Legendary Bear Hound Foundations
By Steve Fielder
Bear dogs come in all shapes and colors, but it’s not the shape or the color of the dogs that carry them to legendary status in the minds of those that hunt with them. It’s what beats within the chest of the hound: the heart, the grit, and the degree of determination that separates the really good ones from the rest of the pack. This series has identified dozens of legendary hounds that have displayed those qualities and more. This month, we’ll look at the foundations of these legendary hounds, the individual breeds from which each of them came.
My career with purebred dog registries began with United Kennel Club in 1978 and concluded with the American Kennel Club in 2010, a period of nearly 33 years. Sandwiched within my tenure with those organizations was a seven-year stint with the Professional Kennel Club. With each of those jobs came the responsibility to oversee the registry-related activities of six individual breeds of coonhounds: the American Black and Tan Coonhound, the Bluetick Coonhound, the American English Coonhound, the Plott Hound, the Redbone Coonhound, and the Treeing Walker Coonhound. The American Leopard Hound was added after my exit. Those activities included the governance of shows, field trials, nite hunt competitions, and the oversight of the breed standards for each of the breeds. As a result, I became intimately familiar with the origins and the progression of each breed through the decades since their establishment.
It is universally accepted that five of the breeds sprang from the same English/Irish/French roots as did the American Foxhound. Fox hunting with scent hounds traces its origins back to the sixth century B.C. when the Ancient Greeks brought fierce mastiff-type dogs to the British Isles. The Celtic people recognized the scent-trailing abilities of these dogs and used them for hunting. Perhaps they were crossed with the fleet-of-foot sighthounds to ultimately produce the dogs capable of hunting the fox and stag. When Robert Brooke brought his foxhound pack from England to the New World in 1659, he unwittingly ushered in what would become the most popular of all hunting dog sports in America: raccoon and big game hunting with hounds.
The Plott Hound aside, each of the breeds commonly used in bear hunting, including the recently recognized American Leopard Hound, were fundamentally established by raccoon hunters from the foxhound roots. Raccoons and other North American furbearing species were nonexistent in Europe. Hunting with hounds had been the sport of royalty there for centuries, but necessity became the mother of invention as the settlers encountered animals in their new home that would not only be used for food and trade but would also provide recreation for long nights on the frontier. The result was the development of a sport enjoyed by gentry and the common man alike.
Once in America, as the colonial foxhounds began to age and running with the pack became a physical challenge, the foxhound began to pursue the trail of the slower moving, more numerous raccoon. But the wily raccoon’s nightly forays into woodlots, clearings, and streams produced more puzzling, technical scent trails than did his contemporary furbearer, the fox. In addition to being a meticulous worker of trails, the converted foxhound had to possess, as part of his box of tools, the ability to accurately locate a raccoon in a tree, barking incessantly until the master arrived to dispatch the game. This ability to “tree” game was paramount to the successful establishment of a hound to be used for hunting raccoons and has become the benchmark for breeding in each of the established coonhound breeds. This skill, called “treeing”, was developed by breeding dogs with that trait to others of the same ilk until the now-inherited trait became the coonhound’s benchmark. Because bear hunting requires essentially the same skill set in hound flesh as does raccoon hunting, coonhound breeds were the natural first choice of bear hunters when developing their hunting packs. Working cold trails, running to catch, and treeing, or baying on the ground as the case may be, are all inherent to coonhounds and bear hounds alike.
To the casual observer, the temptation to lump the coonhound breeds into a single type with color as the primary distinguishable characteristic of each is a common mistake. While some may be subtle, there clearly are defined differences to be explored within each of these notable breeds. The breed standards for each as set forth by the registries contain overviews that show that each of the breeds has been refined to accomplish the task of catching game in different ways. If we are to consider using a hound to facilitate Ursus Americanus’ no-expense-spared trip to the taxidermist, we are kidding ourselves if we think we can use poorly conformed, out of shape, couch-potatoes-in-dog-hide to accomplish the task. The bear hound, in addition to having the ability to strike, trail, pursue, and bay or tree the quarry, is an athlete of the first order. He must routinely traverse forbidding terrain for hours on end culminating in a life threatening fight to the finish at the end of the trail.
Borrowing descriptive verbiage from the breed standards, the Redbone is to be surefooted and swift, the Black and Tan is to be steady as she goes regardless of climate or terrain, and the Bluetick is to be the deliberate worker of intricate scent trails. Likewise, the English Coonhound is a dog of strong build, capable of considerable speed and great endurance, and the Plott Hound is a beautiful, strongly built yet moderate hound, with a distinct brindle-colored coat. His appearance suggests the capacity for speed, stamina, and endurance. The American Leopard Hound is an all-purpose tree dog, noted for stamina and the ability to withstand all extremes of temperature. Lastly, the Treeing Walker is a well-balanced, symmetrical, graceful hound, well known for his ability to run and tree a variety of game on varying kinds of terrain. Each description is designed to provide show judges needed information in their “form follows function” quest, but is used for our purposes here to educate hunters that may not be familiar with hound hunting as part of their fundamental knowledge of the breeds.
Let’s take a look at each breed individually, addressing it alphabetically according to name.
