He’s Mr. Foxhound now!

Paper on hound walk this summer. Dave Traxler photo.

REMEMBER Playper? The tri-colored Class Clown? The puppy who liked to unearth and carry random objects around in the hunt field? Well, treasure those memories, because Paper ain’t a boy anymore. He’s the man.

The last time we got out with the hounds was on Sunday, Jan. 30, a day that was notable because the sun came out. Which it hasn’t done for a long while. We were all delighted to be out in relatively warm temperatures and with the sun on our backs, and we didn’t expect the day also would mark a milestone for our young friend Paper. We’ve been following his development since he first started going out on hound walk back in the summer of 2009, and it’s probably worth a brief recap.

Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason and the hounds leaving the meet at Foxtrot on Jan. 30, 2011. Photo courtesy of Peggy Maness, who rode in the hound truck with us.

Paper came to Iroquois from the Live Oak hounds in Florida. He arrived in Kentucky still a puppy, and he exhibited a silly streak very early. He got his name, in fact, while he and Iroquois joint-Master Jerry Miller were making the 10-hour drive from Kentucky to Florida. Jerry had put Paper in a large traveling crate with an absorbent paper pad on the bottom of it, and Paper found that pad rather a lot of fun. He started shredding it not long after Jerry left the Live Oak kennel, and he didn’t stop until they rolled into Lexington. As the young pup kept himself busy with this, the bits of paper piled up in his crate until, finally, when Jerry looked in his rear-view mirror to check on him, the hound had disappeared completely in the mound of ripped paper he had created.  Hence Paper.

Paper has become a favorite at Iroquois because of his various antics on hound walk and out hunting. But, it must be said, this year he has graduated into quite a serious member of the working pack. And, last Sunday, he led the pack on a coyote run, showing the ability we always knew he had in him.

The field and the hounds at the meet. Peggy Maness photo.

Last Sunday afternoon was a remarkably warm, breezy day after a long frigid spell. The ground was frozen cold, but the air above it was warm, and what scent there might have been stirred and dispersed in a strong breeze. The sun, while nice to feel after its long time away, also didn’t help the scent to linger for hounds’ noses to find. The hounds’ body language signaled to huntsman Lilla Mason early on that scenting conditions were very poor. It was, Lilla said, as if they were telling her, “We’ve got our noses on, but they’re not picking up much that’s interesting.”

The scenting conditions might have been less than ideal, but the pack was as good as they could be. Bringing them back to the hunt field after a long absence due to the long stretch of “unhuntable” weather was like putting on a comfortable old shoe, as Lilla described it. The hounds were as responsive as ever and settled quickly to their task. “It was like we’d never left,” Lilla said.

Lilla Mason on Sackett at the meet. Photo by Peggy Maness.

The hounds started winding something in the field near Grundy’s barn. They started feathering–but then couldn’t quite make out the line, another hint that scenting was difficult on a day when the earth was cold and the air relatively warm. The hounds tried, feathered, and even sometimes spoke, but the line proved elusive. They kept casting themselves to the south, feathering enthusiastically. They were clearly trailing up to something but couldn’t quite get consistent enough scent to strike off. When joint-Master Jack van Nagell tally-hoed a coyote heading into Pauline’s Ridge, Lilla harked the hounds to that line less than a minute behind the quarry. The hounds feathered, desperately working what little of the line there was–but it was not enough to send them into full cry. That told her how difficult scenting was going to be, and, if she needed any more evidence, Lilla got proof positive that scent was not the hounds’ friend that day when a curious thing happened on top of a cliff.

“I could see a coyote in the grass, that black coyote,” Lilla said. “It was quite a way off, and it was just standing there in tall grass. I’d already harked hounds to the line once with my voice, and they didn’t pick up scent, so I couldn’t do that again, because it’s like I’m lying to them. I couldn’t risk that again.”

Paper has taken the leap from playful puppy to serious working pack hound. Photo by Dave Traxler.

“It’s terribly frustrating, as a huntsman,” Lilla added. “You’re sitting there staring at a coyote. I could get the hounds into the high grass, and I could see the coyote in there. He was lower than the grass, and through the wisps of grass I could see him moving back and forth in front of the hounds. And they couldn’t smell it. And he knew they couldn’t smell him. They were feathering, but they couldn’t quite pick up the line.”

