By Clay Newcomb
There is something to be said for the simplicity of breeding the best dogs to the best dogs, regardless of breed. Thinking outside of the “pure breed” box is taboo to some bear hunters, but to many it’s something they’ve done for years. Bear hunters have always been interested in results. The bottom line for houndsman is treed bears. Speed, a cold nose for tough tracks, the right amount of grit to stay alive, but enough to pressure a mean bear to bay or tree are key issues. What is amazing about this legendary bear “hound” is that much of its breeding isn’t even hound. This is the seventh article in our Legendary Bear Hound series. All of our previous articles have been on purebred hounds. We’ve done two articles on Treeing Walkers and four articles on American Plotts. Get ready because this article may make the gears in your mind spin backwards. Heck, some of you may not even believe it!
In 2004, outfitter Doug McMann, of what is now Skinner Creek Outfitters in British Columbia, got a mixed breed female named Buffy to be utilized as a companion and pet for the family. The dog was ½ border collie, ¼ German shepherd and ¼ golden retriever. You can imagine how smart the dog was because of the border collie (arguably the world’s smartest breed). The German shepherd in the dog produced some tenacity, aggression and protectiveness. Golden retrievers are extremely loyal, trainable and intelligent. Buffy was a unique mix of all of these things. Buffy, however, isn’t the legendary bear hound, but she was the mother of one.
At the time the family got Buffy, Doug had some Walkers that he was training on big game. At different times he would bring Buffy along for the hunts. He became amazed, as the mix-breed dog would get in on the chases and show extreme aggression and fearlessness on cougars and bear. Doug said, “When Buffy was seven-months old, she was on a cougar that came out of the tree. She grabbed it by the tail when it hit the ground and fought it!” Doug went on to describe Buffy later in life, “She loved to hunt. When she bit a bear, she BIT a bear. She would bite one in the haunches, and she’d get carried up the tree.” It actually got to the point where Doug was afraid to bring Buffy because she was rougher on game than his hounds. He said, “She would go for the throat of a cougar.” He knew it was inevitable that she would get killed if he continued to let her hunt.
At the same time, Doug had a male dog named Rudy. Rudy was mainly Black and Tan, but was 1/16th Cameron Bluetick. Rudy had come from Brent Sinkler’s stock of dogs, a lion hunter in Alberta. According to Doug, Rudy was the most driven track dog he’d ever hunted. He was not fast on the track. He was slow and methodical and could work out the toughest, coldest tracks. He was a never-quit tree dog that would stay on a tree for as long as it took. Rudy was a top bear and cougar hound for Doug. He was the “rock” of the pack, but not too flashy.
At some point, Doug contrasted the qualities of his two dogs, Buffy and Rudy, and envisioned what it would be like to have dog that carried the strengths of both. In a moment of out-of-the-box thinking in 2008, Doug decided to breed the pair. Later Doug would say, “The biggest mistake I made was not keeping the whole litter.”
From a litter of five pups, Doug decided to keep a male and a female. He would name the pair, Cookie (female) and Burger. He gave away the rest of the dogs to people who really never used them for hunting. Sadly, all the littermates were eventually neutered or spade. It was an experimental litter, and he didn’t have much faith in the cross that would be the only one ever made between the two dogs. Two years later, at the age of five, the dam, Buffy, died in a freak accident. Rudy would continue on as a solid member of Doug’s pack for many years. Sadly, later in Rudy’s life, wolves killed him. But as many breeders understand, sometimes there is magic in a unique cross that is impossible to replicate. Such was the case with Buffy and Rudy.
Cookie and Burger
Cookie and Burger started off strong at a young age. It helped that they were exposed to a tremendous amount of hunting. In British Columbia, Doug runs his hounds on bear, cougar and lynx more than 200 days per year. Almost all his hounds are multi-species dogs, but some excel more at certain species than others. Doug recalls, “Cookie and Burger treed their 20th bear by themselves on their first birthday. I let them sight-run a bear when they were young, and then after that they’d strike a bear on scent.” The pair was exceptionally fast and would literally leave the pack behind on almost every race, even when under a year old. The dogs had uncommon intelligence that helped them work out tricky spots in the tracks. “The dogs had exceptional noses, and they never really stayed on a track, but they drifted it,” Doug said. The dogs also seemed to have just the right combination of grit and smarts to not get killed. However, Burger would later disprove his early positions.