BLACK AND TAN COONHOUND
The earliest of the coonhound, aka bear hound breeds, to be formally recognized by a purebred registry is the American Black and Tan Coonhound. The stud file was established with the United Kennel Club in 1900, two years after the registry was established. While Black and Tans trace their ancestry to Tolbot and St. Hubert hounds of France, they were brought to England after the Norman invasion in the eleventh century. As foxhounds were imported to the colonies by the likes of Robert Brooke and George Washington, the dogs weren’t ideally suited for raccoon hunting, facilitating the need for a new, American-crafted breed with a cold nose, dogged determination, and the essential treeing instinct. Early Black and Tans were called Old Glory hounds and followed settlers’ wagon trains across the Midwest and plains states. Bloodhounds were most likely contributors in the creation of the Black and Tan Coonhound.
Black and Tans are not the most popular breed for bear hunting, but hunters that prefer the breed and have established consistent breeding programs—like Merold Mohni of Wisconsin—rarely hunt with any other breed. Mohni’s hound, Trackdown Jake, was a featured Legendary Bear Hound. In the tribute article I wrote, I said that “Merold Mohni believes that two dogs can tree any bear that six dogs can tree. Jake took that idea to the extreme by treeing many bears by himself. Despite his early sins, the redeemed Jake became a legendary bear dog, a hound truly worthy of the name. In bear dogs as in diamonds, the best ones have rough edges. Trackdown Jake was indeed a diamond in the rough that shines clear and bright in the memories of those fortunate enough to hunt with him.”
The Bluetick Coonhound has influenced the hounds of western bear and lion hunters more than any other coonhound breed. To quote from the United Kennel Club breed standard, “It is most likely that the Bluetick is principally descended from the quick foxhounds of England with some introduction of the blood of various French hounds which were used for hunting big game. The French dogs were known as being very cold nosed. George Washington received five such French hounds from General Lafayette. Blueticks were originally registered with the UKC as English. In 1946, at the request of the Bluetick fanciers, the UKC began registering Blueticks as a separate breed.”
Whether or not the ability to handle cold trails can be linked to French ancestry remains unclear to this writer, but by established reputation and in my personal experience, the ability to cold trail is inarguably linked to the breed. No doubt the term “blueticking” has been attached to hounds that seem to belabor tracks that other hounds either cannot smell or that, otherwise, hold no interest for them. Dry land lion hunters often use Blueticks for their meticulous trailing capabilities. One notable Bluetick Coonhound breeder, the late Warren Haslouer of Kansas, developed the Smokey River Bluetick strain that was a favorite of bear hunters across the nation. Famed hunter and author, Del Cameron, also chose the Bluetick as his bear hunting breed of choice. We honored Bluetick Thunder owned by Jared Higgins of Utah in a former Legendary Bear Hound piece.
It would be vain indeed for this writer to pen a history of this breed when the authors of the United Kennel Club breed standard for the English Coonhound have done such a notable job. The standard states that “The English Coonhound was first registered by the UKC in 1905 under the name of English Fox & Coonhound. In those days, the dogs were used much more on foxes than they are today. The name also reflected the similarity that the breed had to the American Foxhound and the English Foxhound.”
English hounds, more than any other of the coonhound breeds, enjoy a liberal color standard. Again, quoting from the UKC standard: “The variation in color is another aspect of English Coonhound history. Both the Treeing Walker and the Bluetick Coonhound were originally registered with the UKC as English. The Walker was recognized as a separate breed in 1945, and the Bluetick a year later. There are still tri-colored and blueticked English hounds, though redticked dogs dominate in the breed today.” Perhaps it was the liberal color standard, combined with an aggressive attempt to bring outstanding individual hounds into the stud book through a system called single registration, that propelled the English Coonhound into a position of popularity among tree-dog enthusiasts surpassed only by the Treeing Walker breed. English fanciers have long preferred performance over strict adherence to color standards.
The redticked hound is one of the most striking of all the breeds in terms of color. My earliest days of hunting bears with hounds in the southern Appalachians saw redticked hounds in virtually all of the bear packs of my experience in those days. And likely as not, an outstanding hound within a given pack would be a redticked or in the following case, a lemon-spotted hound. I wrote of such a hound in the Legendary Bear Dog series in an earlier issue. Old Trey was whelped March 5, 1948, and was white in color with lemon-colored body patches and ears. He weighed between 60-65 pounds and ran his game with a coarse “chop” voice. He had all the tools required in a bear hound by his owner, Allegheny Mountain region bear hunter, Buck Armstrong. Trey’s nose, mouth, stamina, speed, and treeing combined made Armstrong describe the hound as “an all ‘round bear dog, being a tremendous strike dog and cold trailer.”
The only member on our list of bear hunting breeds that doesn’t trace to English/Irish/French origins is the German Plott Hound. Believed to have originated with the family that gave the breed its name, the bear hunting Plotts of Haywood County, North Carolina, the breed became immensely popular with bear hunters after World War II. But it was coonhound fanciers like Dale Brandenburger of Illinois that propelled the breed into the limelight through his ads in coonhound publications spanning several decades.
