Versatile Hunting Dog Federation of Canada (VHDF-Canada) Feature Stories

This webpage was mounted on March 22, 2019 and last updated April 8, 2021 by Sheila Schmutz

How one hunter could help Wyoming improve its laws

by John C. Staley

One hopes that every animal drops where it stood to provide first rate venison as this young White-tail did. Otus vom Ahler Esch, who lives at Sunnynook Kennel, is here only for show. He hopes that the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment will give him permission soon to apply what he has learned. Otus has passed the VHDF-Canada day-track test. This involves 400 ml of blood dabbed by sponge over 400 m with a 4 hr wait time.

Historically the use of dogs for the recovery of wounded or dead big game had been banned in Western North America. Doing a quick search I have discovered that in the Western US it is allowed only in Utah, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and now Wyoming. Three western states outright outlaw it in their rules and regulations (Washington, Oregon, and Nevada). Luckily for game and hunters, many U.S. states and Ontario and Quebec have changed their laws/regulations.

Idaho allowed the use of dogs in 2010. North Dakota has a bill to legalize blood tracking currently in their legislature and I have heard of effort to legalize it in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In British Columbia, it is legal to hunt big game with dogs as long as they are leashed. Manitoba regulations state that: "Dogs may not be used for any purpose connected with big game hunting". One thing I have learned from researching this is that hunting regulations are extremely difficult to navigate!

When I moved back to my home state of Wyoming, I knew that it was explicitly prohibited. Having seen it legalized in Utah only a couple of years earlier, I thought it might be a challenge worth tackling. Early last year I had reconnected with an old friend from High School who has been a Member of the State House of Representatives from Green River, Wyoming, for quite some time. While we are on different sides of the political spectrum we are not separated by a wide chasm, more like a narrow river.

Every state, and I assume every province, has a different method of dealing with their game laws. On May 23, 2018 I sent the following message to my friend: “Stan are you up for a challenge? I was informed by Wyoming Game and Fish that the use of blood tracking dogs to find and recover killed and wounded big game is prohibited by state statute and can only be changed by the legislature. We are expected to do everything in our power to recover big game but are prevented from using the best tool we have available. Other western states have come around, it’s time Wyoming did as well. I can provide you with more info if you are interested.” His response was, “I would be willing to look into that if I am re-elected. Send me more information.” Luckily he was re-elected!

In July I ran across Stan at a class reunion and we were able to discuss this in more detail. I provided him a copy of the Utah law to work from. At the time the Wyoming law read, “PROHIBITED ACTS. IT IS ILLEGAL TO: Use any dog to hunt, run or harass any big or trophy game animal, protected animal or furbearing animal except as otherwise provided by statute. The Commission shall regulate the use of dogs to take mountain lions and bobcats during hunting or trapping seasons.” While the Utah law reads, “A person may not use the aid of a dog to take, chase, harm or harass big game. The use of one blood-trailing dog controlled by leash during lawful hunting hours within 72 hours of shooting a big game animal is allowed to track wounded animals and aid in recovery.”

The Wyoming Legislature is in session during the months of January and February and it appears to be a busy time for them. On November 7th I received a message from Stan indicating he was starting to look for co-sponsors for the bill. On December 4th I received a copy of the draft bill from Stan, it was essentially a verbatim copy of the Utah law. On December 16th Stan notified me he had taken the bill to the head of the Wyoming Game and Fish for review. His only issue with the bill was the 72 hours. He indicated that by then the meat would be totally spoiled and from that perspective Stan felt we had a better chance of getting it through with a 36 hour window and I saw no reason to argue with that. The Wyoming Outfitters have a powerful voice at the state legislature so if they want to get that extended for their trophy hunters they are more than welcome to try.