Flash back to summer hound walk: “When you watch the hounds on summer hound walk, you realize how much depends on their noses,” Lilla said. “That’s true of almost any dog. If I throw a red biscuit two feet in front of me, and they see me throw it, they don’t look for a red biscuit in grass–they smell for it where they think it landed.  It’s hard for humans to understand how much hounds depend on their noses. Their noses are so much more sensitive than ours, whereas we depend on our eyes.”

Iroquois joint-Master Jack van Nagell gave a tally-ho when a coyote headed into Pauline's Ridge. Peggy Maness photo.

You can also see this difference–hounds’ reliance on their noses rather than their eyes–when Michael Edwards and Alan Foy scatter biscuits in the grass before unloading the hounds at a meet. When the hounds rush out of the trailer to hunt for the biscuits, they don’t look for the for red and yellow dog biscuits. They come out of the trailer with their noses down to smell for them.

“So even though we can see a coyote, they’re using their noses to smell for it,” Lilla continued. “The problem is, you don’t know how many coyotes are there, either. If I rely on my eyes to tell the hounds what to do, I’m committing an error. With a pack like ours, hounds that don’t switch coyotes, you have to let them establish their own line.

Lilla and the hounds at Foxtrot. Dave Traxler photo.

“When you know it’s a bad scenting day, and you know there are multiple coyotes, you sort of have to wait to let the hounds pick up one of them. You can’t assume which one it will be until they tell you. They might be working hard, about to pick up a line, and if you lift them and cast them and put them on another line, well, that’s no good. You want to teach them to work it out for themselves.”

A four-hound group did just that, finally speaking on the line of a reddish coyote that had headed out the east end of Pauline’s Ridge. Paper, Sassoon, Battle and Bagshot took off on the line they’d found, but the hounds had cast themselves widely, a necessary tactic on a bad scenting day when you’re hunting coyote. As Paper and his three companions raced on close behind the coyote, they distanced their packmates. The other hounds behind them caught onto the same line, but when they reached the sunny open ground after Paper’s group, the main body of the pack had trouble holding on to scent as it dwindled rapidly in the warmer air. As Paper, Sassoon, Battle, and Bagshot hurtled toward the western boundary of the hunt country–and a busy road where horses could not follow–their packmates were left puzzling over a line that, to their noses, was nearly invisible. When they made a lose, Lilla opted not to cast them forward and risk having them run toward the road, too.

Road whips Michael Edwards (foreground) and Alan Foy picked up two of Paper's compatriots: Sassoon and first-season hound Battle at the Jan. 30 hunt. Road whips are essential! Dave Traxler photo.

“I also knew there were coyotes back in Pauline’s Ridge,” Lilla said, “so it wasn’t too egregious for me, as the hounds came out of the ridge, to send them back in again and let Michael and Alan get those two couple back.”

It turns out that Paper and Bagshot, spotted by whipper-in Elizabeth Playforth, came back on their own, and Alan and Michael quickly picked up Sassoon and Battle.

The moment when Paper struck off and led his group on a coyote, and in far from perfect scenting conditions, didn’t last long. But it was an important indication that the Class Clown is becoming a serious student, and is even on his way to being a potential pack leader. Not for him the tempting aluminum can or old cow bone. Not anymore.

No more decoys for Paper: he's the real deal! Eloise Penn photo.

“He’s Mr. Foxhound now,” Lilla said. “No puppy left in him. He’s running with the big boys. He’s just changed, hasn’t he? He’s no longer goofy.”

As Paper and Bagshot filtered their way back to Lilla, their colleagues in the pack, meanwhile, had struck off again in the east part of Pauline’s Ridge. “That helped bring everyone back together,” Lilla said. But when hounds went quiet soon afterwards, the pack, working their noses hard the whole time, scattered out again, trying to find scent anywhere they could. As hounds worked silently, snuffling through the grass, woods, and cliff, Lilla headed back up to the ridge and blew her horn. She soon collected 10 or 11 couple and headed west with them, intending to draw the covert at Pauline’s house.

The field got a nice view at Foxtrot on Jan. 30. And welcome back, Brownell! Peggy Maness photo.

Just then, another tally-ho, this time from field secretary Betsy van Nagell, who spotted–guess who! The black coyote, of tall grass fame, emerging from his weedy haven.

