Sometimes, people who know how fond I am of animals are surprised to learn that I hunt. “That doesn’t seem like the kind of sport that would appeal to you,” they say. Well, I don’t really consider hunting to be a “sport,” and I’m not all that comfortable with people who do view it as such.
My grandfather taught me how to hunt. As I mentioned in 7 Great Homemade Dog Food Recipes, he and my grandmother were poor. So in the fall, Gramps would put on his red-and-black checkered jacket and his aviator-style cap (this was in the days before hunter orange) and head out to the woods to try to bag a deer. If he was lucky, they’d have enough meat to last the winter. He’d also hunt small game like rabbits and pheasant.
I’ve been fortunate – I’ve known some hard times, but I don’t think I’ve ever been truly poor. That said, I’ve become pretty self-sufficient, largely thanks to the things I’ve learned from my grandparents. With Gramps teaching me how to hunt, and Gran having me help her come harvest time, pickling, freezing and canning all the bounty from her large garden, I’m never worried about having enough to eat. I can dress out a deer, pluck a pheasant in record time, and I’m a dab hand with a pressure canner.
So for me, hunting isn’t a sport. It’s a way of saving money at the grocery store. I don’t enjoy the kill – it’s just something I have to do to get the meat. I never fire a shot unless I’m certain of a quick, clean kill (which is not the manner of death many animals receive in slaughterhouses), and even then, I have to admit that there’s always that moment when I hear the report of the rifle, feel the recoil, and think, “I wish I could take that back.”
I also find the idea of trophy hunting utterly repugnant – I simply don’t understand the mentality of someone who wants to kill an animal so that they can have it (or just its head) mounted as a trophy. I mean, geez, people, if you’re not going to use the meat, why don’t you just take a picture? Then you can say “There it was; I could have shot it if I’d wanted to.” I’ve never killed anything I wasn’t going to eat.
Something else I’ve never done is hunt with a dog.
Well, I’ve never had the opportunity to hunt with a dog. Gramps didn’t keep hunting dogs, and for sure my breed of choice isn’t likely suitable. I’ve heard of people training Boxers as hunting dogs, and Janice is smart and learns quickly – she might be good at it. Leroy, on the other hand… well, as I’ve suggested in other posts, Leroy is a bit of a doofus. He did well to master basic obedience.
Anyway, I’ve got a lot on my plate, so I’m not about to start training either of my dogs to hunt. But I was curious about hunting dogs, so I did some research on what makes a good hunting dog, and how training is done. I’ll share what I’ve learned with you.
The Origin of Hunting Dogs
There is a lot of debate about which animal mankind domesticated first. Some believe that goats were the first domesticated animal, and this is possible. Others insist it was the horse, but with all due respect to horse people, they’re wrong – horses were domesticated around 4,000 BC, whereas the origin of hunting dogs is known to date back approximately 20,000 years. We know this from ancient art that often depicts dogs as hunting along with their human companions.
When you think about it, it just makes sense. In ancient times, if you couldn’t hunt, you’d die. So, you’d make sure that you had every possible advantage on the hunt. Dogs, being highly trainable and possessed of a healthy prey drive, were logical companions for hunters. Of course the role of the dog evolved to include other ways of assisting humans, including guarding livestock and herding. Today, dogs are mainly kept as pets, although working dogs are still common. And those who hunt with dogs will tell you that the bond between man and canine could not possibly be expressed more perfectly.
When I first began researching this topic, I wondered about the mentality of people who use dogs for hunting. I think I was assuming that hunting dogs were kept in kennels, only let out for the hunt, and subjected to rigorous discipline. Then, one morning when I was out for a stroll with Janice and Leroy, I ran into a neighbor, and in the course of small talk, we got around to the topic of what I was writing about lately. Upon hearing that one of my topics was going to be hunting dogs, my neighbor said, “You should go see Old Dan.”
I live in a semi-rural area – not exactly a subdivision, but not “wide open spaces” either. Old Dan lives about half a mile from me, in an old farmhouse on a hilltop. As is the way of people in my neighborhood, I know him and am friendly with him, but sometimes a year or more will go by before we see one another. Old Dan is probably 90 if he’s a day, and I’ve never heard him called anything other than “Old Dan.” I expect that when he was born, his mother looked at him and said, “Oh, what a beautiful baby boy – I will name him Old Dan!”
Anyway, I wandered down to his place, knocked on the door, and was greeted as though mere days had passed since our last meeting. Old Dan made us a pot of tea, and we sat down to chat. Once the small talk was out of the way, Old Dan asked, “Sumpin on yer mind, Ash?”