Both of the dogs were exceptionally trainable, far beyond that of most hounds. The border collie, German shepherd and golden retriever in the dogs brought out a deep sense of loyalty and desire to please Doug, who was already a very gifted houndsman and trainer. Doug said, “The dogs never needed a leash or a shock collar. We would be walking and see a bear cross the road several hundred yards away and the dogs would turn and look to me for the command of what to do.” The dogs could be called off any track, from any tree, from any distance with the tone of a shock collar (which was the only reason they wore them). “The cross put brains into the hounds, and that’s what I liked about them. They taught me and my whole pack how to run lynx,” Doug said.
Lynx are extremely tough to track and tree because they just don’t leave much scent in the extremely cold temperatures in which they’re hunted. “A lynx is the real test for a hound and she taught my pack how to tree them. They may go into a five-acre blow-down and stay in there hunting rabbits for two hours. When a dog strikes that track in that thicket, it can be extremely difficult. Cookie and Burger would hit that thicket and waste no time circling around to catch the track on the other side, while my other hounds would be hung up in the thicket,” Doug said. “Lynx are bad about jumping into different trees and coming down 50 yards away and going on their back track. While my other dogs would be slick treed, Cookie and Burger would be ½ mile away running the lynx.”
It was late winter 2010 and Doug had a cougar-hunting client in camp. They started a nice track with Cookie, Burger and two other Walker hounds. Watching the race on the GPS for some time, Doug stated to his client, “Burger is dead.”
“How can you tell?” He replied back.
“Burger isn’t moving and Cookie is coming back,” Doug said.
The cougar had killed Burger. According to Doug, this was the only time that Cookie ever came back from a treed or bayed animal. It’s hard to determine what really went on in Cookie’s mind, but the death of her littermate appeared to impact her. Some would argue that this wasn’t possible, and it was just a “rough cat” that she didn’t like. However, she never pulled off another animal like she did that cat. Additionally, Doug went in the next day and treed the cat after striking it off Burger’s carcass. When they shot it out, it was the only time that he ever had to physically pull Cookie away from a dead animal. He couldn’t call her off the dog-killing cougar.
Now two years old, Cookie continued to develop as a bear, cougar and lynx dog. According to Doug, her main strength was her speed. She had an uncanny ability to leave the pack behind on every race. In order to diversify his pack and not lean too much on one dog, Doug would often start a track with his other hounds. “With a 20-minute head start, Cookie would tree ½ ahead of my other dogs consistently.” He said. Even though she drifted a hot track like a magician, she was also very cold nosed and was an excellent rig dog. “If I found a three day old bear track in the snow, I could unload her and say, “Hunt it up.” She would look at me like I was crazy and track it by sight until she struck it.” The intelligence of the dog and its ability to understand what Doug wanted was unmatched and was clearly linked to its odd pedigree.
Cookie was also a hard tree dog. “She was a mix of that dog that sits back five yards from tree on it’s haunches, and the dog that’s always got his front feet on the wood.” He said. “The longest I left her on the tree was 16 hours before I could get to her. Her brother, Burger, was 7 months old and once stayed treed 21 hours on a lion.”
Cookie had a unique non-hound voice, as one might expect. Doug described it as a high-pitched chop that sounded more like a housedog than a hound. But at the end of the day, the sound of her voice didn’t make a bit of difference to a bear or cougar. Additionally, the dog was also very tough. Doug recalled a time when they were running lynx through ice and snow and Cookie’s paws and ankles were worn through the skin and bleeding. She would have continued on the track except for Doug calling her off for fear of greater injury.
