by Jerry Ray
Learning to hunt takes patience and the right dog, says this expert hunter.
Hunting with your dog can be a great bonding activity, and it's an excellent way to keep your dog healthy and fit.
Even if your dog is a natural hunter, be patient. Training can be a long process. Every dog is different, and it can take time for your lessons to kick in. On average, a Beagle should be hunting assertively anywhere from 6 months to 1 1/2 year of age if he or she is going to hunt at all.
I tell everyone my dogs are having fun every time they work the field, but fun for a dog is hard to define. I'm sure a Beagle that's never been hunting but fetches a thrown ball is having fun. But perhaps he doesn't know what he's missing. In my years working with hounds, I can attest they're quite intelligent. And I've noticed that once you start hunting, they soon realize that a ball with rabbit scent or a coonhide is not the real thing -- and prefer the challenge of a real hunt.
What Makes a Good Hunting Dog?
A dog's ability to hunt depends heavily on how the dog has been trained -- although bloodline has an awful lot to do with it too. It also depends a lot on the personality of the hunter.
Various dog breeds have very specialized skills and hunt in different ways. For example, scent hounds -- such as Beagles and Basset Hounds -- use their noses to hunt and pursue prey, whereas sight hounds -- such as Greyhounds -- use their eyes to chase.
Bird dogs catch a bird's scent in the air and then retrieve it after hunting it down. German Shorthaired Pointers, English Pointers, Labs, Brittany Spaniels and American Cocker Spaniels are all great bird dogs. Some find and flush the birds (or make them fly) so the hunter can shoot. Pointers and setters stay still after they find game and point the hunter in its direction, whereas retrievers fetch game once you shoot it.
Before you get started, make sure to check with your veterinarian to make sure your dog is healthy enough to participate. Keeping him in top physical shape further ensures his health and safety on the hunt. Feed him properly to maintain a normal weight, and keep him active to maintain his physical strength and endurance. Be familiar with his health and behavior, and call your vet if anything seems out of the ordinary.
Begin with the basics: Your dog should know fundamental obedience skills and respond to your voice.
Next, contact a local club to speak with people who do it regularly. You can ask questions and decide if it's suitable for you and your dog. In my experience, the best learning process is for a dog to be in the field, exposed to other capable dogs that know what they're doing. Dogs need to have an idea of what's expected of them.
Keep in mind that your dog might not take to hunting. In the same way that some kids can do math and others can't, hunting really depends on the individual dog.
Hunting takes work, effort and time in the field -- and all those things can add up to a bust if your dog isn't up for the sport to start with. But I've had some Beagles I didn't think would ever run a rabbit, and after working with them for up to two years they became quality hunting dogs. You just have to be patient.