Guest blogger: Buck Wiseman on rapport between huntsman and hounds

Clear Creek Beagles huntsman and joint-Master Buck Wiseman. Photo by Brian Blostica.

Recently, while writing a short description of foot packs at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, I made the mistake of wandering off task and shedding some thoughts about pack cohesion and pack response, both to a huntsman and to one another.  Mrs. Houndblogger picked up the line and reminded me that I had told her, well over a year ago, that I’d write something on the subject.  She’s now run me to ground, I suppose.

What follows may be a lot of nonsense, and, for the most part, it certainly isn’t science, but having hunted packs of hounds, foxhounds, beagles and bassets, mostly beagles, with a couple of short reprieves, since the mid-1960s, I do have views, and, right or wrong, I’ve never been overly restrained in expressing them, so here goes.

Rapport, hound sense, the “golden thread” is no one thing.  It is a complicated amalgam of hound breeding, hound management, practice and, I believe, a certain genetic component on the human side as well.  Of the terms, I prefer “rapport” which is defined as “relationship, especially one of mutual trust or emotional affinity”, which is about as close as one can come to my view of this subject, especially as to mutuality, and it is particularly appropriate that it derives from Old French “raporter” meaning “to bring back.”

"Biscuits, lots of biscuits!" one early mentor advised Buck when he formed his first pack. Houndblogger photo.

We have all seen huntsmen for whom hounds just “do.”  They seem to have the touch, the right body language, to hit the right note of voice or just have a feel for hounds and seem to have always had it.  They can hunt a large pack of hounds without resort to a whipper-in, walk out the entire kennel likewise and pick up the horn with a strange pack almost without missing a beat. In many cases, I believe that they may not know exactly how they do what they do, may be puzzled that others cannot duplicate their results and may take years to really analyze what it is that they do. At this point, we’ll put that subject largely aside because the purpose here is to look at intentional and conscious acts with the goal of approaching, if not equaling, the results that those huntsmen achieve.

The right personality in the pack helps.  A good huntsman can get response from a gaggle of thick-headed independent types, but we all know that some hounds are more responsive to a huntsman and to one another than others.  I believe that the two are clearly linked.  As an example, if hounds need to be moved from one spot to another across a field or within sight or sound of the huntsman, the entire pack need not see or hear the huntsman.  If the pack is responsive both to the huntsman and to one another, it’s only necessary to catch the attention of the hounds nearest you as you call and point to where you want them, the other hounds will respond to the first who have responded to you and stream over.

Buck and the beagles at Shaker Village in March. Houndblogger photo.

I often walk out hounds by myself. Puppies need to learn to walk with the pack, but you can’t discipline them until they understand what it is that they are to do and to not do.  When I got my first pack of beagles, many of the hounds came from the Nantucket Treweryn Beagles of Bun and Becky Sharp.  Becky knew that I would be largely handling my new little pack alone and gave me one of the best tips of all time: “Biscuits, lots of biscuits.”

I make a concentrated effort to address each young hound, every hound for that matter, frequently by name and to toss a biscuit to catch.  Each must not only learn his name, but also learn that response to your voice and to your hand brings good things. Only when a hound has learned those things should you touch them with the whip and chastise them.  Each has to understand that the discipline is the result of ignoring someone who otherwise dispenses blessings.  It’s also at this point that the pack sense is important.  If, say, two couple of puppies start up the road bank on their own little mission, if you can, with an encouraging voice, swing one couple to you, with the right sort, the other will turn right with them. Have the biscuits ready when they reach you.

Lilla Mason (and the biscuit bag) with some of the Iroquois hounds. Houndblogger photo.

If you have the luxury of assistance in walking out and of whippers-in in number when you hunt, teach yourself not to rely on them.  A whipper-in should be viewed by a huntsman as the last, not the first or even the intermediate resort.  If hounds are always or even frequently put to you by your whippers-in, then, in some measure, their return to you is a response to the threat of the whipper-in, not to their rapport with you.  It is better to have the sometimes slightly slower response deriving from rapport with the huntsman than the faster coerced response.  In fact, when walking out with whippers-in, discourage them from being more than a reminder of the possibility of reproach unless that whipper-in is pretty well endowed with hound sense or knows the hounds very well.  Whippers-in tend to want to be helpful and, if overly so, are not helpful at all.  This is especially true if you have puppies out.  Develop rapport and trust it.  Whippers-in should do likewise.