“He looked over his shoulder just like he was saying, ‘Hi!'” Lilla said. “And he just trotted away down the hill. I immediately took the hounds over there and put them on the line. And they couldn’t do anything with it.”

I’m not sure who ticked off the Scent Gods that day, but someone did, and the black coyote knew it.

“He was moving so slowly,” Lilla said. “He knew we could see him in the grass, and he knew we were going to see him when came out of the grass and went down the field. He trotted right by the field. He always goes that way: he comes out of the top of the ridge and goes south like that. Sometimes he’s a lot of fun, but this time he knew there was no scent and wasn’t bothering to move very quickly, just trotting a long and not giving off a lot of scent from his pads. At least the field had a nice view.

Because, really, you can't have too many pictures of Paper. Lilla Mason took this one on a 2009 hound walk.

“To an uneducated eye, they’d probably wonder, ‘What is wrong with those hounds?’ But those kinds of days really teach you how much they hunt by scent.They hunt by scent, not by sight. They can hunt a little bit by sight, but scent really is the key.”

Missing just one and a half couple, Lilla took the pack into Pauline’s Scrub, a good covert for game and also near where Lilla suspected the three absent hounds would be. Hounds spoke in the fenceline between Pauline’s Scrub and the Deer Covert, a good, strong cry on to the Deer Covert. Spirits lifted–but the burst was short-lived.

Whipper-in Hannah Emig on Comet at the Jan. 30 Foxtrot meet. Peggy Maness photo.

“They went to the Swamp Covert, to the Deer Covert, then went quiet for a minute before picking it up again,” Lilla said. “They ran across the field by Salt’s Barn, then turned sharply west out in the open into the Silo Pond Covert, right where we started. They made a lose there. The line was very, very strong going into the Silo Pond Covert, but once they got in there, they hardly even feathered. They tried really hard: they had their noses down, they were frantically looking around. If it hadn’t been so close to sunset, I would have tried to cast a little to the south, but I think they had done as much as they could with it.”

Having battled the Gods of Scent all afternoon, Lilla called it a day. From a hunting standpoint, the day was understandably frustrating for huntsman and hounds alike. But there were at least two important saving graces: the mere fact of being out again, galloping a horse alongside hounds over the countryside, and Paper’s brief, shining moment, leading the pack on a line.

They sang along the creek (with video)

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.

A quick switch in huntsmen can confuse a pack, and some hounds can be openly skeptical of the “new” huntsman’s authority. The story Clear Creek Beagles whipper-in Jean MacLean told us over the summer about her first experience walking the beagle pack is a perfect example of that!

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.

“There’s nowt so queer as scent”

The nose knows ... but we don't, entirely.

The nose knows ... but we don't, entirely.

As Mr. Jorrocks said in Handley Cross. Jorrocks ended this pronouncement by adding,” ‘cept a woman.” But I think I’d end it differently: “There’s nowt so queer as scent, ‘cept what we’ll do to try to understand it.” More of that in a moment.

“Oh, that weary scent!” exclaimed Mr. Jorrocks, “that weary, incomprehensible, incontrollable phenomenon! ‘Constant only in its inconstancy!’ as the hable hauthor of the noble science well said.”

Indeed. Everyone knows what scent is, by definition: it’s an odor, or “an odor left in passing, by means of which an animal or person may be traced,” according to www.dictionary.com. But it’s almost impossible to get a precise understanding of how scent behaves, though many have tried. How, exactly, does something generate a smell, what carries the scent, and how does a hound’s nose capture the odor? The jury is out on that, apparently. There are two basic theories of how smells work that are competing for subscribers. One says that molecules’ shapes and how those shapes fit with sensors are what give something a distinctive scent; the other says that the particular vibrations of molecules are what does it. We do know that hounds, like dogs generally, have large olfactory lobes in their brains, meaning that scent and the ability to detect it is important to them and they are highly attuned to it. No one understands that better than the people who handle working hound packs, whether beagle, basset, or foxhound, as well as the people who work with bloodhounds.

