What we’ve been doing this summer

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Hound of the Day: Dragonfly

WEDNESDAY dawned chilly, with the season’s first light frost and thin fog here and there. A perfect morning to start the houndbloggers’ hunting season! We missed the first hunt of the informal cubhunting season on Oct. 2 in order to attend the World Equestrian Games, and we were glad to be back out again in the hound truck with Michael Edwards, the Iroquois kennel manager and a road whip for the hunt.

Huntsman Lilla Mason, on the bay horse, and joint-Master Jerry Miller discuss the morning's strategy with the whippers-in at Wednesday's meet. Iroquois joint-Master Dr. Jack van Nagell is visible to the left and behind Lilla, mounted on a gray horse.

The fog gave way to golden sunlight as hounds met at Foxtrot. Wednesday’s pack marked the debut of several of the year-old puppies, including Driver (whose mother, Dragonfly also hunted Wednesday and is our hound of the day!). Lilla opted to introduce the 10 puppies in small groups rather than all at once, and Driver had been angry not to be chosen in the first group of three that went out on Oct. 2. According to Lilla and Michael, he threw a bit of a tantrum over being left behind, flinging himself against his kennel gate and howling his disappointment.

Dragonfly's son Driver, second from right, was glad to make his debut.

So Wednesday was a day of great excitement for Driver and Bangle, also hunting for her first time, as well as for the houndbloggers. We feel as if we’ve been too long away from the hounds, and it was good to see them again.

It was also a day of lessons for Driver and the BA litter puppies who are brand-new to the chase.

If anticipation has a sound, this is it. These are the hounds waiting to get off their hound trailer at the meet. As Michael prepared to unload them, they followed his every move. This video also includes some distant footage of a coyote we spotted mousing in the afternoon after scent had all but burned away.

Speaking of the heat, it’s worth noting the scent conditions. After a very wet spring, we have had drought conditions for the last half of the summer. If you’ve been watching the World Equestrian Games, you can see the frizzled, brown grass around and get some idea of the Sahara conditions after a rainless nine weeks in the Bluegrass country!

The wet early spring produced thick, scrubby coverts, but the drought and temperatures heading back into the 80s (is it really October?) mean there’s almost no scent to speak of.

Last year, curiously, we had much the same weather pattern, and when cubhunting season rolled around, it seemed as if there were no game at all. In retrospect, here’s what we think happened: in the hot, dry autumn weather, coyotes figured out that, under such poor scenting conditions, they could lie low in the thick coverts. Instead of running out in the open across the fields, they could simply creep from covert to covert with less fear than usual of raising a strong scent for hounds to pick up.

“Early in the season, what you really want is for the hounds to stay in the covert that you’re drawing until you move on to the next covert,” Lilla explained. “Otherwise, puppies will get left behind or hounds will get into another covert and possibly get on a run before puppies even have time to honor the cry.”

To help keeps hounds in covert, Lilla asks the whippers-in to surround the covert. That way, when a hound–particularly a puppy–pops out of the covert and sees a whipper-in, it’s more likely to return to or stay near the covert rather than independently move off to the next one. The whippers-in stationed around the covert also serve as extra sets of eyes on the huntsman’s behalf.

A stirrup cup always adds a little cheer!

“I had two and a half couple of puppies out,” Lilla said. “That’s not that many, but when you try to put them in corn for the first time, it’s not very inviting to them. You have to rely on the older hounds to convince the puppies. So I stood there for a while. I had two first-time puppies, Driver and Bangle, with me. They stuck their noses in the corn, but there were thorns and things, and at first they decided, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ and they stayed with me. But then the older hounds started speaking, and suddenly they wanted to go in the corn. That was great. The older hounds’ voices draw the puppies into the corn, and then they want to stay in there, because they get excited about the fun going on there.

“Corn is a good way to teach puppies to draw a covert, but in some corn fields there can be weeds and thorns and things in there, too. But they get in there, and they follow the other hounds and hear the other hounds. It can make for good training.”

Backfire: keen as mustard

Hounds spoke in the corn, and the coyote ran around and around, and then joint-Master Jerry Miller spotted six couple of hounds running the line into the Cabin Covert.