When hunting, I do not want my whippers-in even near me.  Ideally, they should be eyes and ears, your distant early warning and spotting system.  The title “whipper-in” should relate to their function only in difficult circumstances.  The goal is that rapport will fill the gap.

Studies in animal behavior and language have shown that certain types of sounds have similar effects across a wide range of mammals.  Without going into a great deal of detail, suffice it to say that higher-toned, excitable sounds encourage, soft tones soothe, growls caution or chastise.  It works for hounds and humans.  Your voice must change constantly to match your message.  Cheer them on, cheer them in, growl and crisply bark warnings.  Again eye contact and body language is also critical. Many times, when getting the attention of a particular hound to return into the pack while walking out, I will not only call the hound’s name, but once he looks at me, point directly and growl “Yes, you” or “You know your name.”  Recent scientific work has, in fact, shown that the dog is one of the few non-primate species which will follow the point of a human hand. They do.  If you can get eye-to-eye contact, you’ve got him, at least as long as you are the dominant personality in the pack, not the hound.  If you are not, go for a softer sort.

Modulate your voice at all times in tune with the circumstances.  When walking out, a conversational voice is probably just right. Talk to your hounds.  If you are drawing cover, suit your voice to the way the hounds are drawing.  If they are quite close, not much above conversation is necessary.  If hounds are drawing widely, as mine typically do, the volume must increase.  The goal is that all of your hounds can always hear you when drawing because you must be at the center of that process, if you are going to direct it.

Huntsman Lilla Mason with the Iroquois hounds on summer walk.

When calling hounds in from a distance, don’t yell for them.  Instead, go for a deep in the chest, rolling tone of encouragement.  They will respond.  It’s not unlike the signaling howl of a coyote or hounds singing in kennel.  Hounds being put on to a line, once they have reached the huntsman, should be put on quietly with low encouraging sounds and with the arm, hand and body motion directing them in the direction that they should go.  Rapport is bi-directional. Watch every hound for the body language and focus that tells you when they are “with” you.

Also watch hounds for the signals, sometimes very subtle signals, that hounds can give you–and trust them if they do.  Hounds may appear to be simply drifting from a check.  The temptation is to pull them back, but if watched closely, slight body signals may indicate that, while they are not speaking or even visibly feathering, they are focused on some slight scent, perhaps even air scent on a bad scenting day, to which they are drawn and which may result in a recovery. Even if those hounds fall in with the movement of the pack and return, if the line is not recovered, go back to where they went, if it is the only message that the hounds have sent you, and a more diligent cast in that direction may work.  It has before.

In the houndbloggers' experience, some hounds are beyond controlling, even if you have a rapport with them! Houndblogger photo.

Try never to give a command which you do not believe will be obeyed.  Your voice will convey your hesitancy.  When calling hounds, say out of covert, you must believe that they are coming to you even though you may curse their dawdling under your breath.  If hounds start to break as we are walking back to the trailer, if you can rate them just as they start when you see the first change of focus from you to the trailer, they’ll stop.  If you can’t because you were distracted and didn’t catch the first hints, let them go and make a mental note that next week they’ll come in packed up behind you until they get that foolishness out of their minds.  If they go away on deer and do not stop at the first rate, turn your attention at once to how you and the whippers-in are going to get to their heads.  Roaring at them futilely merely teaches them that your voice is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

With that thought, I’m going to leave rapport because, in a real sense, I already have and drifted, like hounds losing the check, on to the role of dominance in working with hounds which is a subject better left to another day.

Many thanks to Buck for contributing this great piece! If you’d like to read more from Buck, please click here to read his earlier piece on hunting over game-rich restored native grasslands.

Through a Dog’s Eyes

THE houndbloggers don’t watch a lot of television, but the other night we stumbled upon a documentary we thought we’d pass along. It’s called Through a Dog’s Eyes. In basic terms, it’s about a program called Canine Assistants that matches services dogs with people who need them. The documentary shows Canine Assistants founder Jennifer Arnold as she and her team raise and train puppies into competent service dogs, and then match dog and human, then help the pair train together.

The canine-human partnership can be mutually fulfilling.

