Dog hunting is one of the most controversial hunting topics today when it comes to talking about their use for hunting deer. The number of states that still allow it has dwindled and it has us wondering: is deer hunting with dogs still safe and ethical today?
Let's look at all sides of this issue and discuss deer hunting with hounds more in depth.
All we ask is that you keep an open mind and consider all viewpoints before making a judgement, because this is probably a conversation that needs to happen in the modern age of deer hunting.
How does deer hunting with dogs work?
Here's a quick primer for anyone unfamiliar with the use of dogs in deer hunting. It's one of the simplest and probably oldest methods of hunting deer. The roots of this style of hunting tradition go back to when the U.S. was in its infancy.
Hunters use anywhere from three to a dozen or more dogs at a time to push deer past standers (or waiting hunters) and hopefully get a shot. Popular dog breeds include coon hounds, blood hounds and beagles.
There is always some variation to how each group of hunters uses their deer hounds. Some hunters like to try to find a fresh set of tracks to run the dogs on. Some groups just send the dogs in blind to find the deer by themselves. It seems to vary from place to place and for each group of hunters. Some of it is also going to depend on how well the dogs are trained.
In the past, the hunting of deer with dogs required bells or something noisy on the collar to monitor the position of the animals. These days, most dog owners are using GPS collar setups to monitor the dogs while they're in the field. Standers are set up on strategic escape routes and radios are used to communicate to everyone in the group which way the dogs are running once they get on a deer.
Most dog hunting occurs in dense brush and swampy or marshy areas where it's hard to spot whitetails. Hunters try to set up in whatever clearing they can find. In many areas they set up on logging roads and two tracks to try to get a shot as the deer break cover.
Most shots are on running deer, so the preferred firearm of choice is a shotgun and buckshot, but you may find some hunters using rifles.
The use of dogs during deer hunting season used to be much more common. Slowly but surely, many states have made changes to their hunting regulations that either severely restrict the dog-deer hunting or just ban it completely.
You probably already knew this, but the last stand for deer dog hunting is in the south. Today, the only states you'll really find hunters practicing this tactic is in Florida, Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana.
Pros of deer hunting with dogs
One of the big reason hunters run dogs on deer is because it gives chances at harvesting deer that are otherwise extremely difficult to get a shot on.
As I've mentioned earlier, most dog running takes place in extremely brushy and swampy areas where it's hard to walk in or out without spooking the deer. Try to set up a treestand in such areas, and you're risking it.
Simply put, many hunters in these areas might struggle to even see a deer all season if not for the use of dogs. This method also allows hunters to cover large plots of land in a single afternoon so that they're not wasting time in what is essentially a fruitless location.
These days, many of the oldest, largest bucks go nocturnal as soon as gun season starts. Dog hunting is a major factor in many big buck harvests every year simply because it gets a lot of deer on their feet. These are the bucks that normally would be inclined to stick tight to cover until the shooting is over for the year. In some cases, it may be the only way to get a shot at that nocturnal buck.
A last benefit for using dogs is that it is a fast and exciting way to hunt. Many hunters in the south get hooked on the adrenaline rush of hearing the dogs getting closer and closer, knowing that at any second a big buck may come busting out of the brush.
This time of exciting style is good for hooking younger hunters, too. As we all know, hunter numbers are dropping everywhere and it's getting harder and harder to retain a crop of new participants to replace the old guard who are consistently hanging up their guns for good.
We imagine this style engages many youth hunters more so than asking them to sit still in a treestand for hours on end, waiting for that perfect shot.
Cons of hunting deer with dogs
While there is a small segment of hunters that eat, sleep and breathe to hear the baying of their dogs on the trail of a deer, just as many hunters are adamantly opposed to the idea. There are some cons we need to talk about.
For one, using dogs is an extremely high impact way to go hunting. At the very least, it might ruin things for a day or two for hunters who aren't using dogs. At the most, it blows out an area for he remainder of hunting season.
