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NetPets® Presents - About Hunting Dogs

by Bonnie Dalzell, NetPets Staff

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Certainly one of the earliest uses of domestic dogs was to be a companion on the hunt. The dog's superior senses of smell and hearing greatly expand the abilities of the human hunter both in tracking game and locating game in hiding.

Netpets Listing Of Hunting Dog Categories

However modern hunting dogs span a wide range of skills, from the pot hunting dog of subsistance level hunters such as the tribesmen from which the Basenji was acquired to sophisticated sports hunters with their precision trained bird dogs.

During the long association of man and hunting dog we have seen them go from necessary companions for hunter gatherer cultures to an expensive luxuries in serf based agricultural situations where their ownership is restricted to the ruling classes. If flocks are kept, hunting dogs such as hounds who still possess the full suite of hunting instincts (stalk, rush, capture, kill) must be confined and kept away from domestic animals. Most of the sighthounds and scenthounds still operate at this level.

When the hunting dog is used to alert the hunter to the presence of the prey, to retrieve it but not to actually capture and kill it, then we have a dog that is not as dangerous to valuable livestock. However in pre-technological cultures such specialized hunting dogs were generally reserved to the ruling classes and the hunting of wild game evolved from a means of putting protein on the table to an entertaining sport - often with elaborate rules that mimicked the formal rules of knightly battle.

In the time from the 1400's to the 1600's, when rules of sport were being perfected in western Europe, is when we see the origin of the progenitors of the gun dog breeds. Early Pointers were used as an adjunct to locate game which was then coursed by windhounds or taken with falcons. The flushing setter and spaniel breeds were also begining to separate at this time as guns came into use in sporting hunts.

Especially in England the full fleged gentleman's hunt might include pointing and flushing dogs to locate game in the brush, windhounds to course it down, terriers to go underground after game that sought protection in burrows, and scenthounds to follow it across country. With the passing of time sportsmen selected hunting dogs for increasing ability in specialized portions of the hunt or as game species specific hunters. This lead to a proliferation of the types of hunting dogs as well as a simple increase in named breeds.

Scenthounds and windhounds are frequently used in groups so they have been selected for tolerance of other dogs. Sporting dogs are often taken out to hunt by people other than their owners which has resulted in selecting for a tolerance of people as well (relatively low levels of territoriality).

The tolerance for other dogs and people is one of the pluses of hunting dog ownership for the average owner. However if you are contemplating a dog from the hunting dog breeds, you need to realize that the tolerance is due to a supression of intra-specific aggression. In the case of windhounds and scenthounds, where the dog is still expected to capture fleeing prey, should the dog decide that some animal is not to be treated as a member of its own species, but rather as a prey, the dog can be very dangerous to that animal (or a small human) without showing any of the behaviors, such as growling and barking, that most people associate with danger from a dog. Hunting animals do not growl and bark at the prey, that would scare it off, rather they show a silent, intense, focused fascination similar to the expression your dog will show towards a VERY TASTY treat that you are offering.

This difference between being a hunter's helper (as in sporting dogs) and being the weapon by which the hunt is accomplished (as in scenthounds and windhounds) probably accounts for the relative popularity of the sporting dog breeds as general pets (26% of AKC registrations in 1996) as opposed to the hounds (6%)

Working hunting dogs must be physically fit. Most breeds are medium to medium large dogs (40 pounds to 90 pounds) with wolf length muzzles (as opposed to the brachycephalic condition of mastiffs) so as to retain the ability to breath properly. Breeds used on very small game, such as rabbits, may weigh as little as 20 pounds, however.

In general hunting dogs have medium to high activity levels and are driven to employ their hunting skills. Scent hounds sniff the ground at every opportunity. Gun dogs are active and eager to look for birds, windhounds tend to run after anything that moves rapidly away from them. In contrast to the high energy of the bird dog breeds, scenthounds and windhounds, are frequently fairly low energy in the absence of stimulation to hunt. As with wild carnivores, if they are not hunting they tend to lie around and sleep.

The retention of the hunting instincts is one of the drawbacks to the person who is looking to own a dog solely as a pet and companion. Most owner dissatisfaction with hunting dog breeds relates to the desire to roam to hunt and with the effectiveness that unsupervised dogs have in successfully hunting things that the community feels should not be hunted.

General purpose (or primitive type) hunting dogs are not specialized for any particular strategy of hunting, they come the closest to being able to 'do it all' and to 'do it all fairly well'. They can track or course prey. They can flush birds. They can retrieve small game downed by the hunter's gun.

There are a great many breeds that have been bred with specialized behaviors and bodies that enable them to do a particular aspect of hunting very well. The swift windhounds can run in excess of 30 miles per hour, the leash scent hounds can trail on tracks many days old, the pointers can freeze and hold a point on hidden birds, the retrievers can endure cold waters and retrieve downed birds for a full days hunting.

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