It’s the relationship part of the story, and the way that training becomes a language that bonds the dogs and their people, that particularly interested us. As the documentary’s summary at PBS noted, “Sometimes what began as love at first sight deepens. Occasionally the initial chemistry doesn’t last. Overall, it’s a bonding process that, as with any relationship, takes work and time.”

We’re pretty sure a lot of huntsmen would agree with that!

Most of all, Through a Dog’s Eyes provides another interesting view into the canine-human relationship and how surprisingly rich that relationship and its language can be. The golden thread clearly is not limited to packs working in the hunt field, but also can connect individual dogs and their owners. There’s some fascinating research about that bond and how dogs learn from people, and that’s covered in this film, too.

To watch the documentary for free online, click here.

Spinning the Golden Thread (with video!)

The van Nagells' Boone Valley Farm provided a splendid setting for an unusual training tactic by Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason. Photo by Dave Traxler.

DRIVER and some of the BA puppies took it amiss when their huntsman, Lilla Mason, stopped walking out with them on foot and came out on horseback this past week. It’s a change that signals a transition from gentle, summertime on-the-ground training to faster-paced fitness work, but the year-old males weren’t so sure they liked this new way of doing things. They pouted and avoided looking up at her, even as their sisters went about business as usual.

Eye contact is important, Lilla explained.”It’s absolutely paramount,” she said. “On a hunt day, when I leave a meet, the first thing I do is call the name of each hound that’s hunting and I look them in the eye. It’s a way of saying hello to them, and it means I’ve got their eye. It means, ‘Okay, we’re a team now. I’m in control, I see you and you see me, and we’re on our way. We’re on a mission, and we’re a pack.’

One regular follower found a good way to keep her flash cards with the hounds' pictures handy!

“On a hunt day, if you can’t ride to the first covert, call a hound’s name, and have it look up at you, it’s not such a good thing. I don’t want them to tune me out going hunting.”

Bonsai says hello to Lilla during hound exercise on Sept. 5. Photo by Dave Traxler.

To reconnect with the year-old males, to “get their eyes” again, Lilla employed an unusual tactic at Boone Valley last Saturday. Instead of riding immediately, she started off the exercise by leading her horse as she walked with the hounds. The idea was to get the young hounds to associate her with her horse–in this case Bonfire–and to know that she is still the same leader she was for all those summer walks. This also let the puppies, male and female, get used to working close around Lilla’s horse.

As she and the hounds made their way around Boone Valley, Lilla alternated riding with walking, giving the once-pouty males every opportunity to see her on horseback while also letting them know that she is still among them and paying close attention to them. The hounds seemed to be learning this lesson.

And was there anything new that Lilla learned about them?

“One thing I see is that Driver really needs attention,” she said. “One interesting thing is that, you know, sounds echo. When you’re on a horse, you have to be very careful about when you do and don’t call hounds. If your voice echoes off a wall of trees, or if you’re in a low place, the sound comes to the hounds from another direction. You have to be careful when you call them when it’s windy, too, like it was Saturday. I could see the puppies looking around. There were also a lot of people out yesterday, and sometimes when I would call them they’d run to someone and then realize that wasn’t who called them. Then they’d come back to me. They need to focus more on just me and not other sounds.”

Tall grass and windy conditions were additional challenges for the hounds.

Now that Lilla is generally on horseback with the hounds, the puppies also must learn to be comfortable farther away from her, while still tuning in to her and coming back when called. Developing the trust to allow the hounds to work farther away is not always easy, but it’s critical for a hunt chasing the fast-running, wide-ranging coyote.

“An overly controlling person would want them right around their horse all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily serve me well during hunt season,” she said. “I could do that, go out on hound walk and have the whips keep them in really tight and under my horse’s legs, but then when hunt season comes and I want to cast them into a covert, why would they go away from me? I need them to have the freedom to go away from me. So, on hound exercise, I need them to be close to me, then away from me to a degree–but not as far as they might want to go–then stop when I stop and come back to me.”

Summer is finally beginning to turn into fall. The cooler temperatures are providing better scenting, and as the scent improves and hounds get fitter, the pack is readying to hunt. They got a chance during their last walk at the hog lot, where, suddenly, the older hounds in the group struck off in full cry on a hot coyote line. The puppies, who have yet to go hunting, knew there was some great excitement afoot … but what, exactly?

“You never realize how much hounds hunt by scent until you see puppies try to figure out what the heck the older hounds are doing with their noses,” Lilla said. “The hounds came right upon that coyote, and the older hounds got right behind it in full cry. The puppies, who were with me, heard it and decided to go toward the cry.”

