When I last left off, I had accepted the job of trainer for 23 foxhounds, promising to change the chaos in the pack, though I had no such practical experience. Dogs are social animals, though it is popularly expressed as “pack” animals. The dynamics of group behavior can be stressful, whether it be a group of humans or a group of dogs. The male hounds had pretty stable pecking orders for relatively long lengths of time. The older a top (alpha) male gets, the more challenges he must face from younger males, as one would expect. Very old hounds, if they’re smart, will stay out of the way of everyone.
Females are worse as far as pecking order is concerned. The females nag and pick and worry a weaker or more vulnerable hound until she makes the wrong move and then they jump her– en masse. The victim can change from week to week. Loyalties frequently shift. Weaker hounds learn to stay out of the way of the ruling clique, at least for awhile. Then they might commit some infraction or might decide to attempt to move up a notch. I had to separate females every day.
I addressed most of the behavioral issues with the pack as I would have a group of human two-year olds. I have learned that group behavior among primates is similar, depending on their environment. Canines are not primates, but their grouping or “packing” has similar dynamics. Even though being in a pack is familiar to a dog on some instinctual, albeit, genetic level, being thrown together into an artificial pack environment– thrown into a kennel with little human contact– lends itself to more exotic behaviors. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years. They have been alongside humans for a reason. Not just because their ancestral wolf traits have been bred out of them, but because dogs like human contact. You belong to your dog as much as he belongs to you.
Helen, the president of the Hunt Club, worked along side me for a few days to be sure I had the hounds’ routine running smoothly. Just like small children, dogs don’t like change and they will act up if something is off. None of the hounds were in individual pens, the theory being that to hunt in a pack they had to live in a pack. Inside, the males were in a group in one gated area and the females in the other. There were a couple of holding pens in the feed room for females in heat. They ate twice daily and it was a frenzied affair. Some hounds had to eat separately by being leashed to the inside fencing or they would steal food from a weaker animal. It was all about bad behavior. Within my first week an old male died because I didn’t recognize the signs of escalated hostility. I swore that would never happen again.
Fox hunting in America, was and is carried out a little differently than the traditional English hunt. Foxes, once they have gone to ground (are trying to hide) are no longer chased. Foxes are rarely killed, Americans preferring the chase. In the English tradition, the hounds are not meant to kill the fox. Typically, such as in England, it is shot by one of the riders. Although traditional fox hunting has been banned in England and Scotland, fox hunting can be carried out under certain terms.
In New Mexico, there are no foxes to speak of so the coyote is chased. Many ranchers allow the clubs free access to their lands. However, hounds will chase just about anything and have to be redirected when chasing the ranchers’ cattle. This could go on for the entire length of the hunt, riders redirecting hounds; riders chasing down hounds that have disappeared from the pack; riders carrying an exhausted hound across their saddles– actually, if you can imagine a problem with an event such as this, it probably has happened. This particular Hunt Club’s breeding line of hounds hadn’t caught a coyote in eleven years when I took over their care. And then, the coyote they had caught over eleven years ago had only three legs. These hounds were allowed to kill their prey, but they had a lousy record and I aimed to keep it that way.
Right after I got the job I went to a store and bought myself a man’s one-piece lined coveralls which I could put on over my clothes. I bought rubber boots and work gloves. At my request, Helen bought collars for every one of them so that, if necessary, I could grab their collars to hold on. I bought them several boxes of large dog biscuits and small training biscuits. These were hounds– the best noses in the business. They could smell anything. I learned that I could not have a pocketful of training biscuits and expect to get out of the kennel in one piece. I had to alter that aspect of my plan. The first time I gave out the large biscuits, I had to bring each hound into the feed room, one by one. For most of them, I had to show them how to eat a biscuit. It was quite sad, really.
Wearing the coveralls was my means of protection. I walked in and let them jump on me. I did not yell, nor did I push them away. I never said the word “no”. The word “no” should not be used except for huge infractions, otherwise the word means nothing to them after awhile, which is typical behavioral theory for children. By the end of a week they had stopped jumping me and were better behaved with me. I was bruised and I had been knocked on my ass several times. They would get hostile with each other to get near me– when they did that I left their sight and went into the feed room and would not come out until they were quiet. Some say that hounds are stupid. I found these to be very bright. There’s nothing more amusing than to open the feed room door after having finished the “time out” and see every hound waiting expectantly, quietly facing the door. They learned the lesson in only a few days. Everything was proceeding nicely. I should have known better…