The next message arrived from Stan on January 15th indicating that on the next morning the bill, HB073, would be going before the Travel, Recreation and Wildlife Committee. On February 15th I was notified that the Bill had passed both sides of the legislature and was signed by both the Senate President and the Speaker of the House. It was sent to the Governor who signed it on February 19, 2019 at 2 PM Mountain Standard Time. To be honest, I had little hope that it would pass but I have always lived by the motto of “Make them tell you no, don’t assume they will”.

This coming spring and summer will be spent training Bear Hills’ Ember and Eagle Rock’s Alpine in the fine art of blood tracking. We are doing our part to include a little more versatility in our versatile hunting dogs. I hope to make our team available to local hunters and outfitters if they are in need of help finding their animals. Maybe next year I will be able to tell you how successful we have been.

Scenes carved into rocks in the Saudi Arabian dessert at least 8000 years ago show different uses for hunting dogs (D. Grimm, DOI: 10.1126/science.358.6365.854 ). Were these the first leashed tracking dogs used to recover game the arrow could not kill on the spot?

March 2020

Pain for Dogs and Bane of Breeders

by Joe Schmutz

Fall 2018

After five decades of coordinated selection against hip dysplasia worldwide, what is the beneficial practice today? While VHDF-Canada’s primary goal is to assist breeders and hunters in maximizing their dog's field ability, VHDF-Canada also aims to promote dog health for an all-round quality experience afield by hunter and dog.

Figure 1. Hip x-rays of a HD-free (right, FCI “A” HD free) and a dysplastic hip (left, FCI “E” dysplastic). The normal joint shows the smooth edges of bones compared to cloudy areas indicating bone remodelling. The gap between ball and socket is smooth and equal except at the ligament attachment site. The socket encapsulates and supports the ball nicely transmitting running force and absorbing pressure evenly. Photos from Info 42,

Hip dysplasia, so it is said, is due to bone loss and an ever-wobblier fit of the all-important hip joints. When the dog’s body tries to compensate for the loss, tiny clusters of bone cells get misplaced contributing to an already uneven and painful joint surface. Some bone grains even get into the cartilage and feel like sandpaper (Fig. 1).1

It has always been assumed that a large gap in the joint, as from loose or weak tendons, cartilage and muscles, starts the bone decay. Logically therefore, early attempts at a solution examined the gap in the joint, also sometimes called laxity.

In a timeline of what steps were taken when, it is worth pointing out that hip dysplasia is not purely a dog problem. Hip dysplasia occurs in humans and has been described occasionally in horses and cattle. Even the Romans knew of its existence.1

1950s – 60s. Dog breeders teamed up with geneticists and veterinarians to combat hip dysplasia. Veterinary radiologists developed a diagnostic procedure based on hip x-rays and became trained and certified to evaluate hips radiographically. Known as the FCI-method in Europe with a similar approach in North America, it evaluates dogs at least 12 to 24 months old, depending on the service provider. Board-certified radiologists at the veterinary universities of Guelph and Saskatchewan offered this service, as did some smaller labs in Canada.2 In the U.S., the service continues to be provided by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).

When bone remodelling and arthritis could be seen on an x-ray, the bad news was clear. Was it possible though, one asked, to tell from joint x-rays how likely a dog was to develop hip dysplasia later. Radiographic screening is bound to help, but the method primarily describes the hip’s current health and makes no HD-free claim for the long term. Believing in joint looseness to be at least a partial cause of hip dysplasia, it seemed logical to use a ‘fulcrum’ to see whether excess joint sepapration could be achieved with pressure. This was later abandoned because the pressure itself could be a kind of trauma that could aggravate, if not cause, hip dysplasia. Also, if a dog’s skeleton or gait could compensate for some degree of looseness, then that in itself was a solution too.