“So I moved the rest of them into the Cabin Covert,” Lilla said. “They spoke there, and then a coyote was viewed away from the east end of the Cabin Covert.”

In the rising heat and dry conditions, the scent did not stick around for long, and the hounds cast themselves back into the corn in some beautiful hound work. They screamed off again in the corn, but lost once again. They cast themselves north and east toward the Silo Pond Covert, but with no success this time.

At this time of year and in these dry conditions, and given what the coyotes are doing–lying low in the thickest scrub–it’s more advantages out to cast those areas, because that’s where game is. So Lilla headed south with the pack toward one of the thickest, biggest, most inviting coverts in the area: Murphy’s Covert. Her plan: cast the hounds there in hopes of recovering the line.

All muscle: Dragonfly training at home before placing second in her class at the Virginia Hound Show this summer.

The grass on the way to Murphy’s Covert was tall, obscuring her view, and as she rode on, Jerry radioed again with a crucial piece of information: Dragonfly, with a few older hounds not far away from her, was behind Lilla and feathering madly–a sign that she had picked up scent. Dragonfly and these hounds, it appeared, had made a U-turn in the high grass and were working back north toward the Cabin Covert again, while Lilla, with the young hounds, was heading south.

No sooner had Jerry told this than Lilla heard a wonderful sound: Dragonfly’s voice, behind her.

“She opened up,” Lilla said. “Everybody immediately honored her, and I thought, ‘Well, I can count on that,’ and I encouraged the hounds with me to join her.”

Banker, recently arrived from the North Cotswold in England, got his first experience of the Kentucky countryside at the Foxtrot meet.

Lilla’s decision to count on Dragonfly proved wise. Dragonfly, an import last year from the North Cotswold in England, knew what she was doing. Lilla put her faith with this hound who had hunted only fox in England and smelled her first coyote just last year.

“Dragonfly was just screaming, and off they went again,” Lilla said. “You know, coyotes will do that. They’ll get behind you a lot. And Dragonfly was smart. I think she’ll really beginning to figure out coyotes. She turned around and went back, toward the direction we’d already come from, and a lot of the older hounds were with her. Most of the hounds that were with me that I was taking to Murphy’s Covert were younger, and that made me think I should go back to see. And, yes, she was right.

“That’s why you count on old hounds like that. They call it fox sense. Well, Dragonfly’s got coyote sense now. She might not have last year, but she sure does this year, and she showed it to me Wednesday.”

Goodbye, moles: Bangle on the move.

So how about Driver? How did he do on his first hunt?

“Driver and Bangle, it was their first day out, and so they didn’t want to go in the corn, and they were happy just to stay with me,” Lilla said. “When hounds spoke in the corn, they went in. But every time the hounds would quit speaking Driver would come out and start lollygagging about. Betsy, our field secretary, was standing out by herself, and she told me that Driver came galloping by her, as if he thought he’d just go off and explore on his own, maybe put his nose down and start investigating things.”

We’ve seen him do that early in his houndwalking days this summer, too.

“But suddenly Driver noticed her there on her horse, and she said he stopped as if he was startled to find her there. She got on the radio and told one of the whips he was over there. A whip came to get him back to the pack, and she said he glared at her, like he was saying, ‘You told on me, I know you did.’

Driver (center) back in April.

“His immaturity showed that day. We’ll bring him out every hunt day. Paper was the same way, if you remember. He would sort of play and pick up garbage, but then once the hounds started speaking he was always there.”

And Bangle?

“She got a little intimidated by all the horses, and at one point she got behind all the horses and couldn’t catch up to me. So I asked both fields to stop and I rode back there and got her eye and brought her forward. After that, she figured it out and knew not to get in back with the horses but to stay in front of them.”

Here’s another interesting side note about Bangle’s development. She might finally be outgrowing her mole hobby. Some people have a passion for fly-fishing, antique-collecting, or vintage cars. For Bangle, it was all about moles. It’s easy to see the appeal: they’re sniffable, they’re small and soft, and they probably make a pretty good snack if you dig down far enough to catch one before a whipper-in shows up to break up the party.

