By Clay Newcomb
The term “bear dog” means something different to every houndsman. It seems simple, but the definition isn’t clear-cut. It’s often an issue of preference and style. However, the specific tools needed by a bear dog differ by region. Topography, forest type, hunting pressure, and the population dynamics of bears all effect what skills are the limiting factors to consistently catch bruins. Ultimately, that’s what we’re identifying – the limiting factors of hounds catching a bear in the different regions. Another way to say it is, “If a hound doesn’t have enough of (insert trait here), then it won’t catch bears consistently here.”
However, foundational traits of any bear dog remain consistent. Most houndsmen agree that any bear dog worth his salt has got to have loads of desire, a good nose, and the stick-to-it-ness to stay with tough bruins whether they’re runners or fighters. Though the differences may be nuanced, let’s explore the differences and limiting factors of hounds in the East and West. We interviewed two houndsman, one from Maine and the other from Idaho, to hear what they look for in a bonafide bear dog.
Bear Dogs in Northern Maine
Mark Dufresne has hunted with hounds all over the country, but he primarily hunts and guides in Northern Maine with Maine Trophy Outfitters. He began by describing the landscape he hunts, “Logging is a big industry in Maine and the forest is in a regeneration phase. We’ve got a lot of spruce and fir. Depending on its age, it can be so thick that a man can’t push through it.” He went on, “We’ve also got a lot of water and thickets, and it’s some of the toughest terrain in the state. I find it harder to tree bears here than many places. A different style of dog prevails in Northern Maine.” When guiding, Mark is targeting the older mature male bears. “I find that an older bear usually won’t tree here, no matter how much dog pressure or grit you have.” He said, “When a big bear is in regenerated spruce he’s comfortable on the ground. The dog pressure doesn’t affect them, and they’ll typically bay on the ground.”
Mark went on to describe the type of hound he’s looking for. “I’m not concerned with a hound’s speed in these thickets. These larger bears are prone to stay on the ground and fight. I seek out small bears in training season to get dogs in shape, but I’m targeting the big ones in hunting season. In Northern Maine, this is usually not a fast race. Once the bear is caught he usually just walks.” There seems to be a correlation between the openness of the terrain and a bear’s response to climb a tree when trailed by hounds. In Mark’s experience, hunting the open hardwoods of Southern Maine, Central Vermont and New Hampshire, the bears are more likely to be treed and the races are also much faster. In this type of environment, a fast dog with a head-up trailing style is key. In the thickets of Northern Maine, speed isn’t the limiting factor for catching bears.
Mark elaborated on the bears he’s after, “These older bears aren’t rattled by hound pressure. They aren’t fazed by the presence of the hounds. To clarify my objectives, it’s different for an outfitter like me than a recreational hunter that just wants to tree a bear.” The objectives of every hunter are slightly unique and Mark was quick to point out this fact. However, he knows exactly what he needs in his pack.
“These older bears take a dog with mental toughness - some people call it grit. I don’t want a dog that will jump on bear and get injured. I want a dog that has tremendous endurance to bay all day. When guiding an experienced hunter, they can kill a bear quickly, but often it takes much longer – often all day. I need a dog that will stay focused and bay as hard after eight hours as he did the first hour.” This is key in Mark’s opinion. He’s wants a dog that will keep the intensity and pressure on a bear all day. Houndsmen agree that this is a desired trait all over the country, but it’s highlighted in this type of terrain. Mental toughness, endurance, and desire to keep up the intensity of a bay become the limiting factor here. The thickets of coastal North Carolina would also reflect a similar response from big bears. Thick vegetation and big bears often translate to bears that won’t climb.
“Many dogs lose their voice and with it, their intensity. Barking is hugely important. If they aren’t barking, we can’t slip in on the bear. Barking is the backbone of the pack’s momentum on a bayed bear. When one dog quits barking it takes away momentum. I want a hard-baying dog that really works a bear close, but won’t latch onto him. He’s got to keep the bear spinning.” Mark went on, “Every dog has a different baying style. Some of mine like to bay up close in the bear’s face while some prefer to work the backend. Having both types of dogs takes away a bear’s thought process. Rather than deciding where he wants to run, he’s spinning and focused on the dogs. This also gives opportunity for the hunter to slip in.” Mark said, “I’ve got hounds that six to eight hours later are baying as hard as the first hour. Speed isn’t the limiting factor with these bears. I’ve got to have dog that can do this day after day and not get hurt.”
