In Hot Pursuit - Old Dogs

A Burden, Or Worth Their Weight In Gold?

I have lived a blessed life. I’ve had the opportunity to train working dogs for a dog's age. Several, actually. I have been lucky to be the first person countless puppies have encountered when they emerged blinking into the sunshine, and I have been privileged to be—painfully, on many occasions—the last person those same dogs see as age and illness takes them from me and this world. I have said before that puppies are the embodiment of pure potential. I hope I never stop getting that little electric thrill coursing up my spine when I hold a newborn pup and imagine what it can become. So, what of our old hounds?

            My relationship with my old dogs is more complicated and melancholic. I look into their eyes and I see the adventures we have shared, their potential fulfilled (or not), mistakes I have made (of which there are always many), and I feel sorrow that our adventures together are nearing their end. I also feel a deep gratitude for what they have given me.

            I have friends who, despite many years in hounds and working dogs, have never had an old dog. They are dropped from the pack as soon as someone younger and “better” comes along. I understand why; an old hound takes up room and resources that could be put towards a younger dog with potential. Still, I wonder whether these houndsmen miss out on a remarkable experience by not keeping the old hounds. Young hounds are exciting. They are energetic, fun, and healthy, and their pure enthusiasm for life in general is infectious. They bring an energy to a pack that the older hounds just may not have anymore. However, it is the young dogs who will run trash. It is the young dogs who will hurl themselves into dangerous situations with abandon bred from inexperience. It is the young dogs who will do something stupid that will derail your hunt and maybe their own careers.

            In his most excellent book Meet Mister Grizzly, Montague Stevens tells stories about hunting grizzly bears in an era long gone. His bear hunting exploits with his bloodhounds eventually made him a legend. Like all legends, his rise to status started at the bottom. One of his first challenges was finding his pack once they got out of earshot. This all took place in the late 1800s, so Garmins and telemetry antennas were 100 years in the future. After many a fruitless day searching for his hounds, he eventually went to a local houndsman and brought back “Old Drive”, an aged bear hound who could not keep up with the pack but had a streak of stubborn that kept him trailing the bear—albeit at half the speed as the rest of the pack—until he made it to the tree/bay up. Stevens found that Old Drive became his most valuable tool. Old Drive moved slowly enough to keep up with on horseback, and the percentage of bears that Stevens saw and killed sky-rocketed thanks to Old Drive. While that particular quality has been made more or less obsolete by GPS tracking systems, it made all the difference for Stevens and his storied career as a grizzly bear hunter (with one arm, no less).

Many years ago, I was at a dogsled race in the far north. Pre-race, I stayed with “Tom”, a friend and Master Guide. He had a fine kennel of hounds with insulated houses and a view from the kennel that most millionaires would happily have for their mansions, I am sure. There was a single hound that lived in the house, an old redbone named Red. I was eating breakfast when Red walked into the kitchen. Someone asked Tom why Red was allowed in the house.

“Well, that's quite a story,” he replied. He poured himself another cup of coffee, placed his hand on Red's scarred head, and began.

“We were up north, and I had Red and a bitch named Sally and a bunch of young hounds with me. We got on a bear and I started seeing my young dogs as they fell off. Some were injured, some were just running away. You know a bear's a bad one when you pass your young dogs goin' the wrong direction. I finally got into them and it was just ol' Red who was still on that bear. He looked at me when I came out of the trees and that bear jumped all over him. I ran up to shoot him and that bear turned and swatted me right in the chest. He tore me up pretty good. Well, Red saw me go down and, boy, he got real angry. He was in bad shape but he grabbed that bear by the back leg and bit down and wouldn't let go. That bear turned on him and I found my pistol and shot it in the back of the head. Red was in real bad shape. I carried him out and drove him to the veterinarian.

“That vet took one look at Red and said, 'Tom I don't believe I can save this dog. He has lost too much blood.'

“I said to him, 'Well, a lot of that is mine, so you go ahead and try.' We both pulled through just fine and that's why Red is in the house. If he hadn't been there, I don't 'spect I would be here now.”

            What Tom knew, and what I eventually learned, was that the older hounds can be the difference between a rough day and a catastrophic day. They may be lacking in speed, and are mellower and more business-like than their younger counterparts. However, I believe, as Tom did, that the old hounds could afford to take a more measured approach to their jobs, as they knew how to get it done simply because they had done it so many times before. They have the depth of experience necessary to perform and survive under some pretty gnarly conditions.

            I myself have been guilty of attaching human emotions to my interactions with my hounds. I have watched a young adult dog pass me in the forest and leave me to my fate with a brown bear 50 yards away. I was guilty of thinking, “That wretch. He owes me!” If it had been my human hunting partner who ditched me, I may have been justified. That particular dog was mentally too weak to handle the situation. I didn't know the bear was there until the following day (I was fox hunting) when an older female blew the forest up baying that bear and hung with it until I was able to pull her off several hours later. In reality, that young adult hound didn't owe me anything. He may not be what I am looking for in a hound, but heck, I needed to suck it up to avoid hightailing it out of there myself when, expecting a fox, I came face to face with a fully grown brown bear instead.

            Our hounds ultimately owe us nothing more than what they are capable of giving. We owe them! Think about what we are asking of them. Sure, they are bred for it for hundreds of generations, and it is not unreasonable to expect it from them. But still, we ask them to engage with monsters in the forest and keep them busy until we arrive with backup. That's straight up special forces stuff!

            I think that as a good bear hound ages, it deserves our loyalty. That doesn't mean hold on to every dog you ever have; that would be insane. What I do mean is that our older dogs that have made it to old age in our packs deserve their place of honor. We owe it to them to value them for what they bring to the pack and what they have brought through the years. They may never make it to a tree within 10 minutes of the rest of the pack, but that dog has helped build your pack to what it is. Let me say it another way: they have helped train that pack to be better than they are. Honor their commitment and loyalty by giving them their old age. They deserve it. And who knows, like with Tom and Red, you may find out that one day you'll need them sorely. Our hounds are on this earth so briefly. If they make it so far as old age with you, afford them the opportunity to grow older and die well. I hope when I am old and slow that someone still values what I can bring to the table.