By Steve Herd of Bluff Creek Plotts
This article was published in the July/Aug 2018 issue of Bear Hunting Magazine
I have been asked by Bear Hunting Magazine to write an article about my many thoughts and theories about breeding hounds. To some, the process of breeding two dogs requires little thought. Put the male with the female or the female with the male. I was asked to write this article because I have spent 65 years breeding, raising, hunting and writing about my life with the Plott Hound. I will attempt to provide some ideas about what I believe, and what I’ve learned and some theories that I have developed. If nothing more, I hope it will be entertaining.
A pair of Bluff Creek Plott hounds.
BREEDING AND MAINTAINING A BREED AND STRAIN OF TRAIL/TREE HOUND (Bear Hounds)
Many young hunters evolve from just owning and hunting hounds, to the next step of wanting to breed their hounds, and if successful, they may have the desire to continue the process through three or more generations in order to develop a strain. A strain or line of hounds usually shows traits the breeder feels are most important to him. The breeder of a strain has control of the steering wheel and can move his line in about any direction that he desires. Some will breed for more nose, more speed, or harder tree dogs. Some breed for physical traits including size, color, among many other things.
There are no breeding police to govern how we breed our dogs.
It’s almost impossible for any one breeder to begin a new breed of hound that raises to the top of what we identify as top hunting hounds. It is also extremely difficult to even maintain a line of dogs who are of the highest caliber for more than three generations.
Much of what I write is blunt and some may not approve of my style, but in order to breed hounds worthy of the best houndsmen we have to break a few eggs.
History has proven that it is difficult for a breeder to breed beyond three generations without diminishing what they started with. The desire of most breeders to want to change, in some way, the traits of the hounds that they are breeding has most often ended in producing lesser hounds.
Steve Herd with Bluff Creek Bouncer. One of his earlier hounds.
I am going to try to provide a strategy for producing a line of hunting dogs who would suit most hunters and also who will breed true enough to provide generation after generation of similar dogs. If a man is lucky enough to start with a few dogs who very closely reflect his ideal, then he should attempt to maintain that line of dogs in almost every new generation. The old adage of “don’t fix it if it is not broken” applies. I pride my self in the fact that my dogs look and hunt like the long ago ancestors back 12 to 14 generations.
The first requirement is that a hunter/breeder must have had the privilege of hunting with a top dog or dogs from his preferred breed. If you have never hunted with one of the phenoms (a dog has that outstanding talented and above and beyond the norm) of your breed than you may not fully understand the extreme talent that certain hounds have attained. While I was just beginning my own breeding program in the early 1970’s, I traveled to hunt with the dogs and the hunters who had risen to the top of the country in reputation, so that I could see and evaluate what made these dogs so special. At times I was disappointed as some dogs were better in their owners eyes that in the woods, but in the process I got to hunt with some incredible dogs.
My beginning of my life long journey started just before I turned five years old. My dad DeWayne Herd, bought an impeccably bred, 13-month-old Plott female, whose sire, North Carolina Tom, was known as one of the early great bear dogs of the newly registered breed of Plott Hound. He was from the most famous cross of his time, Smithdeals Smoky to Smithdeals Cubby. This female’s mother was Von Plotts Fanny whose mother, Lady Plott is now considered one of the blue hens to the Plott breed. I have to mention this part of history because this female who was to be registered as Herds Rio Grande Trouble (RG Trouble), became the foundation of our breeding program, and her influence spread far and wide within a short 10-year period.
The early beginning of my intense belief in line breeding, in breeding and even family-breeding began after Dad had bred RG Trouble four times. Her first mating was to a non-related male (an outcross) and the pups were no more than mediocre and were used to breed on. They had no value as breeding dogs.
Dad felt that in order to reproduce RG Troubles caliber he need to breed her to a male similar in ability but also in pedigree. He chose here next mate, Herds Smokey, who was already inbred to Lady Plott. Smokey was a son of Lady Plott but whose sire was also a son of Lady Plott. Many frowned upon breeding this tight, but dad wanted to raise the best pups available. It worked. This litter was of a very high caliber and can still be found in pedigrees. Next, Dad chose another male, Ozark Chief, who also was a grandson of Lady Plott. This cross produced so well that it can be found in most Plott pedigrees of today and would have to be considered one of the important frame works of the Plott breed. RG Trouble was bred once more to a grandson of Lady Plott and once again it produced to the highest level.
The results of breeding a line of hounds without the use of close line breeding or inbreeding can be argued, but to me the proof is so obvious that I can see no way to maintain a line of hounds without the use of such a great tool.
