CATTLE are boring. That’s the message Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason wants to give the hounds. Whether or not you happen to like cattle, or even find them exciting, it’s important that the hounds find them as unexciting as possible. Why? Farmers don’t like their cattle to be chased or harassed, and it doesn’t aid in chasing the quarry–coyote, in our case–if the pack decides they’re too interested in visiting with the cattle in a field the quarry has run through.
But hounds (and especially puppies) are curious beings, and so are calves. Letting the two populations meet and find each other dull company is something that has to be managed carefully.
“In our training program, our goal is to let the hounds investigate something, make the right decision, and learn from that,” explained Lilla. “What you don’t want on hound walk is, every time you get around cattle, the whips and I get nervous and all the hounds want to do is, like a child, the thing you tell them not to do. That’s what you don’t want. What I prefer is for them to go out, investigate the cattle, maybe make a mistake, but see the cattle and get bored with them.
“What you don’t want to do is create a situation where the cattle were fun and it was fun to chase them. You want them to get close to the cattle and smell them, get around their legs and maybe get pushed around by one, things like that. You don’t want them to find a lone calf that runs and they chase it. Then you’ve got more homework to do, because that was fun.
“It’s a fine line,” Lilla adds. “But the summer is when you want them to make their mistakes. So at some point you’ve got to just let them experience things. They say God is your best whipper-in. So on a hot day, that’s a good time to take them through cattle, on a day when the cattle don’t want to run, and with cattle that are used to seeing hounds so they don’t react to the hounds because they’re bored with them, too.”
Lilla started the summer’s hound walk at The Pig Lot, where there’s a herd of cows and calves in several large fields. “A lot of times the cows will encircle the babies when they’re lying down, so they’ll all be together,” Lilla said. “That’s ideal, because the cows are being protective, and the babies won’t get up and run, and the cows will swing their heads at the hounds to discourage them.”
There’s plenty of room for hounds and cattle avoid each other, but there also are good opportunities for the twain to meet, as we saw earlier this summer when a young steer sidled up to the pack by himself and tried to engage the puppies. You can see it at about the 3:48 mark :
By mid-July, the year-old puppies Driver and the BA litter had seen and smelled plenty of cattle at The Pig Lot under circumstances that usually weren’t very titillating: hot summer mornings, few lone calves, and plenty of watchful mama moo-cows with plenty of hound experience.
But when Lilla started walking the hounds twice a week at Boone Valley in late July, things got a little more challenging. On a recent Saturday, the hounds met up with a herd of curious young heifers who were both forward and prone to run–a mix the puppies hadn’t experienced before and a real test of their discipline.
“We do a lot of work with cattle before we ever go to Boone Valley, because those heifers are young and very curious, and when they see something they’re curious about, they’ll surround it,” Lilla explained. “They won’t stand still. And they’re young enough that they’re very mobile. They’re like a school of fish.
“It was a perfect test. They were at a distance, and we moved into their field. They came at us, and there were a lot of them.”
Then someone barked. The heifers spooked and ran. Did the hounds give in to the temptation to chase after them? See for yourself how they handled it:
“That was a really good test of our summer program so far,” Lilla said. “What the hounds didn’t do was switch off mentally and think, ‘I’ve gotta chase that, I’ve gotta chase that.’ What they did instead was make a decision, hear me tell them no, and come back. That’s the invisible thread.
“Any pack of hounds, any young puppy, has a tendency to run after what’s moving. You’ll see that during hunt season. Just because a deer flushes out of a covert and a hound gallops a few steps after it, that’s not rioting. If the hound then gets the chance to see it and smell it and then says, ‘Oh, right, I’m not supposed to do that,’ and comes back, that’s what you want. Rioting is when they take those few galloping steps and then switch off to the huntsman and say, ‘I’ve gotta chase that.’ Then you’ve got a problem.
“What was nice about that day,” she continued, “is that the whippers-in were very calm and I was calm. We didn’t create tension for the pack, where they get like a coiled-up spring ready to pop, where they’re thinking, ‘Everybody’s tense! We’re tense, too! What are we tense about? Oh, cattle are moving, we’ve got to run!’
“The whips did the right thing, because they got where, if there was a problem, they could correct it, but they didn’t come running in and push the hounds back to me. They allowed the hounds to obey me.'”
There’s still time for more training this summer: the informal hunting season, which will mark the puppies’ debut, doesn’t start until around October. But already the young hounds have passed some important tests. Next up: horn training. So far, Lilla hasn’t used the horn much at all on hound walks. How can she teach Driver and the BAs what it means? Find out next time, on the hound blog!