When the older hounds stopped speaking and Lilla called, the puppies immediately headed back toward her. But when the older hounds spoke again, the puppies halted in their tracks, then heeded the sound of their packmates.

“They know they want to be over there where the older hounds are speaking,” Lilla said. “Every time the older hounds would make a lose and go quiet, the puppies would come right back to me. But when the older hounds would speak again, they’d go running over to them.

“They actually passed the coyote on their way to catch up with the older hounds! They may or may not have seen it, but they still don’t know what their noses are. They don’t know what they’re doing. It was funny to see that. The most exciting thing about hunting hounds is to see a puppy realize what it’s doing with its nose. That’s what they don’t know yet.”

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.

Like driving someone else’s racecar

Substituting for an injured huntsman means taking over a pack that has been trained by (and that has bonded with) someone else, and it takes more than just knowing how to blow the horn.

WHEN Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason broke her ankle out hunting in November, she was lucky in one respect: she had an experienced huntsman to whom she could pass the horn. And that person, Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller, was someone who works with the hounds daily alongside her.

That mattered, because as we’ve seen, Lilla has put a lot of time and training into the hounds (Jerry has had an important role in that training too). Having someone who knows the hounds and the huntsman’s style is vital to ensure the hounds’ steadiness until Lilla returns.

“Unfortunately, I got hurt right after the opening day of the hunt season,” Lilla said. “I’ve spent months since the last hunt season–from April to October–training the hounds and getting the pack exactly where I want them: responsive, together, controlled by voice. I’ve done that in the training style that Jerry has devised over the years, which is a kind, humane, quiet style. The reason it’s such a relief to have Jerry hunting the hounds for me now is that I know he knows he is a substitute. He hunts the hounds in that quiet way, but he’s also going to be very careful not to take the hounds over as his own, because I’ll be back.

“The worst thing would be if someone were to come in and hunt them in a different way from the way I do and try to take the pack over. That would usurp all the work we’ve done, and when I came back, it would be much more difficult for me to finish the season in the manner which it began.”

His years as Iroquois huntsman and his role as architect of the pack's training program has stood Jerry in good stead during the times he has subbed for Lilla out hunting and on hound walk. (Photo kindly given by Peggy Maness)

For Jerry, the prospect of taking over the Iroquois pack was more complicated than just accepting the horn and blowing it. A pack of hounds doesn’t automatically respect a horn; they respect the person who has worked to forge a bond with them through training. In order to maintain the continuity of what is effectively Lilla’s team, Jerry is careful to leave as little of his own imprint on them as he can.

“As much as I like them and would like to have these hounds be mine, that’s like taking somebody’s racecar and driving it as a substitute in the next three or four races,” Jerry explained.  “The first thing you need to do is not to wreck it. That’s the worst thing you could do. You don’t want to tear the transmission up and don’t tear the motor up, either. Just take it around carefully, because you’re not really the driver of that car. You’ll take it out because people want to come out and see the race, but the idea is to race it fairly and competitively, but don’t do any damage to it.

“The thing about a pack of hounds, and the reason you like your huntsman and Masters to have longevity, is because you breed the hounds not only for your country, but also for the way the huntsman hunts hounds,” he continued. “You can read about this in all the literature, but you can ruin a pack of hounds in a week or two weeks. If someone else other than Lilla came in and tried to impose their own personality on those hounds through the way they discipline them or reinforce them, and especially if they try to push them around or bully them, these hounds react to that. Some hounds won’t come back because they’ve gotten upset, and they’ll just be unruly. And the longer they stay away, the more they learn bad habits.”

Having temporarily turned her horn over to her back-up huntsman, jt-MFH Jerry Miller, regular Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason wore a regular member's black coat when she returned to the hunt field for the first time since her injury.

This hunt season, we’ve seen two strong examples of how important a hound considers the bond with its huntsman to be. When Strawberry first arrived this fall from England, her confusion at finding a completely new huntsman was clear. Since her birth, Strawberry had only ever known one huntsman–the Cottesmore’s Neil Coleman–and she was perplexed to find herself without her usual leader when she debuted under Lilla in November. Her first response was to head straight back to the hound trailer.

