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Running Faults: A Man-Made Issue

by Beverley Saunders

          When it comes to selecting hounds for our packs, most folks agree about certain desired traits. What I hear most from Beaglers is that they want their hounds to possess at least the following:

  1. Hunt/desire

  2. Brains

  3. Good nose

  4. Honest mouth

  5. No trash running

          It's only when the issues of foot speed and style arise do the opinions fracture. Some folks want speed, wide search and are not as concerned about tight line control as long as the rabbit is brought to the gun. Others insist that their hounds never leave track and prefer a bit slower methodical running style, and other folks prefer hounds that fall somewhere in-between. What amazes me is how quick some folks are to criticize another man's hounds and call them "faulty" if they don't fit their own preferred running style. All running styles are fine as long as it results in the timely production of a rabbit. Surely this kind of bickering and hair-splitting must be the result of the emphasis placed on trialing these days as opposed to a good utility hunting pack.

          When my father was a boy in Tennessee, any dog that would run a rabbit to the gun was a good hound. The only "faulty" dogs at that time was a hound that ran a line "backwards" or wouldn't come out from under the porch at all.

          Even an occasional deer chase was tolerated. Today we have taken a simple pleasure sport to the level of a nit-picking science, and many folks have actually closed their minds to the possibility of the effectiveness of the loose and free natural pack running style still enjoyed by many hunters today. This is not to say that hunters don't hold their hounds to standards. To the contrary, they will be the first to tell you that they would cull many successful trial hounds from their packs for their demonstrated lack of hunt, brains and foot speed. This type of hunter often expects performance and results over style.

          In order to better understand the disparity in running styles today, one must understand the natural pack origination. Let's start with the fact that since all dogs evolved from wolves, including Beagles (I don't believe that one day several thousand years ago a couple of 13" good-looking tri-colors dropped from the sky and landed somewhere in Alabama) they will tend to hunt and pack like wolves. We have determined that dogs today still exhibit wolf traits, and all over the country there are cases of domestic dogs abandoned and left to run loose that have in a very short time reverted back to a feral pack state. If these feral traits are so near to the surface, wouldn't it be feasible that running style and game preference lurk closely in the genetic make-up? The feint of heart should brace themselves when I tell you your favorite hound in the kennel evolved from a bunch of swinging, slashing and cutting deer-runners!

          One theory on how we now have primarily rabbit-running and occasionally deer-running hounds is that thousands of years ago, man took the most tractable wolves (he ate the ones that weren't) and those that were small and last to leave a scent line were bred. The shorter and smaller they became, the less likely they were to run down large game and were often hand fed my their masters with the small game that was caught. Eventually the symbiosis between man and dog was forged. We see this same genetic selectiveness evident in other modern-day working dogs and pets. For example, those that presented excellent stalk and circle traits were bred and the others culled until an excellent herding dog emerged. Continually the aggression was bred out, stalk was maintained and you have your shepherds and collies. Even now you will hear of a rogue that kills a livestock animal, just as we have our deer-running Beagles. Owners of the Chinese Crested owe their thanks to those who bred down the smaller variety of wolf that was indigenous to Asia. In Alaska, where the luxury of a pet was non-existent and dogs were needed for speed, strength, endurance and coat, you have your huskies and malamutes that are remarkably similar to the wolf even today.

          Although we have come a long way in developing the Beagle for our purposes, it is still at times a type of genetic roulette. The thing to bear in mind is that at one time, deer was not off-game to Beagles - rabbit was. Swinging and slashing was not faulty running - it was necessary to survive. When wolves hunt, they do not "slot up" they swing and circle. Nor do they hunt rabbit. These were the first two traits we bred out. Wolves may start with a scent line or winded scent, but they quickly abandon it when the prey is within sight. Their need to cut, swing and slash has nothing to do with competition or jealousy to get to the front. (It is foolish for us to place these human values upon our dogs). This is the pack effort to ensure their survival. More hunts than not result in no kill. Any large game that will stand off a wolf will most likely win. The wolves will back down and break off. Most kills are made on younger and/or weaker prey. If wolves relied upon running a scent line only, no kills would be made.

          Only during times when large game is scarce, will wolves kill rabbits and other small game, but a pack of wolves would starve to death if rabbits were their only source of food. Rabbits serve as the cheese and crackers between regular meals. Once large game is killed, the alpha male will stand first at the carcass to eat, occasionally allowing the beta male or alpha female to join him. All others must wait until he is finished. Many times the alpha male will remove the tender belly and innards and give them directly to any pups old enough to travel with the pack. If the alpha female is in the den with pups and cannot join the hunt, food will be brought back to her. We still see unwitting mimics of this behavior in our kennels despite the intense efforts at total domestication.

          Selective breeding is amazingly responsive. In the fifties and sixties, most of us saw first hand the results of breeding down traits to accomplish a popular brace style trialing format. Not only would these hounds not run a rabbit, they wouldn't hunt for one either. The were useless for anything other than a 45 minute wait to work a 50 yard track. An old friend of ours was sold such a "running" hound years ago. When asked if they hound was running, the seller stated, "Not only does he run a rabbit track, he puts out a lot of good mouth". Our friend was excited the first day he cast the hound in the field. Rabbits were plentiful and as he and his new hound walked together through the brush, a scentline was struck. The hound threw its head back and bayed with a long drawn out bawl and our friend prepared himself for the chase. The hound bawled two more times, turned 90 degrees in the same spot, bawled again, turned another 90 degrees, bawled again, took two steps forward and the process started all over again. Our friend shook his head and gave the hound away to another man out running his dogs at the time.

          In our lifetime with living space becoming limited and the economy demanding us to budget, few of us can afford to keep hounds that only serve one purpose, trial or hunt. Those of us that do both must have hounds that do both. This has fortunately encouraged us to put foot and hunt back into our hounds. Over the last 25 years, trialing has developed into a variety of running style formats reflecting the diverse preferences we have in our hounds. Only you can decide what kind of hound pleases you. If you already have it, keep it. If you don't and are willing to breed for it, do it with the utmost care and research of the history of your hounds. With their natural propensity to run large game, the first to eliminate from the breeding program is the deer-runners. It is probably the hardest trait to diminish. The rest is a matter of preference.

          Having the benefit of our early ancestors' hard work, we must continue the effort of maintaining the Beagle for the intended purposes of rabbit hunter and companion and not bend to the pressure of a trialing format to determine the worth of our hounds. After all, most of what folks call a running "fault" is merely a man-made issue. Many rabbits are killed over hounds that not only run a good line, but also those that swing, bobble, overrun, and wind scent. To call them all "faulty" when the rabbit pouch is full smacks of unnecessary snobbery. Know what hounds YOU like. Pack them up the way you like them, enjoy them and have faith in their ability to bring meat to your table. They've been doing it for thousands of years.

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).