We’ve been blessed with cooler temperatures recently. Good news: it feels much better, and less sweat gets in your eyes as you walk up hill and down dale with the hounds. On the other hand, cooler weather makes for a real test of control, because it makes the scenting better. That means the hounds are more likely to pick up the trail of a coyote who passed through their exercise field overnight–and it’s very tempting to follow that trail.
You might think controlling a pack of hounds is a function of force, but it isn’t. It’s more about the huntsman knowing his hounds, their habits and personalities; out-thinking them when necessary; and, probably hardest of all, having a level of trust between huntsman and hounds. If your hounds trust you, they’re more likely to follow your instructions than if they’re merely intimidated by you.
The huntsman really is the leader of the pack, but it takes time and effort to establish the kind of communication that makes for the most effective leadership. Summer hound walk is key to that, because it gives huntsman and hounds a chance to work in the open as a team–the members of the pack with each other and the pack together with the huntsman.
On a recent hound walk with 12 couple of hounds, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason’s “lesson plan” for the morning was to keep the hounds’ attention closely focused on her and encourage a quick reponse to her orders. As you might expect, any huntsman’s lessons might not always go as planned when 24 hounds trot through pastures filled with the alluring scents of nature and livestock; there are many variables in walking, as in hunting, and those too inspire lessons! But this walk goes much as expected, despite the cooler, gray morning.
The first thing Mason does is to look the hounds over carefully as they spill out of their double-decker hound trailer for their walk. She has been gone for 10 days on a rare vacation, and she’s seeing the hounds again with a fresh eye for subtle changes. One she spots immediately: Alice has emerged from the hound trailer looking slightly “spooky,” as Mason puts it. Her tail is down rather than up and perky, while her nose, which usually would be down to investigate smells, is up. Her ears are pressed slightly back against her head. These are small changes that an inexperienced visitor would easily miss as the hounds mill and bound around together, but to Mason it’s evidence that Alice probably has been intimidated by another hound in the trailer, although now that they are all out of the trailer and in the exercise field, the other hounds don’t appear to pay Alice any mind.
To brighten Alice up a bit, Mason quickly gives her some extra attention. She reaches into her vest pockets, which are filled with dog biscuits, and quietly calls Alice’s name. When Alice looks to her, Mason tosses a few brightly colored treats specifically at her, and Alice catches them expertly. Alice’s day is looking up!
As Mason collects the hounds and moves off with them on foot, Alice’s tail already is rising, and her ears are forward. She’s back in the game. As the pack heads down a shaded dirt lane toward the cow pasture where they spend most of their walk, Lilla points her hunt whip in Alice’s direction. “She’s getting better now.” In fact, she already looks much better, striding out and sniffing the air, her confidence fully restored by the simple attention from her huntsman.
A Study in Stillness
Mason keeps the hounds in a fairly close group and is quick to speak up at the occasional hound who strays a little too far from the circle or pushes on a little too far ahead. The whippers-in are all but silent, a policy Mason prefers. A whipper-in, she feels, should not call a hound’s name unless it is absolutely necessary. Their silence helps the hounds focus more acutely on Mason and every word she says, reinforcing her bond with them by keeping her communication direct and uncluttered. To correct an errant hound when Mason is walking them, a whipper-in generally will walk toward it silently, extend a whip and perhaps drop the thong down to the ground from its usual position, curled like a lasso in the hand. If the whipper-in says anything, it will only be to quietly hiss “Psst!” or “Pfft!” or, at most, to say “Get back to her” quietly to the hound. Otherwise, the whippers-in, or whips, keep quiet as they walk. They will never hit a hound and almost never have occasion even to crack their whips.
Even their movements seem quiet and unfussy, with no excess motion, no waving and gesturing, no idle conversation, and no running except when the situation calls for it. This quietness in voice and movement is vitally important. The whippers-in are like extensions of a huntsman’s arms, eyes, and ears, spotting and turning any hound that the hunstman cannot see or reach. Otherwise, the whips should not do anything that might distract the hound’s attention from the huntsman and the business at hand.
“I need the whips to the side of me and behind me,” Mason explains, “never in my peripheral vision and not in front of me. You should never see a whip unless something is wrong. Have you seen Herman at all on this walk?”
No, I confess, turning reflexively to look for the whip in question. There he is, just outside of my vision, to our left and slightly behind us, striding noiselessly through the damp grass. He is where he can see, and intercept if necessary, any hounds behind Mason that are out of her view.
“That’s what I mean,” Mason says with a smile.
The Education of Paper
As we walk along, Mason has noted another change in one of the hounds. Paper, a puppy who will join the hunting pack for the first time this fall, is noticeably more responsive today than he has been before. The light bulb is going on, and Paper is figuring out that he is part of a team that responds to a leader, rather than just a puppy out for a walk in a group. When he lopes ahead of the loose circle of hounds surrounding Mason, she calls to him. He stops, turns, and immediately bounces back to her, getting a biscuit for his trouble. In earlier days, he was slower to turn and would look back blankly, maybe take a minute to consider whether he really wanted to leave whatever fun was calling him. The return now is automatic and happy.
At a pond, Mason makes the hounds wait patiently in a group before letting them dash in for their swim. The old Paper was inclined to wander down to the waterline alone, completely unaware that the rest of the pack was sitting behind Mason for a reason and that he was sticking out like a sore dewclaw. But the new, switched-on Paper promptly sits down among his peers with a certain amount of pride, beaming at Mason along with the older hounds. He’s begun to glean that there’s not just a pattern to the exercise, but there’s a point to it, too. He’s no longer just following the pack; he’s participating in it.
