A Look at the Deer Dog Culture Controversy


Reading Time: 10 minutes

I’m a sucker for a good deal, so when I came across an offer for a deeply-discounted subscription to Outdoor Life magazine, I signed up. Unfortunately, I’m usually so busy with this blog and other writing assignments, recreational reading frequently takes a back seat. That’s why I’ve only just gotten around to looking at the February issue!

Once I began reading an article on the deer dog culture and the controversy surrounding it, though, I was hooked. As a person who pretty much lives for dogs, I’m not a stranger to controversy, and I understand how people can be very passionate about certain things. I’d fight tooth and nail against breed bans (see Breed Stereotyping – Why It’s Harmful, and Why We Need to Fight It), for instance.Advocates of deer dog culture, it would seem, are equally willing to fight for what they see as their rights.

A Colorful Protest

This January, 150 people gathered in front of the Assembly Building in Richmond, Virginia. They were there to defend deer dog culture, and to protest a bill that was being debated which, if passed, would impose fines on people who use packs of hounds to hunt deer (a practice known as coursing), if their dogs should happen to run onto property owned by someone who objected to their presence.

Men, women and children wearing hunter-orange hats made for quite an impressive display. It was a colorful protest against what hunters saw as an attack on their traditions. When you consider how many people participate in the sport of coursing, though, it was a relatively small turnout – according to the VDGIF (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), in any given year, approximately 55,000 people hunt in this manner.

A Slippery Slope

Using dogs to flush deer, in the same manner as hunters use dogs to flush out game birds, is legal in Virginia and in several other states as well. Of course there are some very vocal organizations that would like to see deer coursing banned, as well as others that advocate banning all forms of hunting with dogs. Still others – PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), for example – would prefer to see all sport hunting made illegal.

The issue in Virginia, of course, wasn’t about a potential ban on the practice of coursing. But it’s easy to see how the deer dog culture might see the practice of fining coursers if their dogs should turn up unwanted on private property could be the first step down a slippery slope.

Whether they’re right in seeing their way of life as being under threat is debatable, but it probably wouldn’t be the first time that a tradition fell slowly under the increasing demands of vocal opponents. In some areas, for instance, it is now illegal to ride a horse or operate a horse and buggy. One could argue, of course, that doing so on a freeway would be very dangerous, and make a case that public safety needs to take precedence. It is, though, indisputably a tradition that is in danger of disappearing as more and more regulations are passed. The deer dog culture could indeed have cause for concern.

But back to the main debate, which revolved around whether or not the proposed fine was reasonable.

Related Content:

11 Dog Safety Tips for Hunting Season
Introduction to Hunting with Dogs
Breed Spotlight: Scottish Deerhound

Two Sides to the Story

  1. Kirby Burch is the CEO of the VHDA (Virginia Hunting Dog Alliance), so you can probably guess which side of the argument he comes down on. As he points out, quite reasonably, dogs don’t know when they’re trespassing.

On the other side, we have a group comprised mainly of suburban landowners, who maintain that although dogs can’t read “No Trespassing” signs, their owners most certainly can.

Burch counters this argument by pointing out that most hunters are law-abiding people who take all reasonable measures to ensure that their dogs don’t venture where they’re not wanted.

Burch’s opponents aren’t all suburbanites, though. There are hunters who also have a problem with trespassing dogs. Chad Hensley has hunted deer for nearly 30 years, and owns 37 acres of land. He has a chilling story to tell. He says “I gave up [hunting] after one morning because of trespassing deer dogs. As I was getting down [out of my tree stand], I heard what sounded like a dogfight. As I walked to the top of my field, I saw my new neighbor’s dogs had pinned a deer hound against a fence of mine. I quickly ran up and saved it. I and called the owner to come and get it. He thanked me and asked, ‘Have you seen the other 17?’ I knew I was in trouble then, because he was only hunting 300 acres behind me.”

Hensley claims that he’s now unable to hunt on his own acreage because of near-daily invasions by the deer dog culture. He insists that his problem isn’t with people hunting deer with dogs. Rather, it’s a matter of property rights. He’s had so many bad experiences that he would welcome a bill focused on delivering consequences to people who fail to respect those rights.

Mike Hicks is another member of the deer dog culture, and he agrees with Hensley, stating that “A person who has a quarter-acre lot has the same property rights as the person who has 10,000 acres.” He moderates his position, though, by suggesting that smaller tracts of land are better suited to smaller dogs like beagles, rather than the larger animals deer hunters use.

