Lives of dogs

THE spring and summer have been all about training the hounds. The entered hounds (those that already have hunted with the pack) have their training reinforced while out on summer exercise, and the year-old puppies–Baffle’s litter and Dragonfly’s son Driver–are learning about pretty much everything. This process is eye-opening for those of us who follow along on foot and horseback. It may look from the sidelines like a big dog walk, but summer hound walk is full of quiet revelations and light-bulb moments, both for the hounds (cattle!) and their human companions (who knew Driver was a swimmer?).

But, watching the Iroquois hounds and huntsman Lilla Mason, you see more than just training at work. Ideally, working hounds and their huntsmen develop something deeper than just a conditioned action-and-reaction relationship. In hunting, it’s called “the golden thread,” and it exists in other spheres, too.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, writing in the New York Times, touched on it in a short piece he wrote back in February while visiting sled dogs and their musher, Kelly Murphy, in Minnesota. The piece, headlined “Why Do Sled Dogs Run?” included this:

I listen to the one-way singsong between Murphy and his dogs: encouragement and caution and admiration. I watch the driving legs ahead of me–28 of them–on dogs whose frames are small and light, nothing like the creatures I’d imagined. And as we cut through the white ash swamp, hissing across the ice, I find myself wondering, why do sled dogs run?

It is not a matter of driving them. All the work is in pacing them, restraining them. When Murphy stands on the brake and sets the snow hook–a two-pronged anchor–the gangline quivers with tension. The dogs torque forward again before he can shout, “Let’s go!” All the one-word answers to my question are too simple: love, joy, duty, obedience.

The dogs were out yesterday, and they’ll be out again tomorrow. They don’t run for a reward or toward a goal–the greyhound’s mechanical rabbit. They get yelled at when they chew on the gangline and petted when the run is over. They don’t catch or flee anything. They would keep running if the musher fell off his sled.

The start is a mayhem of yelping and baying and yipping. The finish is 21 dogs, three teams’ worth, silently lapping the air with their tongues. And between the two–start and finish–is a reason the dogs describe in the only way they know how, by running and running and never letting the line go slack.

In the case of scent hounds, there is the critical difference that the trail–and their noses–do pull them along (like the greyhounds’ mechanical rabbit, I guess!), but in Klinkenborg’s description you get some sense of the combined instinct, breeding, training, and sheer joyous energy that we see in our working foxhounds, beagles, and bassets.

For more on the Lives of Dogs …

One of several dog collars on display as part of the National Sporting Library's Lives of Dogs exhibition in Middleburg, Virginia.

The National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia, currently is hosting a good exhibition called Lives of Dogs in Literature, Art, and Ephemera. It runs through Dec. 11. But there’s more! To coincide with the exhibition, the NSL also will host a symposium on the origins and evolution of hunting and sporting dog breeds. The symposium will take pace on Saturday, October 23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will be limited to 100 participants. Two of those will be houndbloggers, I can assure you!

Registration costs just $60, or $40 if you’re a college student or graduate student. The symposium will take place at the library.

Speakers will include Ben Hardaway, joint-Master of the Midland Fox Hounds in Georgia, whose topic will be “Foxhounds and Hunting: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going.”

Other speakers and topics:

  • James Serpell, PhD, University of Pennsylvania, on “Dog Origins: The How, When, and Why of Dog Domestication”
  • Nelle Wyatt, University of Tennessee, on “Past Meets Present: Dogs in the Ancient World”
  • Martin Wallen, PhD, Oklahoma State University, on “So Many Hounds, So Many Kinds: The English Foxhound in the Eighteenth Century”
  • Harriet Ritvo, PhD, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on “Pedigrees, Breeds, and the Victorian Dog Fancy”

For more information on the symposium and registering for it, click here. And to see a good slide show from the Lives of Dogs exhibition, click here.

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One thought on “Lives of dogs

  1. Pingback: Bedtime Stories: Gary Paulsen « Full Cry: A Hound Blog

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