Yuck.

On hound walks, Bangle would slip away from the group and pull up to her favorite pasture for some digging–something the whippers-in and houndwalk volunteers quickly learned to anticipate and head off whenever possible. Because once Bangle was in her mole field, she was planning to be there as long as it took to find every single mole. (To see video of Bangle on summer walk–but no moles!–click the play button below)

But, on Wednesday, Lilla said, “I think Bangle is finally saying goodbye to the moles.”

I think we can all agree this is good news for both the hunt and the moles.

“On Wednesday, I saw her digging in a mole hole, and then the hounds went on past her,” Lilla continued. “She looked up at the hounds, looked at the mole hole, then looked up at the hounds again. She took a last look at the mole hole, and then said, ‘I think … I think I’m going to go with … the hounds.'”

Good call, Bangle!

The star pupil at the moment: Backfire. We’d all been eager to see this handsome guy out on the hunt field, because he seemed so sharp even on hound walk in his early days integrating with the pack. He seemed precocious, and now it looks like that initial impression is bearing out.

“Backfire is really turning on,” Lilla said of Backfire after his second hunt. “He’s learned to honor cry, he’s very quick to cry, he’s just alert. Hyper-alert. The minute he hears something, he’s over there to find out about it. It’s not like he just stands and cocks his head trying to decide what to do. He automatically does it. He still doesn’t know what his nose is, but he is really enjoying this. It’s like he’s thinking, ‘This glove fits. I can do this!’ He’s just crisp and sharp.”

Conclusion: “It was just a great day.”

Next up … More oddities and some great marathon driving from the World Equestrian Games!

Puppies of Two Species

Driver meets four-year-old Trevor on Saturday's hound walk

WHAT a beautiful day Saturday was! It started with a crashing thunderstorm that prevented me from riding over to catch our trailer ride to the day’s hound walk, so the houndbloggers went out with the hounds on foot for what turned out to be a Very Special Morning.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason brought the hounds, including one-year-old Driver and many of the BA litter, to Boone Valley Farm instead of to the usual meeting point on the farm across from The Corners. The change of location was exciting to the hounds. The older hounds, Paper among them now, associate Boone Valley with nearby Pauline’s Ridge, one of the richest coyote coverts in the hunt country and understandably a place that holds great interest for experienced hunting hounds.

To the puppies, the field trip was especially exciting. New sights, sounds, and, most importantly, scents! New country to explore!

Even before kennel manager Michael Edwards unloaded the hounds from their trailer, there was some excitement when a herd of cattle came barreling past not far from the hound truck. But the hounds, safe inside, didn’t turn a hair, and when Michael turned them out, they ignored the cattle’s trail and put their noses right in the grass to find the biscuits Michael and Lilla had scattered there for them.

Nearby, another “puppy” was making his debut at Boone Valley, too. That was young Trevor, the four-year-old son of an Iroquois member, who was out on his new pony Polly for his very first hound walk. Driver and Paper were hugely curious about this pair, the smallest person they’d ever seen, riding either the largest hound or the smallest horse they’d ever seen. Like kids everywhere, Paper, Driver, and Trevor were drawn to each other.

Paper, who joined the hunting pack last season, says hello

Paper's pretty sure he's figured out where she keeps those biscuits ...

The day had the potential to be a little too exciting: inexperienced young hounds in exciting new territory where running cattle had piqued their curiosity, old hounds returning to a place they know well for coyote runs, and a strong breeze to carry the scent of coyote to them from Pauline’s Ridge. It was a good test for both groups of hounds, and they did very well. When temptation drew them too far away from her, their noses in the air to catch the odors wafting by, they returned when she called. Occasionally, one or two of the puppies–most notably Backfire, a BA puppy who has showed himself to be forward many times on earlier hound walks–would range away from the main group of hounds and stand gazing off into the distance, nose twitching.

Those are critical moments in a puppy’s development, Lilla pointed out, because they mark a decision. The puppy can either decide to follow his nose and head for the hills, leaving the pack and Lilla, or he can decide to back away from that temptation and stay with his peers and his huntsman.

