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Beagles and Handling…
Who's Training Whom?

Featured: November, 2003

Do you get a lump in your throat when you're halfway to your favorite hunting grounds and realize that you forgot your lead?

You may not realize it, but if you're not training your hound the finer art of handling then your hounds are training you. They've apparently trained you to ‘avoid' certain behaviors, like forcing your will onto them, because you've learned that it just isn't pleasurable. They've trained you to pretty much let them do what they want to. That doesn't sound too great, does it?

"Have you finally decided that you might want to turn the tables a bit on your hound?"
How many times have you called to a dog only to have it look at you as though you've got two heads? He's thinking, “This guy's got to be crazy. I've got better, more interesting things to do, and he can just take a suck-pill if he thinks I'm going over there.” Why are most dogs thinking this? Well, it's probably because they haven't been taught to think differently. Beagles aren't whelped knowing what we want, and it's our fault if we don't teach them. It's not terribly difficult, but it does take a commitment of time. Is it worth it? You bet it is.

If you agree with the school of thought that the only handling you need from a Beagle is to ‘down' if you can manage to get in front of them, then don't bother reading any further, because your dogs have apparently already trained you so successfully that you think it's acceptable for them to run you. I'm of the opinion that Beagles should handle like bird dogs and that's what this article will focus on: how to get your hounds working for you, instead of the other way around. Beagles, in general, aren't a dumb breed of dog. I think it's about time we stopped treating them as if they were.

Have you finally decided that you might want to turn the tables a bit on your hound? Then read on…

First, there are no shortcuts. It helps to start with a dog that comes from tractable dogs. By tractable, I mean dogs that have a desire to please the person that feeds them. Is your will more important to a dog than his own? It should be. If it's not then you're in for some long days afield. If a dog looks at you as only a ride to the woods, then it's your fault – either for keeping a non-tractable dog or for not spending time training them to handle, or most likely a combination of both. Most dogs aren't born handling well; they must be taught. If a dog has the predisposition to tractability (genetics), then your job as a trainer will be much easier. If your line of dogs don't pass on the genes that tend to turn out tractable dogs then you might want to look to breed towards that trait. Life's too short to butt heads with a stubborn, selfish hound. They're here to serve us; not the other way around. Who's training whom?

Get them used to obeying you. Make it pleasurable for them to listen to you and unpleasant for them to ignore you. There are two emotions that drive man and beast: pain and pleasure. We tend to go towards pleasure and away from pain. Let's use those natural tendencies to our advantage.

How do I make it pleasurable when they obey? By rewarding them with a treat or praise. Tractable dogs love the attention, and the more consistent you are with giving praise for positive actions, the more important to them obeying will become.


"The biggest key that I've found is that when a dog is young and impressionable I never issue a command to them that I can't enforce."

How do I make it unpleasurable when they disobey? This depends mostly on the individual dog. Making it unpleasurable doesn't necessarily mean inflicting pain. Some dogs are truly bothered when you're unhappy and others couldn't care less if you had a stroke right there before their eyes (except for the fact they'd lose their ride to the woods). J If your dog is tractable, then chances are he'll tend to listen if he can figure out what you want. If he's stubborn or selfish then you'll have your work cut out for you.

For any dog to obey, he must first fully understand what you want from him. This is where we come in. Once the hound fully understands the command, and how he's supposed to react to it, then he has a choice to make. It's that choice he ultimately makes that shows how well you've trained him, and (to me), how valuable of a hunting partner he's going to be. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't keep a lousy running dog just because he handled superbly, but by the same token I wouldn't advise breeding to or keeping a rabbit-running superstar if he was overly stubborn/selfish. Are you thinking that there's no way you'll ever sacrifice track-running ability or hunt for tractability? If you are, that's a flimsy cop-out. This is where I think a lot of problems occur within the breed today – because of a lack of avid gunning Beagles nowadays, handling isn't given the weight it truly deserves as it relates to our breeding decisions. You don't have to sacrifice hunt or any other desired trait for handling. Many Beagles can and do have both – they're called well-rounded hunting companions. Anything less is missing a valuable piece of the puzzle that makes up a top-notch, valuable gundog.

How do we go about changing this trend?
First, don't start out with a pup out of breeding stock that can't be or hasn't been properly trained. Sure, maybe the sire and dam could have been taught to handle, but how will you ever know? Do you think a field trial champion is tractable because he's got eleven titles? Think again. Start with stock that has the track running ability that you demand, but also has that necessary history of tractability, then put the time into training them and molding them into a well-rounded, worthwhile hunting companion. There are no shortcuts. We pretty much get out of these little dogs what we put into them. Don't put yourself through the aggravation of hunting with a selfish dog – there's just no need of it.

