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Helping hounds

Hunting dogs need a fair shake

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2012

Hunting hounds are often kept outdoors, underfed, and may be spray-painted with numbers as a means of identification. Hunting hounds are often kept outdoors, underfed, and may be spray-painted with numbers as a means of identification. While their early experiences as part of an outdoor pack might suggest that adopted hounds could have trouble adjusting to a new home, many seem to do quite well.At the hound-swamped Fluvanna SPCA in Virginia, Caspian waited more than a year and a half for a home. Upon transfer to a partner group in New Jersey, he was adopted in three days. In areas where certain types of hunting are popular, animal shelters end up taking in more stray hunting hounds than pit bulls.

Some shelters are overwhelmed with them. They show up undernourished and parasite-infested, sometimes with a scrap of collar left but no tag. Field officers find them chained up in back lots. They’re rarely sterilized or vaccinated, and their history and breed can make them tricky to adopt.

Think we’re talking about pit bulls?

Not this time.

At some rural rescues and shelters, hunting hounds are the pooches filling the kennels, especially during and after hunting season.

Volunteering for the Fluvanna SPCA in rural Virginia in the ’90s, Julie Falconer regularly saw lost hunting hounds with numbers painted on their sides (a method for keeping track of the dogs in a pack) wandering stray along the roads. Falconer, now a senior editor at The HSUS, recalls the time a man pulled up at the shelter and dropped two hounds outside; when the shelter director asked for histories on the animals, the man just told her they “didn’t hunt good” and drove off.

Tricia Johnson, current director of that shelter, estimates that 30-40 percent of dogs in her kennels are hounds. Most of them are beagles or larger hounds, and “they’re almost always brought in as strays,” she says.

While most of the dogs used in hunting come out of the sporting or hound groups designated by the American Kennel Club, other breeds are used in hunting as well. The treatment of the dogs often corresponds with the type of hunting: Labradors and other breeds used to “point” to or retrieve prey usually serve as the one dog accompanying a hunter, and tend to be well-cared-for by their owners. Hounds, though, are typically used to chase down or tree prey; they are typically kept in packs in outdoor kennels, often spray-painted for identification purposes, and represent the majority of the hunting dogs who turn up at shelters. The number of dogs who end up needing help from your organization will likely be determined by the prevalence and type of hunting in your area.

An Issue of Welfare

Some hunting dogs live indoors with their family as cherished pets, and are only used occasionally for hunting. They’re pets first and “weekend warriors” second. Others aren’t so lucky; less responsible hunters view their dogs as “hunting equipment,” or even “junk dogs,” according to Andrew Page, managing director of wildlife for The HSUS.

The HSUS has ethical concerns related to the use of hounds in hunting, but for shelters, the most relevant issue is that the practice can put the dogs at risk. In chasing, cornering, or treeing wildlife—including bears, bobcats, and wild pigs, who can fight back—dogs can be injured or killed by the animals they’re pursuing. During deer drives, a dozen or more hounds are released to flush deer into areas where the hunters are waiting. Because of the large number of hounds involved, dogs routinely go missing or get left behind. These hounds are often picked up by animal control or found by good Samaritans who take them to the shelter.

When these hounds arrive, “many of them are very thin. Often they’re flea- or tick-infested, [or have] intestinal parasites,” says Johnson. The dogs can also come in with mange, covered with cuts and scrapes, and some are heartworm-positive. In one case last year, a hound mix in Johnson’s shelter was thought to have an upper respiratory infection, but turned out to have pieces of sticks and briars stuck up his nose from wandering through the woods for days.

While the majority of problems affecting shelters will likely spring from those hounds used in chase scenarios, other dogs can be affected by lack of veterinary care. Lisa Spakowski, founder and president of Illinois Birddog Rescue & Research, was so concerned about Lyme disease and other illnesses carried by ticks that she started testing every dog coming through her rescue. Her results supported her concerns: In testing for Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a few other diseases, 85 percent of the dogs tested positive. On top of that, 31 percent tested positive for more than one disease. “A huge percentage of these dogs are affected,” she says.

It’s not a good scene for many animal shelters in rural communities, where it can be tough to deal with the influx of unwanted, unsocialized, unhealthy hounds at the end of hunting season. Not only is there a need to care for hounds with a variety of problems, but there are also the challenges of adopting them out when you have many similar-looking dogs; the kennels at some rural facilities can look like Skinny Hound Central at certain times of the year. And then there’s prevention—trying to reduce the same influx in the future.

