When I take the beagles afield in hunting season, I look for hound safety first, followed by a good run, and lastly some rabbits in the game vest. We are in August right now, and there is no way to shoot rabbits since it is not hunting season. Safety is still the main concern, and getting a good run can be difficult. It seems that I am more likely to encounter a juvenile rabbit. Those half-grown bunnies require a dog to have a lot nose and patience to keep the chase going. Then, there are the “fisters.” A fister is what I call a baby rabbit that is no longer than your fist is wide. Not only do they leave very little scent, but they can also crawl into places that are impossible for a beagle to get at them. This is a good thing, since that is also what keeps those same fisters from being appetizers to the predators that have no closed hunting season.
“How did it go?” my wife, Renee, asked me when I got home from running the youngsters the other day.
“Well,” I said, “It started off bad. Small rabbits and young dogs that lacked patience.” Fang and Blitz are a year old now, and combined with their sire, grandmother, and great grandmother, make four generations of hunting house beagles in my home.
“It’s that time of year,” Renee said.
“Yeah, but we then got onto a full-grown rabbit and had a really good run.”
I suppose a “good run” means different things to different beaglers. To me, a good run lasts 30 minutes or more, and has very few breakdowns. The best ones are when the rabbit runs big circles, more like rounded off squares than anything like an oval. It also helps if the bunny is not very tricky, and tends to not double back on its own scent trail, or run across rocky areas with poor scent. When that happens, the music is nonstop and the pack runs very quickly.
That being said, I also like to watch good hound work on a tricky rabbit. The chase may be slower, and the pack has to sort out more tricks. A bunny might hop down a dirt road for 40 yards, turn around, go back along its own tracks 30 yards, and then take a massive leap off the road. The dogs will follow the 40-yard stretch down the middle of the road and start looking for the scent. The best dogs can actually smell that the rabbit left two lines of scent on top of each other, in two different directions. Other hounds will have to start working at the spot on the dirt road where the rabbit turned around, and gradually expand the search area until they find the spot where the rabbit left the dirt road. Either way, there is a breakdown in the chase. When I have a dog that can sort the mess out by realizing what happened, the breakdown may only be 30 seconds, sometimes less. Otherwise it can be a couple minutes, and that is time when the rabbit may be stretching out the distance and the scent is getting cold.
Rabbits that double like that will also do things like hop from rock to rock, or run along a log that is small enough in diameter that the dogs have trouble walking on it and therefore smelling it. These same rabbits will run under roads, through culverts. I love to see a seasoned hound work a chase on these sneaky bunnies, especially if they have the patience to sort through all the tricks with very few breakdowns of any real length. That makes for a good run too.
Zoe has been in on many of my good runs. She’s not the fastest dog I ever owned, but she has a big nose and a ton of patience. For years, she was the official puppy starter for my kennel and also Andy Purnell’s DeadRiver line of dogs, when Andy was still living. Why? Zoe just runs her own rabbit and doesn’t really get too competitive. She is medium speed, and young pups can beat her without feeling pressured. When the pups drop the ball, Zoe catches up and sorts out the mess, the pups take the front, and they can resume chasing without much pack pressure. Running young pups with veterans that pressure them can often cause a youngster to get faulty. They might watch the better dog and wait for them to get the work done when the rabbit has made an effective riddle in the scent trail. Or a young pup might start running mute, hoping to gain an advantage by not tonguing on the line. By going mute, the young dog is stealing the line and trying to gain some time at the front of the pack, where the scent is hottest. It is tough for a young dog that only smells rabbit tracks from the back of the pack, after the other hounds have covered the scent with their own feet and breath.
Zoe could pressure young dogs in her youth, and she did so by running in the middle of the pack and taking the front of the chase whenever the rabbit would change directions and the lead dogs kept going straight instead of turning. She would stop her forward momentum very quickly, and claim the front. She would be there for a few seconds, before the lead dogs would rush in front of her again. The longer this happened, the more frustrated the faster dogs became. Especially in thick cover, where they could not easily jump in front of her.
