One night a few years ago John Klus walked into his home on Lake Waubesa, Wisconsin, and thought, "Why is there a mouse running around in my living room?" The next thing Klus knew his wife, Sarah, was scooping up the mouse in her arms, a mouse that upon closer inspection turned out to be a dachshund puppy.
Oscar, she'd named him, an inspired choice for a "wiener dog." (Does Oscar Mayer ring any bells?) Wanting a car companion on her frequent business trips, Sarah had gone into stealth mode—the long and short of it being that Oscar's appearance came as a complete surprise to her husband.
"I gotta tell you," laughs Klus, "I was pissed. I'd grown up with Brittanies and Chesapeakes, and for a number of years now I've had pointing Labs. To me, a dachshund wasn't a real dog. It was a 'punt dog.'"
Just so there's no confusion on this, the kind of punt being referred to here is not a small boat.
Klus was still fuming when, a night or two later, one of his hunting buddies stopped by for a beer—and, upon seeing Oscar, lit up like Lambeau Field after an Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass. "That's exactly what we need!" he exclaimed. Klus wondered what the guy had been smoking but his friend explained that when he was a kid his dad had owned a dachshund that was the damnedest hunting dog he'd ever seen. The dog had been a genius at tracking and recovering wounded game and when the friend subsequently dropped off an armful of literature on "recovery dogs" Klus began to view Oscar in a new light.
This is where we need to back up and note that while Klus holds down a suit-and-tie job in the tech industry he's also the proprietor of a highly successful hunting and fishing guide service (klusfishandhunt.com), leading one to wonder when he sleeps, if ever.
Klus's reading persuaded him that Oscar deserved a chance to show what he was capable of, so that fall he put him on every deer and bear track he could. As luck would have it all the tracks early in the season were relatively short and straightforward, providing the kind of gradual, confidence-boosting learning curve that's ideal for a young hunting dog of any stripe. Oscar responded amazingly well, but it wasn't until later that fall, with the rut in full swing, that he truly came into his own.
In the wee hours of the morning Klus got a call from a man who'd arrowed a nice buck on a property north of Madison. They arranged to meet at first light and after hiking to the spot where the man had lost the deer's trail Klus put Oscar on the job. He tracked west, then north, then east, then south…and all of a sudden they were back at exactly the same place where they'd started. It's not uncommon for a wounded buck to move in a large circle but when Oscar led them down the same trail they'd walked in on Klus's doubts began to bubble to the surface.
He needn't have worried. Within 100 yards Oscar had found a bed, then, in short succession, another and another. Fifty feet from the last one lay the buck, stone dead.
"He worked through seven beds in all," Klus recalls. "That's really when the light went on. Since then he's been an absolute machine."
Meaning that Klus has quite literally lost count of the number of animals Oscar's recovered. "Dozens and dozens," he shrugs. In a recent season Oscar recovered nine bear and five deer. The standard fee for Oscar's services is $500 but Klus vets his potential clients very carefully; as he puts it, "I don't want to have to follow Oscar five miles tracking a deer that's only been clipped in the leg." The flip side of that coin is that if Oscar tracks an animal for a long way without recovering it, there's a good chance the wound wasn't mortal—cold comfort, perhaps, but comfort nevertheless.
Oscar is what is known in the trade as a "silent tracker" but that doesn't mean he can't communicate loudly and clearly when he needs to. Early in their career as hunting partners a disbelieving Klus would occasionally intone "Oscar, you're full of shit!" when he felt his dog wasn't being honest. This came to a head one day when, following a wounded deer, Klus realized they were on the same trail for the third time.
"Oscar, you're full of shit!" he barked. Oscar looked Klus straight in the eye, trotted off a few paces, and put his nose directly on the ground. When he didn't move Klus walked over, looked down—and saw a spot of fresh blood no bigger than a pinprick. It was as if Oscar was saying Full of shit, my ass!
"He was showing me the sign," Klus marvels. Needless to say, he no longer doubts his dog; in fact, it's become a kind of running joke between them. Klus will tell Oscar he's full of you-know-what, and Oscar will immediately "point" a spot of blood or some other piece of incontrovertible evidence—a potent reminder that our dogs operate in a world of scent that is brilliantly illuminated to them, but dungeon-dark to us.
This wiener dog is no one-trick pony, either. On pheasant and grouse hunts with the Labs he rides in Klus's game pouch. Whenever a bird comes to hand Klus dangles it in front of the opening where, in the snap of a dachshund's jaws, it disappears inside. Those birds still showing signs of life seldom show them for long.
He goes waterfowl hunting, too. Once while the Labs were fetching ducks Oscar took it upon himself to retrieve a wing-tipped Canada that had swum to shore. In the ensuing wrestling match the goose managed to roll onto its back, wedge those big paddles beneath that little dog, and send him flying.
Big mistake. Oscar's basically a friendly guy—"He goes into quite a few bars with me," Klus quips—but get on the wrong side of him and he morphs into eleven pounds of bad attitude. A couple falls ago during a melee with a bruin that outweighed Oscar approximately forty-to-one Klus left a bit too much slack in the lead and the next think anybody knew Oscar was hanging off the side of the bear with his teeth sunk into its flesh. What's that saying about the size of the fight in the dog?
Getting back to that goose, when Oscar touched down after his unscheduled flight he hit the ground running, grabbed the Canada by the throat, and proceeded to drag it, inch-by-inch, until Klus quit laughing long enough to step out of the blind and relieve Oscar of his burden.
For his part, Klus takes no credit for Oscar's achievements. "All I did," he observes, "is put him in the right environments, and let his genetics take over from there. He does what he was bred to do." Klus hopes to get a puppy to carry on the family tradition but while he's already iced down a quantity of Oscar's semen he's still searching for the right match, i.e., an Oscar-worthy female.
"Oscar has taught my clients and me more about wounded animal behavior and perceived shot placement than any human could," Klus asserts. "He's an
incredible tool but more importantly, an exceptional friend. I'm blessed that he picked me to be his owner."