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Looking For The "Perfect" Beagle

by Rev. John Parks

          All of you rabbit hunters are looking for the "perfect" rabbit hound. Right?

          Sure you are. But how are you going to recognize that hound when you see it without some measuring standards to go by. When I first started in Beagling (some forty-six years ago), I was able to secure some exceptional Beagles, but I didn't realize what good hounds I had until a few years later when they were gone, and I tried to replace them. I just assumed that all hounds could do what those first ones of mind could. NOT!

          Don't assume that all Beagles are like the ones you know about. (whether they be good or bad!) No, get a measuring tape in your mind to refer to as you evaluate hounds.

          That is the purpose of this article. To give you some standards to go by in your quest for good hounds. This article will not include conformation standards. That will have to come at another time. For now, I just want to discuss things to look for.

          1.  The first that I would call to your attention is brains. There are smart hounds and dumb hounds, and I personally prefer the former! How can you tell when a puppy is smart? That's a good question. You can't in just a few minutes before you select one and take it home. You have to observe the way the act in the litter and the yard, and as they grow up in the field. The one quality I would look for is alertness or awareness of its surroundings. Some pups are listless and dull and hardly see what's going on "past the end of their nose." On the other hand, there are others that have a keen sense of awareness and they display a very quick reaction time to circumstances that they encounter. Let's say that the pup is out exploring and a rabbit jumps up right under its nose and bounds off. How does the pup react? Some will be taken aback and will recoil a bit and try to figure out what happened. They are no doubt bewildered and dumbfounded. Or they might be just plain dumb. Other pups will react immediately and will be off and running to get another glimpse of whatever that was. (The use of their nose to find game usually comes later.)

          This leads to the next factor you might look for in spotting intelligence, and that is curiosity? Is he so curious about the world around him that he just has to "check it out"? There is simply no holding him back. He may even show a good bit of daring in order to satisfy his curiosity. The degree to which his curiosity is uninhibited by fear shows that there is an "inquiring mind" in that little head of his.

          Also, I would look for the ability to remember in a hound. Now I know that this cannot really be checked out by one casual visit or brief observation. That's why it might be best to make your selection process a two or more visit affair until you have satisfied yourself on some of these points. If a hound has the ability to remember later on, he will remember the brush piles, or the favorite spots of the rabbits in a given field. No kidding, I have owned a hound or two that had the ability to profit and learn from previous experiences. So when we went to certain running grounds that we had frequented before, one hound in particular that I remember would "make a bee line" for certain areas of the field where he knew a rabbit might be sitting, because he remembered them being there previously.

          These are the main qualities that I would look for to spot intelligence in puppies. Sometimes you can just "see it" in a hound's expression as they study something carefully. It's hard to describe without showing you some examples.

          Once or twice in a lifetime a very intelligent hound comes along. You as a breeder need to recognize this and build on that foundation if you can. If you do get one of those exceptional individuals, I hope you will be able to take advantage of the opportunity that it affords for you to have a great hunting hound. Spend a lot of time with that pup. It deserves a chance to prove itself.

          2.  The second quality (and this is close to the first) is what I call temperament. Is the dog shy? Look out! They seldom lose that. A gun-shy dog is no good for hunting. Is the hound excitable and flighty? Steer clear of that one too. A hound should be "friendly," and obedient, and well-mannered around other hounds. Not competitive and un-cooperative.

          Shy hounds are a peculiar lot. My "gut feeling" has always been that this is an inherited trait, so if it ever shows up in your stock, cull it out immediately. Most gun-shy (and man-shy) hounds have a "nervous" disposition to a greater or lesser degree. Nervousness just seems to be a basic precursor to shyness. I don't believe I have ever seen a calm "laid back" dispositioned hound that was also shy.

          On the other hand, I don't want a hound that is so settled and easy going that it is lazy for a hunting dog either. I want one that is alert and definitely a "go-getter." A good hunting hound must be aggressive enough to search out and jump a rabbit as soon as one can be found, and then after it is up, bring it around for the hunter.

