestadier was quite in accord with this and gave as an example a hunt for a chamois (a mountain goat) high in the Alps, night falling in a few hours, and the trophy of your life running away wounded. There is little time and difficult weather; wolves, snow and dark of night are dangerous! A dog could be brought in and put to work and is available 24/7. A bitch might or might not be in the mood. We as Americans might dismiss this as sexist, but Europeans have been hunting for a long time and I would tend to honor their experience. Mr. Mestadier also said that bitches lose their drive to hunt within 3 years of being spayed. Being the owner of a (twice) spayed hunting fool, I'm anxious to see if this holds true. I am sure our field trials are pretty tame compared to a real hunt in the wildernesses of Northern and Eastern Europe, but I think the same instinct drives the dogs in both situations.
We were treated to a cuckoo's song as we entered the clearing where a sumptuous catered lunch was ready for us. Another tradition we might think of adopting!
After many sincere goodbyes and thank yous, I drove away, my stomach full of pheasant and my head full of plans to start blood-tracking training on my dogs. I raise my own rabbits and already keep their pelts for field trial training, so it wasn't a big jump to ask my butcher to fill a quart jar of blood for me. I now have many Dixie cups of frozen blood in my freezer waiting for the perfect time to go blood tracking.
This might seem a bit too carnal to those of you who love the flash and glamour of the ring and all things civilized. But to me, taking a walk though forest and field with my dogs and watching them interpreting the world through their noses, that is heaven on earth.
One last comment as I finish up. I was thrilled to hear that one of our own hunts rats with her dogs in New York City in the dead of night. I'd love to be invited to one of those outings. This is a perfect modern use for our wonderful hunting Dachshunds.
For more information on events held in France by the Club des Amateurs de Teckels, you can visit their website at http://www.chien.com/clubdesamateursdeteckels/index.html.