To get really basic here, I will begin by saying that starting a Beagle pup on a rabbit refers to getting a Beagle to track a rabbit scent trail while tonguing or opening up. Tonguing is the term Beaglers use to refer to the type of noise a Beagle makes when it is tracking the scent trail of a rabbit. It is a very unique type of "barking" that all hounds make when tracking, and each Beagle’s tonguing is unique to that individual dog. A Beagler that is very familiar with his hound’s tonguing sound can easily pick the sound of his hound(s) out of a whole pack of other Beagles that have opened up on a rabbit scent trail. I generally run my Beagles in packs of 3 to 6 hounds, and I can tell you the name of each hound in my pack simply by listening to them tonguing away in hot pursuit.
This article will describe several different, sequential and progressive steps that I have found that work in starting Beagle pups on rabbits. Let me make it very clear that many Beagler’s have found many different ways that work for them in starting their own hounds, and the methods or rather steps that I will describe in this article are simply what I have found that work for me and my hounds. Also, the ages listed in this article are the training levels that my hounds generally achieve in their progressive training. The age in which your hound(s) actually master these training steps could be at a much older age. Whether you have a fast or slow learning dog, it really does not have any bearing on how good of a gundog it will eventually end up. Also, you may want to try several or all of these training steps; then keep using the ones that work best for you, your hounds, and the type of training/running conditions that are available in your area.
To keep this article as easy to understand as possible, I will follow a chronological order for the training events -- starting with a very young puppy and working my way toward an adult hound. This article will not cover the basic obedience training that should also be taking place throughout a young hound’s life.
Even though Beagles are most likely the oldest breed of gundog in the world, and bred specifically for rabbit/hare hunting, that does not ensure that a Beagle can be trained to track rabbits. Like all great hunting dog breeds, there are many Beagles that will not show any interest in tracking a rabbit. This tragedy has occurred because some breeders focus on only certain selective traits. The breeders I am referring to have concentrated on the qualities that make good show dogs, and have not taken into consideration any of the qualities that make up a great gundog beagle. For all you game bird hunters, this scenario may sound very familiar. This is exactly the same type of thing that has happened to the Irish Setter.
To illustrate how bad things have gotten; even the Beagle breed standard of the AKC/UKC has been written and developed down through the years with a show Beagle in mind. I am sure this next comment will be controversial, but I feel the conformation needed to be a truly great gundog Beagle is not accurately described in the current Beagle breed standard. This is one of the main reasons that dual champions (champions in both show and field) do not exist anymore. Therefore, I encourage all Beaglers and future Beaglers to acquire a Beagle pup that has the proper breeding behind it to make a good gundog. You should seek out and buy a purebred (and hopefully registered) Beagle that has an extended pedigree full of field champions and great hunting Beagles. This simple fact will virtually ensure your chances that you buy a Beagle that will have all the necessary genetic traits, abilities, and qualities that it takes to become a great gundog Beagle.
At the young age of 4-6 weeks old I start developing a pup’s searching and finding abilities. Let your puppy smell some dog food, broken dog biscuits or pieces of a hotdog in your hand. Once the puppy shows a real interest in them you need to make the puppy search for these treats. Toss them out on the ground and make the puppy use it’s nose to find them. After doing this little training exercise only a few times, you will see your pup searching, snorting, and wagging its tail as it hunts for and finds the hidden treats. This quickly teaches your puppy to start to use its exceptional scenting abilities to find things.
When your Beagle pup reaches the age of 6-8 weeks old you need to incorporate a couple different forms of training. Pups at this age have a short attention span so keep the training sessions to about 10 - 15 minutes for no more than two or three times per day. This is a great age to teach your pup to retrieve and to track a scent trail. This level of training will last for several weeks.