Burch says that there really aren’t all that many complaints from landowners, and to a certain extent, he’s probably right. Statewide in Virginia, complaints related to hunting dogs amounted to less than 5% of all the complaints regarding hunting.

Still, the controversy rages on. Much of it may be due to different hunting styles, and really, it’s not hard to see both sides of the issue. After all, hunting with hounds is exciting. On the other hand, if you’re waiting quietly in a tree stand as dawn is breaking, it must be pretty frustrating to hear the baying of hounds and know that they’re chasing the same deer that you’re hoping to bag – there’s no way you’re ever going to get off a safe shot. This is why hunters are battling even among themselves, and why some think that the only way to solve the issue is by means of legislation.

Is Deer Dog Culture Getting a Bad Rap?

As I’ve already stated, there are some people who oppose any type of hunting. Others specifically dislike using dogs to hunt deer, although hunting bear and cougar using dogs doesn’t generate much public reaction at all. Perhaps some of this is due to the “Bambi’s mother” mindset – deer are pretty and gentle-looking. Bears and cougars, not so much. And it’s pretty much a given that if someone’s “empathy buttons” are being pushed, they’ll be more likely to be vocal in their opposition to the activity they dislike.

The other thing with using dogs to hunt deer is that it’s a pretty visible sport. H. Kirby Burch says that one of the biggest public relations issues he has to deal with is people who become alarmed when they see people wearing hunter orange, and standing at roadside with coolers in the back of their trucks. He points out that “These guys don’t have guns. They are blockers positioned to grab dogs that might run into a road or into private property. People see these guys with coolers in the back their trucks and assume they have beers. But really, all they have is water for their dogs.”

Certainly I can sympathize with Burch on this issue. A few weeks ago, one of my neighbors got her knickers in a knot because she saw a man walking down our rural road with a long, slender object under his arm. It was just starting to get dark, and she couldn’t see all that well, but since the man looked like a stranger, she panicked and assumed he was carrying a rifle. She called the police, who quickly ascertained that the man was indeed not from our neighborhood. He had parked his car up the road a bit, and set out to enjoy a stroll along a nice country road – with his umbrella folded up but available, since it looked like it might rain.

So if Burch is irritated by “snowflakes” who are upset by things they don’t understand, I totally get it. And if it’s these hypersensitive types who are causing deer dog culture to take a beating, I consider that to be truly unfortunate.

Are Landowners Really Being Overrun?

Probably in some instances, this is the case, and it has much to do with the style of hunting. Most of the time, the hunt involves having participants surround a property which they have permission to use. Then, they free the dogs. “Standers” are positioned at various points throughout the property, and their job is to shoot a deer once the dogs have flushed it out. Once they’ve made the kill, they’re supposed to retrieve the dogs. The trouble is that sometimes it’s just not possible to grab a moving dog.

Another problem is the size of the acreage that is available to hunt. In years gone by, coursing for deer was done on huge tracts of land – usually 20,000 acres or more. Today, the maximum area available is usually about 5,000 acres, and could be as little as 1,000 acres. This, of course, increases the likelihood of dogs finding their way on to adjoining properties.

Then, of course, there’s the urban/rural divide. Virginia has grown considerably, and is now home to over 8,000,000 people. A lot of the growth has been in dog country. As well, from 1959-2012, farmland decreased by 54%, and the number of farms by 36%. This means that urbanites, suburbanites, and rural folk are now living in much closer proximity to one another. Culturally, urban and suburban people are far more likely to be opposed to hunting than their rural counterparts, and this doesn’t help deer dog culture either.

The Law

If the bill to fine owners of “trespassing dogs” had passed, it would have mandated a fine of $100 for the first offense and $250 for the second levied upon any hunter whose dogs were found on a property where the landowner had provided written notice that dogs were not welcome, or who posted signs stating the same. The money would have been used to fund local animal control.

Chad Hensley saw this as just another tool that would help to control “bad actors.” H. Kirby Burch found nothing good about the bill at all, believing that it was essentially the work of “a couple of big money groups with agendas.”

John M. Morse, Jr., the chair of the VHDA, agreed with Burch, saying, in a Facebook post:

Many of you may already be aware of at least 2 groups formed on Facebook, whose goal appears to be to outlaw deer hunting with dogs or failing that at least repeal or modify the “Right to Retrieve Law”’…. These groups are Virginia Landowners and Virginia Whitetail Deer Fair Chase Hunters. We have learned this group held a meeting with a high dollar/high influence lobbying firm on 1/3/15. The amount of money required to retain this firm should cause all of us alarm.

