By TL Jones
Every bear hunting houndsman wants great dogs. I’ve never met anyone who wants mediocre hounds. Yet, in reality, there are a lot of hounds that can’t produce in the woods. And unfortunately, there’s plenty of breeding taking place that produces subpar litters of puppies that are unlikely to improve the matter.
How can hound hunters get better dogs? That’s a simple question, but it has a lot of variables in the answers. I just want to address one aspect of answering that question, and that is that getting better bear dogs begins with having a standard in mind and then working toward that standard. A standard is a rule of measure. Everyone attempting to breed for better bear dogs needs a standard by which they gauge their success or failure. I realize that sounds like a given, but I promise you it’s not. Lots of “cross your fingers” matings are attempted every year, and these crosses are seemingly made with absolutely no standard in mind.
A lot of factors need to be taken into account in setting a standard for your breeding program, so everyone will have to personalize it for themselves based on the needs within their own region. I’m going to share some of the things that my family considers in a bear dog. It’s really not important, in the end, if you adopt our standard, but it is important that you have a standard.
The following are the basics that are important to us in catching bears:
1. DRIVE – In my personal estimation, drive is the most essential characteristic of any big game hound. Drive is also referred to as heart. Drive is the desire to find, pursue, and stick with dangerous game. Without drive, nothing else matters. A dog with an abundance of drive can overcome some deficiencies in other areas just by sheer will. Dogs with appropriate drive don’t have to be coaxed and they don’t quit when things get a little difficult.
2. INTELLIGENCE – Dogs with sufficient brain power are less trouble training and are less trouble hunting. Within the scope of canine ability, they are problem solvers. Where other less intelligent dogs may get stumped, the more brainy dogs will figure things out and be able to turn potential disaster into success.
3. NOSE – Almost no bear hound character trait is debated more than nose. Some say all hounds have near the same ability to smell, and others say that some dogs have a far superior ability to detect and follow scent. I’m not going to enter into that discussion here. What I am going to say is that if a hound can’t smell it, a hound can’t catch it. Primarily I’m talking about trailing ability (not winding). Regardless of its cause, some dogs have the nose to take some tracks that other dogs can’t or won’t. If you live in a place so full of bears that every track you run is red hot, you’ll have to have a dog that can detect scent and follow that scent. In a perfect world, we’d prefer a dog that can take a colder track nose-down and move the track in the right direction until the bear is jumped, then lift its head up and run the wind. A dog that won’t put his nose down to grub an old track will leave you passing on otherwise runnable tracks. And a dog that won’t pick his head up on a running bear will just fall too far behind on a long race.
4. GRIT – Grit is a hound hunting term meaning courage. Grit makes all the difference in the world when pursuing dangerous game. Houndsmen vary in the degree of grit they want in their hounds. I’m not going to try and argue someone out of their preference, but I will tell you that in my experience I’d rather have a little too much than not enough. There’s a reason some packs of dogs will walk a bear all day and never get it treed or stopped, and then one particular dog added to the occasion seals the deal. I will also say that if a breeder isn’t very selective, he’ll be too low in grit in a hurry.
5. SPEED – A dog, like a human being, can only run so fast. There’s a reason that some of the richest men in the world who use the best genetics possible and the best trainers possible seldom break horse racing records. Every species has limitations, including canines. However—all things being equal—the more head up running speed, the better. Some folks would be surprised at just how fast the traditional “coon dog” breeds are even in comparison to “running” breeds. Slower dogs may work for some people in some conditions, but they are nearly worthless in the mountains of Appalachia.
6. ENDURANCE – This refers to how long and how far a hound can perform. Endurance has a genetic component and should be considered in breeding. It also has a conditioning/nutrition aspect; when proper genetics are wed to proper conditioning/nutrition, a hound can run an unbelievable number of miles and an unbelievable number of hours. For those who are not familiar, endurance is also sometimes referred to as “bottom”. A coon dog may have to run two miles, but a bear dog may have to run twenty. Dogs with “mo bottom” catch the game but other dogs do not.
7. TREE POWER – Tree power to us is two things: 1) locating and 2) staying treed. When a bear trees, the dogs in pursuit are not always within eyesight so they have to know the track has ended and locate the bear in the tree. Some hounds are not as good at it as they should be. Bear hounds should almost never be slick treed. Once the game is located and the hound begins to bark treed, I’m not too concerned about how many barks a minute that dog barks. Those 120 barks-per-minute dogs are fine, but 60 barks works just fine as long as the dog stays treed. How long should a bear dog stay treed? Until someone gets to the tree! If a bear trees in an extremely difficult place and it takes hours to get there, those dogs should stay. Real tree power isn’t in barks per minute, it's in staying treed. It’s not uncommon for the best tree dogs to remain all night until someone arrives the next morning when circumstances call for it.
Other traits such as color, ear length, voice type, height, weight, etc. can be factored in according to personal preference, but they are “bells and whistles”. The above describes the fundamental traits of better dogs. A dog lacking those traits doesn’t meet the higher standards. Breeding with those things in mind will get you closer to dogs that can get the job done.