          Now I admit that there is a fine line between the alert hound and the nervous hound. However, I feel that you can usually tell the difference. Just watch out for what temperament you are breeding into your stock. It is important.

          3. Third, and you can combine this with temperament if you like, is the desire to hunt. You can have a fine hound in other areas, but if he doesn't want to get out there and try his utmost at every opportunity, forget it. The cardinal sin of a Beagle is quitting. I grant you that some hounds have too much desire for their own good, but a lazy quitter is of no use to the rabbit hunter.

          A really good hunting Beagle will have an insatiable desire to hunt rabbits. Nothing will quell that desire. They have to be kept in escape-proof enclosures, and they have to be dragged out of the field at the end of a hunt. That desire will not necessarily make them hunt poorly either. In fact that desire, coupled with opportunity and experience, will make them extremely skilled hunters.

          Do your hounds have the desire to hunt? Do they exhibit that desire every time out in the field? Is it there,  imbedded in their nature and nothing is going to discourage it?

          If not, you had better be looking to improve your bloodline with a new infusion of desire. Now I am NOT talking about speed. I am talking about the desire to hunt, not the way a hound hunts.

          Let's hope that the basic inherent desire to get in there and jump a bunny and run it, and run it, for hours if need be, never slips through our fingers as breeders. If it does, we will be in a sad state to be sure; and the sport of rabbit hunting will lose a lot of its attraction.

          I for one want to be able to put a rabbit down and say "go get'em, boy," and have him do just that with all the desire in the world until I am ready to go home.

          4.  A fourth trait to look for is "nose," or the ability to smell the track. Some hounds have powerful noses. This quality comes from their ancestors and should be taken into account when you select breeding stock. Don't ever disregard a hound's ability to follow the trail accurately. A keen nose is essential if your hounds are to rise above the ordinary.

          Most hunting dogs have very keen senses of smell, but the various breeds have been bred and trained to be "specialists" for different kinds of game. Among hunting dogs, Beagles are extreme specialists, having been bred for many, many years to find and trail rabbits.

          How does the Beagle do it, anyway? How do they follow so unerringly the path of the rabbit? Most experts feel that there are at least two kinds of scent left behind by the rabbit:

          The first is general "body scent" which floats like steam in the air along the trail. Some call this "high scent." It lingers behind like the exhaust gases from an automobile. Some of this is found on grass and leaves where the rabbit's body has brushed in passing, but most is floating in the air and is quickly dissipated by time, or wind, or warm temperature. It is "written on the wind" so to speak, and so it is gradually distorted --- and finally "erased" like the vapor trail from a jet plane. Body scent gets stronger as the rabbit runs harder and gets "heated up," so the hounds speed up too.

          The second kind of scent is "foot scent" or "ground scent." Some call this "low scent." This is the scent that is deposited by the feet (and hind quarters) of the rabbit on the ground or grass where it has hopped. "Foot scent" is comparatively long lasting because it is not "written on the wind." It may, in fact, be protected from the wind because it is down on the ground itself. Some hunters have observed that the first few yards after a rabbit is jumped from a squat are the most difficult for the Beagle to follow, because not only is there less body scent, but the footprints are usually farther apart because the rabbit is sprinting in "high gear,
 and this there is only faint, sparse foot scent left behind. Foot scent lasts for hours though under normal conditions, and so some Beagles spend a lot of time "cold trailing" old lines, a habit that many hunters do not appreciate.

          There is a third factor that must be considered also, and that is the direction of the scent. This is the part of trailing that has always baffled me. How does the Beagle know which direction the rabbit went? Is it purely by the strength or intensity of the scent? Or is there some "label" that points to the direction of travel? I can't imagine that if a Beagle hits a line at right angles that the intensity of the scent can be differentiated so as to determine that it is stronger "this way" than it is "that way." I think that the Beagle can tell from the scent itself which way the rabbit's foot landed on the ground. It may be like an "arrow" that is distinguishable by the Beagle. In fact, I have had Beagles that, upon striking the trail, would spin around like a compass until getting the proper direction and then they would move off on the line. It was as though they were examining the "scent shape" of the tracks to see which way they were pointing. Of course, if a rabbit is jumped, there is but one way to go, because the spot from whence the rabbit started is the beginning.

