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The Stages

by Dave Fisher

          There is no big secret to training a young Beagle to hunt. In most cases a good bred Beagle usually has the stuff it takes to be a good to fair rabbit chaser; or it doesn't. Because my name is seen frequently in relation to rabbit hunting, it is assumed that I must be some kind of "expert" on the subject of training these fabulous rabbit dogs that I own. Because of this, I am constantly receiving phone calls, letters, email messages from new Beaglers all asking about training their new hunting hound. The truth is, I have no secret formula for training a pup, and in most cases my dogs are not any better than anyone else's. In fact, everyday I am around these Beagle people, it seems I learn some new little tid bit about dogs, and I can guarantee there are far better trainers out there than me. One thing I am noted for, it is total discipline and good field manners, and this is worked on in addition to field work.

          Be that as it may, however, it doesn't stop the calls from coming. So, I thought I would take readers through my "steps" for training a new Beagle pup.

          My dogs are notoriously slow starters and this is basically my fault, because if they don't hit here at the right time they have to sit around and wait for rabbit season to be over because I can't get the chance to work with them. The actual gun season when I am running older more experienced dogs is a poor time to train new rookies.

 STAGE #1:  Exposing The Pup To Its First Rabbit

          One of the very first questions a new Beagler asks is:  "At what age do you 'start' your Beagles?" What they really mean is at what age do I expose my young pups to a rabbit? Well, it varies from dog to dog, but it's at some point from three to five months when the pup is no longer afraid of a rabbit, but actively seeks to chase him, even if it's just out of sight or a few sniffs into the brush. I determine this by simply exposing the pup to a tame rabbit and watching his reaction. At some point the rabbit will cease to be a play thing, but the young dog will seek to over take it, and even bit and kill if possible.

          I have a big advantage here, as I keep eight or ten tame rabbits fenced in an acre enclosure. On nice weather days when I go hunting, I may put a pup or two in the enclosure while I'm gone. Sometimes I've pulled in and heard the tonguing; having started on it's own while I was gone hunting. Most do not have this luxury, but all can spend a few dollars on a couple of tame rabbits, and let their pup chase them. If nothing else, I always suggest that the new Beagle owner take their dog to a park, ball field, or even a hay field in the evening when rabbits begin to feed and move out into the open. That's all you have to do! It's the same thing I do!

STAGE #2:  The Pup's First Outing

          After my new pup has shown a real interest in chasing a rabbit and is tonguing well (usually in the yard or training pen), it is time for stage two; the real world. Between stage one and stage two, I introduce my pup to the "buddy system". I pick a bed buddy for him or her, a dog that has some experience, and begin kenneling them together. This serves a couple different purposes, but mostly it keeps the pup calm on its first outing and makes it easy for me to keep track of it, and make sure I can recover the dog on it's first big trip to the real world.

          Once let down, the pup will usually stick to its "buddy" like glue. Learning from it, and generally having a good time. During this first outing, I don't care if the pup does very much, just so it follows the other dog around and comes back to me readily during the couple hours we may spend in the woods. The "buddy" dog is not my fastest or my best dog by any means. He's simply a tutor; and that calls for a more deliberate, more stick to the line, good searcher..... that type of dog. Leave those fast, swingers at home. They are poor teachers. You want that older, more reliable dog. One that may not be up to running all day on a hunt, but is perfect for an hour or two of showing a pup what to do. Speed is of little importance here, and you can't "teach" how fast you new pup will run, that's already been decided from the genes gotten from the parents. When the time comes for the pup to run on his own, he'll run at the speed he's been bred for, there's little you can do about it.

          In most cases you want this first outing to be uneventful for the new pup. You hope the older dog starts a couple rabbits, and this usually happens, but sometimes it doesn't. In any case, you want the dog to have a pleasant trip so it looks forward to getting out again. On the first three outings with three pups I trained this summer, about a dozen rabbits were jumped. Only one pup actually joined in, barked and took part in the chase, but the other two did follow along and sometimes that's all you can ask for. Also, the pup will tire and get bored quickly on these first outings, and it's rare if I'm in the woods beyond two hours with them, usually less.

          Now, I know that some will not have an older dog to "buddy up" with, and that's OK, it just takes more trips to the ball field, and a little more work to roust a few rabbits for your new hopeful. The buddy system does have advantages, so try to hook up with a friend that has a good dog that suits puppy training. Want a good pup? Run him behind a good, clean, older dog.

          During this time of introducing the pup to actual hunting situations, you should also be working on leash breaking, come commands, vehicle riding (like taking the long way home) and the other things that turn him into a good hunting partner, no just a huntin' dog. How do you want your dog to behave? What do you want him to do? You know these answers and it is you who has to teach the dog these things. I say you can teach a dog anything.... if you're willing to spend enough time doing it.