Backfire, one of the year-old BA litter

“We want them to process information and then make the right decision,” Lilla explained.

Backfire was an especially good example of all of the puppies’ progress. At Boone Valley, we could see Backfire developing the idea that he’s part of a pack. He’s learning that, when the group stops, he can wander a little and taste the air, but when he’s out on his own too far away from the pack and Lilla, it’s a little uncomfortable. Looking off to the far hills, he’s still in touch with Lilla, and when she calls, he hears her and turns.

A huntsman’s ability to stay in a hound’s mind like that, to maintain that golden thread of connection between himself and a hound even when something else is calling to the hound’s deep instinct, is vital to success. It’s not always possible to hold a hound’s attention, but a huntsman that consistently can regain a hound’s attention simply by saying its name–a twitch upon that golden thread–has perhaps the greatest gift a huntsman can have. But it isn’t easy to achieve, and it isn’t foolproof.

“Backfire,” Lilla said, “is a thinker. And we want these hounds to think.”

As with young horses, hounds that can process information and respond to it thoughtfully, rather than simply react with instinct, are better to handle.

Trevor, mom Debbie, and Polly the pony watch the hounds. Well, okay, Polly was watching the grass.

As for Trevor, he had a good day, too! He learned about hounds and also about Polly. The main thing we think he learned about Polly is that she is a PONY, meaning, yes, she will try to roll even while (maybe even especially while) you are riding her, in which case it’s best to get off. He learned that Driver is very big. Most importantly, he found out that this business of following the hounds on horseback is about as much fun as there is in the world.

We think so, too.

A Pupdate: pack manners, playmates, and the kennel staff’s view of hound politics

Paper & Co.

Paper & Co. in a playful mood on Saturday afternoon

FOXHUNTING is on hiatus for now while the deer hunters are abroad in the countryside, and that gave us a chance to check in at the Iroquois kennels to see how the puppies are doing.

Paper, of course, has been out hunting now and is gradually maturing into an adult pack member. He’s had important lessons all summer and fall, and now the real education starts on the hunt field. There, he has to confront new situations and work professionally with the hunting pack. I guess to put it in human terms, he’s getting his university degree, and by next year he should be a full-time contributing member of the working world.

But what about our youngest puppies, Baffle’s litter and Dragonfly’s huge son Driver? They’re still in elementary school, but the lessons they’re learning now are critical to their future development.

These puppies were born in the spring, and for the last couple of months they’ve been getting their first exposure to working in a group, to pack manners, and to coming when called, Iroquois kennel manager Michael Edwards explained to us on Saturday.

Baffle's puppies in exercise field

Room to roam: all the hounds--puppies, current working pack members, and retirees--get plenty of free exercise in the two-acre field adjacent to the kennel

After breakfast each day, the 10 young puppies spend about three hours out in the kennel’s two-acre exercise field, one of the best tools the Iroquois staff has for the young hounds’ education.

“They stay out here while we’re getting stuff done in the kennel, and they play and play,” Michael said. “I try to get them out twice a day, once at the end of the day, too, so that they get four to five hours outside.

“Right now, the girls in this litter seem a little more rebellious than the boys,” Michael said of Baffle’s puppies. “The two bigger girls, Bangle and Bandstand, they’ll be the ones that won’t want to go in their kennel. But they’re all very lovable and want attention all the time.”

Assistant kennel manager Alan Foy (seen in the photo above with Baffle’s puppies) has also been working with the youngsters to start developing their sense of pack identity and cooperation.

“Alan’s been taking them out back here, just trying to teach them to stick together and respond when he calls them, and they’ve done really well at that,” Michael said, adding that it’s too early for most of the puppies to have learned their individual names yet. The kennel staff is trying to learn the puppies’ names, too! Many of them look so similar it can be hard to distinguish them, with a few exceptions. Bagshot is the woolly male of the litter; Bashful and Banknote are easy to pick out because they are the two smallest; and Driver, well, he’ll always stand out in a crowd due to his size and dark coloring.

