Bedtime Stories: Gary Paulsen

An occasional series in which we wish our readers a happy good night, courtesy of hunting literature. Sweet dreams!

IT never hurts to look for wisdom in other disciplines, and it’s in that spirit that I picked up a copy of a book about sled-dogs. I’ve never had any particular interest in sled-dog racing, but I guess the reason I reached for this book was because of our recent post that featured a great video of their summer training as well as a nice description by New York Times writer Verlyn Klinkenborg.

Whatever the reason, I picked up a copy of Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. Whether or not you care about the Iditarod, this book is a real find. It’s the story of how the author tried to build an Iditarod-caliber dog team out of a pretty random selection of dogs he scrounged from pretty much everywhere–and with shockingly little knowledge or experience of his own.

Along the way, he learns a hell of a lot about dogs and gets some magical glimpses of wildlife. On one long-distance run, his team “adopts” a coyote. Later, a chickadee rode along on the edge of his parka and would take food from his hand as they zipped along on the sled.

Winterdance is funny, painful, and insightful about dogs and how they work, both as a team and with people. It dishes out some food for thought that seems to apply pretty handily to working hounds, too. In short, it ‘s one of the best dog books I’ve read. And now I’ll hand the page over to author Gary Paulsen for one of the more misguided and hilarious episodes:

“Napoleon once said good morale among troops is as four is to one, and something similar happens to sled dogs. As they gain strength from training, and knowledge and confidence, as they understand that you will give them beef when they run and fat when they run and love when they run and your soul when they run, as they learn to feel that, understand that, know that, they become something completely different. They are no longer just sled dogs or pets–they become distance dogs, dogs that cannot, will not be stopped.

“When it first happens it is frightening–like watching Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde. Their shoulders grow, they gain weight in both fat and, more important, muscle, and their coats sleek up with the added meat and fat (as much as they can eat when the training is going full bore). And they get strong–god, how strong. …

“On a light rig, ten or twelve sprint dogs could be run easily. So I was told and so I did. But with distance dogs in good shape on the same rig you should never use four or five–not if you expect to live. And the magic number–seven–should never be exceeded on anything less than a full car body (which I later used) with the engine gone. Something happens between the seventh and eighth dog that is truly phenomenal. A power curve is passed and with eight and up you’re in a zone that defies control without special gear.

“I knew none of this. Once I had the light rig I started getting dogs, adding them to the overall team as I found them. … I ran them the way I thought I was supposed to run them, putting new sections of gangline on as each new dog or set of dogs arrived and just adding them to the team.

“But a kind of infection of will had occurred that I hadn’t understood. I had the trapline team, the original seven. They had been nice dogs, happy dogs, peaceful dogs. I had worked them all winter and never had a problem with them, especially Cookie. I frequently brought her in the house and let her run loose. That original team was easy to control, though already very strong, and I thought it would help me to gain and maintain a control over the new dogs.

“It went the other way. The trapline team became a distance team and the problem came about because they were already in shape from running all year. The other dogs, the new dogs, the wild dogs, the Canadian dogs, the native dogs swept the old trapline team up in their wonderful madness and I … I was just part of the rig.

“It was insane.

“When I started to run eight dogs, then nine and ten–with the first three Canadian dogs–I realized something was different. something was hard to control. But when I added three more, running eleven on a light rig, and then two more after that, I entered a world that felt positively surreal. …

“My first run with a large team was the classic one, and should have warned me about the rest of them. I had decided to run them a little long. … So I thought I would try thirty miles. It isn’t much–not even a third of the hundred or more miles first runs should be–but it seemed like a long way and I thought I should carry some gear with me. I loaded the rig down with a backpack tied in place and a box of dog food, a tent, a rolled-up tarp, a winter coat–just in case it cooled off–pots and pans for cooking, a small ax, a bow saw, a lantern, a gallon of fuel for the lantern, and a full-size, two-burner Coleman stove.

