by Dave Fisher
The dogs swung downhill for the third or fourth time and I slowly crept after them. I had not been very impressed with them lately, but they were doing a good job today. My buddy, Larry, and my regular hunting partner, Bob are never quite as critical, they just want to shoot a few rabbits, and at last count I think seven were hanging from our belts.
I must admit, it was a chorus to behold, five dogs in full bay going down into the steep hollow and the sounds of each blending into a single indefinable, but beautiful roar above the valley. It was easy for me, however, to pick out what each one was doing and I did not have to see what order they were in. Bowser, always leading, Sammy fighting to stay second, Storm content to stay third, and Amber and Hawk bringing up the rear. It was an uneasy alliance, with this crew; Bowser too fast, the others more closely matched, but still not "fluid" together. It was not the exact pack I wanted or was searching for.
Finally the chase turns our way again and before I can get into position Larry’s gun goes off in front of me about three quarters of the way down the ridge. It was a great day hunting and just before dark we descend the ridge back to the trucks to take a few pictures. Larry and Bob were pleased with the dogs, and I must admit they had worked their hearts out today, but still the feeling that this was an unevenly matched pack was unmistakable to me. More work had to be done.
Back a few years ago, when I was filming many hunts in anticipation of making a couple videos, I had mostly a pack of red and white hounds, with a couple a tri-color dogs that would slot in behind anyone who wanted to lead, thrown in for good measure. None of these dogs were perfect by any means, but more important than color was the fact that they all ran about the same speed.
Again, these dogs had a lot of faults. Over-running the end of the line, and swinging too far off line were probably the biggest. There were no cold-trailers in the bunch, however, and they were just downright good, general- purpose, rabbit dogs. If you just wanted to just kill rabbits … these were the dogs. What made them good? Well, it was that mindset and ability to work as a team. None of these dogs were much account by themselves, but throw them in together and it was a fluid machine. Each had his own job; a leader, a couple good jump dogs, a couple fair trailers. It worked, and it worked well.
One pack of several years ago in particular really stands out in my mind. We were headed to Beaver Island so I began running the dogs heavily in August. By the time we hit Beaver they were in their prime. Running hares on Beaver Island only sharpened their skills and as we settled back home in Pennsylvania the season began here. I ran the dogs heavily again, took a ton of rabbits in front of them, and gave them the deer season off; then hit the woods again in late December. By late January and into February they were on top of their game. Anytime a rabbit was up and running he was in serious trouble. Go to a hole …or die; because these dogs were not going to be shaken. I’ll never forget it … and remember, I don’t think any of these dogs could circle a bunny on its own!
Now, I have "better" dogs. Yep, that’s right I have better dogs, better trailers, faster, quicker on checks, blue bloods almost all of them. Some can even circle a cottontail by themselves. I have Gay Demon Blood, Fast Delivery Little Harvey, Gun Creek Batman, Gun Creek Rock, Flat Creek Josh, and all the rest. Do I have a better pack? No. Unquestionably, No.
What’s the problem? They’re not a team. Each of them sometimes wants to do their own thing; hunt over here, fight for the front, run the rabbit out of the state if possible. They’re just not a team.
Storm and Sam, the remnants of the original red and white packs of years gone by are still my best down-to-earth rabbit dogs. They want to hunt, want to stay in the chase at all costs. Slow down, run like maniacs if they have to … anything to stay in the chase. They will run with anything as long as they are hunting … hard to beat that mentality.
So what’s it take to build a good, or even a great pack. Time. Unquestionably lots of time. You raise pups, you buy pups, you buy a dog here and there … and then you spend time. You raise two or three pups until you get them started. They all seem promising, but as time goes by you see this one isn’t working here, this one is too slow here; this one doesn’t even have any interest in running a rabbit. A year goes by … maybe even two. Several are discarded; a few are given more time. Eventually it’s time to start all over again. Time. An incredible amount of time.
Of course I have heard the arguments from a lot of my "buddies". "Well, you don’t have the right dogs! You need to try this family … you need to have one of my dogs!"
There’s some merit to that argument … the problem is to make this thing work, I’d probably need ALL their dogs, not just one!