Mark concluded, “Forest type influences the type of dog more than anything. I like a smaller dog for thick stuff. A big dog gets beat up in the thickets. However, it all comes down to heart and desire, but I favor the small dogs. They get through the woods better and don’t break down as quick.” Mark’s description of “mental toughness” he says is slightly different than a generic definition of a hound with grit. The key characteristics of a mentally tough hound are endurance, the ability to stick with a bear on the ground, the wherewithal to not get hurt, and the propensity to bark continually. This is what he’s looking for in a bear dog in Northern Maine.
Bear Dogs in Northern Idaho
Leon Brown of Clark Fork Outfitters has hound hunted all over the country, but his home is in the panhandle of Idaho where he’s raised hounds, hunted, and guided his entire life. Leon started off by saying, “Geographic differences change what houndsmen want. Certain foundational traits, like drive and desire, are the same almost anywhere. As much as anything, the differences in hounds are the result of personal preference of hunters. Some look for dogs with extreme grit, and others think it must have a great nose.” A true bear dog is going to do well in any part of the country, however, what a houndsmen breeds for is slightly different everywhere. And this is the core of this discussion – defining the key things a houndsman breeds for that he wants consistent in his pack.
Extremely steep mountains and vast sections of country without much road access characterize Northern Idaho. Leon said, “For my hunting, nose is a very important aspect, but having a balanced hound that can do it all is important, too. Often you can’t turn other dogs into a race in this country, so the dogs you turn out at first are going to have to do it all themselves.” All hunters want a balanced hound, but here it’s a top priority. Leon said, “You can’t hunt a one dimensional dog out here.” He expounded, “A dog’s got to be able to strike, trail, tree it and stay treed. If they’re missing one trait they aren’t capable of doing the job.”
In contrast to Northern Maine, the majority of bears that Leon’s clients kill are treed. However, one thing needed in abundance is “devotion to the tree.” He described this, “In a lot of places, devotion to the tree isn’t as big of deal, but a lot of these bears will be ahead of the dogs when they tree and then climb really high. They could be 80-feet high in an evergreen totally out of sight. Dogs without a strong tree instinct will lose interest after a while if they can’t see the bear.”
Additionally, hounds may have to stay treed for long periods of time waiting for hunters to arrive. Big country without roads can mean long walks to the tree. It’s essential that a hound stay until the houndsman arrive. Leon expounded, “In some parts of the country, if your dogs stay treed for an hour you’ll probably get to them, but here you need a dog that will stay treed for a lot longer!”
Leon says, “We get on some rough bears that want to bay, but most of our bears run more than they fight or walk. It’s a foot race to catch a bear in Idaho right now - so speed is very important at all stages of the race!” Leon says that if a hound cold trails slowly it’ll be worn down by the time it jumps the bear. “The faster and fresher they are when they catch the bear, the more likely they’ll tree the bear. That initial speed to jump a bear quickly is important,” he says. “The main factor of speed is trailing style, not just physical physique. The fastest sprinting dog may be the slowest trailer. The older “slower” dogs often move a track quicker than young dogs.”
In conclusion, Leon looks for his hounds to be well balanced, have a great nose, be fast trailing, be natural tree dogs with extreme endurance for running a bear all day in the steep mountains. “Grit is factor here, but it’s maybe not even grit. It’s really “stick” that we’re all looking for, not necessarily a dog that’s trying to grab the animal, but they’ve got to run to catch and stay treed until we get there. A dog in my pack has to be able to do it all by himself, because he may have to in this country. That’s what makes a bear dog for me.”
The common denominator amongst all bear hunters is to have dogs with extreme desire that will get it done in whatever conditions in which they’re faced. We know that everyone is going to be slightly different in what they prefer in a hound. Every houndsman has the right to define what a bear dog means to them, and most likely the terrain is going to help define the kind of hound needed to catch game.