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What's Up Magazine

Call of the Hunt: Maryland’s Sporting Dogs

Nov 13, 2012 10:43PM ● By Anonymous

Many owners and their dogs participate in sporting events—both competitive and recreational. In Maryland, three interesting sporting events occur: bird hunting, foxhunting, and Earthdog Tests. Labrador retrievers have long been recognized as useful bird hunting companions. For hundreds of years, dogs have been used for fox hunts; and, today, Maryland hunt clubs, such as the Marlborough Hunt Club and Wicomico Hunt, use Penn-Marydel foxhounds. Earthdog Tests, a relatively new AKC event for terriers in which the dogs burrow through a course of underground tunnels, is hosted in Maryland by the Scottish Terrier Club of Greater Washington, D.C.

As the most popular dog in America, not only are Labrador retrievers great pets, they are also excellent bird hunting dogs. They absolutely love to retrieve. Among many options for activities, Lab owners can compete with their dogs in Hunting Tests, an official AKC event where dogs achieve different levels of retrieving mastery—Junior Hunter, Senior Hunter, and Master Hunter.

“It’s designed for how [retrievers] work,” says Laurie Doumaux, a Lab owner, Hunting Test participant, and board member at the Maryland Sporting Dog Association. For those owners who are hunters, the skills learned for the Hunting Tests are also extremely useful in the field.

Some hunting clubs also offer events that utilize skills necessary for hunting. For the past eight years, Mason-Dixon Outfitters has held the Chuckar Challenge, a competition among teams of hunter and dog. Kim Lewis, a dog trainer with Mason-Dixon Outfitters, explains, “There’s 20 minutes on the clock, four birds in the fi eld, and eight shells for each hunter.” The hunter and dog teams attempt to demonstrate the most skill on the fi eld and collect the most points. “It’s a clean, neat event,” says Lewis, “It’s a lot of fun—a lot of pressure on the [hunter]. The dogs are out there having fun.”

In order to perform well in Hunting Tests, events like the Chuckar Challenge, or hunting, “You need a dog that’s steady to the gun and retrieves reliably,” says Doumaux. When asked about on-your-own versus professional training, Doumaux replies, “It depends on the person and the dog…You can send your dog to a professional trainer and get the basics done…but you still need to work with the dog…It’s better to train your own dog with a professional’s guidance.” On the other hand, Lewis adds that hiring a professional trainer has several benefits—faster progress, sufficient land for those who want a bird dog but don’t live in an area suitable for training, and better consistency for dogs whose owners have busy schedules.

Regardless of the person actually doing it, all training needs to begin with basic obedience (i.e. come, sit, stay). For Labs, training can then progress to retrieving. “They learn to retrieve on command, then use an actual bird,” says Doumaux. For retrieving on command, trainers use plastic or canvas retrieving dummies, and later cover them with goose wings. “Then the hunter will go out with an experienced dog [and his dog in training].” The inexperienced dog can observe and learn from the more seasoned, older dog.

And the rewards are great. Doumaux describes competing with her dogs as “fabulous.” “This morning I went out with four adult [dogs] and two ten week old puppies…They run around in the field and come back and slop in the water…I’ve never lost the thrill of seeing them do what they love. They just smile.”

Labradors are not the only breed of dog that loves to hunt. Penn- Marydel foxhounds also possess a strong hunting instinct. Both the Marlborough Hunt Club and Wicomico Hunt use Penn-Marydel hounds on their hunts. Katherine Cawood, a Master of Foxhounds with Marlborough Hunt Club, has foxhunting in her blood: “I’ve hunted for 65 plus years. I do love it. It’s a way of life.” (Robert Brooke brought the first foxhounds into the New World around the year 1650.) Jane Rhoades, Joint Master of Foxhounds for Wicomico Hunt, is also very experienced in foxhunting. Her father was instrumental in developing the Penn-Marydel breed. And, she adds, “I was born and raised following Penn-Marydel hounds. I started foxhunting when I was around seven years old.”

According to Rhoades, “The Penn-Marydel hounds are a combination of hounds from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware,” hence the name of the breed. Specifically bred to function well in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware terrain, the breed was liked by the men who formed the Penn- Marydel Association in 1934 “for their tenacity and nice voice,” says Rhoades. “Riders follow the voice of the hounds. It’s very important for hounds to have a good voice. Penn-Marydels have it.” Not only do they have a good voice, their size is well-suited to running through brush. “Their size is pretty typical, like a pointer,” says Cawood, “But they’re lighter than a Lab.” Additionally, they have a strong ability to smell a cold trail.

