by Dalton Rivers
First, a little about me. I am sixty years old and was born and grew up in Chesterfield, South Carolina. I attended Clemson University on a football scholarship and graduated with a BS Degree in Education with a major in Mathematics. I taught and coached in high schools in South Carolina for twenty eight years before retiring there in 1987. I then moved to Thomson, Georgia and taught Math at Harlem High School before retiring a second time three years ago. Since then, I run Beagles for as many as five times per week, weather permitting. I have been rabbit hunting all my life and been hunting with Beagles about forty fivers years with my own pack for the last forty years.
But, enough about me. If you have a litter of pups, you should start handling and playing with them immediately. Some people say that if you play with them too much, they will always be pets and not "rabbit dogs," but this is not true. If they are bred right with the proper inherited traits, running rabbits will soon become dominant.
As soon as they are weaned, I begin taking them for walks about twice a week. The first few times you may have to carry them out of sight of your other dogs in the kennel to keep their attention. Put them on the ground and begin walking off as you call them an their natural following instinct will take over. This is how I teach them to come when called, to "down," and to respond to their names. If any of the litter is a little shy or slow to respond, I take them out individually. I should have told you, I usually raise about three litters per year, keeping about half for my own pack, and letting friends have the other pups.
When they are about six months old, I kennel them with a trained dog that is a good hunter and tracker, gives a lot of mouth on the track, and is average speed or slower. This is to get them used to her, so they will want to follow her when turned into the starting pen. We have a 12-acre starting pen.
After a few days, I begin putting them and her into the starting pen 3 or 4 times per week for 3-4 hours at a time. Most of the litter will follow her around and within 10-14 days, most of them will begin to want to run their own track. Then I take the trained dog out and keep putting the pups in until they can find and move their own rabbit. With a litter of five pups, for example, two may graduate from the starting pen in three weeks while it takes longer for the other three. If any are not running in 5-6 weeks, I take them out for 6-8 weeks and then try them again.
I do think there is only a little correlation between how soon they start and how good a "rabbit dog" they make. A few of my best Beagles did not start until they were 9-10 months old. Some strains of Beagles are easy starters while others are slower. One reason I take them out of the "starting pen" as soon as they begin is because they will learn bad habits if you leave them too long with an abundance of rabbits. If they can find rabbits real easy, they may begin to want to look for rabbits to "sight chase" instead of staying with a hard check.
Some people say that you should start a pup solo, but I disagree with this. I start my pup's with an older dog because I have found that if you start them alone, you may have a real problem getting them to honor other Beagles. For a few years, I started them by putting just the litter, say a litter of 5 pups, in a starting pen until they started. The problem I found with this was that sometimes one pup would start early. This pup may learn to start and run its own rabbit and have the same problem as one starting solo.
As they graduate for the starting pen, I start carrying them into the wild with a couple of trained slower dogs from my pack. As they begin to do well, I'll start carrying them as a "litter" to make sure they can find and run their own rabbit. I one or some of them have a tendency to not hunt, wait on the rest to start the rabbit, or wait on the rest in a check, I will him until he develops his own confidence. When I start them with my gunning pack, I am very careful to make sure they they are running before I shoot. Sometimes I will see the rabbit and let the dogs get within 30 or 40 yards. Then I will shoot up into the air and then call out to them to help them get more excited about hearing the gun shot. Gun shyness is usually an inherited tendency, but can usually be corrected if started carefully.
I do realize that most beginning Beaglers do not have a starting pen or even trained dogs. Most of the same principles can be used, except you will have to carry your pups out to where there are rabbits. It works better in the spring as rabbits are moving all day, especially in the late afternoon. You can walk around the edge of briars and cover; the pups natural instincts will usually have them sniffing around, looking for some tracks to smell. You must be patient as the first rabbit they see or smell, they may ignore; but, before long, their natural instincts will take over and they will begin to want to track the rabbit. At first, they may not "tongue" or carry the track but will usually improve each time out. Of course, I am assuming that they come from a strain of hunting Beagles.
About nine years ago, Larry Moore, a fellow teacher at Harlem High School, bought a pair of Beagles from me for his son Jeff, who was then nine years old. Larry had rabbit hunted as a teenager and wanted to get his son started in the sport. Jeff fell in love with the pups and started walking them out almost every day. To make a long story short, by the time they were five months old, they were both hunting and running rabbits. Larry still says, "They are the best Beagles we have ever owned." I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that they haven't had the time to start their other pups as they did these.
In summary, to train Beagle pups you have to enjoy fooling around with them, be consistent in their training, and be willing to put some time and patience into them. If your other duties don't allow this, then you had better pay someone else to start your pups, or perhaps you should buy already trained dogs.