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.