Ask the Experts
With a new season approaching, and huntsman and staff seriously exercising hounds with the young entry, we thought this article on deer-proofing would be worth republishing.
An experienced foxhunter, recently appointed Master of a pack of foxhounds, recognizes that he has a deer problem. His hunting country is thickly wooded and accessible via trails. His staff is composed of an experienced amateur huntsman and honorary whippers-in. He whips-in himself, and has experienced first-hand the problems posed by the very nature of the country.
There are no discreet coverts to draw that can be surrounded by staff to stop hounds if a deer goes out. In the event of riot, staff is unable to gallop through the thick woods to get ahead of hounds and rate them. Or to even see which hound led the miscreants astray. He understands that he must first teach puppies what the proper quarry is, but he has no access to fox pens to even help him establish good habits from the start.
Thinking outside the box, he came up with the idea of using commercially available deer scent and fox scent as a tool to train hounds.
“Using scent would give us much more control of the situations:
1. We would know when and where to be,
2. We would be able to post whips in the proper places,
3. We would know where the line was going, if they were on it,
4. We would know if it was right or wrong, and
5. We would gain control of so many of the variables.
Is the use of scent suitable for training foxhounds to hunt?”
We put these questions to members of the Foxhunting Life Panel of Experts: Marion Thorne, MFH and huntsman, Genesee Valley Hunt (NY); Jerry Miller, MFH and huntsman, Iroquois Hunt (KY); C. Martin Wood, III, MFH and huntsman, Live Oak Hounds (FL); and Hugh Robards, huntsman, Middleburg Hunt (VA). What follows are not only answers to our new Master’s specific question, but sound advice on building an honest pack for any country.
Hugh Robards, an internationally acclaimed professional huntsman, recognizes the attraction to the idea, but has cautions.
“The first thing for all young hounds is to learn about all kinds of things that they must not chase: cats, dogs, sheep, cattle. These domesticated creatures, fascinating to any young hound, are easily managed in controlled situations and will make a start in teaching obedience when you are breaking them from rioting on deer later. The next thing is that all of the amateur whipper-ins must know for certain the names of every hound in the pack. It is also helpful if they know the voices of those hounds that can be trusted and perhaps those that are not so genuine. If there is an open area somewhere in the hunt country where hounds can be exercised and see deer, it will be a huge help; any hound that looks at a deer should be chastised immediately. Obviously the more often hounds see deer the better.
“When hunting, it is best if the whippers-in get well on and ride wide of the pack drawing big woodlands. They can position themselves on trails where they can see what crosses. If it is riot they must get in front of the hound or hounds to stop them, and if the culprit is caught, discipline should be dealt immediately. It is always a good idea to only take out a couple of puppies at a time, a slow process but worth it in the long run. If a certain hound is persistent in hunting deer after having been chastised, it should be sent to a country where there are no deer.
“When hounds have enjoyed a good hunt and marked their fox to ground much fuss and encouragement should be given to the puppies, letting them know that they have done well and that the quarry in the hole is the correct article.
“With respect to the use of deer scent and fox scent in training, it sounds like a good idea at first; hounds would be well-rewarded and praised when hunting the fox scent and obviously well-chastised if they hunt the deer scent. However, it is well never to underestimate hounds. They generally sense something is going on before it happens, and the huntsman will have to be very careful in the way he introduces his hounds to the artificial scent.
Jerry Miller, who trained foxhounds for field trials well before becoming Master and huntsman of the Iroquois twenty-three years ago, expands on Hugh’s reservations about the use of artificial scent.
“First of all I think it is wonderful what this huntsman is doing to try to solve a problem. I wish more hunt staffs would take deer-running problems seriously, as it is not only a major distraction but also can put hounds at risk in traffic and cause bad feelings among deer hunters.
“Using deer scent drag lines sounds like a good idea in theory but setting up an artificial situation isn’t necessarily going to relate to what can happen on a normal hunting day. First of all consider the scent you are using. Is it male or female? Was it collected from a
pen-raised deer or a wild one. How much scent should you lay? Will the scent be similar to the deer in your hunt country, and will the scenting conditions be the same as they might be on a hunting day? Secondly, by using a drag line you are removing one of the biggest triggers that start a hound chasing deer, which is sight. And thirdly, how do you know your whips can really stop the hound that speaks on the bad line? What if it gets to the end of the line and goes on forward to find the scent again. Have you just reinforced bad behavior? That is the problem with a deer-running hound; they don’t quit.
