Puppy shows and hound shows give us a chance to appreciate these hard working hunters, here's what you need to know
On the straightest of legs and the roundest of feet,/With ribs like a frigate his timbers to meet,/With a fashion and fling and a form so complete,/That to see him dance over the flags is a treat.”
So wrote the famed sporting writer and poet George Whyte-Melville of the foxhound, and he was right.
The fact that summer is here is no obstacle to seeing this magnificent beast in action. Anyone who thinks the hunting community sensibly turns its attention elsewhere out of season is quite wrong. As the weather improves in spring and the point-to-points peter out, hound shows and puppy shows take place across the country. Now, ladies in hats and gentlemen in suits enjoy an outing with hounds that involves neither mud or personal risk. The northern hunts tend to hold theirs later, once the hounds have come into their coat.
Younger Masters and amateur huntsmen might attend 20 or more puppy shows over the summer, enjoying the chance to leave their own hunt countries now things are quieter. They will be seeing friends, eating vast teas and, most importantly, looking at hounds, honing their judgment and assessing stallion hounds for potential use in their own kennels in the future.
The real purpose of a puppy show is to allow the Masters to thank their puppy-walkers – sainted hunt supporters who have nurtured whelps through their trying “teenage” stage and introduced them to the ways of the world. It is the Masters’ party and it gives them an opportunity to entertain walkers, local dignitaries and farmers as well as being a public show of pride in their hounds.
It can be easily forgotten in a frenzy of galloping and jumping that the heart of hunting is the hounds. One does not have to keep a copy of the Foxhound Kennel Stud Book under one’s pillow to appreciate the fact that hounds are the single essential element in any day’s hunting. So, bearing this in mind, it is worth having a good look at them when the opportunity arises.
Once upon a time, puppy-show invitations were extended only to puppy-walkers and VIPs. Today, happily, the net is commonly cast wider, although they remain invitation-only affairs. However, anyone can go to one of the hound shows that are held across the country. Principal among these is the Peterborough Royal Foxhound Show, which is now part of the Festival of Hunting at the East of England Showground this month.
Before any event, hours are spent painting and primping the kennels to receive guests as well as preparing the young hounds. Standing about looking smart or chasing up and down athletically after a biscuit on their own is not strictly what hounds were bred for, and they benefit from a bit of practice. Martin Scott gives the VWH hounds several rehearsals. A hound that is nervous or intimidated by the experience will never show itself well. They should, Scott says, “be a little precocious”.
Luckily, guests need not be nervous or intimidated. Any of us should be able to form an opinion of hounds. As Berkeley Master Henry Berkeley admits, “Everyone has their own opinion and minds don’t necessarily meet, even between judges”. But he cautions against “letting personal likes come into the fray. Thinking size matters is a common mistake and some people like big hounds above all others.” Hounds are not show dogs, they must do a job of work. Consequently, breeding for the country in which they hunt produces variations in the standard.
If the hunting is what is important, you might ask, why bother with a “beauty contest”? James Barclay, who has nearly 30 years of judging experience, reluctantly admits that “you can have an ugly pack of hounds and they’ll hunt their hearts out for you or a beautiful pack that won’t hunt a yard.”
But as Adrian Dangar, Master of the Sinnington, contends, “All the judging criteria are work related.” When hunting, especially in difficult conditions, “there is nothing better than an old hound.” This is where the animal’s conformation becomes so important.
For a pack to benefit from the experience of seasoned campaigners, hounds need to keep sound of wind and limb. A poorly put together animal will be more prone to injury and have to work harder to cover the same ground. “In the past few years the standard of conform-ation has improved no end and hound shows have contributed to this,” says Dangar.
The judges (usually working in pairs) are almost exclusively Masters or huntsmen themselves. “For those who have judged and hunted hounds, judging becomes instinctive when they come into the ring,” says Barclay, who will immediately mark his card putting “a tick next to the stunners”.
So what should the rest of us be looking for when hounds rush through a gate on to the flags? Well that, it seems, is the moment to be concentrating. “First impressions count” is a truism, according to judges. “Hounds get worse the longer you look at them, especially when it’s hot. They can wilt,” Scott tells me, while Berkeley will have a firm idea of his pick in 20 seconds. “Looking at them for too long you get muddled and see things that aren’t there. Use gut instinct,” he advises.