After I got out of college, I was hunting with my dad and I got an obsessive desire to once again hunt the dogs and maybe start my own strain. I found it very difficult to find the caliber of Plott that I was searching for. I had three females and they were just very watered down versions of what I had grown up with. In order to tree coon here in Kansas I had to spot light them and encourage the dogs to tree. At about the point of giving up my dad got ahold of Everett Weems in Illinois. Dad bought me a nine-month-old Plott male. This male was tightly bred around the crosses that my dad had made 15 years earlier.
The Prototype: Jud
I named him Jud and could quickly see that he was of the old time Plotts that I had spent my youth with. He was high-strung, gamey, barked a little too much at anything that moved. Any rabbit, cat, chicken, or loose dog set him off. I was afraid to turn him loose for the first two weeks. It was late fall and one night I took the three females a mile north up the creek and left Jud home. I hunted by myself and could not handle an extra rowdy dog. I had walked about a half mile toward my house when I could hear a dog treed. The females were still underfoot so I did not know what I was hearing. Upon arriving at the tree I found the Jud pup, still tied to the front of his doghouse, but which had been torn off the sides. He was treed solid and had three coon up. I was in disbelief. I unchained him and we continued the hunt and treed two more coon. By the end of the season Jud tree over 90 more coon. He was completely straight on coon and he never even bumped anything else. If I attempted to bobcat hunt him he would pull off and tree a coon. He would never leave a tree and so at the end of a long hunt I would have to go get him. He became my proto type. I had to have more like him.
Everett Weems and Steve Herd. Steve got a pup from Everett named Jud that became a big part of his bear hound breeding program.
I began to study his long six-generation pedigree to see how a dog could be that complete in all the traits. It was with that beginning that I began my long adventure and complete obsession of breeding his type hound. Here are my thoughts, theories, beliefs, experiences, and advice on breeding better hounds.
How to Breed Better Bear Hounds
Establish a prototype - Find a dog who excels on your preferred species of game. If you cannot buy such a dog, use his offspring to begin your line. If you find such a dog spend time with the owner or especially the breeder, to find out how they produced a dog of that caliber. You must have a solid example of what you expect in a dog. As described, Jud was my template to begin my program. I found two females who were half sisters to Jud and bred them to a littermate male to Jud’s mother. The crosses worked in my first attempt. Those two litters were solid coon, cat, and bear dogs with dogs like Bearpath Gunner, Allheart Millie, Bluff Creek Sarge, Becky, Jody, etc. gaining national attention.
Crossing the best of those two tightly bred litters together again established my strain and I am now in my 8th generation and if you include my dads contribution, we are at 11 generations.
Words of advice for Breeding Bear Hounds
Begin with the very best specimen of the breed that you can possibly find. Never settle for less than you want to spend your hard earned dollars and boot leather on. Let your experiences begin to build you judgment on what is good and what is great. Never let yourself be fooled by the difference between common and what is exceptional. When you have dogs worthy of breeding, and you get your first litter, study it. Picking the exceptional pup or pups from a litter is difficult but not impossible. Selection is a “gut” feeling at first and over the years and generations it becomes a gut feeling from experience. If you have the luxury of keeping a whole littler until they are around three months old, then it will be far easier to choose your next generation. If you are happy with the ancestors that are stacked behind your litter then use those ancestors as your pattern by choosing pups who closely resemble the parents and grandparents. Any attempt to change the looks, size, color, build, or physical characteristics from that of the ancestors may also have a negative impact on the hunting traits of the pups.
Most outstanding hunting hounds from any breed have been bred, and hunted, and culled for many generations by hard hunters and master breeders until, if mated correctly, they can reproduce themselves at a very high percentage.
As mentioned earlier, the tight crossing of dogs from the same family, having multiple common ancestors, is called family breeding. When breeding closer than that, using very close ancestors or multiple siblings in a short pedigree it is called linebreeding. The most risky but also the most rewarding in my experience is inbreeding. This is breeding 1/2 brother to sister mating. Mating a grandaughter to her grand sire, or grandson to his grandmother. At one time it was believed that such close mating’s would always bring out many unwanted, negative traits that weakened the offspring - well part of that is true. By close breeding many unwanted traits did surface, but the master breeder used that occurrence to cleanse his line. Pups and at times, even one or more of the parents were culled.
Breeding tightly around closely related, outstanding, “purified”, mates sooner or later provided the breed with a male or female who were considered “pre-potent.” A pre-potent animal was so loaded up with the genetics that he stamped his desired ability into many offspring. The pre-potent traits could be physical traits easily identified by the naked eye (phenotype), or they could be hunting and behavior traits not identified until exposed to game and hunting conditions (genotype). The top males of a breed are exposed to far more females and can produce far more offspring in their reproductive life than a female. However a female can also be a pre-potent mate and when a male and female, both from the same family or line, both possessing the gift of pre-potency are mated to each other then we expect and often see offspring from that cross becoming what we like to call PHENOMS.
