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.

Hound of the Day, Oct. 18: Grindstone

Michael Edwards with Grindstone

Iroquois kennelman Michael Edwards with Hound of the Day Grindstone. Edwards put a lot of work into building Grindstone's confidence.

IT’S hard to believe how far Grindstone has come in her long career with Iroquois. That came to mind at the meet on October 18 at Boone Valley.

The weather was warm, and there was a large field of riders out that morning, and the hounds arrived looking forward to their day. Grindstone was as eager as ever, lining up first as she always does so that she can be the first out of the hound truck and down the ramp into the grass. You can see her unloading in her customary manner in the video below; she’s the small white hound, the first to leap out, from the lower level of the hound truck.

“She’s one of those hounds that, on hound walk, has her tail kind of drooping down and makes the least amount of effort possible,” said Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason. “But this was a hunt day, and she was doing that thing your house dogs will do when they want you to take them out for a walk. You know how they run to the door,  look at you, run back to you, then dash to the door again? Grindstone was running ahead, then come back and looking up at me, then running ahead again. It was like she was saying, ‘Come on, Lilla! Trot, trot!’ It just reminded me of how different she used to be when we first got her.”

Grindstone is a little crossbred hound, and, if we are very honest, she’s not going to win America’s Top Model anytime soon. She arrived at Iroquois under unusual circumstances. Iroquois had loaned her mother, Iroquois Grizzle, to another hunt for a year, on the understanding that the hunt would keep her for a season, breed her to get a litter of puppies from her, and then send her home again to Iroquois.

“Grizzle was a really good hound,” Lilla said. “They got a litter of puppies out of her, but they didn’t send her back for a couple of seasons. When they finally did send her back, in the crate with her was this little ugly duckling of a puppy. That was Grindstone. She was terribly, terribly shy, and, to be honest, there was nothing about her we wanted. She was so shy you couldn’t touch her, she was ugly, she was really little, it wasn’t the kind of breeding that suits our pack, she wasn’t built to cover the kind of ground we cover. She didn’t look much like a coyote-chasing hound at all, but what could you do? You had to keep her. So we kept her.”

And she turned out to be Cinderella?

“No, it just got worse and worse.”

The biggest problem was the shyness. When Grindstone first arrived, kennelman Michael Edwards said, “I’ll really work with her.” Michael, it should be noted here, is a hound magnet, the kindest guy you’ll ever meet, and an expert at turning wallflower puppies into confident, outgoing stars.

“But Grindstone was so shy, he couldn’t even touch her,” recalled Lilla. “She would just go back in a corner. You could put her in with a group, and she’d go in and out of the kennel in a group, but to catch her you pretty much had to corner her, and she’d cower on the ground. This went on for her first year with us. So how could you hunt her? She was so wild.

“Finally, after a year, Michael was able to touch her, but only he could touch her. She was pretty much useless to us as a working hound.”

Finally, when Grindstone was in her second year at the Iroquois kennel, joint-Master Jerry Miller decided they had to do something. And that something was take her out on hound walk. In a group of hounds. No leash. Just like all Grindstone’s well-adjusted peers in the pack. The hunt staff didn’t like this idea at all.

“He said, ‘We can’t just keep her in the kennel. She’s got to go hunting. She’s got to do something.’ Michael was afraid of that, and we all thought she would just go feral. We thought, ‘The minute she gets out of the hound truck and doesn’t know where she is, she’ll just go off. And we can’t touch her, so when she does go off, she’ll just become a stray dog.’ But Jerry said, ‘We have to do this. We can’t keep treating her differently.'”

It was with great trepidation that the staff pulled into Boone Valley for hound walk that summer day back in 2003.

Boone Valley

Boone Valley: scene of Grindstone's triumph

“We parked by the barn, and Michael was a nervous wreck, because he’d finally won her confidence, and he was kind of upset about having to do this,” Lilla said. “We opened the trailer doors, and everybody came out except Grindstone. She stayed in for a minute, and then she kind of came slinking out.”

There she was, out in the wide, wide world. She stood looking around while the hunt staff went on about their business, trying hard not to let their nerves about Grindstone show.

“The only thing we could do was treat everybody normally,” Lilla remembered. “So we started off on hound walk just like it was any old day, like there was nothing different at all. And it was the strangest thing. Grindstone came along. She started off shyly, with her head kind of low and her tail kind of low, and she walked on a little way, looking from side to side at the hounds around her. She was in the middle of the hounds, and they were all doing the same thing, just walking happily along, and it was like all of a sudden she got a sense of belonging. It was as if she started thinking, ‘I may be an ugly duckling, and I don’t look like them or act like them, but I’m a group.’ We just kept walking along, and Grindstone’s head got a little higher and her stride got a little bouncier, and her tail came up. She had realized that she was part of a pack.”


Working pack hounds have both an individual identity and a pack identity. "It's a wonderful thing to see them have that epiphany that they are part of a group," says Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason.

It was a moment that changed Grindstone’s life. The hunt staff breathed a sigh of relief.

“That’s what’s so neat about a pack of hounds,” Lilla said. “It is a pack. They are individuals, but they love their pack. It’s wonderful to see, like with Grindstone, that sense of belonging. Now she has hunted for years, and she’s been great. Those kinds of epiphanies that hounds have–whether it’s accepting being part of the pack or figuring out what their nose is–that’s what really makes hunting hounds special.”

Today you would never guess at Grindstone’s past shyness. The fact that she isn’t now is a tribute to a lot of things, mainly careful, patient handling in the kennel and the bold decision to let her try hunting. In the end, Grindstone vindicated Iroquois’s unusual training policy of “no hound left behind”–to work to find the key to every hound so that it can try hunting, even if that means letting it make a late debut on the hunt field.

“She’s so valuable to us now,” explained Lilla. “We use her when we have difficult fixtures where we can only take very steady hounds. She can go with the young hounds, she can do it all.”

This is Grindstone’s sixth season of hunting. When she retires from the hunt field, she will join a new pack with a lot of familiar faces: the Iroquois hounds’ retired hounds, which also are kenneled at the Iroquois kennels on Miller Trust Farm. Once retired, Grindstone will be cared for under the auspices of the Hound Welfare Fund. Please donate!