I told him that I’d heard he might be someone who knew something about hunting dogs.
“Come with me,” he said, and led me out to the back yard, where he nodded toward a small stone amidst a ground cover of some sort of ivy. The stone was nothing special; just a piece of field stone that’s common in these parts. It was engraved, not professionally, but probably by means of a hammer and chisel, with a name. “That’s my Daisy,” Old Dan said. “She were Red Bone Coon Hound, and the best huntin’ dog I ever had. Smarter ‘n most people, and more honest, too. Brave. Hard workin’. We’d go out huntin’, be out all day, and then come dusk, we’d wander home and have us a feed. Then she’d sleep at the foot of the bed, right up on the covers. The missus, she didn’t like that much, but I told her she knew where to find the couch. I weren’t gonna make Daisy move.Daisy bin gone near 40 year now, and I still miss her like it was yestidday.”
I think Old Dan might miss Daisy more than he misses “the missus.” We talked more about hunting dogs in general, and Daisy in particular, and I came to realize that I had it all wrong – for many hunters, the bond they have with their dogs is every bit as deep, and as real, as the bond that I have with my two big pets. Talking with Old Dan made me even more eager to learn about hunting dogs, so without further ado, here’s what I’ve found out about the modern hunting dog.
Once you take the herding and guarding breeds out of the equation, hunting dogs are made up of three broad categories – scent hounds, gun dogs, and terriers. Of course these dogs aren’t just used for hunting. Many are simply pets. Terriers in particular have begun to fall out of favor as hunting dogs, since their main purpose was to track wounded game. As hunters become more responsible and more focused on a clean kill, terriers were less used, and today are hardly ever used. So, for purposes of our discussion, we’ll talk only about hounds and gun dogs.
Is there a difference between hounds and gun dogs? Yes. The purpose of the hound is to chase running game. Gun dogs are employed to flush out hiding game.
If you’ve ever heard the booming, distinctive voice that a hound belts out when on the scent, you’ll never forget it. In the context of a neighborhood, that loud voice can be a nuisance, but for hunters, it helps them to follow their dog when it’s on the scent, even when the dog is not visible. Hounds are bred for endurance, and able to follow game over rough terrain and long distances.
There are two sub-categories of hound – the tree hound, and the running hound. Tree hounds, as you might expect, keep game animals in trees where they are seeking refuge until the hunter can arrive.
So why, you ask, would an animal need to be “treed”? It’s because some types of game are legal to hunt, whereas others are not. When the animal is treed, the hunter can identify the type of animal, as well as its gender. If a female of the species is not legal to hunt, for instance, the hunter can get a better look at the animal when it is immobile in a tree than he or she can when the animal is on the ground, and on the run.
Running hounds are useful when the species is easily identified, or when the gender or the animal being hunted does not matter. No one cares if a rabbit or squirrel is male or female, for instance, since these species are not in any way at risk.
2. Gun Dogs
Gun dogs are typically used for hunting wetland game like geese and ducks, or for upland game like pheasants, partridge, woodcock and, occasionally, rabbits. The purpose of the gun dog is to flush out game that is within shooting distance, and then once the hunter has made the kill, to retrieve the game. Gun dogs differ from hounds in that they locate the scent of the animal in the air, as opposed to on the ground. They also work in a pattern to flush out the animal, as opposed to leading the hunter in a full-on chase.
Which Breed is Best?
The breed of hunting dog you choose will depend on the type of game you want to hunt. If you want to simply get yourself a brace of pheasant rather than having to deal with dressing out a deer and then packing out the meat, you’d be better off with a gun dog than a hound. A gun dog will work in small areas to flush small game, whereas a hound could lead you on a chase for miles. Small game hunting is a morning out in the woods or field – larger game is a day-long commitment. So, choose the type of dog according to the type of hunting you are most likely to do on a regular basis.
Now, you can also narrow down your choice further. For example, do you want a dog that will find a bird and make it fly, or would you rather have one that will simply find a bird and then wait for you to arrive before flushing it? Spaniels are very good at remaining close by you and then flushing a bird out. Pointers, on the other hand, will range ahead of you, and wait for you to flush out the bird.
With hounds, you might want a dog that is going to bark constantly when in pursuit of game, letting you know that he hasn’t lost the scent. Or, you might prefer a quieter dog, who will bark only when the game has been found. A Beagle or Basset Hound will typically bark a lung up, whereas a Cur will be quiet until he locates the game.