My Jud male was from a pre-potent male and a highly pre-potent female. The level of his performance equaled both his sire and dams. I have been asked if a dog can be pre-potent if not from a tightly bred, line bred style pedigree. I am not aware of a dog from the breed of Plott hound that was pre-potent to desired traits, that was from an outcross pedigree. Some dogs produced size, color, behavior problems and other noticeable traits from many different mates but these were more of a mutation from the standard of the breed than a desired trait.
One of my less popular theories on Breeding Bear Hounds
Color and Hunting Ability - I believe, from past experiences, that color can and often does play a part in the hunting ability and the reproduction quality of certain lines of tightly bred hounds. I am convinced that some performance traits are somehow linked to the color of the dog. In my strain a light brindle dog will usually not have the nose power of the dark brindle mates. The light brindle will have more of a locating ability and possibly a sharper intelligence. If selecting pups for a coonhunter I will send the lighter brindle. If sending a young dog to a bear hunter or lion hunter I would pick a very dark individual. When talking to many, hard core, top bear or big game hunters over the nation, I find that many agree completely and search out the darker brindle dogs. We feel that the gene to produce the lighter brindle is attached to the gene that has some control over the nose and other hunting traits.
Bluff Creek Donna and Bearpath Gunner were both great bear hounds that came out of Bluff Creek kennels.
Size - After hunting with a breed of hounds for many generations, an observant hunter must see that there certain physical traits that effect a hound by making him more competent or less. So many people just like a big dog. I have known breeders who always kept the biggest pup from each litter. If bigger means leggy, then I understand as it takes good legs to fly on a track, but I could never see how a large boned, heavy, houndy-eared dog could be expected to compete with a more athletic dog. At one time the Plott breed was nearly overtaken by the 80 to 90-pound male dogs who did not represent the breeding done in the past to produce this breed of hound. Carrying an extra four to ten pounds can handicap a 1200-pound Thoroughbred horse. I feel a dog is also handicapped by too much bulk.
Looks - Another far-fetched theory of mine is that often a dog can be pre-judged by looking in his eyes. An intelligent, shiny eyed dog who seems to just “look right through you” is one of the unwritten qualities that you may have not read but it has been discussed throughout my life by the old timers. The hound who looks like his name might be dumbo, might be missing some of the grey matter that is needed to make all of his genetics work. Intelligence can at times be a noticeable trait according to the look in the eyes.
Breeders of champion livestock including, champion horses, champion milk cows, grand champion swine, and even into the world of dogs, only have to bred for a few traits. Bare with me, a show dog just has to look real good or a greyhound just has to run fast. The breeder only has to breed for a very few traits. Establish that one or two traits and breed to embellish it and you are almost home.
I know of no other animal that has to be bred to the same level of excellence for SO many traits as the trail/tree hound. List the traits of the best of any breed and it goes on forever; nose to trail, intelligence to follow a track hours old, speed to gain on the pursued game, straightness to not run off game, locating ability to find the smallest game up the biggest tree, treeing traits to keep a dog treed for hours, courage to stop big game on the ground with or without help, temperament to not clash with other dogs even though they may be rough under a tree for hours, conformation for speed, tough, tight feet for soundness, stamina, a voice clear and loud enough to allow the hunter to follow (before Garmin)...the list goes on. It may be easy to produce hounds that are not complete; who are used as pack dogs but this article is about producing to the top of the breed. A really true balanced dog, who has it all in ability traits but also physical traits, has to be considered one of the greatest of mans accomplishments in the animal world.
One last trait: DESIRE - I discovered in my first attempt of breeding hounds that in order to bring to life all of the genetics that a dog may possess, that there is a fuel to ignite all of those genes. It is DESIRE. My first great dogs all possessed this trait in spades. At times it was difficult to put up with a dog who would put their desire above their own safety. Digging into the earth to fight a denned coon on a riverbank. Trailing down a high way through traffic with no thought of quitting. Continuing to hunt with severe injuries or caked with ice in 10 degree temps. The desire to hunt with no pad left on their feet. A dog with super desire can almost always be usable because they may overpower their weaknesses with sheer determination driven by desire.
I hope that this article is an enjoyable read even if many will not be in agreement with many of my thought on breeding dogs.
Herds Rio Grande Trouble and Chief were some of the original Plotts owned by Steve's father.