by Joe West
Actually the first step in training a Beagle for hunting purposes is to breed or purchase one that is suited to the task at hand. However for the purposes of this article we will assume that you already have a healthy, well made, talented and tractable hunting hound and now the pup just needs training. Pup or older hound makes no difference because the training practices are the same. The old saying "you can't teach and old dog new tricks" just isn't so.
The very first thing a handler must do with his new hunting partner is build a trusting relationship with the hound. This cooperative relationship between man and hound will be the main thrust of this article. There are many books and articles which cover the basics of training hounds but few that focus on the importance of the man/hound bond; we'll seek to explore the importance of this relationship and the ways to build it in this article. This cooperative bond between man and hound seems to be one of the least understood aspects of Beagling and therefore one of the most neglected.
I cannot stress enough to the new Beagler the importance of this bond and it's effects on the hounds and their abilities. In today's fast paced world we all tend to want fast results and want to devote a minimum amount of time on each of our tasks. The drive up window society in which we live tends to rear it's ugly head in all aspects of our life including Beagling where, in fact, there is no place for it. I suppose it's only natural for us to want to do everything fast but, there are no short cuts in Beagling. Quite simply, with hounds the more short cuts you try to take the further from your goal you will find yourself. That is, if your goal is a top field hound who is mentally well adjusted and who cooperates fully with you. One more thing, this article is for the serious Beagler who is seeking perfection in his hounds. If you don't really care if your hounds are the best they can be then none of this will appeal to you because it will require more of your time. But, if you really have a love for hounds then it will be time that you will find most enjoyable; and the rewards great.
The first thing you should do when you get your new hunting partner home is NOTHING. We are assuming that you already have a large enclosure with a well made kennel box in place for your hound or at the very least a fenced in back yard for the hound to play in if the hound will be staying in doors. Just introduce the young hound to his new home and sit down and watch. Don't force yourself on the hound. Many new owners want to pick up and pet and ogle over their new pup but we have to keep in mind that we are all new to the new hound and the hound may very well be afraid of us and their new surroundings. Remember pups are just babies and their first time away from home with out their mother and brothers and sisters may be traumatic for them. They will get over it but the best way to assist them with that is to sit down close by and let THEM make the first advances towards YOU. Talk kindly and soothingly to them but don't advance towards them, let them come to you.
Hounds have a natural born love for man and they have a natural desire to want to trust us. They will love you no mater what type of person you are, they will love you if you mistreat them and they will give to you their total devotion no matter if you return it or not. If you do return it though you will find yourself with a much different hound then if you don't. In these beginning stages though it's best to let THEM start the process towards building what will be a life long bond.
So now you are sitting down and the hound comes up to you. Just do what comes natural. Talk nicely to them, pet them, scratch them behind the ears, play with them and just enjoy their company. Don't force anything on them that they don't want. Hounds love to have their bellies scratched but they will only offer it up to you if they trust you. Laying on their back is a sign of submission when threatened but it is also a sign of trust when their bellies are happily and eagerly offered up for scratching. Turn a new hound over on his back and he'll quickly try to turn back over, he doesn't trust you yet. Once he turns himself over to allow you to scratch his belly he is showing you that he trusts you. Now some hounds adjust pretty quickly and others require more time but all will adjust faster if we don't force ourselves on them.
Through out all of this you should be studying your hound. Each hound is an individual and so all require at least slightly different handling and care. You must study them to know what each requires. Studying the hounds tells you what NOT to do. The training of Beagles is more a matter of knowing what NOT to do then anything else. Just don't do those things that will, might or even have a possibility of having a negative effect on the hounds. You will never become a good trainer of hounds until you learn to put their welfare ahead of your own. Translate that to mean, do what is best for the hounds and not what's easiest for you.
While you are studying them they are studying you; and they are much better at reading you then you are at reading them. While you go about your busy life with your attention directed first on this and then on that the hounds have only one thing to do while in the house or kennel and that is to study you. This they do all of the time. Don't ever try to fool them. They are much smarter then you think and the first time THEY fool YOU, you'll begin to get an understanding of just how intelligent they are. DON'T EVER UNDERESTIMATE THE INTELLIGENCE OF A HOUND! There are some hound owners who claim that Beagles as a breed are stupid. This just is not so and the opinion that they are comes from those who don't bother to STUDY their hounds. Beagles are capable of doing many things that we cannot.
Now that you have the hounds trust and he is overjoyed upon your mere approach is soon enough to start his manners training. Actually a hounds training starts the day he is born and continues through out his life but manners training is what we consider as formal training. A few basic commands is all that is required for a hunting hound. Lead kindly, down, come, and "no" are all that is really required but most of us add some few others to suit our individual situations. Advanced obedience training is not for hunting hounds. Hounds, unlike other breeds, must have their head while hunting. It is they who will be pursuing their game through hills and fields and they who will be making all of the decisions as to what course of action they will be taking to ensure a successful completion to the run. We are not capable of running a rabbit by scent and so we must rely on the hounds to do what we cannot. Trying to show a hound what to do on a line of scent is like a blind man leading a sighted man across a narrow twisting and turning path above a chasm on both sides with both his hands tied behind his back. Let the hounds have their head and you just enjoy the show. We'll not dwell on the mechanics of this training as there are plenty of resources for that but just keep it short and simple. 5 minutes at a time is all that is required and much more then that and the hound will become board and loose interest. When this happens the training session becomes counter productive. Keep it short and sweet. Above all you should enjoy every minute of it. Remember, the hounds are studying you.