1980s. A group of veterinarians started the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program known as PennHIP. This technique was modified from the former fulcrum technique and claims to detect a predisposition for hip dysplasia as early as 3 months. PennHIP promoters claimed that their method predicts hip health much better than the radiographic method could.3

In 2015, a team lead by Andrea Meyer-Lindenberg in the Department of Surgery and Small Animal Reproduction in Munich, Germany, compared the effectiveness of detecting a propensity for hip dysplasia between the radiographic and the PennHIP methods. Despite the claims by PennHIP promoters, the team found no evidence that the PennHIP method was more successful than the FCI method. Prof. Meyer-Lindenberg’s study included 248 dogs of 40 breeds. The researchers did say that the PennHIP method could provide a valuable second evaluation in borderline cases.4

Dogs are what they eat. Also in the 1980s, a completely different approach to hip dysplasia was promoted by Ian Billinghurst – diet ( ). Billinghurst was raised on a ranch in the Australian Outback. When he became a veterinarian, he attended to diseases among the urban dogs that he saw rarely, if at all, among the outback ranch dogs. The ranch dogs were fed and scrounged a variety of foods. He rightly questioned the wisdom of the dog food companies, which enlisted animal scientists to formulate dog food. In those days, the animal scientists understood livestock nutrition well. They relied on pig nutrition studies to design dog food. Of course, there was a whole clash of cultures. Pigs are feed to grow fast to go to market young, and life span and working ability were unimportant. Pigs have a simple stomach more like dogs unlike the multi-chambered ruminant stomachs of cattle and sheep.

Dog food companies were understandably reluctant, but Billinghurst persisted and found allies among dog owners. His persistence and pulling no punches is evident in some of his book titles.5,6 Today, thanks in large part to Billinghurst and his allies, the major dog food companies have revamped their food design. Evidence is the range of dog foods available to dog owners today, notably the designs for slow growth of large breeds, in which hip dysplasia was most common.

Another way to explore whether hip dysplasia is largely a human made disease in dogs is to examine wild canids. Apparently, there is only one case of hip dysplasia in a wolf. Unfortunately this animal was kept in captivity and thus was fed a diet more similar to dogs than wolves.1 It is unfortunate that in North America, where so many coyotes are trapped or shot each year, no one seems to have examined the incidence of hip dysplasia in this species in the wild.

Around 2000, several research groups around the world began to pursue the hip dysplasia holy grail in earnest. They looked for the smoking gun, the gene. So far, this search has failed. It is possible that a genetic mechanism exists, but that the mechanism is so complex that it is beyond the reach of research focused on a single gene. Our high school and much of university education in genetics is based on the laudable single-gene insights provided by Gregor Mendel 150 years ago. However, the single-gene mantra inherent on the usual Punnett square describes only a fraction of real world genetic mechanisms and leaves us woefully unprepared to understand the true complexities. The hip dysplasia mechanism could, for example, include: i) an environmental trigger that occurs only some of the time, ii) it could involve not one or even two but many genes acting together, and iii) it could be of an only recently recognized epigenetic nature.

One breed club's experience. The Large Munsterlander Association of Canada (LMAC; ), formerly the Large Munsterlander Club of North America ( ), began in the 1970s to fight hip dysplasia. LMAC relied on institutional guidance of the Animal Pedigree Act of Canada as a state-of-the-art tool for breeders. From 1977 to 2017, Large Munsterlander breeders and hunters have had over 200 LMs x-rayed for hip dysplasia.

The data showed convincingly that three sires in the LM gene pool were responsible for a disproportionate number of offspring that developed hip dysplasia. These sires might have helped to provide a clue for the genetic mechanism but they were never used for research.

Figure 2. Hip-dysplasia ratings of Large Munsterlanders (vertical axis) in relation to the average rating of their two parents (horizontal axis). Squares indicate the average hip rating, the vertical line shows the range of ratings, and numbers show how many dogs were x-rayed in that category. The dysplastic parents had developed hip dysplasia later in life, after they had already sired offspring. Parents with both had hips rated Excellent showed the best results in their offspring. Surprisingly, parents with hips rated Fair or Good but still HD-free and parents actually developing hip dysplasia later had similar proportions of dysplastic and HD-free offspring.

