By: John E. Phillips

William Crawford of Montevallo, Alabama, the director of the Outdoor Scholars Program at the University of Montevallo and longtime hunter, has been a Labrador retriever trainer since he was 13-years old. He trains Labs to: find wounded deer; to locate, pick-up and bring-back shed antlers; to find and retrieve doves; and to pinpoint and retrieve ducks. Bowhunters need a blood-trailing dog, although that’s not a completely accurate term.

“Often there won’t be a blood trail,” Crawford explains. “But because a wounded deer leaves a scent from the glands between his toes, our dogs can find deer – even without a blood trail. They can identify deer in the water, and our best dogs even can find and retrieve deer that may be underwater.” 

Walker’s Fascination with Blood-Trailing Labrador Retrievers

“My Uncle Bob Walker from Livingston, Alabama, has had dogs that can find wounded deer for as long as I can remember,” Crawford reports. “I’ve always been completely fascinated with them. When I was about 13, my grandfather, Bobby Walker from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, shot a buck in the woods that went out into a clear-cut. Immediately, my Uncle Bob put his Lab on the blood trail. When we arrived at the edge of the clear-cut, the deer was standing, with the dog barking and baying him, until my grandfather dispatched the buck. I told my Uncle Bob, my dad and my granddad then, ‘One day I’ll have a dog that does what Uncle Bob’s dog does.’”

While at the University of West Alabama (UWA) in Livingston, Ala., Crawford went with his Uncle Bob to locate and recover deer – often at Bent Creek Lodge  in Jachin where Bob worked part-time as a deer and turkey guide. The University of West Alabama sits right in the middle of some of the best deer and turkey-hunting lands in the nation.

A Love Affair with Chief

When Crawford graduated from UWA, the first thing he did was to get his first Labrador retriever named Chief. “I started collecting deer blood and deer organs from deer that had been harvested by hunters to teach Chief how to find a wounded deer.”  

Chief went everywhere with Crawford, while working on the farm, putting up tree stands and planting green fields. Chief became very comfortable outdoors and being with Crawford.

“After teaching Chief to follow the mock scrapes that I made with the blood and the internal organs of deer during the summer months, then I wanted to put Chief on some active wounded deer trails,” Crawford explains. “I called my friends and asked them to call me anytime they arrowed a deer, so I could bring Chief and let him locate the deer for them. I told them, ‘I don’t care how far the deer runs, and what kind of trail he/she has left, I just want Chief to have the experience of finding a wounded deer.’”  


After going out on his first five recoveries during bow season, Chief had been successful in finding each arrowed deer.  Crawford quickly recognized that there was no substitute for building a dog’s training and tracking experience than giving the dog the opportunity to locate a deer that was recently arrowed.

Hunter Also Exemplifies the Characteristics of a Quality Tracking Dog

When Chief was only 1-1/2-years old, he got out of his pen one night, was hit by a car and killed. Crawford was totally devastated. Although he didn’t want another dog for awhile, then his Uncle Bob found Crawford a chocolate Lab named Hunter that already had been to obedience school, which he realized was an important component for being a good tracking dog. Hunter came from a long line of Labrador retrievers too that had been trained to identify the places where wounded deer were. Crawford’s quick to say that a good tracking dog pup doesn’t have to come from a line of tracking dogs, but must come from a line of dogs with proven hunting backgrounds.

“You want a dog with a really-good nose for smelling and pinpointing game and that’s driven to locate game,” Crawford reports.

Crawford immediately started training Hunter to follow a blood trail. “I was surprised how quickly Hunter learned to blood trail during the spring and summer. Then Hunter was ready to go and identify wounded deer in bow season.”

However, if Hunter found a dead deer, he wouldn’t bark, but he would bark if the deer was still alive.

“Some Labrador retrievers naturally will bark when they pinpoint a dead deer,” Crawford explains. “But often if Labradors find a dead dear, they’ll just sit there, lick on the deer and wait for you to arrive.”

After having trained over 200 blood trailing dogs, Crawford has learned that the majority of Labrador retrievers won’t bark if the buck is dead when they reach him. Many years ago when I first encountered a blood trailing dog at a commercial hunting operation in South Carolina, a cow bell had been attached to the dog’s collar to help the handler keep up with where his dog was. When the bell stopped ringing, the handler knew about where the dog was, and that the deer was probably dead.

“Today with the improvements of GPS dog collars and hand-held GPS receivers, pinpointing a dog that’s discovered a dead deer is much easier, simpler and faster,” Crawford emphasizes.

Initially, Crawford used the type of collars that upland game bird hunters used that beeped, so you could keep up with where your dog was. Once the dog went on point, the collar would beep much faster. But sometimes the dogs would get out so far, you couldn’t hear the beep.  

“Today I’m using a Garmin Astro, which is an older model of a tracking collar and receiver,” Crawford reports. “The modern GPS receivers and collars allow you to mark as a waypoint where you’ve left your truck. The GPS shows you where you are in relationship to the truck, and where your dog is in relationship to you and the truck. The GPS receiver also lets me see the tracks of the area that the dog has covered. So, if the deer stops bleeding, or the dog loses the scent, the handler can push his dog in a different direction that he hasn’t searched before.

“If you’re checking where your dog is on your hand-held GPS receiver, and you see that your dog hasn’t moved, and he’s not barking, then you can walk straight to that dog. Or, if the dog’s gone a long ways, and an access road is closer to him, you can return to your truck and drive closer to where the dog is. Then you either can drag the deer out or move the truck closer to where the deer is located.” 