Similarly, when Jerry hunted the hounds for the first time after Lilla’s injury, he had to endure the pack’s initial skepticism about him, even though he knew them from training.

When he first blew the horn, the pack remained at the trailer, waiting for Lilla. Sure, that guy who walked with them in the summer had the horn now, but he wasn’t their huntsman. Their huntsman was Lilla. And they would just wait for her to show up, thanks. It took Jerry some minutes to get the pack away from the trailer.

Hunting history is riddled with similar accounts of hounds who, once “joined up” with their regular huntsman, will only have eyes for him (or her). Consider the case of whipper-in Jean MacLean in her first attempt to walk out the Clear Creek Beagles when huntsman Buck Wiseman was out of town:

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.

Once the hounds finally moved off, Jerry still had his work cut out for him. One crucial element he had in his favor is his knowledge of the individual hounds and the philosophy under which they are trained.

Jerry Miller's role as back-up huntsman, he said, is to maintain the pack's steadiness and "not to do any damage" until Lilla can return

“A hound doesn’t just react to a couple of toots on a horn,” he said. “You have to know every individual hound. If you were going to play the piano and I took every third key away, that’s going to make it harder for you to play. You have to know which hound is acting up, which hound you have to pick up, which one you have to set down.”

Hunting hounds without imposing his own hunting style on them has required restraint from Jerry.

“He’s hunted them slowly and very deliberately, waited for any hounds that are missing so that the pack doesn’t get too spread out,” said Lilla, who has been following the hunt in a car regularly while she’s recovering. “It might be more fun for riders if he went out and hunted them the way  he would if he were always the huntsman, but he’s doing it this way so that the hounds will be better off when I come back.

“This helps me. If he had done things differently, it would have completely confused the hounds, because they’d have gotten used to a totally different style than mine, and I’d have to start over with them,” she added. “The ultimate honor you can do another human being is to do something for them that you know is not going to make you look your best. He knew he wasn’t going to look like a hotshot huntsman. He did it for the hound program.”

Part of "Lilla's team," as portrayed by Peggy Maness

Mind you, it’s taken some restraint from Lilla, too. While Jerry is hunting the hounds, she minimizes her contact with the hounds and rarely even speaks, in case the familiar sound of their regular huntsman’s voice distracts them.

“The worst thing I could do while he’s hunting is come out and be too loud, because pretty soon they’re going to get around me and stop doing what he’s asking them to do,” she explained. “They have to be obedient to the person who has the horn.”

“She has the golden thread with  her hounds,” Jerry acknowledges. “They know her personality, they know what she’s doing and when she’s upset. You can see it in them. When Lilla gets upset with a few of them, the others react to it, too. They just tighten up together and go on.  But if someone new comes in and gets uptight with them, those hounds will just disappear. They’ll decide they want to stay away from that person.

“And if a new person comes in and tries to be their best friend and keep them right next to his horse, that can be just as bad, because instead of working, the hounds will just trot along next to his horse like they were on a trail ride. So there’s a fine line between discipline and reinforcement. I try to put them in, let them work the covert, then be on the other end to pick them up and go on to the next covert, without imposing on them.

“I have to maintain things. I have to make sure that everyone responds and that I don’t get three or four hounds that decide they’ll refuse to listen and go hunting on their own, that decide since Lilla’s not out they don’t have to listen to anybody.”

It’s a slower style of hunting, but it preserves the pack and their training in the near term while Lilla recovers.

For a glimpse of Lilla’s relationship with the hounds, see how they gaze at her in this video taken from the huntsman’s point of view on hound walk this summer:

There’s a code of honor among huntsmen that holds the relationship between huntsman and hounds, that golden thread, as sacred. Jerry ‘s restraint in hunting “her” hounds is honoring that tradition, Lilla said. She has reciprocated, too, by wearing a black hunt coat–rather than her red huntsman’s coat–when she returned to the hunt field for an hour (with her leg in a cast!) at her first hunt since the injury.

“What Jerry has done for me is the most honorable thing a retired huntsman can do for one who is active,” Lilla said. “He’s not out there for the sake of his own ego. He’s not trying to look like the best huntsman in the world, and he knows he’s not going to look like the best huntsman in the world doing it this way. But he knows they’re not his hounds now; I trained them. And that’s the way he looks at it: ‘I’m just the substitute.’

