Happy, my almost 14-year-old beagle died a couple weeks ago, while the two of us were on a post hunting season stroll through some good-looking habitat.
I’m not in the market for another beagle right now, but sometime in the next few months I will be. I’ll be looking for an adult female with a proven record as a rabbit hunter, but that also has a calm enough nature to let into the house.
Or at least I hope I’ll be letting her into the house. For the first 40 years of our marriage, having our dogs live in the house was a foregone conclusion. Then in the dogless interval between Grace and Happy, Amber underwent a strange metamorphosis. As a result, having a dog in the house is now a nonstarter.
Frankly, only an American wife would come up with an idea like that. In Europe, the tradition of a single dog serving as both a hunting partner and a family pet is hundreds of years old. If you doubt that, check out a catalog of 16th through 19th Century European paintings. You’ll find that precious few interior scenes of the homes of either the peasantry or the upper classes lack a hunting dog or two.
About now, one of Amber’s apologists is thinking, “Yes, but European trainers routinely teach dogs to do things we Americans only dream about.” That’s indisputably true, but it is — or at least should be — irrelevant.
Before I get myself in any deeper, it’s time for a disclaimer. All dogs display individual traits. Therefore, my comments and recommendations are based on general characteristics. Individual dogs which are suitable — or totally unsuitable — candidates for dual duty can be found in every breed. And yes, we’ve had a couple of the latter.
At one time or another over the past 40-odd years, I’ve shared home and hearth with members of several breeds of hunting dogs. I’ve learned that since my dog will be a house pet 365 days a year and a hunting companion less than a tenth that often, it pays to begin the process of selecting a dog with an eye toward those traits which, in the owner’s opinion, make a dog an ideal pet.
For me, first and foremost among those traits is a total lack of aggression toward people and other family pets. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t want a dog that cowers under the bed every time the door bell rings. However, I do want one that, regardless of the circumstances, will not bite guests, members of my family or my wife’s cat.
I also want a dog that combines an eagerness to please with its own unique personality. Plenty of in-house time during which the dog can interact with its owner naturally is usually enough to develop both of these traits. If it doesn’t, it may be time to make the admittedly difficult decision to start over with another dog.
Turning to the hunting side of the equation, your choice of breeds will be narrowed by what species of game you intend to hunt. While I don’t deny that anything’s possible, I will say that the chances of finding one American dog that can do a competent job of handling everything from rabbits to geese is remote. Conversely, there’s no law that says a hunting pet has to be any more versatile than its owner.
When I concentrated my efforts on pheasants and quail, I shared my life with a Brittany. Later I became more of a generalist, so a Labrador was ideal. Now that I’ve become a rabbit hunting “purist,” beagles have become the perfect choice.
Almost everyone wants to begin with a puppy, and it’s certainly possible to pick a likely candidate for a hunting house pet by observing the budding personalities displayed by the members of a litter of puppies. On the other hand, don’t discount the possibility of acquiring an adult dog. The three best dogs I’ve ever owned came into my life when they were between one and two years old.
It happens that all of my dogs have been registered purebreds, and it’s true that like usually–but by no means always–will begat like. Moreover, organizations like the American Kennel Club are essential to maintain the integrity of every recognized breed. But be tha as it may, it’s not an individual dog’s papers that point quail or circle rabbits. If you’re not interested in raising puppies, there are a lot of unregistered dogs available that can make fine hunters and companions.
Now where did I put my copy of “Housebreaking for Dummies?”
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]