“I believe the only way to correct hounds on deer is hard work, and requires taking them to places you know there are deer. Just take one or two of the problem hounds with three really steady hounds to a deer line and use training collars to give negative reinforcement to the hounds that speak on the line. Keep moving forward on the line and keep correcting them. Eventually they will be looking to rejoin the hounds that are staying with you not showing interest in the deer line. Learning from the steady hounds will have a big mental impact.
“In my opinion, if you are dealing with well-bred English hounds you will have a good success rate. However, if you are dealing with Crossbred hounds that may already have a habit of running deer, or drafts from another hunt, your success rate will not be high. Unfortunately many hunts draft hounds that have this tendency, thereby perpetuating the problem.
“Training collars, used correctly, offer an opportunity to train hounds not to chase deer. The preparation begins during summer hound walks. A puppy should learn to give his eye to the huntsman and respond to basic commands. If they are willful, a “hearing aid” (training collar) can be used to effectively reinforce good behavior and develop the respect a pup needs to have for any command. Twenty years ago training collars were powerful and only had the option of “off or on,” but now they have multiple settings which allow adjustment for the sensitivity of an individual hound. Usually a mild unpleasant sensation is enough the first time, then the collar can be set just to make a tone. The beauty of training collars over a hunt whip cracked or used to hit the pup is that the only hound who is punished is the errant one. A huntsman or staff member who is constantly reprimanding one hound with his voice or whip upsets all the hounds.
“Once you feel you have some obedience take the hounds around cattle to identify any that show signs of being sharp to other animals. If there are some that indicate interest in chasing cattle note that behavior tendency. Finally, you have to take them to deer lines. It is easier in an open country, but still you have got to be where you can show them deer and correct them even if it is not on hunt days. Just take a small number of hounds with training collars as many times as it takes to train them that a deer line is riot. Keep in mind you may have to do this again during the rut, as deer smell differently during their breeding season. Deer running hounds are a reflection of the training ability of the huntsman.
“Again, I really admire this Master and his staff for seeking a solution to this issue. He or she recognizes that if this is not addressed, this problem will just get bigger.”
Marion Thorne’s opinion comprehensively reinforces those of Hugh and Jerry.
“At first it sounds like a great idea to use deer scent to train your hounds. Yes, it would be easy to place people in the right places and get the hounds punished. However, I feel that you would only be training your hounds not to run deer *scent.* Not the same thing as deer at all. Hounds have a very sophisticated nose and brain. The two things are not the same to a hound.
“I suppose you would achieve some discipline in your pack. They would learn to stop when you want them to stop. But as far as translating that into a deer proof pack on live game, no, I don't think so.
“There are some down-sides to your idea as well. You could inadvertently make them whipper-in broke. This means that they would run nothing at all in front of a whip, or, worse yet, run mute until they are out of range. You could also turn some hounds off of hunting completely with this very harsh set up. In the natural setting, you could train them on deer and then turn to a known fox covert and, voila, positive reinforcement!
“Deer training is not all negative and not all done at once. You have to have a good handling pack, at least the majority, where most of them will not run deer. Stop them on the wrong game harshly and repeatedly. Go on to run something good. That's really it. But it's every single day, every time you take the pack out.
“What you need is country that has good visibility around it's coverts. This can be achieved in almost any country just by bush hogging extensively around corn fields, down pipelines and around and across brushy, bushy fields. Set them up in the wild on live game. Punish them when they are wrong. Call them back to the safe place, the huntsmen, and set out again. Build a core pack of hounds that do not run deer and add to that cautiously. Anything that does not get it after a few chances goes. I mean, give it away as a pet and forget about it. One bad hound can bring the whole pack down. Don't keep them.
