by Dave Fisher
It was 3:30 in the morning on the fourth of July when I heard “Midnight” barking at the kennel. Since I was expecting puppies at any minute, I groggily slipped on my pants and headed out there. More dogs were already whining or pacing the runs, and by the time I got there “Storm” already had one wet, black, and crying pup. I tried to sooth the new mother as best I could, as I moved “Ticker” and “Midnight” to a run farther away. At 3:52 another pup slithered into the world, this time a red and white one very much like her mother. It was a long laborious birth and by mid-afternoon 10 new hounds squirmed and struggled for the best position around their mother even though they wouldn’t even be able to see her for another two weeks.
I knew the entire litter wouldn’t make it … they rarely do, and 10 pups are a real handful for a Beagle. Still I looked at the new brood, fighting for position and the milk that would keep them alive and couldn’t help being awed and in wonder of what would become of them. Would some be great hunters? Excellent trial dogs? Loyal pets? Who knew?
“A new batch,” I said aloud to myself. “They have a long road ahead of them.”
For 30 years now, I have been raising and training Beagles for rabbit hunting. It is renewable passion for me. There are highs and certainly lows, as some that much faith was placed in fall by the wayside, or a cherished member of the family must be laid to rest. As hours of work, vet visits, months of training and, yes, a few tears all culminate when on a snowing day in January you hear the pack take the rabbit over the top of the ridge and out of hearing. All the dogs working in perfect unison for one sole purpose … get the rabbit back around to the gun. In this moment time seems to take a giant leap backwards as the dogs return to their primal desires of the chase, and all your efforts to bring this desire to the surface seem futile … as it was there all along. It is an exhilarating experience that keeps everything in perspective.
New Beagle owners are always scared. Am I doing this right? Am I going to mess this pup up? Am I going to lose it the first time I take it into the brush? I know this, because I get calls about these same questions all the time. The answer is no, to all. It’s not as complicated as one might expect and it certainly isn’t rocket science.
So what do I do? How do I choose a Beagle pup? Well, the first thing you ought to do is take a giant shortcut. Secure a pup from parents that are most like the dog you want to have in your backyard and the most like the one you would enjoy hunting with. I know, I’ve heard the stories too: “A guy gave me this dog, was the best hunter I’ve ever seen.” I got this Beagle from the Pound, was the best hunter I’ve ever seen.”
Yeah, I’ve heard these. I’m telling you from the experience of having many $50 and $75 dogs; it can be a long and winding road. It’s like opening thousands of oysters, one day you might find a pearl, most of the time it’s just an oyster. The point is; if you want to bake a very good cake, you start with the finish ingredients. If you want a good rabbit hound, start with good stock; that means finding good parents. I can’t even begin to tell you how important this is.
Time and space here will allow me to go into very few details of the actual training of a Beagle pup. Just keep in mind, it’s not rocket science. If the pup has any kind of hunting desire (remember good stock!), he’ll know what to do. It’s simply exposing the pup to what he was bred for. This merely means taking the pup out to the park, the local ball field, an open hay field; somewhere he will likely encounter rabbits. If the pup has any desire to chase cottontails the light will eventually come on. Also, keep in mind that every pup is different. Just because your buddy’s pup started at five months, doesn’t mean yours will. It might be six, eight, even longer. Give the dog a chance.
Give the dog a chance? What does that mean? It means get the dog off the chain and into the brush every possible moment when he’s young and impressionable. When he’s five and six months old, he needs to see rabbits, it will set him up for perhaps a lifetime of hunting. Don’t expect the dog to sit around for months on a chain and think he will hunt like a champion on the first day of hunting season. It’s not going to happen. He needs “training camp”, experience and exercise … the same thing a rabbit gets everyday of its life.
One other tip I may give for starting is I routinely show my pups tame rabbits. I buy a few Jan Juan rabbits; these closely resemble real cottontails, and place them in a fenced in area, a back yard, and even a fenced parking lot. This sometimes gets the pup’s attention and really does jump-start his natural hunting desire. You can sometimes keep the pup on a long leash to keep him from harming the rabbit. Tame rabbits smell just the same as wild ones, and I promise you won’t “ruin” the dog!
Hunting behind a dog or dogs is certainly different from the stomp and kick approach most of us remember from childhood. Here the dog does most of the work, but don’t expect the dog to do everything. A cottontail can hide in a space the size of a softball, and unless he is disturbed even a hound with a great nose will sometimes not detect him. Get in the habit of hunting along with the dog, kicking likely looking hiding places, and watching the dog. I guarantee the dog will be watching you, and a dog with any brains will soon learn where the rabbits seek shelter. Offer encouragement to go under this brush pile, and praise when he does it right. Dogs love praise. You’re a team; too, both of you should work together.
