One Dog or Big Pack? : Rabbit Hunter
It’s probably safe to say that most of today’s rabbit hunters (seeking hares or cottontails) started out with one Beagle, maybe two, that a friend, relative or neighbor happened to own. That’s how most of us learned how to hunt rabbits including how to “read” the dogs, where to stand, when to shoot and how to tell a good tailgate story. I am also willing to bet that anyone reading this story can remember not only his first successful shot at a rabbit but also the name of the dog that ran it to him. Stuff like that is unforgettable, as well it should be.
There’s not much in life that compares to a kid’s first hunt, first kill and first dog. Decades can go by and a lot can happen over those years, most of it easily forgotten. But, I can close my eyes more than 50 years later and still see old Smokey burning it up behind the first cottontail I ever saw. A 50-pounder at least (or so it seemed to me!), he hitched up and stopped just as I pulled the trigger on my trusty Savage 24DL, an over-under .22/.410 that was tailor made for boys hunting in thick cover where the traditional one-shot, one-kill rule was still in effect.
I’m certain (based on over half a century of tailgate talk) that you have a tale at least as good as mine stowed somewhere in the back of your mind. If you don’t have a memory like that burned into your head, go out and make one!
My point is simple enough: It is possible to hunt rabbits successfully using one Beagle, and there are many good reasons why owning and running one dog is a good idea. (I’ll talk about the advantages of running a pack of Beagles shortly, so bear with me!)
The fun begins when you decide it’s time to get into the grand sport of rabbit hunting with Beagles. The reasons are simple enough – longer seasons, higher bag limits, more fun and more opportunities to hunt. Every state has a rabbit season of some sort and for the price of a tank of gas you can hunt swampers, cottontails, hares and even jackrabbits with a Beagle. Just get there, turn the dog loose and start hunting!
For starters, get your home ready for a new dog before you bring him home. Have a bed, food, water, leashes and collars in hand before he comes skittering through the door. Eventually you will want a dog house or kennel, room for him to exercise and protection from other dogs. Also, consider where you want to take your new dog for veterinary services, which can add up even for routine visits. Expect to pay close to $300 per dog in vet bills annually; less, of course, if you do most of your Beagle maintenance on your own.
When looking at Beagle pups, do not go to the mall stores, puppy mills or similar fast-dog operations. You will pay too much (I’ve seen department-store Beagles “on sale” for $800!). These dogs are pure-bred Beagles, no doubt, but their hunting instincts are dormant if not bred out of them. Save yourself the money and aggravation and find a reputable breeder of hunting Beagles, ideally one who hunts or trials his dogs, and have him suggest the pick of the litter based on your needs. If you just want a stout, loud hunter with a good nose the breeder will have one waiting for you when you get there. If you have more particular needs, plan on spending a few hours looking at his dogs, watching them run rabbits in the training pen and observing them in action. Take your pick, bring him home and start training!
One advantage of having a single Beagle is that he gets all of your attention every day. He will learn to recognize you, come to you and respond to basic commands much faster than will a pack hound that may get lost in the crowd. If you plan to spend at least 20 minutes a day with your new pup in various types of play and exercise, he will become a loyal and trusted companion for life.
Part of your playtime should include a sock or rag soaked in rabbit scent. Drag this around the yard (starting with a simple straight line and graduating to more complicated patterns as the dog grows older) and then let the dog out to “find the bunny.” Be prepared for your pup to be excited but confused, slow and erratic in finding the trail. Remember, he’s a puppy – he knows nothing! He’s got instincts, interest and potential, but if you expect him to be a master rabbit chaser at 8 weeks both of you are likely to be disappointed.
Work with your pup every day, cheering him on while always adding a new element to the game. By his 6th month he should have the idea enough to start running rabbits on his own. Practice in the yard during the week and take him out on weekends to find and run real rabbits. Be patient, be persistent and praise him whenever he does something right.
After much stumbling and bumbling, one day your new pup will suddenly grow up. He’ll find his own rabbits, he’ll run them with flash and style and he won’t need any more classroom work. Now you are set for a lifetime (his, anyway) of great hunting experiences.
The down side of one-dog hunting is that you are putting all your money on a single Beagle. Dogs get sick, they get tired, they get injured and they get old. Having only one Beagle will, at first, seem like a great idea but be prepared for the bad days as well as the good. An injured, sick or aged hound will not perform well in the field and there will be times when you have to pull him out of the briars for one reason or another. With all your chips on one dog you are bound to have days where he can’t or won’t hunt. I had an excellent Beagle once that, near the end of the day, slashed his eyeball on a raspberry thorn. He was out of business for weeks while we treated him and when the wound healed he was still not his old self.
This is just one of the risks of owning a single dog. Accidents and ailments will happen, too many of them during the hunting season. If you are willing and able to assume the risk of losing days or weeks of hunting time, go the one-dog route. No bred-for-hunting Beagle will be a disappointment, but he will have his off days. Be prepared for that but don’t blame the dog! Every hunting Beagle I’ve ever know always gave 100 percent, but a sick or injured dog doesn’t always have 100 percent to give!
