I am the very proud owner of two foxhounds, Corporal and Walden, and I help rescue foxhounds from shelters around the South. I rode with a mounted foxhunt in Virginia for eight years. Six of the hunt’s litters were born at my place. I adopted one of the hunt’s retiring hounds, Corporal.
Hounds can be wonderful companions, very affectionate and amusing. They are particularly emotional—it’s easy to hurt their feelings. Many are opinionated. They may be couch potatoes for extended periods of time, punctuated by bursts of energy. Until taught otherwise, they are natural counter surfers. I’ve been around when some miscreants “hunted” down a hunt’s Christmas feast and wiped it out! Others I know ate entire lasagna that had been grabbed off the kitchen counter. They are also very hardy. I have had vets tell me that hounds can physically withstand medical conditions that would kill another breed of dog.
If hunting hounds are scared or unruly it is not because they have hunted. While a few hunting hounds are poorly socialized and may have been ignored or mistreated, most individual hunters and the majority of mounted foxhunts’ huntsmen love their hounds and take excellent care of them. The hunters and huntsmen who abuse their hounds are in the distinct minority. In my experience of mounted hunts’ foxhounds, the dogs are personable and extremely well trained. And here in the mountains of rural Virginia I personally know several individual hunters who hunt several hounds, including foxhounds. Their dogs are in beautiful shape and very friendly.
Foxhounds are very attuned to people, as anyone who has worked and/or hunted with a foxhunting pack knows. The leader of the pack is the huntsman, who leads the hounds while out hunting and who gives the hounds their orders and provides discipline and direction using a series of voice commands and calls on the hunting horn.
Even the poorly socialized hounds that occasionally make their way into pet homes can usually be trained, with enough patience and discipline, and blossom as pets. Rescues and shelters will already have begun this process of socialization but it still requires fine-tuning when the dogs are adopted and enter a home.
When meeting a hound with an unknown temperament for the first time, be patient. The hound will usually take some time learning to trust you. Just in case it has had an abusive past, don’t make any fast, threatening movements; don’t make any attempt to pat or touch the hound’s head or otherwise move at them from above. Some hounds are “head-shy,” meaning they aren’t used to being patted on the head, either because they were abused or it’s just a new experience. Squat down and let the hound approach you, avoid eye contact initially, and stick your hand out for the hound to sniff. Be extra-gentle and considerate of the hound. Observe how it reacts carefully, and try to understand why he or she is reacting the way it is and what experiences may have caused this.
Foxhounds should have exercise as often as possible. I run with my two foxhounds every day. I call them my pace cars and they are quite beautiful when they run. They also get exercise on our small farm. Exercise is very important for these dogs, who often run long distances while hunting—in my hunt hound’s case, 30 or more miles every day he hunted.
As far as retired hunting foxhounds go, I cannot stress it enough: Hounds must have respect for their owner (pack leader). Just like a child, they will not obey rules if they are not provided with discipline and structure. This takes consistency, of course, and sometimes some guts. With my retired hunting foxhound, a male who weighs 90 pounds, I had a confrontation early on. He tested my resolve. In response, I got him down on his side and sat on him. I stayed alert for any attempt to bite and removed the threat, closing his mouth tightly, and continued sitting on him until he gave in. Now he knows
There are certainly other ways to reinforce rules, which any knowledgeable shelter director or good dog trainer would know, but this was the method I used. I had seen the director of the shelter I volunteer at use it and it worked for her. To make sure that he remembers that I am boss, I have him wait for about 30 seconds every night before I allow him to go up the stairs to his crate for the night. I convey the message with a foxhunting voice command, “Get behind,” then I say “okay” and up he goes. In foxhunting, this is one of the voice commands that the huntsman uses to teach the hound that the huntsman is the leader.
Neither of my foxhounds has ever threatened to bite—though they have growled a few times—nor have I ever known of any foxhounds actually biting someone. The director of the animal shelter where I volunteer has advised me not to reprimand any dog for growling, because a growling dog is warning you before biting, and you don’t want it to skip that step when it is scared or displeased.
A word on hunting commands for foxhounds. The huntsman of the hunt that I rode with gave commands in a gruff, strong voice. He sometimes gave them rather arbitrarily just to reinforce discipline and the pecking order of the pack. The actual words used vary among huntsmen, but the ones our huntsman used include:
Leave it. This tells the hound to stop investigating whatever he is interested in at the moment, usually something he is sniffing or trying to pick up with his mouth.
Foxhounds do well with another dog/pack member who will show the hound the ropes in his or her new home and provide a good role model. As puppies, hounds are taught how to hunt with the pack by being coupled (their collars are connected with a link between them) to a more experienced hound. New hound owners can take advantage of this. The new foxhound in the family will quite naturally follow the cues from the dogs currently in the household. Unfortunately, the foxhound will be just as eager to imitate the existing pack’s bad habits as their good habits, so watch closely and intervene before the foxhound mimics your long-time dogs’ annoying quirks!
If your new foxhound is not yet house trained, a long-time resident can make that task almost automatic. I don’t even remember house-training either of my foxhounds. They each joined our existing pack and learned very quickly. They are naturally clean in their home environment and this helps in their training. My retired hunting foxhound was almost instantaneously crate-trained, too. Like so many dogs, he loves the close, cozy, safe environment of a crate.
Fences are a necessity. Most hounds will leave any non-fenced area, wandering off, chasing a deer, or picking up another line of scent that extends out beyond the yard. I have an invisible fence which both of my hounds respect. I do check on them often, even with them behind this fence. I don’t want one of them stolen by a deer hunter, especially during hunting season. And I never leave them in the fenced area all day while I am occupied inside, which is a recipe for disaster. Also, invisible fences don’t keep out wild animals or neighbors’ pets.
I also will not let my retired foxhound run loose, for his own safety. I would worry about him getting hit on the road, lost, or shot. We live in a rural area where it is legal to shoot any dog molesting livestock. And there’s always the chance that some no-good could take a shot illegally
Leashes are a must. If my retired foxhound gets on a line of scent while we’re running I stop running immediately. He’s quite large so I have had instances where I have had to let go of the leash because I am going to have a crash or I’ve already tumbled to the ground. I’ve learned to hold on tight, walk, and sometimes a command in a gruff, loud voice will slow the hound down or break him or her off the scent. My foxhound responds to the words, “leave it,” because if he started chasing deer out hunting that’s what he heard. And it works!
Speaking of leashes, a really handy training technique using one is called “umbilical cord” training. A new foxhound owner brings the hound home and keeps the leash on the hound and hooked to the owner himself or herself or, at a minimum within grabbing range. This should be done for a week or so. It allows the owner to correct the hound immediately when the hound does something wrong.
And a word on cats. It has been my experience and that of our county shelter director that not all hounds will chase and/or harm or kill cats. Here, again, the owner must be the boss. The owner needs to show the hound that the cat belongs to the owner; the cat is the owner’s “possession.” The leash worn by the hound for a while after it’s been brought to its new home (and when it is first introduced to the cat) can be grabbed quickly and used to “check” him or her (a sudden, short tug, not dragging the dog away from the cat). Voice is very important here—gruff, loud, insistent. For a good while, watch the situation until you trust there is a decent chance that a relative peace between the animals exists.