Author and flat-coated retriever owner/breeder Gina Spadafori gets some face time with Salsa
THIS week the houndbloggers have been hosting Gina Spadafori, an influential author and blogger on dog and companion-animal subjects and the writing partner of “America’s Veterinarian,” Dr. Marty Becker. She’s also a breeder and owner of flat-coated retrievers and strongly supports letting working breeds do the jobs they were bred to do. Which led her to the Iroquois kennel.
She visited the kennel on Tuesday and had some interesting observations about our hounds’ lives there. If you think kennels sound dreary, you might be especially interested in Gina’s perspective on how dogs–in our case, working pack hounds–can live happily in kennels.
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.
The Volunteers: A few of the people helping with the Iroquois puppies this spring. Thanks, y'all!
AND, LUCKILY, we’ve got a village. They probably weren’t overjoyed at being immortalized on video, but the folks who volunteer with the Iroquois hounds are a hardy, stiff-upper-lip-and-get-on-with-it group. They would always rather be out with horses and hounds than being seen on the screen. On the other hand, they were delighted to talk about the hounds they’ve been working with and how much they enjoy it. That they do enjoy being part of the hounds’ lives is entirely clear from the way they talk about their favorites, what kind of progress young so-and-so has made since last week, or a new discovery they’ve made about hounds that has opened up a new way of looking at the hunt.
Working with the hounds has done that for all of us: given us a new and interesting perspective on what’s really happening when we’re galloping behind Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason on the field. Now, when we’re trotting behind the hounds on the way to the first covert, we’re watching not just “the hounds,” but individual personalities we’ve come to know. We look forward to the day our favorite young hound, now entered, will own the line for the first time. We strain to hear a familiar voice in the thickets. We watch them and take pride in their progress. We love them.
Gene Baker and his wife Christine are often on the scene at kennel events, and Gene also helps by doing photography. Unlike me, he has lenses--plural--and knows when his lens cap is closed!
As one kennel visitor who frequently drives over with his wife from Louisville put it recently, “I always thought of hunting as galloping and jumping. That’s what it was about for us. But I see now that this part is the real fun!”
Driver: Happy happy happy!
Here’s another benefit: working with the hounds gets you through the gap between hunt seasons that other people call “summer.” If you show or event your horse, it’s not so bad, but I’ll be the first to tell you that, as a person who loathes the heat, to me summer was always the price I paid for fall. At least, it was until I started going out on summer hound walks. Getting to watch the hounds’ training behind the scenes makes summer as interesting as fall, and it makes fall more interesting, too, for the reasons mentioned above.
Kennel manager Michael Edwards with Bree Morton, a vet tech at Richmond Road Vet clinic. Bree stopped by to work with Driver. Bree bottle-fed Driver at the clinic for almost six weeks last spring when he was a newborn.
For the hounds, having this group of volunteers expands their circle of friends–and that’s not as trivial as it might sound. By making contact with lots of different people, the young hounds learn to be comfortable outside the relatively cloistered community of their kennel. They get exposed to other sights, sounds, and smells, other voices and pats, while still identifying Lilla as their leader. They learn to approach the world and people around them with confidence and curiosity.
"Did you mention biscuits? I'd love one!" Sassoon knows what's in the pockets of Lilla's kennel coat.
It’s a two-way street.
So today we’re thanking the hound-program volunteers. All of you who have pitched in and helped the Iroquois hounds, here’s to you! Some of you are in the video above, and some of you weren’t there on that particular day, but you’re appreciated, and you know who you are (Eloise, are you reading?): THANK YOU!
Gaelic cools off after a tough afternoon of biscuit-chasing.
Whether you’re a hound-program volunteer or not, please consider donating to the Hound Welfare Fund to help care for our retired foxhounds! To donate online or by snail mail, click here. Rather sport a nifty HWF cap, T shirt, or polo shirt? We can help you with that! All proceeds go directly to care for the retired hounds, and your donations to the HWF are tax-deductible.
Gaelic and Hailstone with Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason, proving that training can be fun.
ONE of the problems handlers face in training hounds for the show ring is The Biscuit Lean or its cousin, The Biscuit Crouch. Those aren’t the technical names, but they’re pretty accurate. Huntsmen showing hounds have pockets full of biscuits for the hounds to chase when off-leash in the show ring, and they’re handy for keeping a hound’s attention while you’re surrounded by other huntsmen and their hounds.
Thing is, the hounds learn to anticipate getting that biscuit, and while waiting for the huntsman to reward them they will start to leeeaan forward or even crouch back slightly on their hind legs, preparing to launch themselves at the biscuit when it’s tossed. Bad, bad dog. Why? A leaning hound is in an unnatural, unrelaxed stance that makes it harder for a judge to accurately assess his conformation. A crouching one will tend to place his hind legs too widely, making them look conformationally suspect.