“I looked, and sounded, like a hardware store leaving the yard. But leaving the yard was as far as most of the stuff got. …

“The dogs were fired up and I hooked Cookie in first, let her hold the gangline out, then went for each dog and hooked them into position. Each new dog affected the other dogs until, by the time I had eleven and twelve in place and only one left–Devil–I was going back and forth from the kennel to the rig in a dead run, trying to hurry and let them run. …

“I don’t think the rig hit the ground more than twice all the way across the yard. My god, I thought, they’ve learned to fly. With me hanging out the back like a tattered flag we came to the end of the driveway, where we would have to turn, must turn onto the road.

“The dogs made the turn fine.

“The rig started to as well, but I had forgotten to lean into the turn and it rolled and once it rolled it kept rolling–it felt like two or three hundred times. I had time for one quick look back–it seemed like a dry goods store had blown up across the road and in the ditch–and grabbed at something to hold.

“In some fashion I don’t understand I hug on–I think because I’d lost them [before] and was determined not to lose them again–and we set off down the road with the rig upside down, all the gear gone, and me dragging on the gravel on my face.

“It took me four miles to get the rig up on its wheels, by which time the pipe-handlebar I had welded into position had broken off and I had nothing to hang on to but the steering ropes. I was also nearly completely denuded, my clothes having been torn to shreds during the dragging.

“We did thirty miles in just under tow and a half hours, and never once was I in anything like even partial control of the situation. …

“In subsequent runs I left the yard on my face, my ass, my belly. I dragged for a mile, two miles, three miles. I lost the team eight, ten times; walked twelve, seventeen, once forty-some miles looking for them. The rig broke every time we ran, torn to pieces, and I finally borrowed a welder and rebuilt the thing every night. Every farmer within forty miles of us knew about me, knew me as ‘that crazy bastard who can’t hold his team.’ I once left the yard with wooden matches in my pocket and had them ignite as I was being dragged past the door of the house, giving me the semblance of a meteorite, screaming something about my balls being on fire at Ruth, who was laughing so hard she couldn’t stand.'”

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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.

The Sunday Sampler

Harry and Toby (Mr. Box) at play, as captured by our neighbor Dave and his new camera.

WONDERFUL news at Beagle House: our next-door neighbor Dave, he who doles out dog biscuits by the fence that runs between our houses, has taken up photography! We’re very pleased with this development (no pun intended), because it means he practices on the house hounds, and we get some good pictures of them as a result. The one above is one of our  favorites, and here are two others we love:

Harry explains his Complex and Mostly Secret Plan for World Domination.

"I got it, I got it!" Bingo and one of his best friends, Mr. Tennis Ball.

Speaking of the House Hounds, if you enjoyed their singing act last week you might also get a kick out of this short video about Bingo, the bassist in the trio.

I probably should update that score, because he did actually catch one about a year ago, but, thank heavens, it’s a rare feat.

This week we’ll be on summer hound walk with the pack–including Driver and members of the BA litter for the first time this year–but today we’re enjoying an afternoon at home, sorting through some of the hound news and pieces of interest that have come to our attention lately.

We read it in the Times

If you’ve got a beagle, basset, dachshund, petit basset griffon vendeen, or sighthound who has never gotten a taste of the chase,  The New York Times reports on a few places you can take your hound to let him get in touch with his wilder side without, it seems, actually catching anything.  An American Kennel Club Fun Field Trial in Carlisle, Pa., pairs couch-potato scent hounds with field trial prizewinners who show them how real hound work is done. According to the Times story, “No rabbits are killed, and the only gun is a starting pistol, fired into the air to measure a dog’s ‘gun shyness.’ In fact, the dogs never catch rabbits–and normally don’t even see them–but are judged on their ability to follow the scent as long and directly as possible.” To see how the reporter’s basset, a pampered hound with what the reporter calls “wakeolepsy,” fares in this return to his genes, see the story. And don’t forget to watch the very good video that accompanies it.

If you’d like to see some hunting bassets and beagles, we’ve got some beautiful runs on video. For beagles and bassets, you might like this. For beagles, here’s another.

We read it in Baily’s

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Baily’s yet, you should introduce yourself to this hunting bible immediately! Baily’s has a website now, and it’s well worth joining up to read its articles and to see the routinely fabulous photographs.