We also know there have been cases in the past where someone sitting in a treestand has had their hunt unexpectedly interrupted by a bunch of deer dogs running through the area.
Then there are the trespassing issues. We humans know where all the property lines are. We know not to cross them or pursue deer onto them. But the dogs don't know that. They do not know the difference between private and public land.
Trespassing is one of the biggest cons cited by sportsmen opposed to the idea. In fact, some states who have ended dog hunting have done so primarily because of complaints about trespassing. It is a valid claim. It is not fair to property owners if someone's dogs trespass on private property, potentially scaring all the deer away. Just imagine sitting on stand and having your chance at a big buck ruined by someone's wayward dog hunt.
A last drawback boils down to public perception. Most people seem fine with using dogs to hunt upland birds, waterfowl or small game animals. But many non-hunters are completely shocked to hear about hunters using dogs to run deer past hunters, and the tactic has a negative connotation in the non-hunting public's eye as a result.
There are already a ton of negative perceptions of hunting among the general public, and hunters don't really need more. The use of dogs for deer is a niche thing here in the United States and because of that, unfortunately, many non-hunters unfairly attach the stereotype of a "dumb redneck" onto deer hunters using dogs. I really don't want to see anyone labeled with that one.
To be clear, when we say "non-hunters," we're not referring to anti-hunters. Because let's face it, they hate hunting no matter what method we use. Instead, we're talking about everyday people (and especially politicians) who may get the wrong idea about dogs for deer and start making pushes for regulation changes that affect all of us and not just the dog deer hunters.
Is hunting with dogs fair chase?
This is the question that we hear again and again when it comes to deer hunting with dogs. A lot of that probably centers around the question of fair chase. Whether it is or not is going to vary from person to person.
A few months ago, I wrote an article on "outdated hunting methods" and I put dog hunting on the list. As you can probably guess, I got some backlash, which was not unexpected. Some people were downright nasty to me. But I had a few nice and respectful email conversations from devoted dog lovers who assured me some of my views on dogs were misguided.
One hunter from North Carolina assured me that even with the use of dogs, the deer still hold the advantage. I kind of already figured that. It's why it's called hunting and not killing. But it was fascinating to read his correspondence.
He said the deer in his area are smart and some are very wise to the dogs at this point, slipping through the net of canines and hunters nearly every time. He also said that while they know the general escape routes well for most areas at this point, most deer will also rarely take the same escape route twice.
He also assured me that my assumption that dogs would ruin a hunting spot for the season was wrong. To be fair, here in Michigan where I live, just missing a shot on a big buck can blow him out of the area for the rest of the year. Our hunting pressure is way more intense than North Carolina and as a result, deer are going to act differently from state to state, so I'm inclined to take this hunter at his word on that.
If we're talking fair chase, we should talk about the biggest fair chase supporter of them all, Boone & Crockett. It's worth noting that while they have a questionnaire on the use of dogs in a harvest, they also don't have a written statement condemning the use of them for deer either. Instead, it seems it's up to individual officials to determine if a deer was taken in a fair chase manner on a case by case basis.
In preparing for this article, I watched hours of video of deer hunting with dogs (there is a ton to be found on YouTube). Most of it is quite raw and unedited, so I don't really feel I'm taking anything out of context. But one notable thing many of the videos had in common was the use of vehicles.
Some of the videos I watched showed hunters spending more time in the cab of a truck watching a GPS receiver with dog positions than they did standing and watching for the deer. In some of the videos, the hunters were constantly driving to new positions to intercept the deer as they crossed the roadway. In a few videos, hunters were standing on the roof or in the bed of pickups waiting for the animals to run by.
I'm not going to give my opinion on whether I personally feel that is fair chase or not, but that's something that is worthy of further discussion. Because I'm sure some will argue that using a vehicle and satellite technology to cut off a deer's escape route is questionable.