Joint-Master Jerry Miller, who has developed the Iroquois training program, and huntsman Lilla Mason often conduct hound training together.
These are ways hounds in the ring can “push” or pressure a handler, and Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller has devised a way to stop this mild dominance behavior: by playing a gentle game of Space Invaders. For the last several days, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason has been trying this on the young hounds, and its proven remarkably effective (and fast) at stopping this pushy behavior. Lilla demonstrated it for us on Thursday and explained the philosophy behind this common-sense training technique, which is easily applicable to some house-dog behaviors, too.
One of the things that appealed to us about this is the way it encourages the hound to think for himself and make his own decision, not because he’s afraid of being punished, but because he wants the outcome that results in a treat for him. It also allows the hound to trigger the desirable outcome (biscuit!) himself by his actions. When the hound leaves the show board, Lilla simply “shuts off.” The hounds we watched quickly learned that they themselves could reactivate her attention only by stepping back on the board, and they could restart the biscuit reward by standing square. By leaning or pressing forward on Lilla’s space, they only activated Space Invaders.
We used the “off switch” technique with one of our dogs, Mr. Box, when he developed the annoying habit of barking incessantly at us while we made the dogs’ meals. Here’s how it worked: as soon as he barked, we immediately stopped whatever we were doing–opening the canned food, scooping kibble into bowls, whatever. We’d put the dog-food-making items down, step away from the counter, and slump, looking down at the floor and avoiding any contact, visual or verbal, with the dogs until Mr. Box stopped barking.
Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason with Starter and Stanway
As soon as he stopped, we’d return to the counter and pick up making dinner wherever we had left off. Rinse and repeat as needed (at the first sign of barking). Within a week, Mr. Box had learned to “control” how fast dinner arrived by not barking, and now he sits silently (but gazing very intently) while we make his meal.
Jerry Miller has spent much of his career as a huntsman and hound breeder trying to figure out these training puzzles, and many of his solutions, like the invading a domineering hound’s space, deal directly with a hound’s psychology. Teaching a dog merely to avoid punishment seems to us a blunter instrument.
Kennel manager Michael Edwards also is on hand at training sessions.
Late last month at a kennel open house, Jerry and Lilla talked about showing and judging hounds. They didn’t just talk about training, they also talked about the showmanship and showring strategy that huntsmen have to use to make their hounds stand out well in their brief time in a crowded show ring.
The hound you’ll see in this video is young Battle, one of the BA litter out of our imported English bitch Cottesmore Baffle. After you watch this video, scroll down to the next one to check out how much progress he has made just since late April, when we made this first video. In this video, you’ll also see a vivid case of a hound pushing his handler–that was before the Space Invaders lesson!
Here’s the “big, overgrown puppy” today. One surprise: he shows signs of shyness, as Lilla discusses in the video. It’s not clear yet whether this is temporary or a part of his personality, but it’s information Lilla files away in her mind, because it could affect how she handles him on summer hound walk and, later, in the hunt field. In the meantime, her work with him now will focus on increasing his confidence.
Finally, there’s Driver. The Big Shark. We’ve been following the pupposaurus since he was in utero, but now he’s turned into a real pin-up boy with some serious jaws in his biscuit-catching style. Enjoy:
The Virginia Hound Show is on May 30. The houndbloggers plan to be there, and in the meantime we’ll keep you updated on the doings at the kennel!
The Iroquois Hunt's young hounds--Paper, Gaelic and Hailstone, in this picture--are preparing for the season's hound shows
THE Kentucky countryside is lush and green, and hunt season has been over since the end of March. We’ve put our wool hunt coats in the closet until next fall. But some of the Iroquois hounds are still at work. This time, they’re preparing for upcoming hound shows.
How a hound performs on the hunt field–its fitness for the breed’s purpose–is the ultimate test of a hound’s breeding and physical conformation. But the show ring presents a chance for hunts to get outside opinions on their hounds’ breeding programs–at least regarding conformation. Even so, as at any dog show, judges at hound shows have their own likes and dislikes, in addition to their opinions on what conformation works and what doesn’t. In other words, judging a hound isn’t simply an exact science, it’s also an art significantly colored by personal preferences.
One common bias, for example, is against broken-coated, or “woolly,” hounds. I was once asked to help our huntsman, Lilla Mason, show one of our woollies at the Mid-America hound show, and while the two judges were looking the hound over, I overheard one of say to the other, “You know you’d love that hound if I threw a bucket of water over his back!” The hound won, by the way, so I guess Judge A convinced Judge B!
Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason trains the hounds for showing. They will be required to stand in a way that shows off their good conformation. Working hounds also are often shown off leash, galloping after thrown biscuits, so that judges can see their way of going.
The art of judging hounds is mysterious to me. Conformation faults that hound breeders can spot at 300 yards while wearing a blindfold are often invisible to me. Unless a hound’s leg is actually put on backwards, or it has three ears, I am probably going to miss whatever it is the judges find–especially at a show like the upcoming Virginia Hound Show, where the competition is so fierce that the judges will be asked to choose, time and again, the best of a perfect group of hounds and will have to get pretty nitpicky in order to determine winner from runner-up.
We got a chance to get a judge’s eye view at a recent open house at the Iroquois kennel. Lilla and Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller have been working with the hounds that are candidates to show this summer (Iroquois joint-Master Dr. Jack van Nagell will be judging the American hounds this year at the Virginia Hound Show; because Iroquois only has English and crossbred hounds–meaning English crossed with Americans–he won’t be judging of his “home” pack!). At the open house, Jerry offered his view of some of the hounds’ conformation and Lilla described how she handles hounds in the show ring. Both talked about how important it is to build hounds’ confidence and obedience before shows. In a ring full of other hounds and other huntsmen tossing biscuits, Lilla’s hounds have to be able to concentrate on her and her alone–a big task for some puppies, for whom everything is new! Hound shows may be something of a beauty contest, but training for them also serves a good purpose on the hunt field, too, by reinforcing this concentration and attention to the huntsman.
IHC member Cooper Lilly says hello to one of his favorite hounds, Payton, a winner at the Virginia Hound Show in 2007.
So we were especially interested to hear Jerry’s remarks about Driver now that he is developing into an about-to-be-entered hound (he’ll join the Iroquois pack this coming fall). Below, you’ll find a video showing Jerry’s take on the strapping young doghound, who is still developing as he reached his first birthday this month.
Jerry compared Driver favorably to some of the younger puppies, who were born about a month after he was last year, noting that Driver naturally has got more muscle development this year. His chief attribute, not surprisingly, is power. He springs lightly over the ground with little apparent effort, and he has a ground-eating stride. Lilla’s task with him is to control his exuberance and maintain his concentration, and in this clip you see some of the strategies she has to use in the show ring, such as keeping the hound far enough away from her so that they don’t hold their heads up too high in the air, which makes their necks and shoulders difficult for a judge to assess accurately.
As a reminder, Driver is one of our English hounds. Iroquois imported his mother, Dragonfly, from the North Cotswold.
While working with young Battle, one of the BA litter out of our imported English hound Cottesmore Baffle, Lilla and Jerry pointed out some of the finer points of hound conformation: does his left paw turn in slightly or does it not? These are the kinds of details that an experienced judge will be focusing on, especially when presented with a ring full of uniformly high-quality hounds like those at the Virginia Hound Show. Lilla and Jerry also provided a lot of insight into the art of showing hounds effectively. There are strategies a huntsman can use to, as the song goes, accentuate the positive and “lowlight” the negative in a hound’s conformation, and a hound’s own personality can also make showing him easier or harder. A shy hound, for example, is difficult to show and is far less likely to earn a good mark than a more exuberant one who appears enthusiastic in the ring. More on showring strategy later this week, including a lesson we can take from hound-show training and apply to better behavior in our house dogs! Except probably for Harry the charming villain.
In addition to discussing hound conformation, Jerry also touched on some of the history of modern hound breeding, specifically how the size of English hounds has changed somewhat over the decades. He also talked a little about the differences between chasing fox and chasing coyote, effectively a change of the working foxhound’s job description. To hear a short clip on those topics, see the video below.
The Virginia Hound Show is coming up on May 30, and we’ll keep you posted on the hounds and their training between now and then!
The Iroquois hounds, seen here with whipper-in Elizabeth Playforth, met Saturday at Boone Valley
IT wasn’t the best scenting day last Saturday, but the hounds got their run. And if you love to hear hounds’ voices in beautiful countryside, it was a glorious day to be out.
Huntsman Lilla Mason is currently on crutches after a riding injury, so the horn has passed to her mentor, joint-Master Jerry Miller. Saturday’s hounds were the bitch pack of twelve-and-a-half couple, and, after time away from hunting due to deer-hunting season, they were ready to get back to work.
“We’ve got to get them out of the kennel,” Master Miller explained to the field at the meet.
The challenge for Miller–as for anyone stepping in for an injured huntsman–was to “get the hounds’ eyes” and attention on him. In short, the recognize that he was in fact the day’s huntsman, even though he is not the person they generally see carrying the horn.