“One huntsman would never insert himself or do anything to possibly damage or interfere with another huntsman’s relationship with his own hounds,” she concluded. “Your relationship with your hounds is like a marriage, and you wouldn’t step in between a huntsman and his hounds any more than you would step between husband and wife.”

So how is Lilla’s recovery coming? Very well, she says. She’s started riding again, and she had that happy hour out with hounds just before Christmas.

“Since I got off crutches, it seems like every day there’s been immense improvement,” she said. “I’ve been riding, but I still have this inconvenient boot on my leg. I need to go see a welder and get a big stirrup made. I’m riding in a dressage saddle and in a controlled environment, and, with the weather we’ve had, nobody’s riding outside anyway. So I’m very encouraged.”

Copyright 2010 Glenye Cain Oakford,

Falcons’ eyes and hounds’ noses in the news

Harry: 300 million scent receptors. Me: 6 million scent receptors. That explains a lot!

Harry: 300 million scent receptors. Me: 6 million scent receptors. That explains a lot!

THERE were two news notes that got my attention this weekend. One was a book review in Sunday’s New York Times about Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. It’s an attempt to understand and explain how dogs experience the world, and there are some interesting observations in it (I already bought my copy). This isn’t a dog-training book; it’s more of a natural science book, although it’s written in very accessible, non-technical language. I’m not that far along in it yet, but here are some interesting bits and pieces:
  • A beagle’s nose has 300 million receptor sites, compared with a human’s paltry six million (“I could have told you that,” says Harry the Stealth Beagle)
  • Scent equals time, for dogs. “Trained dogs don’t just notice a smell. They notice the change in smell over time,” writes author Alexandra Horowitz. “The concentration of an odor left on the ground by, say, a running footprint, diminishes with every second that passes. In just two seconds, a runner may have made four or five footprints: enough time for a trained tracker to tell the direction that he ran based just on the differences in the odor emanating from the first and fifth print.”
  • Dogs are social animals, but their idea of a pack doesn’t appear to be based on the “alpha wolf” pack theories put forward by trainers who say owners should behave dominantly. “What dogs do seem to have inherited from wolves is the socialty of a pack: an interest in being around others. Indeed, dogs are social opportunists. They are attuned to the actions of others, and humans turned out to be very good animals to attune to.” Trainers who use dominance techniques are “farther from what we know of the reality of wolf packs and closer to the timeworn fiction of the animal kingdom with humans at the pinnacle, exerting dominion over the rest. Wolves seem to learn from each other not by punishing each other but by observing each other. Dogs, too, are keen observers–of our reactions. Instead of a punishment happening to them, they’ll learn best if you let them discover which behaviors are rewarded and which lead to naught.”

We’ve certainly found that last part to be true in our household. It took some creative thinking to find our way around Harry’s sinister side and Toby’s seemingly incessant barking when we made the dogs’ meals each night. Various forms of “no” didn’t have much effect, but psychology did, and in surprisingly short order.

THE other bit of the hunting world in the news this week was a story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday Show” about the use of falcons to keep starling flocks away from California’s vineyards, where they can wreak expensive damage to the grapes if left to their own devices. Though just under five minutes long, it was a fascinating piece on an ancient hunting art. You can hear it (and also read the accompanying article) at the link above. One of the more tantalizing aspects of it was the notion that “the golden thread” arguably can exist between falconers and their charges, just as it does between exceptional huntsmen and their packs. Clearly, falconer Tom Savory thinks so. In any event, the working falcon-human partnership here is as interesting as the working hound-human one. In each case, as one vineyard owner says in the piece, you have an animal “that basically is doing what it would do in nature anyway, but for our benefit.”

Hound’s Life: In Dog We Trust

Much of hound training and exercise is about developing mutual trust between huntsman and pack

Much of hound training and exercise is about developing mutual trust between huntsman and pack

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.

Paper: from puppy to switched-on pack member

Paper: from puppy to switched-on pack member

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.

When a huntsman achieves the highest level of trust and understanding with his hounds, he is said to have "the golden thread" between himself and the pack.

When a huntsman achieves the highest level of trust and understanding with his hounds, he is said to have "the golden thread" between himself and the pack.

“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.

Paper’s Indiscretion

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.”

The huntsman is the leader of the pack, and, to lead effectively, must understand and communicate with the pack

The huntsman is the leader of the pack, and, to lead effectively, must understand and communicate with the pack

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.”