Baily's Hunting Directories

But you’ll get even more fun out of reading entries in the old directories, which I am starting to collect. Here are a few wonders from the 1914-1915 edition.

In February:

“A fox chased by the East Essex Hounds plunged into the sea, and was swimming out with the tide when four members of Hunt rowed out after him and rescued him.”

“An extraordinary accident befell Sir Edward Hutton whilst returning to Chertsey from a meet. As he was riding along a road his horse shied, throwing rider into a ditch. The animal also fell with his body across the ditch. Fortunately, the narrowness of the ditch prevented Sir Edward encountering full weight of horse. He was pinioned by one arm and leg, but with his free hand stroked the horse and kept it quiet until a man in charge of a motor delivery van came to his aid and released him.”

In March:

“Twenty English foxhounds being exported got loose and took possession of deck of Dover steamer sailing to France. The crew took to rigging until one brave soul lassoed the hound kicking up the chief row and placed him in truck again. The other hounds then followed him quite meekly.”

From the Department of We Want Details: “Young Lord Chesham, following worthily in his late father’s footsteps, is making himself very popular in ‘Pytchley country.'”

“Miss Isa E. Adams, Boston Spa, reports death of her otterhound, Old Carmelite, at age of 13 1/2 years. As a puppy he belonged to late King Edward, and later became property of Wharfedale Otterhounds, in which pack he remained till he was 9 1/2 years old. He was a winner on the show bench.”

“That there is good money in hounds was proved at Rugby, when Mr. Fullerton’s Avon Vale collection came under the hammer. All told, he received 3,726 guineas for them, the actual working pack of 24 couples going for 2,654 guineas.”

"Did you mention biscuits? I'd love one!" Iroquois hound Sassoon knows what's in the pockets of Lilla's kennel coat.

And the other side of that coin: “At Fitzwilliam Puppy Show Mr. George Fitzwilliam said hounds had cost him 80,000 pounds out of his own pocket since his father’s death, and owing to taxation, etc., increasing, he felt it necessary that he should be joined in the Mastership by Mr. Norman Loder.”

Loder, incidentally, was a close friend of hunting man and famed poet Siegfried Sassoon (for whom both my horse Sassoon and the Iroquois’s lovable woolly hound Sassoon are named) when Loder was Master of the Atherston. Hunting with Loder is a significant part of Sassoon’s splendid and funny classic Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.

And here’s a note that should bring a smile to the faces of the members of Pennsylvania’s Cheshire Hunt. Under June, this entry: “Such is fame. A new pack of hounds has been established at Unionville, Chester County, Pennsylvania, and it will be called ‘The Cheshires’–shades of the Grosvenors, the Egertons, and the Wilbrahams!”

That’s all for now. Homework assignment: read your Baily’s, pat your dogs and horses, and we’ll see you on summer hound walk this week!


Space Invaders, or How to help your dog train you (with video)

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.

Side note: for a funny take on training people this way, you might enjoy Amy Sutherland’s piece in the New York Times about how this worked on her husband.

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!

Another aside: if you didn’t get Jerry’s reference to Peterborough, check out our post (with some video) about the world’s most prestigious foxhound show.

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!

One in 8 million

IF you haven’t seen the New York Times online series “One in 8 Million,” today would be a good day to give it a try. It’s an ongoing series of audio slideshows, each profiling one of New York City’s residents. Each piece is brief, just about three minutes, and combines the subject’s voice describing some aspect of his life while a black-and-white slideshow scrolls by, showing the person in his daily environment. Two of my personal favorites–I don’t know what this says about me, and actually I’d rather not know–are The Urban Taxidermist and The Pathologist.

But the best one of all, and the reason I’m posting this in the first place, is this one: The Animal Rescuer. If you love dogs, you’ll like this very, very much.

And if you love dogs, why not consider a donation to the all-volunteer Hound Welfare Fund? Donations are tax-deductible, and 100 percent of your donation will go directly to the hounds’ care. If you want to wear your support on your sleeve, consider buying some Hound Welfare Fund merchandise, including polo shorts shirt, I mean (but what a curious idea “polo shorts” are), and caps!

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.”