Driver puppy picture 07-2009

Driver back in July.

Driver 11-14-09

Driver today with kennel manager Michael Edwards. A VERY big difference!

“Driver is the biggest baby out here,” Michael said, meaning both the biggest baby and the biggest baby. Recently, Michael set a five-gallon bucket out in the kennel yard, spooking Driver.

“He would not come out here on this concrete while that bucket was sitting there,” Michael said. “I had to get it and move it all the way out by the far gate before he would even come in here, and even then he came in looking at it real carefully. So we’re going to do something we did that worked well with the ST litter (Stam, Stax, Star, Stanza, etc., born in 2007). We’re going to put a windsock in their kennel, something that’s moving all the time so they get used to it. It made a big difference with them.”

In addition to their mini-houndwalks around the property, the puppies also have ventured farther afield with Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller and huntsman Lilla Mason. On those, they rode in the hound truck to the old point-to-point course, the same place the older hounds have their early summer walks and pond exercise. Like the older hounds, the puppies got to practice sticking together in a wide open space–their first formal exposure to that critical lesson in the company of the people who will actually hunt them someday.

“All that is important,” Michael said, “because they’re learning how to be a pack.”

The hunt and kennel staff have found it’s useful to start building the pack sense early with puppies.

“With the PA litter (including Panda, Parish, Parody, etc., born in 2005), Lilla and I would take them all through the area together,” Michael said. “By the time we incorporated them into the pack, they already had an idea what was going on, so they just blended right in.”

The puppies don’t yet have the attention span of the older hounds, but already they are focusing on people when they are out on walk, said Alan.

Baffle's pups Nov. 14, 2009

Baffle's litter, shown here with Michael, seem all grown up at seven months of age, but their lessons are just beginning. "I'd say they're like teenagers now," kennel manager Michael Edwards says. "They're just kind of lanky, but they're getting well-balanced."

In the case of Baffle’s puppies, it helps that they are part of a nine-hound litter–a ready-made pack, in a way. For Driver, a singleton, it was especially important that he learn group dynamics as early as possible.

“He lets the little girls chew on his ears,” Alan said. “He’s just a big, goofy puppy. But he’s fit in really well. I agree with Michael that he’s a little passive in the group, but I think it’s because when we first mixed him in with the other puppies he was so much bigger than they were. Now, he’s not quite as much bigger. Barwick and Backfire are getting pretty close to him in size. I think he knew he was bigger and couldn’t play as rough.”

“That all started when they were all at the lower kennel,” Michael said. “He was so much bigger at first that I monitored him closely. If he would be rough, I’d kind of get on him about it and growl at him.”

That lesson seems to have stuck. As Driver romped around with Baffle’s puppies, he was a perfect gentleman with his smaller playmates.

“One of the reasons we wanted to get him in with a group early was because an only child can sometimes have some trouble integrating,” Michael said. “When they’re on their own too long, I think they don’t get socialized with the pack. They don’t learn pack manners and how to respect other hounds. That’s why it was important to get Driver in with the other puppies as soon as we could, especially as big as he is. The longer we waited, the harder it would have been for him to understand that he is part of a pack.”

Baffle's wee pups April 2009

Baffle's litter in April.

“They learn how to be hounds from each other,” Alan said.

The next step, Michael said, is to start occasionally introducing older hounds to the puppies. Paper was one candidate, but evidently he felt pretty strongly that, having moved up with the big dogs in the pack, he was now too important to deal with the little kids anymore.

“He didn’t want any part of those puppies,” Michael said. “He jumped up on top of a bench and growled about it. I thought, being as young as he was, he’d adjust to it pretty quickly, but no, thank you. On the other hand, Panda went out there with them and loved it.”

“She educated them,” Alan said. “She didn’t get aggressive with them, but she let them know when they went too far and she let them know she didn’t want all of them piling on her at once. If they did that, she’d run away and hop up on the bench, and they couldn’t get up there with her. Then she’d wait until they scattered. Then she’d jump down again and play with one or two of them until all of them would pile on her again. She trained them in her way, which was very gentle.”