Lost and Hound

Of the hunting hounds who make their way to the shelter, some will be reclaimed by their owners. And there are plenty of hunters who do provide proper care for their dogs. But in the cases where care has clearly been less than optimal, Johnson says, “the outreach starts when [the hunters] come to you.”

Her shelter sees a lot of hound hunters, especially on Saturday afternoons during hunting season. Johnson likes to use these interactions to engage the owners; she has been successful in encouraging some local houndsmen to spay or neuter their dogs and to vaccinate beyond rabies. Her attitude is to “take the opportunity not to be judgmental,” approaching them with a compliment about their dog and asking questions—for example, “This is a great dog. Any problems with him going stray? Chasing deer or other dogs in heat? And have you talked to this [other] hound hunter who has spayed or neutered his dog? You don’t have to take it from me, but go talk to this hunter in the community who is highly respected.”

This nonjudgmental attitude can work wonders. “You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re rude and disrespectful when [they] come in. When you have someone who meets the dog’s needs, whatever your personal beliefs are, you have to set those aside for the good of the animal and the community,” she says.

That Dog Will Hunt

While many hunters will reclaim their dogs, some won’t— and then you may have some mighty particular pooches on your hands. If they’re going to stay with you for a little while, it’s important to understand how hunting hounds are different from other dogs and how to meet their needs.

Mary Beth Hall, chief dog warden of Union County, Ohio, is a hunter herself and an AKC field test judge. She owns several hunting dogs and has seen plenty come through her shelter. The dogs “can deal with the noise of the shelter, they’re used to kennels or tethering, and many are used to handling, so vet checks are easy,” said Hall.

But many breeds of hounds have long been bred to do a job, and they can get stressed and bored without one. Because the dogs need a lot of exercise, shelters can be frustrating for them, according to Hall. Also, the dogs “are typically trained for highly specialized tasks, so they need extra mental stimulation,” Hall adds.

As the saying goes, “a tired dog is a good dog.” And good dogs are more likely to get adopted than dogs who start howling or bouncing off of the walls every time a potential adopter walks by.

Both Johnson and Hall have noticed that hounds tend to do well with other dogs, most likely because they’ve been kept in large packs. Johnson recommends play groups and co-habitation; this quality dog time acts as a stress reducer and can burn off some excess energy.

Keeping Hounds Happy

Hall recommends fostering or transfer to rescue groups for those dogs who aren’t handling life in the shelter well. She has found that pointing dogs in particular (pointers, setters, etc.) can be high-strung and will do better in a foster home.

When adopting out hunting dogs, the usual matchmaking principles apply; you want to get the right dog in the right home. If you have a hunting dog who is task-focused, but disinterested in people, he could be a great fit for someone interested in doing agility training, who intends to provide a lot of exercise and stimulation, but he may not be a great fit for a family looking for a house pet.

Many hunting dogs, though, can and do adapt to life in a home—and some seem all too happy to forgo life on the run. To promote coonhounds as pets, Hall partnered with other coonhound lovers to create an educational web site,, which espouses the benefits of keeping coonhounds and foxhounds as pets. The site features some good downloadable posters and fliers that discuss the many reasons that coonhounds make great family dogs.

If it seems like every pet-owning home in your community already has a hound, it may be time to look for a place where energetic little hounds are in short supply. Transport programs from the South to the Northeast are growing in popularity, and Johnson has seen the benefits firsthand. She partners with a rescue group in New England (where hounds and other hunting dogs are far less common), and dogs who would stay in her shelter in Virginia for six months are instantly snatched up upon their arrival.

Animal behaviorist Erika Proctor volunteers her time both temperament-testing dogs for the Fluvanna SPCA and working with rescue groups in the Northeast to transport dogs there. Based on the dogs’ behavior and medical history, she puts together write-ups and sends them out to the partner groups. While she says there’s an overabundance of beagles in her community, there’s a strong desire for them up North. “A lot of rescues are waiting for beagles, calling us for any beagles or other small hounds,” she says.

One of their most successful transports was a dog who was at Fluvanna for more than a year and a half, but when transferred up to its partnering organization in New Jersey, was adopted after just three days. “Having these rescues taking animals for us is a huge blessing for us and the dogs. … We’re just happy to be a part of it,” she says.

About the Author

Adam Goldfarb