Is there an answer? Well sort of, yes. You have to cut your losses more quickly. Keep more into the family by close line breeding dogs that suit you, culling out dogs that begin to outrun the main body, or simply getting rid of dogs that by their actions of one type or another will add no benefit to the pack. It’s a hard proposition. Some are tough to get rid of.
I have a beautiful black and tan male that has stolen my heart. "Hershey" is the most lovable little gentleman you could ever meet. I got him by accident. Paid almost nothing for him. Great parentage. He’s my buddy. Can run a rabbit with the booming voice of miniature coonhound. Listens impeccably. Learns very, very quickly.
He ONLY has two problems. He runs a rabbit about 90 miles an hour! Then when he looses the track because he’s overrun it by half a mile, he gives it up to the other dogs and comes back to see what I’m doing! The other dogs continue searching and when they finally unravel the track Hershey is back at the four-wheeler with me, and now he’d rather stay with me than go back through all that brush. But, it’s only a little fault right? Right. I know I need to cut him out of my pack. But he’s not going to be easy to part with. And where does he go? Do I kill this dog …NO. Do I sell him … not likely.
In God’s infinite wisdom He made dogs to live a much shorter life than we would like. I’m sure there is a good reason for this, like a pup can be born in April and be running rabbits by fall hunting season, but it can play havoc with the formation of the pack later. It seems like just about the time the pack is up and running smoothly, you begin to loose important members. In just the last two years, I lost three core members; Annie Oakley, Ralphie, and probably the best all-round dog I ever had, Lightning. As I’ve said these dogs were not exceptional, until they were run as a pack.
I once had a dog called, Sue-Sue. She was nothing special, but just a down-to-earth hunting dog. But the pack was not the same without her. She had an uncanny knack of coming up with rabbits. You barely had the first one cleaned before she was barking again. It was like she materialized them somehow! She ran a rabbit with a deep "wooooffff … wooooffff" and you knew it was going to be a good chase! She was not a lead dog or anything like that, but the pack was definitely improved when she was in it. When she got to be six, I got the bright idea to sell her, and I missed her much more than I thought I would … the whole pack performance suffered without her. Did you ever go to a trial and they pick up one dog, even from the back of the pack and things really get bogged down? Wonder why?
Although I have had dogs like Bowser, Hershey and Ralphie that were born pack leaders, they were not necessarily my best dogs. I agree that these types of dogs bring fire and excitement to the pack but their "I have to run the front at all costs" mentality can screw up the works sometimes. Just because they are out front doesn’t mean they are the most valuable members of the pack. How about the trial scenario again? Surely you’ve been to a trail and heard, "My dog led the whole race! He has to be the winner!" Well, maybe, but I can think of several dogs that picked their running partners apart and several that won from further back in the pack.
The lead dog is important, no question about it. He can make or break a good pack, but the point is he’s still only one dog. My dog Bowser is a rabbit machine. He can flat out run down a rabbit. Born to lead. But he is so faulty in other areas, if he didn’t have Storm or Sammy behind him, I‘m afraid I wouldn’t kill very many rabbits with him. His worse fault for the pack? No gears. He has one speed … high! In two hours he expends more energy than Storm does all day beating the brush. By mid-day Bowser’s out of gas. Then he lackadaisically hunts, begs snacks and waits for the other pack members to jump a rabbit. So what do you do with him, leave him home?? If you do the pack just isn’t the same. He keeps that fire going … keeps all the other dogs interested and is ready to do his best to get that rabbit around for the kill.
I know I’ve gone on and on here about pack hunting, and this certainly isn’t the first article I’ve written about it, but few of us have one dog, and it is probably the most important aspect of my hunting … building, molding, searching for those exceptional dogs that make the entire pack click as a unit. I know it consumes my thoughts almost every day I run the hounds.
Yeah, I’m just a rabbit hunter, but it’s the dogs that make the hunt what it is … something special besides just killing rabbits. Although the kill becomes less important as we get older, the importance of the dogs never wavers. When the day is done most of the talk is not about how many rabbits are in the bag, but how the dogs ran and how they preformed as a team. I know this because even back in late 1990 I wrote;
* "As you can see keeping a good pack together is a tough and sometimes frustrating chore. Over the years scores of dogs have ‘auditioned’ for my pack; very, very few have become established members. But seeing a well oiled pack working together as a single machine is one of the greatest experiences of rabbit hunting."