Becoming leader of the pack (with video!)

The Clear Creek Beagles: They like their walks!

The Clear Creek Beagles: They like their walks!

NOTE: For those who had trouble viewing the Iroquois hounds video below, my apologies! I mistakenly had it listed as “private broadcast,” but it is now public. Please try again!

It was a houndful weekend here at Full Cry, and while we apologize for missing our self-imposed deadline of posting these words over the weekend, we must beg your indulgence and hope you agree that time spent with hounds is generally happier than time spent in front of a computer!

We started this weekend walking with the Iroquois hounds in Lexington, Kentucky, on Saturday and ended walking with the Clear Creek Beagles in Louisville, about an hour and a half to the northwest of Lexington. This is the ideal summer weekend, as far as we’re concerned.

At Iroquois, the hound walks are almost ready to make the shift from the ground to horseback as huntsman Lilla Mason and the whips mount up in preparation for the season. But, for now, everyone is still accompanying the hounds on foot, and the training emphasis, Lilla said, is on “getting the hounds’ eyes.”

Remember the dog biscuits? They’re still a training tool, but Lilla is feeding fewer of them these days, preferring instead to reward good behavior with pats and attention,which make the hounds equally happy. Lilla also has subtly changed some of the biscuit-feeding routine. These days when she stops mid-walk to toss a few cookies to the hounds, she doesn’t say anything to them to let them know she’s stopping. This tests their attentiveness. If the hounds ahead of her have let their minds drift, they’ll miss the crucial moment when Lilla has halted and silently started throwing out treats to the hounds that have stayed close and kept an eye on her, waiting for just this opportunity.

This trains the hounds to keep their focus where it always should be, on the work of the pack and the location of the huntsman, the pack leader.

“The biscuits make them learn to watch you,” agreed Buck Wiseman, joint-Master of Beagles and huntsman at the Clear Creek Beagles.

But it’s not just about the biscuits

Biscuits are a great tool for huntsmen (and dog owners!), but they are not the sole source of a hound pack’s loyalty to its huntsman. Building that loyalty is a pretty complex thing, we find when we ask huntsmen about it.

Consider this anecdote from Neil Coleman, professional huntsman of the Cottesmore hounds in England (whose bloodlines, incidentally, are to be found in the Iroquois kennel).  Coleman arrived as a whip at Cottesmore in 1981 when the renowned Capt. Brian Fanshawe became the hunt’s joint-Master of Fox Hounds and amateur huntsman. Working so closely with Fanshawe and the hounds, Coleman saw first-hand how hounds form attachment and loyalty to a huntsman–even when biscuits play little role in the relatonship. Coleman has said that, at the end of each hunt season every spring, Fanshawe would head off to other business, returning again in the fall to take up hunting the hounds again. Despite the fact that they rarely, if ever, saw Fanshawe throughout the summer months of hound walking and training, when the hounds heard the engine of Fanshawe’s car pulling into the drive to the kennels again each autumn, they went nearly beserk with joy. Why? He gave them their sport, and his arrival heralded the opening of hunt season again, something hounds appear to value at a “price above biscuits,” to paraphrase the old saying.

Keys to the pack: mutual respect, affection, and a common language

Keys to the pack: mutual respect, affection, and a common language

Visiting the Clear Creek Beagles, we had a chance to get another huntsman’s perspective on this, too. Buck, who’s been hunting hounds since he was a 13-year-old in Virginia, says a close connection between huntsman and hounds sometimes seems mystical and is, in fact, exceedingly difficult to explain. Whether or not a huntsman has a magical way with hounds, he’s got to develop a language that both he and his pack can use to understand each other. That language is verbal, but it also has to do with body language and setting rules and routines that the hounds can understand, and that they expect the huntsman to play by, too.

“You’ve got to encourage them,” Buck said as his pack of about 15 couple leaped and bounded at the hem of his kennel coat. “You’ve got to make cheerful sounds when you want to be cheerful. You’ve got to sound truly gruff when you want to get their attention. It’s more art than science.”

Walking with the Clear Creek Beagles looks much like walking hounds at Iroquois, but on a smaller scale. The emphasis is the same: to reinforce hounds’ focus on the huntsman, to provide exercise, and to build pack rapport (especially for the puppies that form the upcoming season’s new entry, or first-time hunters).

Individuals make up a pack, of course, so a huntsman has to get to know individual hounds and their personalities,  quirks, and habits in order to help that hound make a place in the pack successfully. Buck points out a bitch named Eve that Clear Creek had sent to another beagle pack as payment for a stud fee to one of its doghounds.

“She was miserable there,” Buck said. “They couldn’t get their hands on her. So they sent her back. But she’s just as happy as she can be here. We have others, like old Mason here, who are great with me, great with Jean (MacLean, Clear Creek whipper-in), and are fine out hunting, but they don’t like strangers in the kennel much.”

Is it time for our walk?

Is it time for our walk?