          A "check" has been defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as (1) "An abrupt halt or stop; a delay; rebuff" (2) "a restraint of control" (3) "to pause to relocate a scent" (Used of hunting dogs). Webster says it is "a sudden pause or break in progression; to slow or bring to a stop; to restrain or diminish the action or force of; to slack or ease off and delay again; to stop in a chase, especially when scent is lost."

          I could write a lot about how a hound should work a "check," but suffice it to say that it should be systematic and efficient, not hap-hazard and dilatory. A hound that works a "check" in ever-enlarging circles will pick the "check" first and move out on the line. The hounds with the best noses though never seem to have to work hard on a "check" at all. Some make it seem as if there isn't any check there at all.

          The next time you follow your hound as he runs a rabbit across a meadow, through the brush, into a corn field, over burnt-off ground, across a creek, up on a log, through a fence, down a paved road, and back to the meadow; all the time saying "This way, here it goes, I've got it, here it is," just be thankful that you've got a hound with a good nose that can follow that scent so well, and keep that quality in your hounds always!

          5.  "Mouth" is a fifth trait to consider. How does the hound bark? Some hounds "babble like a brook" and others tell you little or nothing. A hound should say "I've got it" the minute he smells the rabbit, and shut up the minute he doesn't. Granted, some young hounds tend to be mute at first, but over all they should be "sounding off" when they smell Mr. Bunny. Note that I have not advocated chop, bawl, squall or any other type of bark. We all have our preferences as to what is "sweet music to our ears." Just make sure it's a true and honest mouth that you perpetuate.

          One President's Day, I visited my friend Don Rahe in Cincinnati to watch his hounds run. He and several friends ran seven hounds that day. More than anything else, I remember the fine way that most of those hounds used their voices to proclaim their part in the chase. I was especially impressed with Don Rahe's female Righton Nellie that day.

          The seven adult hounds put on quite a show for me. Righton Rightback Nellie is a superb check hound. She picked almost all of the hard checks to keep the pack going and the chase alvie. Those hounds (with Nellie in command) kept the runs going really well. If they stopped barking for very long, you could just bet that the rabbit had gone into a hole. So many packs of hounds these days bet a rabbit up and go tearing out in fully cry for a minute or so and then when they come to the first hard check, they have a loss. Not this pack -- Nellie and Dixie just wouldn't let that happen.

          Nellie's name was not "McNamara," but she was definitely the "Leader of the Band." And quite a band they were! There was an "alto sax" (Nellie), a "tenor sax" (Brownie), a "clarinet" (Dixie), a pair of "trumpets" (Susie and Muffin) -- they also were the "majorettes" part of the time -- a "trombone" (Brandy), and a "drummer" (Danny) who also could play the "cymbals" real well!

          This "band" played all kinds of music too. Everything from a "John Phillip Sousa March" (a sight chase right at the beginning) to "Clare de Lune" (picking the line along the wet cement drainage ditch), with an occasional "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" thrown in! I wanted to stay for the "Moonlight Sonata," but the weather closed in, and I had to head back north. Those hounds had exceptional mouths, and I enjoyed a great day of music!

          6.  Some of you will be saying about now. "Why he hasn't said a word about "speed." No, I haven't. That's because speed is (and has always been)"...the most cussed and discussed virtue in a Beagle..." as G.G. Black put it. Everyone has a different preference. Personally I think a hound can have too much speed (to be accurate); and obviously he can be so slow the he never gets anything done. (Those are usually the dumb ones, by the way.) I think a hound should get a lot done, but not appear to be going fast. He should have very little "lost motion" and should surprise you that he gets so much done so quickly. Just enough speed to move the rabbit along without running it into a hole is what we should be looking for, I guess.

          Just remember, that it is not easy to select a better Beagle, mainly because there are so many variables or so many different qualities to keep in mind. You are not just considering one or two traits. You have to get all the best qualities together in your hounds. Don't be discouraged though, because it can be done ... and you are just the one to do it!

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).