Once the hounds are responding well to all commands it is now time to train them in the complex and difficult task of finding and running rabbits. The art of finding and running rabbits by scent is not really fully understood by we humans as we are not capable of even detecting a rabbit trail by scent. Only hounds really understand scent and conditions fully as they are capable of not only detecting the trail but also determining by scent alone how old the trail is, which direction the rabbit ran, and they are even capable of determining the difference in scent between different rabbits. That is, on a split hounds are capable of determining which rabbit is the one they were originally running.
Knowing all of this the first question a new Beagler usually asks is "how do I teach my hound to run rabbits"? In their honest eager attempt to help the new Beagler the novice will usually launch into a long and detailed explanation of tips and techniques to help the new sportsman but the real answer that you will learn over time is that' you don't teach a hound to run rabbits. You cannot teach a hound to do what you are utterly incapable of doing. All that you can do is take the hound to a place where there are plenty of rabbits and then allow him to develop his natural gifts. This is best accomplished by not interfering with the hound. That is, just stay out of the way and let mother nature take over. Remember it's more about knowing what NOT to do then anything else.
Just go to a good place and stand still and talk up in conversational tones so the hounds can keep track of you by the sound of your voice. Youngsters will want to keep in contact with you by either sight or sound as you, their beloved handler, are their home base. If they cannot hear where you are they will want to see where you are and this will interfere with their getting out and searching their new world of the wild as they will constantly have to be checking to see where you are if they cannot hear you.
Hounds have a natural desire to explore. When you take them to the field they will quite naturally want to get out and search some. If you stand still and talk up so they can keep track of you their attention will be focused on the exploring as they will feel safe and secure with knowing exactly where you are at all times. Walk around or just be quiet and the hounds attention will be split between trying to explore and trying to keep track of you. So don't do those things that will interfere with them.
Now some Beaglers will go through the bush and bring their hounds along and kick brush piles and so forth in an attempt to get hounds into good rabbit cover and keep them there. None of this is necessary and it is even counter productive for reasons given above. Over time hounds will learn to recognize good rabbit cover simply by bumping into rabbits and scent while out exploring. They learn where the best locations are through experience just like we do. Give them their head and they will become much better at finding rabbits then you will ever be. Remember hounds are an animal who have been bred for generations with one purpose in mind, to find and run rabbits. How then could we be better then them at their only goal in life. Stand still and speak up and let them do what they are designed and bred for. BE PATIENT! Hounds all learn at different rates and we must have the hound sense to allow them to develop as their gifts allow.
Usually by around the tenth rabbit a pup encounters he may open on the scent. This is a very exciting time for both hound and handler and the thrill of hearing the hound give voice to his interest in rabbit scent is one that a Beagler never forgets. At first when hounds show an interest in rabbit scent they won't open but indicate their interest in different ways. Flagging is an indication to us that the natural desires within the hound are beginning to awaken. This tail talk tells us that things are starting to come together for the hound. Hounds talk to us in many ways and their tail is one of their best communication methods; it's up to us to study and understand their language just as they study and understand ours.
Once a hound begins to open on rabbit our role as handler remains the same. Do nothing but watch. As the pup begins to develop his gifts it is sometimes useful to be in the area to offer gentle encouragement when the pup reaches a check. Just stay in the area and encourage the hound and remain there until the hound gives up. Don't get impatient; give them as much time as THEY want. This time spent on these tough checks now will result in the hounds learning how to avoid them in the future. It's not uncommon for a young hound to work a check for a half hour or sometimes more if you are right there in the area. Let them do it even if the end result is a loss. Later as the hound gains experience through his work the check times will be much shorter. If you are not in the area on these hard checks the young pup will leave the check to find you and not gain this valuable experience.
There are some problems that can arise while the hound is in this early learning stage and there are some helpful things that a handler can do to help a pup see the error of his ways but more and more I've come to believe that these things are better left to more experienced hounds. With experience comes patience and that is what a young pup needs most of all when just starting out. Pups will exhibit all manner of faulty hound actions when they are just starting out. The good ones learn through their mistakes and straighten themselves out. Experience is what they need more then anything else and they cannot get it if we are constantly interfering with them.
There is really only two times a hound needs to be handled in the field. The first would be when he checks in after searching a covert wherever he wants within hearing of your voice and he draws a blank. At this time the hound will check in with you and let you know that he has not found game. Your job is then to call the hound to follow you while you walk to the next hunting spot and then stand still and start talking up again so the hound can go out and find a rabbit. The other time you will handle the hound is when you call him off the line to go home or to stop the run due to some emergency such as the rabbit crossing the road. Other then that there is no reason to interfere with the hound in any way.
Now to many of you newcomers to our sport this may sound way too over simplified to be an actual training or hunting method. Beagling is not rocket science; the best tool you can bring to Beagling is common sense. There are many good books and magazine articles written that describe hound actions and their effects on Beagles and their ability to find and account for their game. Certainly these will be helpful to the newcomer however the BEST source of knowledge is the hounds themselves. STUDY their actions and the effects of those actions and apply your good common sense and you will soon be learning to understand your hounds.