A huntsman can’t hunt very well unless he has the loyalty of the pack, and that means having the loyalty of its individual members. Jean got an early lesson in that when she first started working with the Clear Creek Beagles in college. When Buck was away and needed her to walk the hounds out, she discovered that the young hounds she’d helped raise from puppyhood merrily packed up with her when she opened the kennel gate for morning exercise. But the older hounds that had been there before she arrived were so skeptical that they would sit just outside the kennel and refuse to come along with her. They were, she realized, waiting for Buck. To them, she wasn’t the real deal, and no amount of biscuit-tossing could convince them to follow her.

Clear Creek Beagles puppy Hadley starts off feeling a little shy but soon joins up

Clear Creek Beagles puppy Hadley starts off feeling a little shy but soon joins up

As we walked along, surrounded by a pack of wagging, panting beagles, there were few obvious quirks in the Clear Creek pack at the moment. There were only two I could spot. One was Hadley, a shy puppy who hung back well behind us as we walked with the pack through fields and along Buck’s dirt and gravel drive. Buck and Jean kept an eye on Hadley but didn’t push him to join up with the pack, even when he would stop, tail down, and watch the pack recede for a long while. Left on his own, he’d then gallop forward again, always remaining some yards behind the pack, Buck, and Jean. At one point, an older bitch, Salute, trotted back and rounded Hadley up, bringing him back into the pack with her. Eventually, about halfway through a walk of just over a mile, Hadley had screwed up his confidence enough to stay mid-pack, where he trotted along, holding his tail up cheerfullyand casting glances at Buck.

“He’s joined us, but I still have some work to do with him,” Buck observed. “I’ll put him in a yard, pick him up and put him over a wall into his yard. That’s important, so they get handled. He’s not in a yard right now where he’s getting handled so much, so I’ll move him. I’ll just keep picking him up and playing with him every day.”

The other unusual personality was Sancerre, an independent-minded five-year-old bitch that Buck and Jean say they’ve kept in the pack because she’s such a good hunter. Otherwise, she can be aggravating, because she likes to play tricks like hiding in long grass until Buck and the pack have passed, then scurrying off on her own for a private hunt. (She also, incidentally, loves to swim, which doesn’t generally present a problem)

“Sancerre is biddable, she’s just … rebellious,” Buck explained, laughing.  He sounded like an indulgent father describing why he had left a delinquent child in his will.

“Right,” said Jean. “Sure.”

“Sancerre is tolerated,” Buck said with a smile.

“Sancerre is smart,” said Jean. “She likes to fake him out sometimes.”

The creek is a favorite stop on the Clear Creek Beagles' hound walk

The creek is a favorite stop on the Clear Creek Beagles' hound walk

It all looks very informal, this little pack of hounds busily traveling up the farm road together, stopping for a swim in the creek, scouting for biscuits in the grassy verges. But there’s training going on, as Buck pointed out.

“Every time I stop and toss biscuits and talk to them, that’s training for control,” he said, echoing Lilla back at Iroquois. Also like Lilla and Jerry Miller at Iroquois, Buck likes to let his hounds walk and hunt in a looser pack formation rather than in a tight little squad around him.

“I’ve always believed that anyone who has to keep them around him in a little bunch doesn’t really have control of his hounds,” Buck said.

So how do you create the loyalty that leads to real biddability, that makes the hounds want to be with you, even when you’re in the middle of an open field on a sleeting hunt day, when your hounds are some ways distant and you need to call them back to you, with not even a biscuit to use as a lure? Sure, you can breed for a certain amount of biddability, and Buck has stuck with old English and American pack bloodlines to maximize biddability. But that’s not the whole story, not by a long way. The golden thread, that perfect sympathy and communication between huntsman and hounds, is hard to describe.

“To some degree it’s the breeding, and to some degree it’s walking them out every day,” Buck acknowledged. “But the rest of it, I don’t know. They just listen.”

Sancerre, one of the beagle pack's more challenging characters, catches biscuits mid-swim

Sancerre, one of the beagle pack's more challenging characters, catches biscuits mid-swim

Like Lilla, Buck spends a lot of time communicating with individual hounds, stopping to give them a pat or a biscuit and speaking to them by name–Hazelnut, Sweetbriar, Snuffbox, Harlequin, Mister, Mermaid, Socket, Matchbox–they all leap to attention or look in Buck’s direction and wag their tails when he speaks to them.

Buck places a good nose and a strong desire to hunt at the top of his “must have”  list, but biddability is a close third.

“If you can’t take them out and bring them back, particularly if you’ve got a day job, your life is hell,” said Buck, an attorney in his non-beagling life. “You’ll spend the week recovering hounds all over your country.

“You know, it’s kind of a two-way street. They’ve got to trust you, and you’ve got to believe they’re going to respond. Because if you don’t believe in them, they’ll know you don’t. But how do you build that? I don’t entirely know. That’s the magic.”

4 thoughts on “Becoming leader of the pack (with video!)

  1. Pingback: Houndamonium! | Full Cry: A Hound Blog

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