STAGE #3:  Running With The Pack or Solo

          Most of us run several dogs at a time or a small pack. A few run just a single dog. In either case, its just a progression from step two as the dog readies itself for the gun season and/or a full member of the pack. As the pups go on more outings there will be a point when his confidence begins to build and he starts to open more and actually begins to run the rabbit for himself. Some dogs are natural solo dogs, and can and will, run a rabbit all by themselves. In this case the training is almost over except for introducing the new hunter to the sound of the gun and showing him a few dead rabbits.

          For the pack dog, it sometimes takes a little longer. The pup has to gain more confidence when all his buddies are watching, and a lot of confusion is happening all around him. Some never get it.... some will never run with any other dog. They may be good for someone that wishes for a single dog, but they are difficult to hunt with if a buddy wants to bring along a dog, or to enter in a trial if desired.

          Between stage three and stage four, the owner and the trainer must decide whether the dog is worthy of going on the the final stage, being sold as a solo hound, or even given away as a family pet. The decision can be anywhere from a year old to almost two. Give the dog a real chance, but I am sorry to say that all of them will not make rabbit dawgs. Some will be mediocre at best, and the owner may wish to put up with a few minor faults if he's just searching for a dog he can guan a few rabbits over from time to time. Most of us, however, that keep eight or ten dogs cannot put up with mediocrity for very long. If I have a pack of five dogs let's say, I want each dog to be doing something. One of two may be good searchers, others may be good trailers, and another may be great at unraveling a hard check, but they all have to be pulling their weight as part of the team. When the rabbit is up and running they all must fall in line, take their appropriate places, and help in getting the bunny back around. An ideal pack keeps running (maybe not as efficiently, but keeps going) even if a couple members are suddenly taken out. Have you ever been to a trial and one of the dogs is "picked up", but suddenly the chase comes to an abrupt halt. It doesn't take a genius to know that maybe the wrong dog was thrown out! If I really have had any secret to owning several great packs over the years it may be simply this:  Weed them out. If the dog just isn't pulling his weight, or is messing up the chase. Weed him out. Sell him if he's worth anything or give him away as a family pet. You have to be tough sometimes, or you could spend a great deal of time with "so-so" Beagles and end up with a yard full of hounds. Weed them out!

          With all this in mind we move onto the last stage in the development of the new hunting hound.

STEP #4:  Actual Pack Hunting

          The pup has now grown into an adult. He may not have the stamina of a seasoned veteran, but he now has a genuine interest in running rabbits, he enjoys running with his buddy and other dogs, and has developed his own running style within the pack. He's still green as grass, but is showing enough promise to be taken on regular hunts.

          It is assumed that by this time the pup has at least been introduced to the sound of a gun, maybe a .22 or blank pistol. If the pup has never been shot over, or has no idea what that gun does, don't take him on a real rabbit hunt. I will say the most Beagles are not inherently gun shy, and I have had almost no trouble with gun shy dogs. I have a rifle range that runs down along my kennel, and I make no effort to shy away from shooting there. In effect, the pups hear gun fire, hammering, etc., almost from the day they are born. Introduce your new hunter to gun fire gently, and most recommend letting the dog hear gun shots while he is out at the far end of a circle while running.

          Also, I strive to hammer  board, or slam a gate around my dogs all the time. They get used to these sharp noises, and pretty soon they pay little attention to them. I've been sawing and hammering on a project at the kennel with most of my dogs sleeping ten feet away! They just get used to it! The reverse is also true, and shy dogs are weeded out way before they get to the field. I bought a pup last year, and took it back a week later, when I could not get near it. As I said, you have to weed them out!

          Getting back to Stage #4, as the pup or new teenager is introduced to the hunting pack, and if everything goes as hoped, he will gain even more confidence the more time he gets running. Take it easy on him. Praise him often. Remember he may look like a grown up, but he will usually be able to run all day with the professionals. Don't burn him out. Praise him often.

          Introduce him to the kill gently. Most pups are scared to death of the first dead rabbit they see. Give him a chance to lick the kill, enjoy the glory, and to be excited. Praise him often.

          New pack members should be introduced to the hunt gradually with perhaps your best hunting partner. Someone who will recognize the new pup needs to be handled gently at first, let him get his feet wet, and learn what's happening around him. What's a rabbit hunt like? Organized confusion, is the best I could describe it. Aggressive pups take to all this confusion rather gleefully, others are more cautious, and timid.

          As the pup gets out on more hunts his confidence will grow and eventually if everything goes as planned he will soon be a regular member of the pack. I've said this many, many times in my articles, but remember that every single pup is an individual and has his, or her, own personality. Each one, even brothers and sisters, will come along at their own speed. I've seen some remarkable dogs that were almost given up on when they didn't come along as fast as a litter mate.

          Sure, I'd be the first to admit there is a lot of time and effort put into training a new Beagle pup, but there is certainly no big secret about it. It simply takes common sense, a lot of time, and holding his paw as the little critter goes through the stages. Get them ready.... another season will quickly be upon us soon!

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).