Jerry had already hunted the dog pack in Lilla’s absence once before deer season, and their first inclination, on getting out of the hound trailer, was to search for Lilla. Simply handing over the horn doesn’t mean the hounds follow automatically. After months, even years, of close training and work with one huntsman, that switch is rarely easy.
“There’s no question that the hounds develop a close personal bond with their huntsman,” Jerry said.
That bond is so close that Lilla is careful not to let the hounds hear her voice while she’s car-following, because it would likely be a major distraction to them.
On Saturday, Jerry explained to the field and whippers-in that he would take the bitch pack to a fairly distant covert, Boyd’s Bottom, for their first draw. It takes about 20 minutes to get from the meet at Boone Valley to Boyd’s Bottom, and Jerry wanted to take that time to let them hounds get familiar with him as huntsman.
“That was the first time I’d hunted the bitches,” Jerry said later. “They’d had the loss of Lilla and then deer-hunting season, so they hadn’t been out for about a week and a half. Now they’re going out with someone strange to them. Even though I know them, they don’t know me. They’re only used to me walking with them. So I took them three or four fields south, and along the way, I kept calling each of their names and making them look at me.
“That sounds like it’s simple, but Lilla can tell you: you can call some of their names, and sometimes, like if they’re mad, they’re not going to look up at you. Some will look up immediately, especially the ones that we got from England, because Lilla hasn’t hunted them many times yet, and they’re used to a man’s voice.
“When we crossed the creek in David Estill’s going towards Boyd’s Bottom, they finally paid attention to me. I could stop and tell one to ‘bike,’ to come back in to me, and they did that. I couldn’t believe it. Why they all of a sudden decided to listen to me, I don’t know, but they did.”
The process of getting the hounds to “connect up” with a new huntsman can be slow, Jerry says, especially when the former huntsman has–as in Lilla’s case–been working closely with the hounds during all their early training and summer work.
“They do respond to me, because I say their names often,” Jerry said. “I did that all day long, saying individual hounds’ names so they could identify with me. But they got all their basics in the summer from Lilla. She knows all about them, and they know her.”
Lilla’s mount Saturday was our car Brabinger, a blue Hyundai Tucson that, while not yet schooled to jump, is a pretty good hilltopper. Plus, he has cup-holders.
(Off topic: Brabinger is named after the unflappable butler from one of our favorite comedy series, “To The Manor Born.” Our other car, the elderly but still very game Jeeves, is named after the wise valet in P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books. Highly recommended, as is the BBC television series starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves.)
Car-following has some advantages (see “cup-holders,” above). Your car is unlikely to spook. You can stay pretty comfortable and get a decent overview of the hunt. But it certainly does not compare to the wind-in-your-hair excitement of galloping cross country behind the hounds and the close-up view of good hound work. From our hillside, we couldn’t see the hounds when they struck off on a coyote line and ran along the tree-lined creek below us, but we could hear their spine-tingling cry as it echoed upward towards us.
We now know we missed quite a scene: coyote and hounds swam the creek and the run continued on the south bank. The coyote ran through a field of cattle, jumped a coop, circled back to Boyd’s Bottom, and generally gave the bitch pack plenty of exercise.
On Sunday, we tried the car-following again (this time in a truck), always being careful to stick to solid ground and roadways in order not to cause damage. Sunday’s hounds were the dog pack, consisting of eight couple. Again, the scenting was less than ideal in the warming afternoon, and there were only brief moments when hounds spoke and had a little run. Nonetheless, we had excellent views of the hounds and of the field, as shown below. You’ll spot Paper in an exuberant mood, woolly Sassoon, red-and-white Samson, and the enormous Hawkeye, the latter two among our most recent English imports. At the end of the video, as we’re returning to the meet, Gaelic stops by to say hello to Lilla.
The time off from deer season can make a significant difference to a pack, Jerry explained. Going into the two-week break while the deer-hunters are out, the pack was fit from cubbing. The sudden slowdown in activity can frustrate hounds, and when they do get back to work again, the conditions have changed.
“By the time you get them back out, scenting has completely changed,” Jerry explained. “The deer have gone into rut, the grass is starting to lose a lot of its smells, the leaves are starting to fall, and everything in those coverts is different. That can be a big setback, when you go from full covert to now where the leaves are falling off the trees, it changes everything. I would think it makes scenting better, but it’s the idea that they’ve got to sort it all out.”
These days, the hounds have more new information than usual to sort through: the new scents of late autumn, the changes in coverts, and, for now, a new huntsman. So far, so good.