By Jason Mitsin
There is a lot of controversy in the hound world about the level of development you should see in a hound by the time they are two years old. Some people like to see puppies at six to eight months old running, treeing, and baying bears. It doesn’t happen very often and certainly isn’t the standard for pup development. I’ve gotten excited when I’ve seen pups at five months old bay caged coons. It’s easy to think, “Man, this pup is gunna make a bear dog.” Then they go right the other way. I have also seen puppies that show no interest in caged coons, and they turn out to be super bear dogs. No matter the case, training season is the time to introduce puppies to the hunting world.
I consider a hound to be a puppy until age two. It really depends on each individual puppy and at what maturity level they are to determine what I expect from them. I have raised puppies that mature a lot faster than others. I often take pups under one year old along on hunts to get them used to being in the truck with the other dogs. When I get a bear treed, I will walk these puppies to the tree, let them run around and get used to all the activity at the tree. The smells, the noise, and activity of the other hounds are important for them to see. Hopefully, the bear in the tree will be low enough that the puppy can see the bear. If the puppy acknowledges the bear is in the tree, then he or she has just taken a big step in their development as a bear dog. Most of the time puppies are more into figuring out what all the other hounds are doing, and a lot of times it takes several trips to the tree for them to figure things out.
Very few hounds come onto treeing without a lot of encouragement and a bit of work. I watch young pups when I am out training, and when I feel they are showing signs of wanting to hunt, I will start releasing them behind the older hounds. I rarely start hunting a dog until it is over one year old. Some puppies start running track at a young age (under one year), but many do not. I do not try to push young puppies too hard because you want them to naturally have the heart and desire to hunt. You can’t force that on them. If they do have the desire at a young age, then they will only get better with time. You can’t really pick the bears you want to run, so it’s a crapshoot when you let them go.
Finding the Right Bear to Start On
The bear that you are running on any giving day can play a huge part in the development of a puppy. For example, if you happen to get on a bear that doesn't want to tree, and all he wants to do is stay on the ground and fight, then that puppy can get spooked. Ultimately, you would hope the puppy would stay in there and bay with the older hounds, but that is not the case all the time. My best female hound, when she was 14 months old, treed a bear with the help of four older hounds. When I got to the tree, the bear came out and all the hounds took off after the bear. They didn't go very far and there was a huge roar of hounds baying. Then all of a sudden, it went completely silent. Before I knew it, she was standing at my feet. Apparently the bear had enough and decided to fight. The young hound, named Zero, didn't want anything to do with it. The older hounds ran the bear out of hearing. I tried to get Zero to go back in again, but she was done. I was discouraged because she had been doing awesome since she was six months old. She developed early, so I thought to myself, “Dang, that bear just ruined a good hound.”
The next three or four times out running bears, I brought her along but didn't let her hunt. Then one day a bear crossed the road in front of the truck with hounds right behind it. She saw the bear and went absolutely nuts, fighting to get out of the dog box. I let her go, and as luck would have it, that bear didn't want to climb. However, she stuck with the older hounds for six hours walking and baying. At the end of the day, when I caught all the hounds, Zero had cuts on her side from scrapping with the bear. From that day on she hasn't skipped a beat.
The point I am making is this: don’t push puppies beyond their comfort level, let them gain courage and the willingness to hunt, and don't be scared to put a puppy on the bench when they do something wrong or get spooked. I have another male hound that got in a rough tangle with a bear when he was 14 months old. I wanted to get rid of him because he came off two bears on the ground, but then I let him sit on the bench for a while. Now he is one of my grittiest hounds and will not quit a bear.
Everyone wants pups that start early, but they won’t all do it. As a matter of fact, early starting pups doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll finish out. I prefer starting to hunt pups when they are 12 months to 16 months old. This seems to be the age that most puppies start to mature and start developing their hunting senses. I slowly work my puppies into the pack, and I don't get too upset if a young dog doesn't make it from truck to tree.
Second Season Pups
I have higher expectations of pups that have a season of hunting under their belt. When puppies have been on several hunts the year before and are now pushing the two-year-old mark, training season is time to fine-tune them. You should begin to see their potential start to emerge. My expectations of a second-season puppy are that they should be making runs from truck to tree and even start their own tracks. You should be able to turn them in with hounds that are in pursuit of a bear and finish with them at the tree.
I like to use second-season pups to start tracks instead of my older hounds. This will give them the confidence to do it on their own, which is a very necessary thing for them become bear dogs. If you have issues with them not sticking bears on the ground, then sit them on the bench for a few hunts. Make them want to go harder the next time, and then slowly feed them back in. I haven't had many puppies that didn't need to sit on the bench a time or two. Their punishment is keeping them out of the hunt. When you put them back in, you’ll need to praise the heck out of them for their accomplishment. Praise is one of the most powerful pup training tools.
Part 2 will be in the Sept/Oct issue of BHM.
When a young hound comes off of a mean bear the assumption is that the dog will forever be scared and not make a solid bear hound. However, the author has had success multiple times bringing young dogs that have gotten scared of bears back into the action. He’s seen some turn into the top bear hounds in his pack. The trick has been to bring them along on the hunt, but not hunt them. Or as the author calls it, “setting them on the bench.” The time needed on the bench will vary with each hound and is a judgment call only the houndsman can make. If you’ve got the dog available you can wait for the opportune track to get them back in the action once they want to go back. Picking the right track to introduce them back in after a bad experience is key. Secondly, the dog wanting to go back is critical.
Secondly, the author prefers to start hunting hounds when they are 12 to 16 months old. Negative experiences with mean bears are easier to overcome when the hound is more mature. Pups under one-year old often have the desire to hunt, run, and tree, however, it’s risky. A houndsman has to measure the maturity level of each pup, but the earlier you start him or her the riskier it is.