Safety and ethics
Another common complaint about deer hunting with dogs is safety. There are some understandable levels of concern. While watching all those videos of southern hunting clubs out dog hunting, I noticed a ton of questionable safety issues.
For instance, in one video I noticed a hunter had a rifle laying across the center console with the barrel pointed to the rear of the vehicle. I don't know if that rifle was loaded or not, but it was pointed directly at his dog cages on the back. Remember one of the cardinal rules of gun safety: never point your gun at anything you don't want destroyed. I would imagine that includes your hunting dog!
Keeping with the theme of loaded guns in vehicles, I saw plenty of videos of hunters jumping in and out of vehicles with clearly loaded firearms. There were some cringe-worthy moments where I saw barrels swinging wildly in unsafe directions.
Another common theme is shooting either from or across public roads. Granted, most of these were rough two tracks, but those are ethically questionable shots for anyone to take at any time in deer season. Most of the roadways had little or no traffic on them, but it's the principle of the thing. I was always taught never to shoot on or near a roadway.
Granted, I don't know the rules in every state on shooting near roadways, or the rules on loaded guns in vehicles. I assume everything I watched was on the up and up because it would be kind of dumb to upload video of criminal activity to the internet. But it did raise my eyebrows a bit to see this stuff.
Let's talk ethics. Something that happens often in deer hunting with dogs, and the videos seemed to confirm, was wounded deer. I watched video after video of hunters approaching kicking and slowly dying animals, often after multiple shots had been taken.
In fact, out of the dozens of videos I watched, I only saw one deer killed with a single shot. I also noticed a lot of busted and broken legs from the deer getting peppered with buckshot as they fled.
In several of these videos, the hunters couldn't safely put a killing shot on the deer once it was down because it was being swarmed by dogs at the time. In a few others, the dog hunters just stood there watching as the deer was kicking and suffering on the ground. I simply can't understand why these men and women weren't putting these animals out of their misery immediately.
The number of shots put on some of these big game animals had me wondering a different type of ethical question. What kind of meat loss are these hunters facing? I imagine it was significant for some of them.
To be clear, I'm not trying to lump all dog users into the same group. I know there are plenty of responsible hunters out there who ethically use dogs, and I know not every hunt ends with a perfect first shot.
But in my opinion, some of the videos I watched were quite concerning from both a safety and ethics standpoint. They would not be a good look if an anti-hunter were to stumble across them. I acknowledge that anti-hunters and their motives shouldn't change everything we do, but in today's modern age, it matters.
Deer hunting with dogs bears further discussion among hunters
If you're looking for my opinion on all this, I must be honest. I thought I knew my position, but upon researching more, I'm uncertain exactly how I feel on dog hunting one way or another. Especially after my email discussions with several dedicated dog hunters.
Going back to the hunter from North Carolina I spoke with, he told me to "not knock it until I tried it." That's a fair enough statement. However, based on what I've seen and read of this type of hunting, I don't really want to try it. It's nothing personal against him or any other dog hunters. I just can't bring myself to shoot at running deer.
It's just not what I was taught and it's not something I feel comfortable with. I don't care if it's a new Boone & Crockett world record non-typical tearing past. I won't do it.
Again, to be clear, I'm not telling you you're wrong for enjoying hunting with dogs, nor am I advocating for its end. But I do think the subject bears further discussion among our fellow hunters just for the safety and ethics questions alone.
Further discussion is also warranted for how this style of hunting makes us hunters appear in the public eye. I don't want to see someone's preferred style of hunting banned because of one person posting a questionable video on social media.
I also think we need to discuss this matter further because it's such a dividing topic. Perhaps if we simply hear each other out and listen to everyone's concerns, we can come up with some compromises that everyone will be comfortable with.
We're all in this together as hunters. If we're going to have further debate and discussion on deer hunting with dogs, let's at least do it in a civil manner.
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