Before getting bogged down in the fine details, look at the whole hound and see how it moves – athleticism and freedom of movement are key. “A hound that cannot move well cannot do its job,” Scott says simply. “If you can watch two hounds gallop up and down you will see which has the best stride, then go back and look to see why.”
If the ring is not large enough to allow the hounds to extend properly, a judge might have his pick taken into the open to see them move. As with a horse, a long, free stride is important. The front feet should reach past the muzzle and back feet track up under its neck.
Keeping the hounds moving will also protect judges from cunning huntsmen and whippers-in who are a bit too good at showing. “They can be made to stand better than they actually are,” warns Berkeley. Having picked the good movers out of the entry, take Scott’s advice and look again in greater detail.
The expression “no foot no horse” would seem to be almost equally applicable to hounds, so we will start at the bottom and work up. Lord Willoughby de Broke describes the ideal hound in his Hunting the Fox, saying: “his feet are round without being fleshy, with the toes close together”.
Now we need to see the hound on hard standing. There are likely to be flagstones (the flags) in a grass ring for this purpose. Judges as experienced as James Barclay have been fooled into picking a hound with a toe down having seen the entry on grass only.
The forelegs should be straight from every angle (to “knuckle over” at the knee is a fault where the joint cannot be kept straight), going up into the front of a shoulder that slopes back to allow the legs to swing through a wide angle, giving a good long stride. The hind legs can harbour a list of faults, from cow hocks (where the back knees fall inwards, which in turn splays the feet) to sickle-hocks (where the angle of the joints is too acute).
A hound is powered from behind so the thighs should be strong and well muscled with a good distance diagonally across them from the stern to the back knee. The back should be quite flat (not “roach backed”) with a ridge of muscle on either side of the spine. As with any athlete, the capacity of the heart and lungs is crucial, so we are looking for a deep chest but not a round one. A “barrel” chest will be inclined to force out the elbow, restricting movement in the front legs. “You do not want to be able to sail a ship through it,” according to Berkeley.
Lord Willoughby de Broke gives a somewhat romantic description of the ideal head: “Lean, rather conical than flat, with a delicately chiselled muzzle; dark, full, luminous eyes denoting keenness and intelligence”. Scott is more practical, stressing the importance of a good mouth with the teeth meeting together, not over- or under-shot. “A snipey head might indicate a bad mouth but mouth problems are rare now.” The stern (never tail) is a more cosmetic consideration but to be curly is considered a fault.
Bitches should not be short backed as this could interfere with their ability to carry a litter of puppies. In dogs, “balls are a good indicator of general health”, according to Berkeley. “Just don’t ask them to cough.” At the very least, note that two are present. Berkeley admits that he once “missed a ball” at the Taunton Vale. “It had to be pointed out by the huntsman.” So a 360° view is important. “Don’t let whippers-in stand the hounds up against the boards,” he cautions.
Above all, any winning hound should have “quality”, which is described by Scott as “the fact that makes you look again, in a similar way that an attractive girl will catch the eye of a man when she enters the room. It is that little bit extra.”
While we have been mulling over the relative merits of the hounds, the puppy show judge will have made his decision and be scanning the crowd to see who’s there. He might well also have had political decisions to bear in mind. Dangar admits that he has been asked not to throw out an important puppy-walker’s hound first.
Prolific judge Scott finds that “puppy-walkers start lobbying me during the season.” Berkeley is conscious that walkers want the chance to have a good look at their own hounds but maintains, “Judges must try not to be too ponderous”, especially at hound shows where there are many classes.
And while the weight of expectation and responsibility “can be rather terrifying”, Dangar admits that, “puppy shows are very spoiling for the judges. Lovely lunch, nice house party with a ‘lively’ dinner. Then you’re sent on your way with a hangover.” Becoming more expert in the science and art of hound judging might not be a bad idea.
What to look for Symmetry, balance and ease of movement.
Do say “That winning hound stands over a lot of ground.”
Don’t say “What a lovely waggy tail.”