Many Beaglers are realizing that a Beagle tha
t will retrieve a shot rabbit can be a real asset - especially in heavy cover or where there are lots of burrows. A good place to start teaching a pup to retrieve is by using a hallway in your home. Roll up a pair of socks, put your puppy in the hallway, and then you set at the end of the hallway. Tease your puppy with the sock roll and then toss it down the hallway when your puppy is looking in that direction. Give your puppy the "fetch" command and encourage it to go get the sock roll. Often your puppy will run down the hallway, grab the sock roll and try to run past you. When your pup gets to your location you need to take the sock roll away from it and say "good dog" while giving your puppy lots of love consisting of vigorous petting. Once your puppy starts bringing the sock roll back to you on command, you can take this activity outside, and then start adding some rabbit scent on the sock roll. It will then be an easy transition to switch from a rabbit scented, sock roll to a small, frozen, dead rabbit. Yes, you should be keeping a frozen rabbit (fur and all) inside a gallon freezer bag in your freezer. Since your retriever training sessions are always short and never more than 30 minutes maximum, the frozen bunny will not thaw out and spoil. Refreeze the bunny immediately after each training session so it will keep for several months. Eventually you can graduate your Beagle onto retrieving a full size, adult rabbit.
Also, at this age you can start incorporating some tracking training. I like to tie a hotdog on a string and then drag it around in the grass. About every 3 feet, you should leave a very small piece of a hotdog as a treat to encourage your pup to keep following the scent trail. As the pup gets better at tracking the scent trail, you can stretch out the length of the scent trail (also known as the line) while simultaneously widening the distance between the pieces of hotdog left on the scent line. You will be amazed at how quickly your puppy gets very good at tracking the scent of a hotdog. Eventually you can graduate your pup to a scent drag saturated with rabbit scent, and then only reward your pup with a treat or praise after it has followed the entire line.
When your pup reaches the age of about 14-16 weeks, you should start teasing your puppy with tame rabbits. Tame rabbits work great because they are bigger, slower, and likely leave a heavier scent trail than wild rabbits. Nearly any breed, size, or color of tame rabbit will work, but some breeds do work out just a little better. The type of rabbit that I use for this purpose is a Flemish Giant. They look just like a wild rabbit and weight about 15 – 18 pounds. Some other good tame rabbit breeds to use as Beagle training rabbits are San Juan rabbits, Smokey Mtn. Cottontails, Florida Cottontails, or Belgian Hare, Redback, and Buddha crosses.
Place your puppy on a leash and tie it to a tree or have a friend hold the leash while your puppy watches you or your kids chase a tame rabbit around the yard. Your Beagle pup should be so excited to join in the chase that it tries to break free from the leash. When your pup is this excited about chasing the rabbit, you can release
the puppy after it. Once your puppy has made several sight chase-training sessions on tame rabbits, it is time to incorporate tame rabbit scent trailing.
Next, let the tame rabbit hop around your yard or out in the field, and somewhere out of site of the pup put the tame rabbit under a weighted milk crate or inside a portable holding pen at the end of the scent trail. Then put your pup at the beginning of the line and let the puppy track the line until it finds the tame rabbit. As the puppy gets better and better at tracking the line and finding the tame rabbit, you can make the length of the line between the start of the scent trail and the rabbit greater and greater. It shouldn’t take long at all before your puppy is easily and quickly tracking the line that has been laid down by the tame rabbit.
At 4 - 8 months of age you should start training your puppy in a starting pen. A starting pen is a small, outdoor enclosure made up of three quarters of an acre to five acres of land that is enclosed with rabbit proof fencing. Inside the enclosure should be a few rabbits (tame and/or wild) as well as some natural type of habitat/cover. Put your puppy in the starting pen for a few hours at a time every couple of days or so, and let it search for, jump, and run rabbits. It shouldn’t take long before your pup is opening up and tonguing away in pursuit after the rabbits inside. If you do not have a starting pen available for your use, you can do a few other things instead. One good way to get your pup started is to take it on walks just after dawn or before dusk in areas with lots of rabbits. Good locations for rabbits are around fields of grass, clover, or alfalfa. Once your puppy has sight chased a few rabbits it will start opening up on them.
Your next step should be to run your young hound in a larger running pen if available. Running pens are simply a larger version of a starting pen. Running pens generally consist of areas as small as 5 acres or can be as large as 100 acres or more. Running pens are great because you can let your hound run without fear of it getting lost, hit by a car, or stolen. You should allow your hound to run rabbits by itself sometimes, but most of the time you should accompany your Beagle by walking in the general vicinity while your Beagle is running the line. The more you accompany your hound while its running the better team you and your Beagle will become. If you don’t have a running pen available for your use, you should simply take your beagle out into the field as much as possible.