One of the easiest ways to kill a good hound, or ruin one for that matter, is to shoot rabbits on the “jump”. This simply means trying to get a shot at a rabbit just rousted from his hiding place. Sure we’ve all done it, but it is not a good practice. First it cheats the dogs out of the job he was trained for and secondly it is very dangerous with a dog or two around. In my case, I usually have four or five dogs with me and the danger level soars. Also, the shotgun blast in close proximity to the new hound may make him gun shy, especially if he is already a little shy to begin. Let the dog run the rabbit. Most of the time you will get a much better shot later anyway.
Once a rabbit is up and running the hunter simply positions himself near the jump site and waits for the dog to bring the rabbit back. Rabbits circle simply because they do not want to leave their territory they were born and raised in, the dog has little to do with it. But don’t expect all rabbits to simply come hopping back to the precise spot. The rabbit may have been on the extreme edge of his turf or the cover is not sufficient there where he will feel safe. I never like to be nailed down to one spot. I will move as the chase dictates and I like to find a fairly open spot for a good, clear shot. If the dog continues to do his job, the rabbit will come through there sooner or later. Experience is the best teacher. After rabbit hunting with a dog for awhile and you have a rabbit up, you can look over the territory and pretty much guess what type of pattern the rabbit may run. It just takes a little practice.
The speed of the dog, and the scenting conditions, will determine about how far the rabbit is in front of the hound. The hunter needs to pay attention. The rabbit could be just a few yards in front, or he could be a hundred, there is no set rule. If I had to venture a guess from the thousands of runs I’ve seen, I’d say it would average about 60 to 70 yards, affording good, safe shooting. But again, it varies greatly, and safety is a must when a trailing hound is in pursuit. A dog that is a little “mouthy” is better than a quiet one, as he is much easier to keep track of.
Sometime back in the late 70s I began “pack hunting”. This may have come about because I did not have any really good dogs so I threw down several hoping one would do something! Pack hunting brings to the table all sorts of new quirks and adventures. Pack hunting closely resembles the modern field trials of today where five or more dogs may be cast together. Now the dogs must work as a team, run the same speed and cooperate with their master and each other. It truly does raise the level of excitement. I can very well see that after a hunter has one dog he might get another. Once you have two, the cat is out of the bag and I can just about bet you’ll have more. I’ve seen it happen to many, many new Beaglers over the years.
Pack hunting is a serious passion of mine and I could never see me going back to hunting with a single dog. In my first book, BEAGLES vs COTTONTAILS, I devoted an entire chapter to pack hunting. I state there that a single, very well trained hound that can run and circle his own rabbit is a very valuable commodity, but seeing a well oiled pack working together as a single machine is one of the greatest experiences of rabbit hunting. That was years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind at all.
On the last day of the cottontail season late in February last year, my regular hunting partner, Bob Clarke, and I descended on a flat brushy area just east of where we live. It was raining heavily but when the season is winding down we hunt whenever we can. The importance of hunting with a few Beagles is never enforced better than on days when the weather is nasty. Rabbits were sitting “loose”, which means they would move out before the hunter could even detect them. The dogs would come along, just start barking at the ground … and the chase was on!
Bob and I only had to locate a few high spots in the terrain to follow the action. Several times during the day I glimpsed multiple rabbits in front of the dogs and at one point did score on a “double”. In just a few hours we took seven rabbits and missed several others along the way. Although Bob and I never said much about it, he readily helped me towel the wet dogs off later that afternoon and feed and care for sore feet. He and I both knew without the help of those trailing hounds; Bowser, Hershey, Amber, Sammy and Storm, and their tireless tenacity to hunt, we would have been cleaning very few rabbits that evening.
Hunting with Beagles is a sport that in some parts of the country is actually gaining popularity. Last year, the American Rabbit Hound Association held it’s Little Pack World Hunt in the state of Indiana during April. There were 722 Beagles entered! It was touted as the biggest Beagle field trial in history … now that’s popularity! However, in many places here in the east it is nothing more than a childhood memory, and it seems I see less and less rabbit hunters each year. It can be captured again very easily. Beagles are small dogs and require very little space. Two can be kept in an 8 foot by 8 foot off-the ground kennel. Nothing can be more exciting to a youngster than shooting his first rabbit over a dog he’s personally trained. All it takes is time, patient, and starting with the right ingredients, and remembering … it’s not rocket science!