As she has aged, she lost a step or two, and instead of putting pressure from behind, she simple puts the other beagles back on the line when she eventually gets to the pack, 30 seconds after they have dropped the connection with the rabbit. I always say, “She cleans it up when she catches up.” She has been retired from puppy training for a few years. The last ones that she started were my Hoss and Duke (her grand pups) and two of Andy’s dogs—Gem and Pearl—who both finished as field champions. I still remember when Gem chased a rabbit for the first time. She had been following the old and slow Zoe silently, and then she used her rabbit voice for the first time and never looked back. Zoe only corrected her once in the next half hour. We knew Gem was going to be special from the start. When we picked up the dogs, Andy looked at Zoe and said, “Is she blind?” he noticed her cloudy eyes. She had glaucoma.
“Yeah,” I said, “And her hearing isn’t good either.” We both chuckled.
“She’s been a good puppy starter,” Andy said.
“Yeah, she can still provide a really good run.”
When Zoe became deaf as well, her days in the field were over. When an old dog can’t hear your voice, or see you, it makes it tough to handle her in the woods. But she navigates the whole house with her nose. For as long as I have had her, she has been my little girl. Actually, I am her human. She has always claimed me. Whenever I work late, she is lying on the floor next to the door that I use when I come home to greet me. She stays there for however long I am late. She still gets giddy to chase rabbits when I load up the younger dogs. I felt bad a few months ago when I took her great grand pup for an evening chase and she was whimpering at the door as I left. I noticed a rabbit in the yard when I returned, I could see it in my headlights. I put the young dogs in the house, fed them, and took the nearly 17-year old Zoe into my arms and walked into the darkness to see if the rabbit was still sitting there. It was, and I put her on the ground where it had been sitting. Her short bawl voice filled the night air, and she started to run. Well, she was walking; but, in her mind she was a hunting dog again. As far as she was concerned, she was really moving. She kept moving steady along the edge of the vegetable garden, across the yard, and into the cemetery. She ran between the rows of tombstones, and took the scent trail along the edge of the church. I picked her up when she got close to the road.
It may have been 200 feet, in total, of chasing. And it took a long time with her old bones and atrophied muscles. But she loved every minute of it. Zoe and I were sitting together on the couch when Renee returned home. “What’s new?” she asked me.
“Zoe had a good run,” I said while scratching the old girl’s ear. Her tail thumped.
“We put the run on the yard rabbit,” I said. The yard rabbit, I should mention, had been hanging around the outside of our fence, tormenting the dogs and causing them to erupt in desire for the hunt. The pack had several failed attempts to tunnel under the fence, all resulting in a bag of ready mix concrete being deposited into the hole to prevent further digging.
“Too bad she didn’t catch it!”
“I know, right?” I said. Now that I think about it, the yard rabbit hasn’t returned.
Old Zoe has been a picky eater lately, and I have been letting her eat soft treats, butter bread, or whatever she will eat. Recently, she ate the meat out of my gyro. She sleeps a lot, so she doesn’t need many calories. At her age, I don’t care if she gets all the proper nutrition. I just like seeing her eat and enjoy it. When a beagle lacks appetite, it is never a good sign. Last Saturday, I took a dog to a field trial and got home late in the evening. Zoe had been sleeping more, and she was on the floor waiting for me when I returned—at the spot she always rested when I was getting home later than usual. She seemed weak, but not in pain. I sat with her until after midnight before going to bed. When I came downstairs in the morning, she had died.
“She was over 17,” Renee said as we wrapped Zoe’s body in her favorite blanket, tears in our eyes, so that she could be taken to our veterinarian for cremation. I do not own land, so I always get my beloved hounds cremated. I placed her purple collar with her sister’s blue collar, and her half-brother’s green one. These collars hang in my office like faded monuments, reminding me of great days.
“Yes, she was our oldest one yet,” I said.
“She had a wonderful life, and you were her person,” Renee said.
“Yes. 17 years. She had a good run.”
(Ford’s Rabbit Zealot Zoe 6/24/01–8/12/18)