The biggest key that I've found is that when a dog is young and impressionable I never issue a command to them that I can't enforce. If I can't force them to do it if and when it's necessary, then I simply won't issue the command. I'll wait until I'm in a position to see to it that they obey. Have you ever seen someone issue a command to a dog and they were almost begging the dog to obey? “Pleeeaaase come, Rover.” – pathetic. Just as bad is when someone issues a dog a command over and over and never follows up on it. What kind of message does that send to the dog? I think it sends the dog a message that since there are no consequences there's not much sense in his obeying. If you issue a command to a dog, you had better follow through on that command, because anything less simply weakens your credibility in the eyes of your hound.

Get a dog used to listening to you at an early age and it's a lot easier. That's the major reason why I much prefer to start with a well-bred pup instead of a started dog that is already set in his ways from someone else's training (or, most likely, lack thereof).

We'll cover the four commands that I've found most important in any hound hunter's arsenal. Some of the commands I frequently use, and demand that all residents of my kennel obey, are…

1) Here (come to me)
2) Let's go (follow me and don't mess around)
3) Down (drop to the ground)
4) Whoa (keep still)

I'll briefly cover each of these, explain under what circumstances cause me to generally use them, and briefly touch on how I go about teaching them. It would take much more space than we have here to cover all the ins and outs of training each type of Beagle out there, but hopefully this condensed version of how I do it will be of some value to you.

1) ”Here”
The ‘here' command is the command that I use most frequently. It just tells them to come to me.

How I train for this command: Start with the dog on an 18' or 20' rope – let him wander off, then call him to you while saying the command in an excited voice, “here, here, here”. If he comes, then give him a small treat and/or some affection – if he doesn't come, then gently pull him to you and reward him when he gets to you. Drill him over and over until it's second nature to him to obey the command. Repetition is the key. After he begins coming to me every time that I call, it's time to lose the rope and strap on the shock collar. At this point he obviously knows full well what you expect; it's just a matter of how he'll react when he realizes that you can't pull him to you if he decides not to do it on his own. It's now crunch time, where he truly gets to make his own choices. Let him wander off a short distance and issue the ‘here' command. If he comes, give him positive reinforcement (a treat and/or affection); if he doesn't, then shock him on a low setting. Each dog is different, but usually #1 or #2 on the transmitter will be adequate. Start with #1 -- you'll soon see which one gets your dog's attention. I'll hold the button down, giving him continuous, light stimulation (shock) until he makes forward progress toward me. I'll give him some verbal encouragement and make it easy for him to make the right choice. I don't want to set him up for failure – I want to set him up to experience success. While he's making forward progress toward me the stimulation stops – if/when he stops making that forward progress the shock gets reapplied. The point is to make him feel that he's in control. He can avoid the shock by listening and obeying. If I can see the dog getting confused or panicking, then I back off a bit. It's all about “reading” the dog and getting a feel for what they can take and what's likely to motivate him – each dog is different. It's our job to assess the dog and give him the environment to succeed. For many reasons, it's imperative that a dog come to me when I call him, within a reasonable amount of time. A dog that won't come to me when I call him is a dog that doesn't deserve to eat my expensive dog food.

2) “Let's go”
This is my command that's a substitute for a lead. It's this command that, once I've called them to me, has them walk with me wherever I want to go.

How I train for this command: First, you've got to lead train the dog to teach him how to properly behave on lead, because that's the foundation of this training. When he's comfortable walking with me on lead, I begin taking him for long walks and frequently repeating, in a soft, musical tone “let's go, let's go, let's go”. After a few long walks on a traditional lead, I put him on a long 18' or 20' rope. I'll do the same thing, taking him for long (maybe ½ mile) walks on that rope and establishing boundaries. If he starts to resist (wanting to sniff everything in sight) and pull on the rope, off to the sides or behind me, then I give him a sharp tug on the rope and verbally scold him. When he's gone 30 or 40 yards, behaving correctly (keeping up with me and not messing around), I give him positive reinforcement. I do these walks on the rope until I'm sure that the dog knows exactly what's expected of him whenever I'm singing my ‘let's go, let's go' tune. At this point, I give the dog a break for a day. The next day I strap on the shock collar, load him into the truck and drive him out to a set of railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere, for another series of walks. I choose railroad tracks because this provides a place to walk with him that gives definite boundaries – the edges of the woods on each side of the tracks. I turn on the shock collar and turn the hound loose. I call him to me and walk down the center of the railroad tracks and begin my musical ‘let's go, let's go' every 4 or 5 seconds. When the hound does what he's supposed to do and stays with me, within those boundaries, he gets an occasional treat and positive verbal reinforcement. When he lags behind, gets too far ahead or enters the woods (violating the outward boundaries), I apply continuous, mild stimulation from the shock collar until he gets back with the program. I'll stop walking every 500 yards, or so, and encourage the dog to enter the woods and hunt for 3 or 4 minutes. I do this so the dog doesn't mistakenly get the idea that he's not supposed to hunt hard – he's just not supposed to do it when he's being commanded to ‘let's go'. After that 3 or 4 minutes of allowing him to hunt, I'll call him to me and continue down the tracks occasionally repeating my musical ‘let's go, let's go' tune. After a mile or so I'll reverse directions and head back to the car and do the same things all the way back. The next day we do the same thing and usually by the end of that second day at the railroad tracks the dog is 100% conditioned to walk the ‘imaginary' lead whenever I'm issuing the ‘let's go' command. If the dog's not conditioned by the end of that second day on the railroad tracks I really have to question if he's got the tractability and intelligence to be a viable hunting companion. There's no shame in admitting that a hound doesn't have what it takes to be a good hunting companion/gundog. They don't all work out. Where the shame may lie is in ignoring this necessity for a dog to handle appropriately in favor of some other trait where they might excel.