The reason for attacking hound hunters is the same; to make commercial hunting and deer farming practical in Virginia as they have done in Texas, Florida, and South Carolina. The four steps necessary for them to make money in any order are:

1) Make Sunday Hunting legal (This has been accomplished)

2) Make baiting legal

3) Outlaw deer hunting with dogs

4) State Regulation of Commercial hunting outfitters and Guides

The bill failed on the first reading, by a very narrow margin, with 47 in favor and 48 against. It was finally voted down in May.

Meanwhile, regarding other legal issues, the VHDA had lobbied to have the intentional release of dogs on private land where the owner has not given permission a misdemeanor. That law actually passed, but as H. Kirby Burch points out, it’s never been enforced. Chad Hensley counters by suggesting that the reason it’s never been enforced is because enforcing it would be impossible in the absence of the failed legislation to back it up.

One issue is that in Virginia, there’s no minimum acreage requirement. Some states, on the other hand, like Florida and Georgia, stipulate that there has to be a minimum area that a hunter is permitted to enter before dogs can be released. Although the VHDA’s own code of ethics states that hunters should only free their dogs on their own property, or on property that they’ve been given permission to use, this is a code of ethics only, and not the law. As well, the code of ethics doesn’t provide for any particular property size, and doesn’t even ask hunters to try to prevent their dogs from entering properties where they are not supposed to be.

Also, in Virginia, if a dog ventures onto someone else’s property, the dog’s owner has “right of retrieval.” In other words, even if he has been denied entry to the property, he can still be on the premises in order to retrieve his dog. The only other state with a “right of retrieval” law is Minnesota. Virginia is unique, though, because in Minnesota, deer dog culture doesn’t exist – it’s against the law to use dogs for deer hunting in Minnesota.

Some landowners consider “right of retrieval” laws to be unconstitutional. However, in the absence of a successful court challenge, it remains the law in Minnesota and Virginia.

Other states take different approaches. In Alabama, for instance, hunters are not permitted to release their dogs from rights-of-way or public roads without permission from landowners. In Louisiana, one may not hunt from rights-of-way and roads at all. Several other states have restrictions on hunting from roadways, and local laws may also come into play. Additionally, in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, deer dog owners are required to be registered and hold permits. This is not the case in Virginia.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Virginia bill was defeated on its second reading in May. It’s not likely that the controversy will go away, though. In fact, it’s only likely to heat up as the needs and wants of rural residents continue to butt up against urban and suburban interests.

Those who value deer dog culture acknowledge that their way of life is taking a beating. Even rural kids today aren’t all that invested in pursuits like hunting, so deer dog culture is in danger from within. Of course some kids will take to it, and it will be passed on to future generations, although not in the same numbers as before.

Probably the biggest threat to deer dog culture right now, though, is public opinion, which is definitely stoked by organizations that have an axe to grind. It’s easier than ever for groups like PETA to reach out, thanks to social media, and work to convince an impressionable public that hunting is bad, and should be banned – not just deer coursing, but all types of hunting.

One thing that is encouraging, though, is that even among the hunters who backed the Virginia bill, none wanted to see coursing banned, and none wanted to see deer dog culture die. They just wanted to find a way for both sides to enjoy hunting while protecting their property rights. Certainly the debate got heated from time to time, but basically it was two sides who saw different approaches to the issue.

Related Content:

11 Dog Safety Tips for Hunting Season
Introduction to Hunting with Dogs
Breed Spotlight: Scottish Deerhound

The Final Word

It seems as though the battle regarding “trespassing dogs” will continue. On the one hand, you have traditionalists arguing that their way of life is under attack. On the other hand, you have people who want to hunt on their own property without interference from other people’s dogs.

If left to their own devices, I suspect that in time, the two sides would eventually come to some sort of an accord. When you throw in powerful groups that don’t want anybody to hunt, though, I do worry about the loss of some of our traditional ways of life. Attacking deer dog culture is just the first step – and we all know how we start off a journey of a thousand miles, right?

I’m a former hunter. Notice that I said “former” and not “reformed?” I no longer hunt, not because I’ve discovered the error of my ways, but because I no longer have time for it, and also, if I’m completely honest, I’m also a bit short in the stamina department. I won’t be out coursing with hounds, but I find it hard to condemn those who do. By the same token, I’m also a landowner and don’t much like anything that interferes with my “quiet enjoyment.”

Can there be a meeting of minds? I’d like to think so. I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.