Nearly 14 years ago, I came home from work one day to find my oldest son, who was 10, sitting on the back porch petting a new puppy. We live on 40 acres in rural Moniteau County, and stray dogs often find refuge at our house. I disapproved of this new puppy. We already had a Labrador and a Viszla, which I used for hunting waterfowl, upland birds and rabbits. We didn't need another dog, especially a mixed breed that appeared to have little hunting potential.
I sat down with my son and told him he had two choices. He could take the dog back to where he found it, or he could give it to me and I would... "take care of it." He looked up at me with big brown, defiant eyes and said, "Dad, I think we should wait until Mom gets home to make that decision."
Needless to say, Mom fell in love with the puppy, and we added another dog to the Urich household.
We named the dog Abby. As she grew, I paid her almost no attention. She was some kind of terrier-beagle cross. She had the solid tan color of a terrier, but the body shape of a beagle.
The next winter, Abby tagged along as I hunted rabbits on our place with my Lab. Suddenly, a rabbit launched out in front of me. Abby raced after it, baying loudly. Soon the rabbit came back toward me. I shot it and the Lab retrieved it.
It dawned on me that having more beagles might make rabbit hunting even better. I had three young sons that I planned to introduce to hunting. The thrill of following excited beagles, as well as the strong likelihood of success, would certainly capture their interest.
Two years later we had six beagles. We trained them mostly through trial and error. I discovered that beagles need practice to develop their skills. It takes them about two years to learn how to trail rabbits efficiently. Having older beagles can help you train young ones because young dogs instinctively follow more mature dogs. I prefer having three age groups of beagles: mature, intermediate and trainees.
Training those dogs is both easy and convenient because we live on land that we manage for rabbits. I let the dogs out of the kennel about an hour before sunset, and we head to the nearest field where I know there are rabbits. The older dogs don't take long to scent a rabbit and start baying. It takes months for the younger dogs to learn what the baying and running is all about and to join the older dogs.
If the evening is cool and the ground is moist, the older dogs do a fine job chasing rabbits with the younger dogs following along. On hot and dry summer evenings, trailing rabbits is almost impossible. That's when I train the dogs to search for my scent. This is important because during the hunting season, rabbits often hide underground in holes or find other ways to elude dogs. When this happens, I want the dogs to return to me rather than wander around searching for another rabbit.
I learned the value of training the beagles to find me after we nearly lost the Wilson Twins, a brother-sister combination. My kids could never tell these two dogs apart, so we gave them the same name: Wilson. We had finished a rabbit hunt on the Lamine River Conservation Area in Cooper County. It was snowing, cold and getting dark as we returned to the truck. That's when we noticed the Wilson Twins were missing.
My sons volunteered to wait in the truck while I backtracked through the snow to find the dogs. I vetoed that suggestion, arguing that three extra sets of eyes were needed because the dogs were not baying. After walking in the dark for more than an hour, we finally found the two dogs.
Our long walks in the hot, dry, summer evenings helped teach the dogs to find me, rather than make me look for them.
This training sure helped the time I took all six beagles and a basset hound to southeast Missouri to hunt swamp rabbits at the Donaldson Point Conservation Area in New Madrid County. The first swamp rabbit we flushed took off running, with the dogs baying behind. A few minutes later, I couldn't even hear the dogs. The rabbit got away. If the dogs, including the Wilson Twins, had not come back on their own, I would have never found them.
Those swamp rabbits presented quite a challenge to the beagles.
On another trip the following year, the weather was much warmer and the ditches and streams weren't frozen. The swamp rabbits eluded the dogs by swimming across ditches. The dogs were stumped. They didn't know they had to swim for rabbits.
They learned that the next morning. Overnight, a thin sheet of ice formed on the water. A swamp rabbit on the run fell through the ice and made quite a commotion breaking ice as it labored to the other side of the ditch.
This alerted the beagles, and they went in after it. This was the first time I had ever seen them swim.
I sat behind a tree and waited. Before long, the beagles returned, still trailing the rabbit. This time, when the trail ended at an unfrozen ditch, the beagles sniffed to make sure they were on the right track, then entered the water one at a time.
Another important part of our training is teaching the dogs to come up to the house in the evening after our walks. If they are chasing rabbits, I usually leave the dogs in the field. When they lose interest in trailing rabbits, I want the dogs to come to the back door. I reward them for this by letting them inside and feed each one a small portion of dry cat food. Dogs love cat food.
The final aspect of my training involves desensitizing the dog to the sound of a gun. This is a critical step, especially for a timid dog. In my opinion, the best way is to start in the field while the dogs are chasing a rabbit. As the dogs pursue a rabbit, baying and running, I shoot a toy cap pistol. I watch their behavior carefully to see if the young dogs stop or look around when I fire.
After a few times, they usually don't react to the sound. I then increase the volume by shooting "blanks" from a starter pistol. Finally, I switch to a .22-caliber rifle. Standing well away from the dogs, I shoot into the ground until the younger dogs don't react to the sound. The desensitizing process usually takes about half of a day.
I have had many different rabbit dogs over the last 14 years. Some have been purebred beagles from good hunting stock, but most have been mixed-breed dogs with some beagle in them. These dogs are my favorites because they learn quickly. Not only are they are fast and efficient rabbit dogs, but they make good family pets.
My three sons are now grown and have moved away, but we still try to have at least two rabbit hunts each winter.
Fortunately, I took many pictures of our rabbit hunting adventures. When I send my Monday morning e-mail message to my sons, I include a digital photo from one of our trips. The picture-of-the-week is now a tradition. If I miss a week, I can count on getting a reminder call. Occasionally I get a call from one of my boys who just wants to reminisce about the latest picture.
It's amazing to think that all our rabbit hunting memories began when my oldest son looked up at me with a new puppy in his hands.
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