And yet we still know so little about the thing that is at the very center of our sport: scent and the ability to track it. There have been many attempts to understand and measure scent, to unravel the effects of temperature, geography, moisture, and wind on its behavior, and these efforts have driven scientists, huntsmen, and curious amateurs to some peculiar (and highly entertaining) experiments. One book by Milo Pearsall and Hugo Verbruggen noted that “experiments have shown that a person traveling above the ground when suspended from a cable trolley could not be tracked by dogs.” (More importantly, what did the neighbors think?)

If that were not alarming enough, consider the next phase, in which Pearsall and Verbruggen tested the importance of human skin flakes to a hound’s ability to track a person: “A person dressed in full surgical gear, wearing total body isolation garments, laid track for a dog who had successfully tracked that person several times. The result: the dog showed no interest at the starting flag, nor anywhere else even when led on lead. When the person removed hood and mask, the dogs easily could follow a fresh track … When the person’s boots were cut off but while he wore the hood and mask, the dog easily followed both a fresh and aged track.”

On the other hand, responding to that experiment’s conclusion, one Lieutenant Weldon Wood wrote an essay for the National Police Bloodhound Association Book and asked, “If this is true, then how is it explained that a dog has followed the trail of a person on a bicycle or in an open car?”

Good question, Lt. Wood, and we still have no idea, despite decades upon decades of study.

Happily for trackers of hare, cottontail, fox, coyote, and the like, game doesn’t wear “total body isolation garments,” although there are times when scenting conditions are so poor it seems as if the quarry is. Scent and its operation on the canine nose are mysteries, but the more pressing mystery, from a huntsman’s point of view, is why scent is so changeable and how conditions of land and weather can change its behavior. Here again, ceaseless study has not led us very far. It is generally understood that hot weather and sunlight are bad for scenting, but there are myriad theories as to why this might be true.

The English Master of Fox Hounds H. M. Budgett wrote a classic text, Hunting by Scent, in 1933 that amply illustrates the lengths hunters were driven to in their fervor to get a grip on scent. Budgett employed a pair of magnificent bloodhounds, Ledburn Baal and Hopeful of Hambrook, to help him test his theory that what hounds actually track are particles and oils left behind by the quarry (human or animal) touching the ground ahead of the hound and laying a scent trail directly on the grass or soil, not by the mere whiff of air over the body as it moved past. He was ferociously thorough. He used runners on glass-capped stilts, runners in tall wooden sandals, runners clad in riding boots and rain gear secured with rubber bands to prevent any particle from flying loose to make even the fragment of a trail, convinced that if the man did not contact the ground, the hound would not track him (more or less what Pearsall and Verbruggen had found). But it didn’t always work out that way.

“Even when these precautions were taken the bloodhound picked out the trail with perfect ease, and appeared to have learnt by experience how to follow the scent left by the stilts and foot-boards,” Budgett reported in some frustration. “I must confess that at this point my faith was badly shaken. I had hitherto felt convinced that  the ‘body scent’ theory would prove to be fallacious, and that scent tracks would be found solely to consist of particles of matter left by the contact of the quarry. It now appeared, however, that I had been mistaken, as it seemed impossible for any odorous particles to be deposited on the ground from the carefully washed glass bottles on which the stilts were mounted. My family marvelled at the obstinacy with which I stuck to my convictions; they suggested that I should give up the unequal struggle and accept the opinion of others having a wider experience of bloodhound tracking than myself.”

I don’t think I blame them.

Budgett, however, didn’t stop his inquiries, and the subheadings of a couple of chapters in Hunting by Scent will sound very familiar to hunters who have asked the same questions, and devloped their own theories based on their own experiences, about what variables affect scenting on a hunt day–and why. The subheads outline every hunter’s quest for understanding: “Conditions under which scent is good or bad. Direction of air currents on which scent is carried. Relative temperatures of air and ground. Examples. Effect of sun. High wind. Woodlands. Ploughland. Snow and frost. Hound’s knowledge of scent conditions. Meterological considerations. Forecasts of scenting conditions. Effects of moisture in the ground and in the air. The use of smoke to determine movements of air currents. Experiments with anemometer fan and spider’s web. Valuable results obtained with this delicate apparatus. Reasons for its abandonment. Electrical scent instruments. Walking-stick scent indicators.”

If that reads like a cross between Merlin’s lab book and the diary of a man slowly going insane, well, probably there are many huntsmen who feel a little like both as they try to parse the scenting and the weather and then determine where to cast their hounds.

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.”