This brings us to the ins and outs of owning a large pack. The advantages are many, of course – more dogs, more options, more chances to hunt. After all, it’s a rare day when your entire pack is down from illness or injury. There’s always a percentage of Beagles that won’t be able to hunt on a given day, but that leaves the rest of the pack to take up the slack. Pack dynamics are such that there are leaders and there are followers, but there are times when the pack leaders aren’t up to it and so the followers suddenly step up and take over. Beagles develop their skills over time and with experience, and in a pack the level of ability ebbs and flows with the age and experience of the dogs. When you get to know your dogs intimately you will see the changes in them and you will start choosing specific dogs for hunting, trialing or training based on your knowledge of their past performance.
If one dog can be considered expensive in time and money, imagine what a pack of Beagles will cost you financially and in effort expended. More dogs means more money to acquire them, more vet bills, more food and more room to house them, not to mention the cost of collars, leashes and transportation.
Plus, a large pack of hounds will demand more hours on training and experience. If you don’t own your own kennel and training grounds you will have to find these facilities, often meaning renting kennel space and buying training time. Most pack owners have the connections to house and run their dogs on adjoining properties, on friends’ land or any number of other combinations. The point is that you may not want to acquire a pack of 10 Beagles if you live in a third-floor apartment and the nearest briar patch is 25 miles away!
Hunting and training a large pack is an exercise in logistics. Few hunters go out and buy a dozen pups and raise them together as a pack. In most cases there are old dogs, young dogs in their prime and a few pups coming up that, the theory is, can learn from each other and contribute to the chase based on their age, energy and expertise. There is no telling what can happen when six or more Beagles hit the ground. For example, on one hunt the more mature dogs took off in a scramble to be the first to find a rabbit while the timid young pup of the bunch went the other way on his own, looking, we thought, for grasshoppers or maybe a mouse or vole.
Sure enough, a minute later we heard yips, yaps and howls from the littlest dog that had, of course, jumped himself a rabbit. The pack came roaring back and took over, but guess who got to ride in the front seat on the way home? That pup learned all he needed to know in that little cameo appearance – from then on he was king of the strike dogs and more than earned his place in the pack.
More of the Beagles’ personality and intelligence is revealed when hunting in a pack. Some dogs are great at finding and jumping a rabbit while others are best at straight trailing. Some are masters of the check and others take over when the rabbit has ducked into a brush pile or log jam. The biggest, strongest Beagles know they can’t get into tight places as well as the smaller dogs, so they step aside and let the tiny females dig in and get the rabbit going again, shouldering them aside as the chase resumes. All in all, the pack mentality is an interesting and amusing dynamic. If only humans got along and cooperated so well!
One of the obvious benefits of running a large pack is that you have the option of matching your dogs up with the anticipated conditions. For a small training run in a confined area it might be best to release just two or three dogs, letting them run for a few hours and then replacing them with a fresh trio of hounds. In this way you can spend a day afield, run all your dogs and not have to travel all over creation getting them exercised.
On a long day of hunting through several locations, it may be best to release half the pack in the morning and run the remainder in the afternoon. This gives all the dogs a chance to work but no so much that they wear themselves out.
While any lone Beagle can be worked up to running all day over the course of the season, he’s going to have to rest a few days between hunts. This is another advantage of running a pack. By using two or three dogs each day you can rotate your pack and enjoy great hunts day after day. By the time the first pack has rested the others will be due for a break, but all the dogs can run at their peak and you don’t have to miss a day or two while worn-out Beagles try to recover.
Another important aspect of pack running is that it’s possible to include other dogs for training or observation purposes. A pack of hunting hounds is a fluid thing, always being tweaked, always being improved. Every hunter has his goals, be it faster dogs, moderate dogs, slower dogs, better strike dogs, better check dogs – the combinations are endless. Buying, selling or trading is much easier when you can see a Beagle in action and you can measure his performance against dogs you know through living, training and hunting them. In a pack situation you can see what skills or faults the individual hound has and decide whether or not he’s going to improve or enhance your kennel.
By the way, this is not to say that there is a better or worse way to hunt Beagles. On a good day you can’t improve on a one-dog or multi-hound operation, and when things aren’t going well you can’t give them away!
The sport of hound hunting is a special, personal experience that can be adapted to any number of scenarios involving any number of dogs. I know hunters who prefer the one-dog approach while others set the limit at two, three or 10 Beagles. It all depends on your point of view, your plans and your intentions. Some hunters may own only three or four Beagles in their lifetimes, while others buy and sell twice that many dogs every month. You may want to get into the “perfect pack” game, you may want to train and breed Beagles for sale or just own one or two “best” dogs for your own hunting pleasure. In most cases, Beagle owners morph back and forth between any or all of these, mixing and matching colors, numbers and goals, and are quite happy no matter where they happen to be on the beagling ladder.
Odd as it may seem, I am like many other life-long Beaglers in that I have come full circle. I started out with one fast, hot-nosed Beagle and, after 50 years of happy hunting am ready to go back to a one-on-one situation where my year-round best friend is also my best hunting partner. I’m sure a Beagle finds having just one owner much easier to train, easier to understand and easier to hunt with.
At this end of life I am happy to head to the nearest briar patch in late afternoon and let the dog run, maybe shoot a couple of cottontails for the Saturday night bean pot and then listen to the music till it’s time to head for home again. I’ve run the gamut of beagling from go to whoa and have enjoyed every minute of it.
I encourage any hunter to get a Beagle (or 10!) and enjoy the benefits of long seasons, high bag limits and low-pressure hunts where the ultimate “trophy” is having spent the day doing what we enjoy most.
By Stephen Carpenteri