Mason lets them go with a “whoosh” said under her breath, in about the same tone you might use in a confessional. But the hounds have been listening for this faint signal, and they hear it and respond like an opening floodgate. With howls of delight, they rush past Mason and into the pond, disturbing a blue heron, who flies up and flaps across to the opposite shore, disgruntled.
Having plunged into the water, most of the hounds come right back out again. It’s chillier than usual, and they’re content to wade up to their knees or come back to Mason to ask for biscuits.
“You didn’t stay in very long this morning,” she says to the hounds gathered around her, tossing a biscuit at one of the smaller bitches. Jerry Miller, the Master who had been walking the hounds in her absence, tosses biscuits in a high arc, but Mason throws them like a major league baseman making a double play, fast and in a flat line direct to a hound’s mouth. Even this is a sort of exercise: they must pay very close attention to Mason. If she says their name, a biscuit will likely be fired in their direction in short order. Sometimes one heads their way with no verbal warning. All of this–her low voice, her fast pitches, her few words–draw the hounds’ attention closely to her and her alone. The hounds hang on every word, and, what’s more, they listen for the words rather than simply react to them. Their eyes on their huntsman are intense and keen.
A few biscuits do go astray, bouncing off a nose or richocheting off the snapping jaws of the intended target, and that causes three or four hounds in the area to pounce simultaenously wherever the biscuit lands. But there are only occasional growls over the spoils, a marked difference from my house, where a bit of dropped toast can spark a three-dog melee. In the Iroquois pack, the hound who missed his biscuit usually pops right back up again, steps a little closer to Mason this time, eyes fixed on her, and there you see a glimmer of the communication Mason is building between herself and the hounds: I trust, the hound is saying, that you will do right by me. She does. It’s a little gesture that creates, stitch by stitch, that vital bond between Mason and the hounds when it really counts: in the hunt field.
Leaving the edge of the pond, Mason heads up a grassy hillside. “I don’t like them to get too far out in front of me going up a hill,” she says after calling a few leading hounds by name and slowing them down, “because, if they do, you can lose sight of the first few before you reach the top of the hill, and they can get away from you that way.”
She stops the hounds frequently to teach them that when she stops, they must, too. Interestingly, she does this with her voice, her body, and the biscuits, but her hunting horn stays tucked between the second and third button of her shirt, unused. The other tools are enough.
“They’ve got to know that when I stop they need to,” she explains, “because if I’m out hunting and have no whips nearby to help me collect the hounds, the hounds have to know to stay with me even without a whip there reinforcing that.”
While we are stopped in the grass, Paper, who had been on the group’s leading edge, looks back in our direction. Suddenly, he turns and begins trotting purposefully past us, his eyes fixed interestedly on a point directly behind our left shoulders. We turn, too, and see what he’s spotted: a pair of black calves galloping away down the hill together. Paper, now past us, picks up speed and heads for a gap between Herman and another whip, Hagan. Instead of calling out to Paper, Mason turns quickly on her heel and walks briskly away from him, leaving him to the whips to collect. “Hey up!” she calls out brightly to the rest of the pack. “Come on!” She walks forward in double-quick time, and the other hounds turn away from Paoer, too, and join Mason in the walk, tails wagging merrily.
Paper’s indiscretion is therefore minimized, with little trouble and no fuss or yelling. The whips have intercepted him and blocked his path. He halts, looks for a moment at the retreating calves, then runs back to the pack, which has moved on without him.
“If I had kept standing there and yelled, ‘Paper! Paper!’ then they’d have all turned and thought, ‘Oh, what’s going on down there with Paper?’ And they’d have wanted to go with him,” Mason explains. “You’re always having to outmaneuver that curiosity–their jealousy, really–over what some other hound has found, is doing, is smelling.
“You try to minimize new things so that the puppy gets the idea they’re really not a big deal, but you also have to understand that puppies do need to see things in order to learn to ignore them or work around them without getting distracted.”
“Let them hunt”
If the hounds must trust Mason enough to follow her communications to them, she must also trust and listen to them. It’s not always easy, she admits, because watching your pack take off in full cry, and then galloping after them yourself, is a leap of faith. Are they chasing what they are supposed to be chasing? Will they come back? Can they be stopped if necessary?
“It’s the hardest thing,” Mason says of letting yourself go, not overthinking, and trusting the hounds you’ve trained–especially at those moments when you’re out there alone with them in the country with no whips close enough to offer immediate aid.
Mason remembers one incident in particular. The pack was on the scent of a coyote, speaking as they ran the line. But suddenly they went silent
“They had lost the line,” Mason recalls. “They swirled around, but they didn’t speak. Then, collectively, they all ran by together, still not speaking but going somewhere with a purpose. It was confusing to see. They clearly had something in mind, but I was at a loss to know what it was.”
Having moved to a different place in the field on their own initiative, the hounds started speaking again and took off on a line.
A retired huntsman who had been watching from his car on a country road bordering the field had seen the pack before Mason had gotten up to them, and he told her what had happened. Two coyotes had been running ahead of the pack. They separated and ran in opposite directions when they reached the field, and the pack had lost the scent of the one they had been following. They tried briefly to regain that line, but then quickly made a single-minded decision: to turn back to the spot where the coyotes had split and follow the second coyote instead.
“It turned out that, as a pack, they had made a really wise decision,” Mason says. “Foxhounds hunt by scent, not by sight, and that means you have to have a lot of trust in them, because often you can’t see what they’re chasing. That day was a good lesson to just stay out of their way and let them do what they’re dying to do, what they’ve been bred for centuries and trained to do. Let them hunt.”