Before they can take their place in the pack, this year’s hounds will need to mature. And puppy walkers are a vital part of that process, as David Tomlinson explains
Hound puppy walking is not for the faint-hearted. A foxhound puppy is a born mischief-maker. But puppy walkers are absolutely essential, both for bringing on the next generation and for the survival of a hunt, says David Tomlinson.
For more on foxhounds, follow our cut out and keep guide to modern foxhound breeding, read foxhound breeding – an expert guide.
HOUND PUPPY WALKING
Few jobs require such a multitude of talents as that of a professional huntsman. The skill required to hunt a pack of hounds one takes for granted, along with the ability to ride across the stiffest of country without falling off. A knack for butchering fallen stock is essential, as well as being an accomplished mechanic in order to keep the hunt lorry functioning. A deft touch with a paintbrush is handy to ensure that the kennels always look their best, too. But perhaps the most underrated necessity is charm, which is far more than raising a cap on hunting days. A good huntsman has to be able to persuade subscribers and supporters to walk hound puppies, not the easiest thing to do when we all know that a foxhound puppy can be the naughtiest and most destructive small animal there is.
The tradition of puppy walking stretches back for almost as long as we have had packs of hounds. A huntsman has quite enough things to do without bringing up the puppies, so it makes sense for the youngsters to go to temporary homes until they are old enough to come back and join the pack. According to the 8th Duke of Beaufort, writing in his authoritative volume Hunting (first published in 1894), puppies are usually ready to be sent for their walks when they are about three to four months old. Here they “remain to be tended at the discretion of their temporary masters till the following spring”.
Puppy walking is a serious commitment and not one for the faint-hearted. To qualify as a puppy walker there are a few essentials. First and foremost is a sense of humour, but you will also need land with suitable outbuildings that will provide warm and secure housing for your temporary visitors. Foxhounds are working animals, not pets, so there’s no need for house training, nor for bringing them into the house, something the resident dog is unlikely to approve of.
The early months of a dog’s life are highly formative, and just as much so for a foxhound puppy as a spaniel or labrador. The huntsman is hoping that the puppies out at walk will be introduced and become accustomed to all those distractions they are certain to come across later in life, such as cats and chickens, deer and dogs, pigs and people. Ensuring that the puppies don’t chase anything they’re not meant to – and that means almost anything except butterflies – is one of the most important lessons for them to learn.
Unlike almost any other dog, there’s no need to train a foxhound puppy to walk on a lead, though some walkers believe that this is a discipline worth installing; it will certainly make life easier for any puppy that is destined to be shown. Your huntsman is unlikely to ask you to lead-train a puppy but he will be delighted if you do so. Nor does a puppy need to be taught to sit on command, or even when given its supper, but some walkers enjoy the challenge of introducing a little training into the puppy’s everyday routine. And while on the subject of supper, it’s normal for the huntsman to provide the puppies with food during their months away at walk, so that’s one thing the walker doesn’t have to think about.
EXPERIENCES AND EXCITEMENTS
With gundog puppies it’s a good idea to introduce them to as many experiences as you can: I take mine to town on market day, for example. If you can offer similar excitements to a foxhound puppy, then so much the better. I have heard of foxhound puppies whose temporary masters walk them to the pub and of others taken to country fairs, but these are the exceptions. Fortunately, though foxhound puppies may be absolute hooligans, they invariably have sound temperaments and so love meeting people.
Though it’s not unusual for a walker to take on a single puppy, most adopt two. This does, of course, mean double-trouble but on the other hand two puppies will play with each other, challenging their energy in a better direction than digging up your vegetable garden. However, exercising the puppies is important and much easier if you have a fenced paddock to let them loose in, though again that’s by no means essential.
Anyone who has walked puppies will delight in entertaining you with lurid stories of the escapades their charges have got up to, but as they will readily admit that’s half the fun of walking them. Foxhound puppies are born mischief-makers, it’s part of their make-up, and it’s what you expect. The satisfaction for the puppy walker is playing a vital role in supporting the hunt, for without the walkers it would struggle to survive. There’s also the huge satisfaction of going to the meet and being greeted by ‘your’ hounds.
One question puppy walkers are always asked is how they can bear to send the puppies back to the kennels. But by eight or nine months the puppies are clearly ready for the next stage in their lives. “You always know when the time has come,” one walker told me. “It’s sad to see them go but also a great relief. You’ve then got a few months to prepare for the next lot.”