It may seem like a lot of work, but it sure is nice being able to navigate 4 or 5 dogs out of the woods, from a quarter mile into the thick stuff, without using a lead. Did you ever have the experience of leading 3 or 4 dogs through a jungle of thick cover on a coupler lead? It always seems as if each dog wants to go around a different side of the bush or tree, and we're forever untangling them from vegetation – not much fun. I smile every time I think that I'm never again going to have to go through that, because I won't settle for a dog that thinks of me as only a ride to the hunting grounds.

A dog that won't come with me when I ask him to is a dog that doesn't deserve to eat my expensive dog food.

3) “Down”
The ‘down' command is handy to divert a dog's attention when he'd really rather be doing something on his feet. It's difficult for him to be doing something wrong (continuing to run a rabbit after you've called them off, getting away from you, etc.) when he's on his back. It's also nice, when you're hunting with a few buddies and their dogs, if you can all ‘down' each other's dogs when you need to.

How I train for this command: Again, I'll put the hound on an 18' to 20' rope and I'll play in the yard with him for a while, getting him comfortable. After a while, I'll sternly issue the ‘down' command and gently roll him over on his back and hold them still. I'll give him positive reinforcement (a piece of hotdog, some petting and verbal praise – whatever he likes) while quietly repeating the command. I'll release him by saying ‘OK' in an excited voice and let him roam around for a minute or two. I'll do it 5 or 6 times a day until he does it every time. At the point he fully realizes what's expected, I'll substitute the shock collar for the rope. I'll go through the same thing. He soon realizes that he has a choice to make; he can either listen or not. If he listens he gets positive reinforcement. If he doesn't, then he gets stimulation from the shock collar and I repeat the command.

4) ”Whoa”
The ‘whoa' command I use a lot. It simply tells them to stop whatever it is that they're doing and wait for me to issue a command. It means to stay still.

How I train for this command: I'll start with the dog on a rope and hold my hand on his back while calmly saying ‘whoa'. I'll slowly back away from him and quietly repeat the command. He gets rewarded when he obeys and he gets forced to do it if he disobeys, by holding my hand on him to keep him still while I repeat the command. After a few sessions of this activity, when I'm convinced he fully understands what's expected, I'll substitute the shock collar for the rope. Oftentimes a dog acts totally different when the rope comes off the collar – that's what the shock collar is for. J When he obeys he gets positive reinforcement – when he doesn't I apply continuous, light stimulation from the shock collar until he's back on track – only backing off if he appears to become confused. A dog with at least half a brain realizes, after a while, that he's in control of the correction. You're allowing him to learn and be in control. A smart dog seems to like that he's really in control.

Use your imagination for all the applications of these four simple commands – if you can stop them (‘down or ‘whoa'), get them to come to you (‘here') and have them follow you (‘let's go'), you'll set yourself up for increased enjoyment and a lot less aggravation in the field. Enjoyment in the field is the name of the game.

All dogs need ‘refreshers' ever now and then, so be prepared for a short session with one every once-in-a-while to keep him in line, when he begins to forget his training.

Also keep in mind that it will occasionally be necessary to cull a great runner because of hard-headedness. Yes, it can be a disappointment when a great track runner is a cull because he just doesn't have the ‘stuff' to be a great hunting companion, but unless we demand this from our hounds, we'll never have a complete rabbit dog.

Until next time – enjoy your dogs!

Chris Miller
Miller Outdoors :: Guide Service
1185 NH Rt. 16
Dummer, NH 03588

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