The results of screening and breeding only HD-free sires and dams are shown in Fig. 2 (above), which suggests three things for breeders. First, the graph shows on the right side of the panel that even a dog that was dysplastic and accidentally mated to a HD-free dam still had more HD-free than dysplastic offspring. Second, various matings of HD-free dogs in the “Good” hip conformation range still produced some dysplastic offspring. Finally, only HD-free dogs with both mates rated “Excellent” produced no dysplastic offspring.

These results, on the surface, suggest a solution: apply intense selection pressure and only breed dogs with hips rated excellent on radiographs. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Even within the single breed, the Large Munsterlander, the data suggest that excellent hips occur primarily in the fine-boned and lightly built specimens that occupy the lower end, or even fall outside the breed standard. This would mean that some of the larger versatile breeds are in trouble. Their characteristic medium-sized bodies could not be maintained.

The trend for a higher incidence of hip dysplasia in large breeds of dogs has long been known.1 A former Canadian Kennel Club judge, genetics professor and breeder of St. Bernard and Clumber Spaniels also reached that conclusion. Taking the hard-line time and again in selecting his breeding stock, Prof. Roy Crawford managed to significantly reduce the incidence of hip dysplasia in both breeds over time. However, he said, the dogs’ appearance changed. They became finer boned, lighter in weight. Eventually few breeders and owners were interested in his dogs because they no longer looked like St. Bernard and Clumbers in or outside the show ring.

One breeders’ experience with hip dysplasia. After 40 years of breeding Sunnynook Large Munsterlanders, and always in full support of the Large Munsterlander Association of Canada’s goals to select against hip dysplasia, Sheila and I reached our own conclusions and are encouraged by our results. Our ratio of HD-free Sunnynook dogs over the first 20 years, then the next 10 and the last 10 years of breeding were: 69% of 36, 95% of 20 and 100% of 5 dogs x-rayed. Over this same period the breed’s founding breed club in Germany and other North American breeders practiced equal diligence wehereby we could collaborate and complement one another’s efforts. We feel it would be unwise not to x-ray, and to breed dysplastic or even hip-status-unknown hunting dogs. We like it when our Sunnynook dogs have excellent hips but we also bred dogs whose hips are ranked Good, and two with merely Fair hips. Beyond x-rays, we take several steps in our kennel:

In our discussion with other responsible and experienced breeders, we find that others have come to similar integrated and broadly based approaches to breeding. Breeding dogs responsibly and finding a suitable home has been as challenging as most anything we have experienced in our lives. We have learned much in the process of breeding hunting dogs for four decades. We will continue with our approach and proceed with eyes open.

Breeding quality hunting dogs is a community effort. It can be done best in collaboration with other breeders and owners that are diligent (Fig. 3). The community of hunting dog owners with similar goals provides us with enhanced breeding choices that we could not have on our own. The successes are shared by all and are seen at the end of a good day in the field. Breeders can tackle their bane and the dogs can have less pain.


  • 1. Willis, Malcolm B. 1989. Genetics of the dog. Howell Book House, New York; 417 pp.
  • 2. Farrow’s Veterinary Medical Imaging, Saskatoon
  • 3. Grognet, Jeff. 2011. "Hip scoring." Dogs in Canada 102(5): 16-19.
  • 4. Welsch, Barbara. 2015. HD-Grenzfälle besser beurteilen. Gesellschaft zur Förderung Kynologischer Forschung, Info 42: 21-25.
  • 5. Billinghurst, Ian. 1993. Give your dog a bone: The practical commonsense way to feed your dog for a long and healthy life. Published by Ian Billinghurst, Bathurst, Australia; 319 pp.
  • 6. Billinghurst, Ian. 2001. "The barf diet: Raw feeding of cats and dogs following evolutionary principles." Published by Ian Billinghurst, North Sydney, Australia.

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