Two of the most memorable stories Doug recalls about Cookie revolved around how she saved him in pinch from some mean bears on the ground. There were four dogs, including Cookie, that had a mean 150-pound bear bayed on the ground in some thick brush. Doug was 15 feet from the action, but couldn’t see what was going on. He could see the bear’s head and wanted to get a picture of the tussle, so he pitched a rock at the bear while he held his camera ready for a picture. The bear jumped when the rock thudded and saw Doug for the first time. The reckless bruin then charged at him in a flash of amazing speed! When the bear was three feet from Doug’s face, Cookie slammed chest-to-chest into the bear, literally rolling him before it could reach her master. After the crash the bear retreated. As only a seasoned outfitter can say, “The bear was coming to get me. It wasn’t a bluff charge. Cookie saved my hide that day.” Could the other dogs have done the same thing? Yes. But Cookie always had keen awareness of where Doug was and always seemed to be looking out for his welfare in sticky situations. An almost identical situation would later happen again.
Over the years, multiple clients said, “That dog listens to every word you say all the time.” Doug went on to explain, “She was always watching me. Whether I was talking to other dogs, or people. She always knew what was going on.” She had a human awareness that wasn’t hound-like.
Over Cookie’s lifetime she was on over 300 treed bears, 100 cougars and 100 lynx. She died in 2014 at the age of six years old from cancer. If she had lived a few more years she would have likely surpassed the magical number of 500 bears treed. Doug said that due to her absence from his pack, in 2015 the lynx tracks have taken on average 30 minutes longer to tree. Though she was an exceptional and truly legendary bear dog, she was the best on lynx. Unfortunately, Doug never raised a litter of pups from Cookie or any of her offspring.
Thoughts on Bear Hounds and Training
Doug McMann, surprisingly, doesn’t come from a long line of houndsman. It was always a dream of his to own hounds, and it wasn’t until he was 36 years old that he did. Despite a later start, he’s proven to be extremely gifted with his hounds and training. He has only recently started breeding his own line of dogs. “I’m really trying to build a line of dogs kind of like Cookie. Dogs that are really intelligent, fast and small.” He’s found that the smaller dogs hold up better with the amount hunting he does and seem to navigate the thick stuff easier. Currently, Doug’s go-to breeds in his custom line are a Treeing Walker and Leopard Hound cross. The result is a hound that almost looks like a Bluetick without any orange.
Doug says, “Bear hunting is easy up here compared to lynx. There is a lot of scent involved with a bear.” He went on to clarify his point, “However, finding a bear dog isn’t easy. Every dog thinks it can whip a cat, but not many dogs think they can whip a bear. It’s hard to “make” bear dogs. Even good litters from proven bear dogs have some that won’t make true bear dogs. You don’t make bear dogs; they’ve got to be born with it. Most hounds will chase a bear, but most won’t make true bear dogs. They’ll look great until they get a real mean one.”
Doug likes to raise his hounds with a lot of exposure to people. He says that most hounds are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. Secondly, hounds are usually not handled like pets and sometimes this can account for the lack of “trainability.” “When my clients ask me if they can pet the dogs, I say ‘absolutely.’” Many of the dogs spend their first few months in Doug’s house with his wife and kids. Probably the most effective training technique he uses is the tone on his training collar. At about five months old he begins to lightly obedience train a hound with tones and stimulation. The dogs learn that he’s the boss, and he never has to get rough with any of them. He says most people are surprised at the way his hounds handle. He only carries leads to the tree in case they want to tie the dogs back from the tree. Additionally, one of his finished hounds is toned trained to come back off a track or tree. The evening we did the interview for this article, Doug explained how at dark he toned his hounds off a lynx track at dark.
Cookie was very much an untraditional bear dog with a very untraditional pedigree. Sometimes it’s these out-of-the-box stories that keep us on our toes and show us that there is more than one way to tree a bear. Legendary bear dogs come in all breeds, and on the rare occasion they come from an odd mix of dogs. A bear dog is a bear dog, regardless of what it looks like.