The Plott family of hunters was typical of most hound hunters of their region. They were clannish and territorial. Their dogs languished in obscurity until discovered by coon hunters who bought them and extolled the virtue of the breed nationwide. Descended from hounds brought to these shores by Johannes Plott in 1750 from his home in Heidelberg, Germany, the breed excelled on the ample black bear and Russian boar populations in their new home. A quote from the United Kennel Club standard best describes the breed to those unfamiliar with what many believe to be the quintessential breed for hunting bears: “This breed is active, fast, bright, kind, confident, and courageous. They are vicious fighters on game, have a super treeing instinct, and take readily to water. They are alert and quick to learn. Voice is open trailing, bawl and chop.”
Many lovers of hunting hounds were introduced to the lifestyle through the book and subsequent movie, Where The Red Fern Grows. The hounds in the heart gripping story of Depression-era life in the Ozarks were Redbones. The Redbone Coonhound has its origins in the foxhound packs of the South. Originally, Redbones were saddleback in color, gradually evolving, due to a preference to the color by breeders and fanciers alike, to the beautiful, solid red color of today. First registered in 1902, the Redbone was the second of the coonhound breeds to be enrolled in the UKC studbook. The foundation stock of today’s Redbone came from the foxhound kennel of George F.L. Birdsong of Georgia, who obtained a pack of the then-saddleback hounds from Dr. Thomas Henry in the 1840s.
Bill Dereszewski, a professional Maine guide, hunted with a Redbone hound we featured in a Legendary Bear Hound article. The hound was named McDonnell’s Rooster Cogburn and was owned by Matt McDonnell. “Matt McDonnell is a client of mine,” said Dereszewski. “He comes up to Maine bear hunting every season. I was pretty impressed with Rooster, so impressed that I now have three of his pups. Every man has a handful of hounds that he’s pretty proud to own. Every once in a while, you get one that’s special. Rooster was that kind. Multiple times he would go out and cold trail a track that no other dog could smell and he was the only dog under the tree multiple times as well. The thing I liked the most about him was that he was so well-behaved. He knew the difference between hanging around the yard and when he was going hunting. He had a head full of brains. He was one of those dogs you knew was special the minute you laid eyes on him, and he didn’t disappoint. Rooster sired a lot of pups and I don’t know of any of them that didn’t make bear dogs.”
TREEING WALKER COONHOUND
When I write about the Treeing Walker Coonhound, I often refer to the breed as the people’s choice. More raccoon hunters hunt the tri-colored Treeing Walker than all the other breeds combined. Significantly more so than any other breed, Treeing Walker history is intricately entwined with that of the Walker Foxhound, the product of the fox hunting Walker family of Kentucky. Exhausting every effort to breed a hound that could run the imported red fox to ground without success, the effort was finally rewarded by the introduction of a black and tan colored hound stolen from a deer chase in Tennessee. Named Tennessee Lead, the hound did indeed produce the type of hound the Walkers had been seeking. Because of their speed, endurance, and, eventually, their treeing ability, the Treeing Walker excelled in field trial-type competitions called Nite Hunts, which were designed to simulate the actual raccoon hunt with hounds. Initial attempts at using the breed on big game was met with mixed results, but an increasing number of today’s bear hunters are turning to the popular coonhound breed to build their packs for hunting America’s most formidable game animal today: the black bear.
Kirk Rogers, a professional guide in Maine, has built a successful bear pack upon the efforts of early Treeing Walker breeder, Joe House of Kentucky. Rogers saw his Treeing Walker, Bear River Tazz (featured in an earlier Legendary Bear Hounds tribute) tree 127 bears by the time the male hound was four-years-old, proving the ability of individuals within the breed to be more than successful when used on black bears.
AMERICAN LEOPARD HOUND
While actively hunting bears with hounds in the seventies and mid-1980s, I hunted with two Leopard Curs in West Virginia that came from the kennel of Richard McDuffie, then in North Carolina. Both were solid dogs that contributed significantly to our otherwise all-hound pack. Leopards are distinguishable from other hound breeds by their mottled, also termed “merle,” color pattern. Because of the unusual color, mountaineers in the southern region referred to the dogs as rattlesnakes. The dogs I hunted with were named Stub (due to his natural bobtail) and Rattler (because of his blue merle color pattern). Stub was also mottled but with a reddish hue.
A quote from the United Kennel Club standard states that “American Leopard Hounds are believed to be the descendants of dogs that were brought to the new world by Spanish conquistadors and crossed with native Mexican dogs. Early American settlers brought Leopard dogs from Mexico to hunt bears. The Leopard Cur was recognized by the UKC on November 1, 1998. The breed’s name was changed to American Leopard Hound on May 1, 2008.”
Many breeders of bear hounds have no regard for registries or the papers they supply, choosing rather to breed based on ability alone. The United Kennel Club realized the popularity of crossbreds and established the X-Bred program in which two or more breeds may be included in the hound’s ancestry. If the hounds are bred back to a single breed for multiple generations, the crossbred hound will be recognized as that particular breed. Western hunters have been proponents of this type of breeding for generations and some eastern hunters, particularly those of my hunting experience, embrace the practice as well.