Multi-Purpose Dogs

Another trait that some hunters want in their Labrador retrievers is the ability to find and retrieve shed antlers to better inventory the herd after the season and to know what bucks have survived hunting season. Shed antlers are also nice trophies and may tell you where to start your hunt the next season to look for the bucks that shed those antlers.  

“Regardless of what the owner wants me to train the dog to do, all the training I can put into a dog begins with obedience training,” Crawford mentions. “If I’m just training the dog for tracking, I’ll spend one month on obedience training and two months on tracking training. If someone wants me to train the dog to find and retrieve antlers, the dog goes into a force-fetch training, a program very similar to how waterfowlers train their dogs to locate and bring ducks back to them. This type of training teaches a dog to pick up any object that the hunter wants it to find with its mouth, hold that object in its mouth and not drop it until the dog returns to its owner. The dog shouldn’t release that object until its handler tells the dog to release it.

“This training teaches a dog that if he finds an antler and has to come back through thick cover, then if the antler gets knocked out of the dog’s mouth, the dog will turn around, pick up the antler and carry it straight back to the trainer. This is a way to foolproof the dog’s retrieving system.”  

Labs Use Cues to Know What to Hunt  

If you wonder if a dog had been taught to blood trail and locate a wounded deer and to retrieve shed antlers in the spring, how did that dog understand what it was supposed to do when taken into the woods?

“Dogs work off of key words,” Crawford emphasizes. “For example, when I tell a dog to, ‘Hunt it up,’ the dog knows the time’s come to go find something – either to track or to find antlers. Over time, the dog learns by several different factors what you mean when you say those words. For instance, when tracking a wounded deer, the dog will see me put on a vest and wear a certain type of clothing. Then I’ll take the dog out and put it on a blood trail. Trained dogs know what collars they wear when they’re blood trailing, and when they’re hunting shed antlers. So, they understand by words and visual cues what you expect them to do.”  

The time of year is also a cue that the dogs learn that helps them to understand what you want them to do when you’re in the field. Since Crawford has trained dogs to pick up antlers, to blood trail, to find and retrieve ducks, and to pick up doves out of a dove field, the hunter who participates in all these sports will have one dog that can do it all.

These highly-intelligent Labrador retrievers recognize that if you’re holding a dove stool and a shotgun, are wearing camouflage and sitting on a field, then you’re dove hunting. If you’re  wearing camouflage, holding a shotgun and sitting in a blind, or you’ve created a blind on the edge of water, or you’re out in the water, and the dog is sitting on a platform, the dog will realize you’re hunting ducks. In the spring or summer when you’re hunting open lands, and the dog isn’t put on a blood trail or a deer trail, then the dog understands it needs to pick up shed antlers and bring them to you. But if the hunter’s wearing a vest, and the dog is seated while wearing a Kevlar vest like hog dogs wear, the dog knows it will be blood trailing.

“Over the years, I’ve learned that the more things a Labrador retriever can be trained to do, the better he’ll be at each one of those tasks,” Crawford explains.

A Blood-Trailing Dog’s Year-Round Training

“I have a big freezer,” Crawford mentions. “During bow and deer seasons, we freeze deer blood and deer organs, so we can create a blood trail at any time of the year. To train a dog to be an antler retriever, all you need is several sets of deer antlers that you hide and send the dog out to locate. In the beginning, you want the dog to find the antlers easily. Then you continue to make finding the antlers more difficult.”

Crawford praises the dog every time it makes a recovery – a very-important part of Labrador retriever training. Labrador retrievers want to please their handlers and enjoy searching for and pinpointing whatever their handler sends them to retrieve. Finding and retrieving is meant to be fun for the dog and for the handler.

“One of the advantages of having a dog that can find multiple types of game and make multiple kinds of retrieves is that the dog can call on its experience from each task it’s learned to help the dog perform better in each area in which it’s been trained,” Crawford emphasizes. “A dog trained in blood-trailing deer, antler recovery, duck hunting and retrieving and dove hunting and retrieving will, if it’s on a blood trail, and the deer goes in the water or slightly under the water, put its head under the water, grab that deer and pull it out of the water. If the Lab has been trained on recovering antlers and is on a not-so-good blood trail but spots an antler, the dog will go to that antler. If the dog has been trained to find and pick up doves, and you’re hunting a small creek or a small pond, and your duck falls into a cane thicket or high weeds, the dog can use his experience and his nose for finding doves to help locate that duck.”

One of the advantages that a dog’s owner has is that the dog can be trained to do specifically what the owner wants the dog to do – perhaps just in one skill that includes obedience training and blood trailing. Or, the dog can be trained in just antler recovery. Or, you can teach the Lab to blood trail, recover antlers, retrieve ducks and bring in doves. Teaching a dog in obedience training and blood trailing requires about 3 months. To be trained to pick up antlers involves another 2 months. To be trained to pick up ducks and doves means another 6 months of work. Full retriever training, including hand signals and all the finer points of training that a Labrador can be taught, takes two years.

The next natural question is, “What’s a trained Labrador retriever worth?”

According to Crawford, “The degree of training the Labrador retriever has and its pedigree heavily influence the value of the dog. Depending on how much training the Labrador retriever has, its pedigree and how proven it is, that Lab may sell for $5,000 or as much as $30,000.” 

Currently, most of Crawford’s clients want their dogs trained for blood trailing. A hunter, a hunting lodge owner or an individual who owns a high-fence enclosure are most concerned about losing any deer that are arrowed. Hunters also will call Crawford to bring his dogs when they’ve shot nice deer and can’t find them.

To contact William Crawford, call 205-792-9288, or go to his Facebook page or website at For more information about the University of Montevallo’s Outdoor Scholars Program, visit

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