Once you’ve settled on your “subgroup,” you can begin to think about specific breeds. There can be a wide range in terms of a breed’s versatility, energy level, and style of hunting. Some breeds are more willing to please than others. So, read up on the different breeds, talk to breeders and other hunters, and make sure that you know exactly what you want before making a commitment. You will be working with your dog for many years, so it’s important to get it right.
Much of what I said in How to Get the Right Dog From the Right Breeder also applies here. It doesn’t much matter what purpose you have in mind when buying a dog, if you end up dealing with an unscrupulous breeder, it’s just going to end in heartache and disappointment. Make sure you can view the parents, ask about bloodlines, do some research online, and ask around. Most people will be very happy to inform you if a breeder is dishonorable.
You might not find the dog you want overnight, but don’t make the mistake of thinking “This looks good enough.” Only buy when you’re 100% satisfied.
If you are looking for a hound, the large breeds include the Bluetick, Black and Tan, Treeing Walker, Plott, English, Redbone, American Leopard, and Foxhound. Small hounds include the Beagle, Basset and Teckel. Curs are Mountain, Kemmer, Blackmouth and Catahoula.
With gun dogs, the pointers include English, Brittany, German Shorthaired, Deutsche Drahthaar, Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Weimaraner, and Munsterlander. Retrievers are the Labrador, Golden, Chesapeake Bay, and Standard Poodle. Spaniels include the Springer, Cocker, and Field. Setters include the English, Irish and Gordon. With any of the gun dogs, you can hunt grouse, quail, partridge, pheasant, woodcock, dove, goose, and rabbit.
Some hunters will tell you that it’s extremely difficult training a hunting dog. Others will tell you that it’s easy as pie. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. There are a lot of different ways of training a hunting dog – just Google the phrase, “training a hunting dog,” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s not necessarily true that any one method is better than another, though – the main thing is consistency. The last thing you want to do is pick and choose elements from a variety of different training techniques – this isn’t a Chinese restaurant menu where you choose one from Column A and two from each of Columns B and C.
Take a look at different training methods. Talk with your dog’s breeder, and find out what has worked best for him or her. Then pick a method, and stick with it. Consistency is everything. If something doesn’t work, don’t switch methods – just go back to the last step that did work, repeat it to give your dog a dose of confidence, and then move on to the area that was proving problematic. You’re not going to train your hunting dog in a matter of minutes, days, or even weeks. It takes time, and bouncing around from one method to another is just going to confuse your dog and set back your training.
How Long Does It Take?
Well, I did just warn you that you’re not going to get your dog trained overnight. You need to start out with basic obedience training, and then expose your dog to hunting. Then, the dog is going to need a great deal of hunting experience – you’re going to have to spend day after day in the field, because training a dog to hunt is not something that you’re going to accomplish in your backyard or at the dog park.
You’ve heard the expression “Learn to do by doing”? Well, a dog learns to hunt by hunting. So you’re going to want to spend a lot of time out in the wild, having your dog run through fields, briars and streams, in all manner of weather. If he’s going to be a successful hunting dog, that will be his way of life, so you need to start early getting him used to it. Based on everything I’ve read, and everyone I’ve talked with, I think that the very least you can get away with is an hour, two days a week, for the first year of training. More than an hour, three or more days a week, is better. If you keep it up, in a couple of years you will have a good hunting dog.
If this sounds like more work than you have time for, you don’t necessarily have to give up on the dream of owning a good hunting dog. Realistically, many people have work and family commitments that simply don’t allow for intensive training. If the only time you have to hunt is on the weekends, how are you ever going to manage to get a dog trained?
You might consider finding a breeder who has adult dogs for sale that are already experienced. If you do this, though, you’ll have to make sure that you know how they’ve been trained and handled so that you continue in the same manner – otherwise, you’re going to confuse the dog. You’ll also have to accept that it might take you a while to form a bond with the dog, and you’ll also have to be prepared to spend a good deal more money than you would for an untrained puppy. The up side, of course, is that as soon as you buy the dog, you can go hunting with him.
If you think you’d like to hunt with a dog, do your research. Check out websites, and talk with experienced owners of hunting dogs. Find the right breeder, and the right dog for the type of hunting you want to do.
We’re no longer at the point in our evolution where we have to rely on hunting for food and clothing. Some consider hunting to be a sport, whereas I have always considered it to be a means of obtaining food inexpensively and humanely. Whatever your reasons for choosing to hunt, a dog can be your assistant, your partner, and your companion. And then, at the end of the day, you have a beloved friend and sleeping partner – and if, as was the case with Old Dan, your “missus” (or mister, for that matter) doesn’t like it, remind them where they can find the couch.