Centuries of Instinct and Enhanced Senses – Perhaps no group of dogs have contributed more to idioms in the English language than the Hound Group.
More often read in novels than heard in speech is “hangdog expression” which refers to the often sad-looking expression of hound dogs.
Bred to hunt mammals, hound dogs are various breeds with similar characteristics: droopy ears, short coats and often a deep bark called a “bay” that can be heard over long distances.
All hounds have in common a highly developed sense of smell and it is the characteristic of magnified “senses” that set this group apart from other dogs. That said, other characteristics of hound breeds have little in common as a group.
Hounds may be lazy or excitable, require extensive exercise or be lumps on the rug; some love to run full out while others prefer nothing faster than a slow trot.
Hounds are not the Einsteins of the dog world. Their strength is in the ability to fully focus on their senses and to act accordingly. This is not to say these are stupid dogs – because they are very smart in their own unique way.
Scent hounds are often cunning in detecting location of prey while Sighthounds are at a slightly lower intelligence level. Sighthounds can be trained to follow a lure around a track again and again or through changes in direction – without anticipating the next location and thinking up a shortcut that will help catch the lure.
This lower intelligence simply means more repetition is required to train the dogs and response to learned commands will not be as reliable as with very smart breeds of animals. On the plus side, this is the same trait that makes many of these breeds calm and undemanding as pets.
As any dog owner will tell you – the smarter the dog, the more trouble he can find to get into!
There are two distinct types of hounds – Scent Hounds and Sighthounds – as well as two much smaller recognized types:
Scent Hounds: Follow their prey by tracking the scent. These breeds are not fast runners but are bred for endurance.
Sighthounds: Keep prey in sight and will catch and kill game on their own; bred for speed and keen eyesight.
Aboriginal Hounds: Use all senses – sight, hearing and scent. Not as fast as Sighthounds or as good at tracking as Scent Hounds; combine good speed and endurance. This small group is rare, but it is commonly accepted that Afghan Hounds are in the Aboriginal sub-group.
“Other” Hounds: Track prey using sight and scent combined but not as good at either as the sight or scent hounds. This sub-group is not defined by breed and often may be a hybrid of two breeds…yet still classed as “hound dog”.
Scent hounds have some physical characteristics in common though the breeds may vary widely in size. Long, drooping ears serve a useful purpose for these dogs and in some breeds has a distinctive fold or structure.
As it follows a trail the dog lowers its head and the ears catch a wider area of scent and in effect funnels the scent to the wide nostrils. The loose lips are also thought to aid in trapping scent. Processing the scent is enhanced by large nasal cavities.
Distinctive to the Scent Hounds is the “bay” – the huge booming voice that tells the dog’s master that his hound is on the scent. One very popular hound pet is the beagle and any beagle owner will testify to the power of his dog’s bark.
Hound owners learn to identify the various barks/bays of their dog and can distinguish the sound that says “I found a scent” from the bay that says “here’s the prize”. The bark of these hounds is necessarily loud and deep as they often are ranging far beyond their master and this enables the hunter to follow and locate the dog.
Scent Hounds don’t need to be fast but they do need endurance as tracking may go on for hours at a time. They are the sturdiest of the hound group. Speed is not an asset for these canines as too much speed can cause prey to head for the hills. Much better for a hunt is a Bassett Hound that will plod along with his nose to the ground and lead the hunter to the prey’s location.
When people think of hounds, they usually think of Bloodhounds. These large sad-looking dogs are famous for their ability to follow a scent through ground cover, air and even across water. A Bloodhound is never happier than when he is following a good scent and can often find scent trails that are days old.
Legends are built around individual Bloodhounds who have rescued hundreds of lost hikers and children and some are known to have followed scent trails for more than 50 miles and trails up to two weeks old. An Otterhound has large ears that effectively drape its face to funnel scent to its nose. This allows the dog to catch a scent of prey even though it is under water.
Originally used in packs for hunting, Scent Hounds are often now most useful for finding lost people, escaped prisoners, and locating contraband or bombs. Breed sizes vary widely. Longer legged, faster hounds hunted in packs with men on horseback. Smaller bassets and beagles were used by hunters on foot.
These dogs almost always have a gentle nature and sweet temperament and are suitable for pets with some reservations. Instinct tells them to follow scent trails – and they will do that. When on a good trail of scent, the dog will not realize boundaries or traffic dangers and may not even hear commands as his focus is on the smell. The big voice of these dogs can be disturbing to neighbors as this is a noise meant to be heard. Most breeds are not inveterate barkers but the sound is not easy to ignore.
Scent Hound Breeds
- Basset Hound
- Bavarian Mountain hound
- Berner Laufhund
- Blackmouth Cur
- – Black and Tan Coonhound
- – Redbone Coonhound
- – Bluetick Coonhound
- – English Coonhound
- – Treeing Walker Coonhound
- Plott Hound
- Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen
- Grand Bleu de Gascogne
- Ibizan hound
- Kerry Beagle
- Cretan Hound
- Norwegian Elkhound
- Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen
- Polish Hound
- Polish Scenthound
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Sean Dewar – Smellhound
- Zyler Hound
The group of dogs known as Sighthounds includes some of the oldest known breeds. The first description of such animals appeared in the 2nd Century A.D. and the Saluki is believed to have been in existence as a breed for almost 5000 years.
