LEESPORT — Andy Bensing never lost hope that sooner or later Pennsylvania legislators would do the right thing and allow the use of leashed tracking dogs to track and recover big game animals.
Showing the patience that typifies a professional dog trainer, Bensing, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and led the charge to legalize the use of leashed tracking dogs in Pennsylvania, owns and operates Peacock Bridge Dog Training Academy south of Leesport, first brought his proposal to the Pennsylvania Game Commission 16 years ago. Just as the members of the various boards of game commissioners saw the merit in allowing the use of tracking dogs to recover deer and bear as they did in using dogs for fall turkey hunting, time after time they were stonewalled by the failure of the legislators to approve this commonsense proposal.
Well, all that changed this spring when the House unanimously approved Senate Bill 135 – which had been approved by the Senate last September – and passed legislation to allow the use of leashed tracking dogs to recover big game in all black bear, elk and deer seasons. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill into law, making Pennsylvania the 37th state in the country to legalize the use of leashed tracking dogs.
Game laws in Pennsylvania still make it illegal for any person to make use of a dog in any manner to hunt for or to take big game, or to permit a dog owned, controlled or harbored by that person to pursue, harass, chase, scatter, injure or make use of a dog to kill any big game. In this case, big game is bear, elk and deer, as dogs may be used to find and scatter flocks of wild turkey during the fall season.
“In 16 years there were 10 bills to support the use of leased tracking dogs to recover deer,” Bensing said. “There were so many times when I was assured that the legislators were going to approve the proposal, only to be disappointed.
“I really don’t know what was different about this time because we had come close several times in the past. Maybe it was wearing them down, or maybe it was all the positive support we were getting from many sportsmen’s organizations such as the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs and others.
“What also may have helped was that more and more the popularity of using recovery dogs was growing in all the media. National publications were using photos of deer that had been recovered, and many newspapers throughout Pennsylvania ran photos of me and others members of Pennsylvania Deer Recovery with stories about bucks that we had recovered in Maryland.”
For years Bensing had used dachshunds for tracking deer, but last year he made a switch that has been for the better. Jack, a male black Labrador retriever, recovered nine deer when he was just eight months old, bring total to more than 120 deer recovered in 10 years.
Members of Pennsylvania Deer Recovery are affiliated with United Blood Trackers, a national organization whose mission is to find wounded animals for hunters. There is never a fee charged for tracking a wounded game animal, but donations are gratefully accepted to help defray expenses.
According to Bensing the term “blood trackers” is misleading because often there is little or no blood to trail. With training and experience a dog can learn to distinguish and track an individual wounded animal by other scents rather than just its blood.
In addition to training various breeds to track, Bensing has trained dogs in obedience, police service, behavior modifications, competition, drug detection, business security and personal protection. He has personally supervised one-on-one individual obedience training of more than 6,000 dogs since 1982, which is addition to training his fulltime staff at Peacock Bridge Dog Training Academy has done.
Bensing said dog trackers are not recruited by Pennsylvania Deer Recovery, but volunteer are welcome to join. Just as some individuals ignore the game laws and now hunt on their land on Sundays, he knows of many cases where hunters used their dogs to recover deer on their land.
“To be perfectly honest, despite the law, I’ve heard stories over the years from Pennsylvania hunters who lost the trail of wounded deer on their own, and who then fetched their dogs to help them continue the tracking,” Bensing said. “It made sense to them not to let a dead deer out in the field go to waste if a dog could help them recover it and use it to feed their family.
“For nearly 20 years, hunters have fought to change that law to allow them to use the keen noses of dogs to help them find wounded big game. It’s not uncommon for hunters to lose the trail of a deer they just shot, only to find it dead months later, just beyond the last spot they searched.
“With the help of a dog, they might not have lost the trail. Finally, the new law passed and this fall a whole lot of hunting dogs will be able to enjoy an activity that they were bred for and had never been allowed to do.”
Indeed, big game hunting – or at least recovery – has gone to the dogs in Pennsylvania. And, that is very good thing.