Once your Beagle is well started and can run rabbits solo, then you should also let it run "brace" which means paired up with another Beagle. The term brace simply refers to a two-dog pack. A great dog for training pups is an older bitch that does not have any major faults. This type of Beagle is great for training a young hound because older females are generally not overly fast runners, and they can show the younger hound how to get through a "check". The term check refers to when a Beagle temporarily loses a rabbit due to the rabbit making a sharp turn, a long hop, or backtracking, and then the Beagle finds the trail once again and continues on with the pursuit.
I encourage all Beaglers to join one or more gundog Beagle field trial clubs in your area if available. They generally have both starting and running pens that are kept well supplied with rabbits for training and running your hounds. The club activities such as field trials are a great place for you to have some fun with your Beagles. Your club membership dues, field trial entry fees, and your volunteer labor are the things that make gundog Beagle field trial clubs possible so that you can have a great place to run your hounds amongst friends.
Another training task not covered in this article is that all Beaglers will need to incorporate gunfire training into their gundog-training sessions. If proper steps are not followed, in a logical sequence, you could end up with a gun shy Beagle – which is essentially not a gundog at all.
Once again, many different Beaglers use many different methods in training their hunting/gundog Beagles. If you can visualize how you want your trained gundog Beagle to perform as an adult, then you may be able to come up with some other training steps to get your Beagle pup to reach that final goal. Try to keep the training in logical steps, make the transitions from one step to the next as smooth as possible, and stay consistent with your training. The steps I have laid out here are very sequential and easy for most Beagles to progress through. Some Beaglers will simply start their dogs by taking them to the field as often as possible where many rabbits are found and that is the extent of training for their hounds. Often Beaglers will run lots of Beagle pups together, and cull all of the pups that are not learning quick enough, or simply will not learn by taking them directly to the field to run on wild rabbits without any progressive learning steps. Even though this method will often work, I disagree with this training philosophy; especially, if you only own one to six Beagle(s) -- take the time to really train them right. This way you get a great gundog Beagle(s) for the amount of money invested. Let me say this once again, your Beagle may actually reach each training step at a much later age in life so don't get discouraged. This is not anything bad, it only means that your dog is maturing and learning a little slower than than the bloodline(s) that I have in my kennel. Simply, keep working with and training your hound(s) and exhaust all methods possible to reach your goal or before you decide to throw in the towel (if not successful). Some Beagles simply may not have what it takes with regards to genetic abilities. Only you can determine what is the proper age to cull a gundog Beagle that will not start and open on rabbits and hares. Some of the greatest gundog Beagles of all-time have started on rabbits at a later age than what I have described in this article -- so please don't get discouraged too quickly.
Finally, once your Beagle is well started on rabbits, don’t let the training stop there. The more you run your Beagle, work with your hound as a team, and gun over it, the better gundog it will become. Run your dog(s) both during the night and day. Run your hound(s) solo, brace, in small packs, and even large packs if possible. You should run your hound in all types of cover and during every season of the year. If you want a great snow hound, then you need to run your Beagle in the snow as often as possible. If you want a great dry season dog, then run your Beagle as much as possible in hot, dry weather. If you want a great hare hound then go where snowshoe hares or jackrabbits live and let your hound run them as much as possible. If you want great rabbit hounds then you must hunt or at least run a lot of rabbits. I also highly recommend, that if you live near a gundog Beagle field trial club, enter your hound(s) in competition and have some competitive fun. The key to having and maintaining a great gundog Beagle is to train it right and let it run rabbits and/or hares as much as possible. Take your hound(s) to the field often for hunting, field trials, or simply to hear the beautiful music of a Beagle tonguing away in hot pursuit of its intended game. Lets keep the hunting heritage of the Beagle alive and not let their great scenting and tracking abilities get bred out of existence. Besides, it is great to be able to go to the field nearly any day of the week during hunting season, and get your limit of great tasting rabbits or hares.