Originally bred to detect prey by its movement – and to give chase and bring down prey with bursts of speed up to 40 mph, Sighthounds today are most often family pets though some breeds are used in competitive trials.
Most dogs in this group have laid-back personalities but a few are not friendly to strangers and may act as watch dogs for their family. In appearance, these animals are sleek and streamlined, with light, lean heads.
The shape of the head is crucial as it allows the dog a full range of stereoscopic vision. No part of the head interferes with the sight field. In Sighthound breeds that have been adapted to pet status, the head shape seems to change and reduce the vision range though the reason for this is not known.
Running is instinctive to these dogs and as pets they must be controlled by fences or large open spaces or leads. A rapidly moving small animal or object will cause a sight hound to immediately give chase and this instinct is so strong that training cannot reliably overcome it.
Physical activity is important to these canines but a quick run a day is often sufficient exercise. Between runs, these dogs are not usually hyperactive or nervous – more often they are couch potatoes. An excellent example are greyhounds who will chase a lure around a track at blazing speeds yet adopted as a pet will be happy to spend most of its time on a comfy pillow. Surprisingly, a greyhound is good as an apartment dog. Though large, they are quiet and undemanding as pets.
Historically, wealthy landowners hunted with greyhounds and common workmen hunted with lurchers. The lurcher is not a breed but a mix of breeds. Usually, a lurcher is a dog that is part sight hound and part working dog.
There is no generally accepted size for lurchers but the common trait desired was for a quiet dog. Lurchers originated with Gypsies in Europe and were later bred in Ireland and Great Britain.
A great lurcher would find game by sight and catch the game without making the typical noise associated with some hounds. Quiet was important as the dogs were most often used to poach game from private properties.
Owning a sight hound would cause problems for the working man as the assumption would be that he was a poacher. Why else would he have such a dog? For this reason, the lurcher was bred to have the Sighthound ability but to also have a higher intelligence and an appearance of a working dog.
Crossbreeding with collies was popular as it produced a highly intelligent dog with a longer, rougher coat. Often a terrier would be added to the “mix” of breeding to add even more intelligence.
High prized lurchers were those that would watch a herd of sheep during the day…and poach a rabbit for the family’s dinner. Lurchers have their own following now and have risen above the disreputable image of the past. They are often used in lure coursing and racing competitions and make excellent family pets.
Longdogs, on the other hand, are cross breeds of Sighthounds with the intention of combining the best qualities of both breeds. Greyhounds are often one of the two breeds combined – for their acceleration and speed. Common longdog crosses are Greyhound and Whippet, Greyhound and Deerhound and Greyhound and Saluki. In each case, the goal is to retain the speed and focus of the greyhound while adding the endurance and weather resistance of another Sighthound breed.
Coursing was practiced by all levels of society and for many years was a structured chase of live mammals such as rabbits, foxes, deer, jackals, wolves, coyotes, antelope and gazelle. In England competitive coursing uses two dogs running together while in the U.S. a team consists of three dogs.
Coursing is usually “lure coursing” with a lure designed to imitate a live mammal and with strict rules on the behavior of that lure. The term “coursing” is used only as a noun and refers to the chasing of game.
For a coursing competition the lure must change direction a certain number of times to imitate prey. Dogs are trained to be “lure focused” so that they will follow that lure no matter which way it goes. Sighthounds will follow a lure instinctively but training is needed to require them to stay with the lure rather than trying to cut it off by taking a shortcut.
Training for lure coursing starts early and continues to keep Sighthounds excited about chasing the lure. Though many hounds will take naturally to lure coursing, others will need a significant amount of training. The more intelligent Sighthounds cannot be trained to follow a lure as they will often take shortcuts and thus be disqualified from competition.
Greyhound races are a form of lure coursing and betting on the dogs is a popular pastime. An unfortunate side effect of the activity is the mistreatment of many of the dogs and the discarding of dogs when the racing career is over.
Greyhound rescue organizations abound and the word is out: Greyhounds, whether raced or not, are excellent pets in a home. Families with one greyhound will often adopt a second or third as they are easy dogs to be around.
Hounds have a devoted following yet sadly many of them lead poor quality lives. Hunting lore and old wives tales abound about what makes a good hound and this misinformation causes unnecessary suffering. There are many hunters who see their hounds only as a tool for hunting in spite of clear evidence that these dogs make great pets.
It is not unusual for hounds to be caged in creates that allow them only space to lie down or turn around day after day. Hunters will say it keeps the dog “sharp” – though how an unexercised, bored animal can remain sharp is a mystery to dog lovers.
Another common cruelty is feeding a hound only every other day “to keep him hungry for the hunt”. Gradually, the plight of hounds is changing but change comes slowly. In rural areas particularly, laws protecting dogs from cruel practices are slow to be enacted and even slower in enforcement. Most change occurs because of intervention by an increasingly educated public unwilling to tolerate these cruel tactics. As hunters realize that well exercised and well fed hounds have more endurance and focus, it is hoped that these cruelties will be mistakes of the past.
Some commonly known breeds in the Sighthound category are:
- Afghan Hound
- American Staghound
- Chart Polski
- Cimeco dell’Etna
- Galgo Espanol
- Hortoya Borzaya
- Ibizan Hound
- Irish Wolfhound
- Italian Greyhound
- Magyar Agar
- Mudhol Hound
- Pharaoh Hound
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Scottish Deerhound
There are many more Sighthounds on some official listing, as most countries seem to have their own version of Greyhound or Deerhound.