“If you do not think you can create country or find better country in which you can train and maintain a pack of foxhounds, you have no business entering hounds at all. You need to take a serious look at your pack and cull anything even slightly iffy. Draft a bunch of good, deer-broke older hounds that will tell you when deer are being run and start fresh with them. It takes constant vigilance and testing. Otherwise you can very quickly be back to running deer. Don't even think about entering puppies until a solid core has been established, and then only hunt the young entry in your new or improved country.
“I hope you understand the importance of making your country work for you, and also the importance of making the tough culling decisions. If you put your work in there, you may someday be on your way to having a deer proof pack. I say that with reservation, as there is really no such thing as a deer proof pack, only a pack that did not run any deer today!”
To conclude, Marty Wood offers a ten-point program for hunting hounds in a difficult country.
1. Know the country like the back of your hand so that you know where the foxes are and also knows where the deer like to bed, like to stage, where they like to feed, and what trails they will use going about their daily habits. The same holds true for the amateur staff. Be sure that all trails in the country are cleared to the extent possible and that gates and bar-ways are either open or have a jump that can be used to get access to the pack.
2. Be sure that there is plenty of legitimate game to hunt. Feed coverts extensively. Encourage thick places that foxes, especially grey foxes, like to live and perhaps den. Put in some artificial earths to encourage foxes to stay around and to provide escape places for them to go when chased.
3. Take a hard look at the hounds available to you. Beg, borrow, or buy some drafts of older, deer-proof hounds that know the game and use them as the nucleus of the pack. Pay attention to the older, steady hounds when out of the kennel as they will tell, or should tell you, when something is not right. Never take more than ten percent of the pack out that is not steady to riot, even if that means only hunting five couples with just one young hound out. Take it slow and steady, as you can unravel even deer-steady hounds very rapidly if you make too many mistakes.
4. The old saw that "foxes are caught in the kennel" really rings true in this instance. Be sure that all of your hounds love and trust their huntsman and the staff. Hounds respond better to love than to correction, but they also take correction better from a person whom they know and trust. Be sure that your whippers-in know the country and where the potential riot areas are, and where he/she can go to stop it as quickly as possible.
5. Exercise, exercise, and exercise the hounds daily right out through the country. Do not run away from deer; rather go to them prepared to stop any nonsense very quickly. Get the hounds used to deer scent and explain to them in no uncertain terms that it is a nonstarter. Love on them when they do it correctly.
6. Try to start by hunting them in the most open areas of the country where the staff can see something of what is going on, and, if possible, get them onto proper game as quickly as possible and allow them to run it as long as they can. If the quarry goes to ground, use it as a happy occasion for the hounds and make big over them even if it takes a long time. It is important to let them know when you think that they have done well. Encourage the pack to mark the den actively by getting in there with them, not from the back of a horse. If they get very lucky and catch a fox, allow them to break it up with encouraging cheers. All of this teaches the hounds what it is that you expect of them and rewards them when they do it right.
7. Look hard at the hounds that you have. Is it the type of hound that you need for your country and circumstances? It would not be the best idea to start off with a fast pack of coyote hounds in dense heavy country where a rider cannot stay with them. Far better to start with some older, slower hounds, some of which may be a bit on the heavy side and not able to run up with a bunch of youngsters but still give plenty of cry to be able to follow, albeit at a slower pace. Be very careful about adding younger, faster hounds to the pack until you are certain of your hounds, country, and quarry.
8. Be sure that your staff is loyal to the pack and willing to work hard to get it trained properly. A whipper-in that only shows up occasionally is useless. You do not need warm bodies filling a position as they see fit. You need riders who are dedicated to the task at hand. The more time that the whippers-in can spend in the kennel with the hounds, the better off the whole operation will be.
9. Back to the beginning! Be sure to start with a steady pack of hounds upon which to build. Many Masters get overenthusiastic about taking hounds out hunting without giving due consideration to the problems they may face during the day. It would be far better to be a bit circumspect with the pack and enjoy the day rather than to have some inevitable chaos ensue which will test everyone's tempers, leave a bad taste in their mouths, and possibly undo all of the good training that has gone into bringing the pack of hounds up to the point where you felt confident enough to take them out for a morning's hunting.
10. Have fun building your own pack of foxhounds in your own country. There are few things in life that are more thrilling!
First posted April 14, 2016
Re-published July 24, 2020