It all starts with a new pup. Bred or bought, it doesn't matter. Pick the pup up in your arms and look; you are holding pure potential in your hands. The start of a relationship with a young hound often starts well. We play, we connect, we expose them to the smells, tastes, and sounds that they will hopefully experience later in a much different setting as fully functional members of the adult pack down the road.


Young hounds, even young hounds from an established line of solid bear dogs, will all develop differently. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling snake oil. A line will have similarities and traits that 90% from that line may share, but there is no way to predict the set of experiences and circumstances that will shape how and when your hound will become a “truck-to-tree” bear dog.

Even from the same litter, some hound pups hit the ground and seem like they were born possessing  a full playbook. They were born with grit, intelligence, nose, and desire. These youngsters seem to be the reincarnation of Rambo from the moment they are born. If you have one, then you are breathing rarified air. Those hounds don't come along often.


The average puppy will be less awe inspiring. They may hang back and slowly absorb while their sibling crashes in, siren blaring. They may join the run only to fall out after a few miles of trying to keep up and come back in and check with the houndsman. “Am I doing good?” they seem to say. They may take a track and blow out a corner and use an hour figuring out where they went wrong. Ideal? No. Normal puppy behavior? Darn tootin'.


For obvious reasons, the naturally talented “Rambos” are the ones who we hear most about. They are the ones who show up on our social media feeds at 5 months old, crazy eyed and slathering, at a bear tree. They are the ones who we talk about on the phone when we call to share experiences.

The reality is that those fearless ones are also the ones who often don't live long, while their deliberate, and careful, siblings build their box of tools and experiences from the ground up. Sometimes they grow into the legendary animals we talk about fondly when they are gone, often because I think there is a certain amount of pride associated with taking an underwhelming youngster and training it to be legendary. Still, those careful pups are more work.


Allow me to make a distinction now. I am talking about careful hounds, not cowardly. A coward will always be a coward, but potentially a perfectly useful hound for other game (fox, raccoon, bobcat, etc.). Yet not courageous enough to stand toe to toe with a walking bear that refuses to climb. A dog that won't touch a bear track, or even follow a pack on a track, needs no more time. Find that youngster a home chasing something less scary and monster-y. 


Every houndsman has a list of qualities that they look for in a hound. We usually also have a list of traits that are complete deal breakers, something that will give us cause to remove that dog from our program immediately. One of mine is aggression towards people. If I have a dog who acts aggressively towards my hunting partners or my kids, they are instantly gone. Another for me is common sense. I can't have a dog running off cliffs or trying to cross the rapids in the river gorges that are common here. I want them to run to catch but, in the words of Becky Dwire, “A dead dog catches no game.”


Most puppies and young dogs, as they develop, will most likely exhibit qualities that we as houndsmen don't like. I fear that the youngsters who can do all that we see on social media create unrealistic expectations amongst houndsmen who then compare their totally normal and still developing puppies to the “super-pup” that so-and-so has been posting about or bragging about on the phone. I have talked to houndsmen who will remove a pup from their program if it can't hang during a race from truck to tree at 6 months old. I have talked to others who will remove a young dog of 8-9 months if it won't stay right in the face of a bear while that bear is fighting the adult dogs. These are extreme examples, but are not uncommon. On the other end of the spectrum is the houndsman who makes endless excuses for the poor performance of their hound(s), never willing to consider that perhaps they and their hounds are just not up to snuff. I believe that both extremes are unproductive. In one case you will be going through too many hounds to make your pack, and in the other case you won't have a pack at all.


A houndsman once said, “A man's ego is a terrible burden for a hound to bear.” How then do we know when it is appropriate to make the call that a young hound isn't working out and should be moved on? Where is the line between unrealistic expectations and pointless excuses?


Each and every houndsman will answer that question differently, as we all have different goals for our packs. Still, I will include a few questions that may help you get to that answer if you are on the fence. Call it food for thought.

1. What is your goal?

Are you going to be guiding? Will your pack need to be the kind that can put up bear almost every day for weeks at a time? Or, will your dogs be chasing bears a few days a week? These questions will all have bearing on whether or not you have the time and flexibility necessary to work with a young dog who requires that little extra effort on your part to become a member of your pack.

2. What is your timeline?

How fast do you need that hound to be fully functional? If you are guiding, having a pup frequently derail your race is not really an option. Sometimes, the reality of our situation makes it difficult to accommodate the young hound's training. If that is the case, it may make sense to move that pup along to someone who has more time, or to just accept that that hound’s training will have to wait for the training seasons, and it will therefore be older before it really starts to perform.


3. What does the breeder say?
Some breeders will let you know right up front that their line takes some time to mature. One of the best lines of bear hound grade walkers in Scandinavia mature late. For some houndsmen, that is a deal breaker. They can't wait three years for a hound to perform. So it may be smart to ask questions about the parents, grandparents, siblings, etc. and the timeline they had before they started to contribute.


4.What do I have time for?

“The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions” is a proverb that absolutely applies here. A good houndsman will have a realistic idea of how much time and energy they have to put into a hound. Most of us have jobs, families, friends, responsibilities, and, last but not least, other dogs who require our time and commitment. Even a good pup requires time and patience, and lots of both. If a few hours a week is all the time you have to give, then you will need to adjust your expectations of what that pup will give. We only get back what we put in.

The bottom line is that you should have realistic expectations of what that pup should be able to do, vs. what will require training. The best houndsmen make it look easy because they know their expectations and their realities are equally balanced. Whatever way you answer the above questions, I would always recommend buying from or breeding to proven bear dogs. I know a guy who trained a border collie to tree bear. It was impressive, but that's not where I would go to get a bear dog.