“Introducing older hounds to them out in that paddock is where I think they really start to learn about having manners toward other hounds,” said Michael. “I think they learn a lot out here in this field with each other, just about how to be a pack. Look at these guys out here right now. They’ve been running and playing for almost an hour. They’ll play to the point that somebody gets a little grumpy and growls, and then they’ll stop. These guys will say, ‘That’s enough,’ and it doesn’t escalate. Then they’ll play again.”

“Nobody knows more about being a hound dog than a hound dog,” Alan said. “We can let them know what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. But those hounds know even better how to tell each other what’s acceptable and what isn’t, and they know how to tell each other how far it can go before something becomes unacceptable. You’ll see them do it on houndwalk. A puppy will go off from the group and do something goofy, and when they come back, and older hound will growl at them to chastise them. Glog is really good at chastising the younger hounds on houndwalk when they do something wrong. He gives them a little scolding, like he’s saying, ‘That’s not how we act around here.'”

Paper at play 11-14-09

Paper (right) at play. Playing is an important part of learning.

While we were at the kennel, we checked in on the new English hounds, too. Cottesmore’s Samson, Strawberry, Structure, and Hawkeye arrived about three weeks ago and are adjusting well, Michael and Alan report. Like the puppies, they are having to learn their place in a new pack, and Michael and Alan are working to figure out which clique within the pack works best for them.

“I think a lot of their ability to adjust easily has to do with Neil,” Michael said, referring to the Cottesmore huntsman, Neil Coleman, who raised and hunted the four in England.

“Look at Samson over here,” Michael said, pointing to the group just turned out in the two-acre field. “He’s in there with all those males. They’re all at the age where they’re trying to show who’s top dog: Paper, Gaelic, Hailstone. But Samson’s the type you could probably stick him in any group and he’d adjust. Because he’s not aggressive. That has a lot to do with the way Neil has raised them. And the others are the same way.”

Samson and friends

Cottesmore Samson, the red-and-white hound closest to Michael here, has settled in well. Michael and Alan report that he is easygoing and adaptable.

Structure, Hawkeye, and Strawberry are kenneled in a run with the SA litter that includes Sassoon, Savvy, and Saracen. “They’re pretty easygoing, too,” Michael said.

One of the most important jobs Michael and Alan do is figure out which group of hounds should be kenneled together. Getting the mix right requires some experimentation, but it’s key to the hounds’ physical and mental wellbeing; getting it wrong could result in dangerous friction in the kennel.

“When I brought the English hounds up from the lower kennel (near Michael’s house, where they were quarantined before joining the rest of the pack at the upper kennel), I just started sticking them out in the field with different groups to see how they responded to each other. When they’re outside together with a lot of room, they’re more interested in what’s going on around them than they are in each other, and you can keep an eye on them. I stuck them in with the SAs and never had any issues with them, so that looks like a good fit.”

The process–the two-acre turnout paddock and essentially letting the hounds choose the clique they’re most comfortable with–is unusual, as the English imports let Michael and Alan know.

“When we first turned them out, they all just stood at the gate looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?'” Michael recalled. “But after a few minutes, they sort of went, ‘Hey, look at all this room! Let’s run!'”

Once the hounds have chosen their own group of friends, how do you get each set to merge comfortably with the pack? “We turn different groups out together,” Michael explained. “There are only a few groups that have a little trouble mixing closely, and you have to know all that, especially when you are loading them up in the trailer to take them to a meet. For instance, we can keep some hounds in the back of the hound truck instead of in the trailer if we need to.”

It’s also critical to know who the dominant dog is at any given time, Michael said. At the moment, it’s Alvin.

“Stalker was the big dog before we retired him,” Michael said. Stalker, one of our most beloved hounds, is now retired under the care of the Hound Welfare Fund. You can read his story here. But now that he’s retired, he spends more time in the kennel office, where he can relax and keep warm, and suddenly he’s a mellow retiree.

“Showing his dominance doesn’t seem to concern him so much now,” Michael said. “I guess he’s old enough to realize he’s got it made in there!”