Although chasing a quarry (or game) is largely instinctual, Penn- Marydels have to be trained to chase the right quarry: the fox, and only the fox. To train Penn-Marydels for hunts, “You have to have a lot of experience foxhunting,” explains Rhoades, “or you wouldn’t know how to train them.” Training the hounds starts from the time they are pups. “In the fall…we take older hounds out with younger hounds, and couple a younger one with an older dog—tie the two together.” The younger hound learns from the example of the experienced hound.

Youth members of the Mason Dixon Game Outfitters at a North American Gun Dog Event and Competition, with flushers and pointers.

Who trains the hounds? Cawood explains, “We don’t bring in any special trainers. We have a huntsman. His job is to train the hounds to hunt; he’s a professional. He’s helped by a Whipper-In, so his staff helps him.” If the hounds get off track, a Whipper-In reprimands them and gets them back on it. However, only the huntsman actually speaks to the hounds. “He spends a lot of time with the hounds,” says Rhoades, “They know the sound of the [hunting] horn and his voice. It takes a lot of time because the huntsman builds a bond with the hounds.” Although most hounds learn quickly, a few have a harder time catching on. Those are culled from the pack and given to a good home.

As with all dogs, it’s wonderful to see the Penn-Marydels work and love what they do. “The huntsman and his staff are in charge of the hounds,” describes Cawood, “We’re out there and the conductor is the huntsman. He and the hounds make the day.” Rhoades relates, “To me, it’s exciting. It’s very interesting once you learn each hound. Each has its own personality. It’s exciting to see the hounds learn…I just love it. To see their tails shake when they get excited. It’s never the same [with them]. Each day is different.”

Another, though significantly smaller, breed of dog can also have fun in a sporting event. Terriers were born and bred to hunt small rodents, particularly rats. Earthdog Tests capitalize on that instinct. It’s “an instinct test for what they were originally bred for—to hunt rats,” says Blair Kelly, secretary for the Scottish Terrier Club of Greater Washington, D.C., and Earthdog participant. Mary Rice, chairman of the Earthdog Test for the same club, adds, “When you have a true short-legged terrier…they have a natural instinct. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In an Earthdog Test, the terriers hunt for the rats underground through holes called dens. There are four classes of competition: Introduction to Quarry, Junior Earthdog, Senior Earthdog, and Master Earthdog. The difficulty in performance requirements and den design increases with each class. Introduction to Quarry is the easiest while Master Earthdog presents many challenges. Because the general dimensions of the dens are small—9 inches by 9 inches—only the shortlegged terrier breeds are able to compete. “Though there have been some attempts to make an Earthdog Test for bigger terriers,” says Kelly, “it hasn’t been officially recognized by the AKC.” Some terrier breeds that do especially well in Earthdog Trials are Scottish, Border, and Norfolk Terriers. (Perhaps, not surprisingly, Dachshunds are also AKC eligible for these Earthdog Tests.)

Because this event is designed around terriers’ natural instinct, very little training is involved. But, some balk at the idea of running underground. For some dogs, it’s not natural to go underground,” says Kelly, speaking from experience with his own dogs. In addition, “Some have no desire to work the rats,” explains Rice, “I’ve had one like that. A wonderful dog, but no desire.” Before owners or handlers compete with their dogs in the test, “We do…the practices where handlers bring the pups to see if they have the instinct,” says Rice. If they have it, then it’s time to compete in an Earthdog Test.

When asked why he enters his dogs, Kelly replied, “I do it because I want to see if my dogs have the temperament. I think it’s important to see if your dogs have the instinct to hunt.” Most importantly, “It’s fun,” says Kelly, “more fun when your dog is successful at it. People drive far distances to come. Earthdog tests are not that common. It takes a large amount of land for the dens. People seem to enjoy it. They come back.” In Rice’s words, “I think this is one of the most fun events that AKC has for terriers. Earthdog is one of the most fun events that I’ve ever participated in.”

No matter the breed, working with dogs in sporting events—whether recreational or competitive—is both exciting and rewarding. Because of the time that is necessary to spend with a dog training him for the event, owners and handlers have the opportunity to build a strong bond with their animal. And with that bond, comes a friend who will provide a host of affection, love, and memories: your dog.