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Hunting Dogs


Since the human nose is virtually worthless when compared to a hound’s, hunters rely on dogs to trail, tree, spot, hold, point, find, and retrieve game. In West Virginia, dogs are used to pursue nearly every species of wildlife, from squirrel, cottontail, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, woodcock, opossum, and raccoon, up to black bear. (It is illegal to hunt deer with dogs.) The variety of hunting dogs used by Mountain State hunters is extensive. Breeds number in the dozens.

Bear hunters prefer hounds bred in the mountains, where the animals are raised to have no fear of bears. Breeds such as the Plott, Redbone, black and tan, Treeing Walker, and blue-tick are all used as bear dogs. A bear hunter’s strike dog has the best nose in a pack. Strike dogs are experienced and used to determine if a trail is hot. If the strike dog is confident in the scent, other hounds are turned loose.

One Webster County hunter said after the 2000 hunting season that a pack of his hounds held a Kanawha County bear treed for more than five hours while hunters tried to find their way to the remote scene. When the hunters finally arrived, the hounds were still barking, and the treed bear, which weighed more than 300 pounds, was shot.

Raccoon hunters use similar dog breeds. There are two types of trailing raccoon hounds, silent trailers and those with good voices. A silent trailer pushes its quarry quickly and brings it to tree faster than hounds baying on a track. During an era of high hide prices in the 1970s, when a prime raccoon pelt could bring $75, silent trailers were preferred because many raccoons could be taken quickly.

Hunting cottontail rabbits with beagles almost became a lost tradition during the 1980s as cottontail numbers plummeted throughout the East. Today, hunting rabbits with beagles is a pastime enjoyed by only a limited number of West Virginians.

Bird hunters frequently have friendly arguments over which breeds make the best bird dogs. A consensus among veteran hunters, however, shows the English setter as the best grouse hunting breed used in West Virginia. A setter’s long hair protects it from heavy brush and thorns. The dog’s intelligence and receptivity to extensive training make it an ideal choice for West Virginia’s steep terrain.

Squirrel hunting with a hound is something few West Virginians get the opportunity to do, since quality squirrel dogs are not commonly available. Breeds that make good squirrel dogs include the Norwegian elk hound and Australian shepherd, along with several smaller breeds of terrier. On a typical squirrel hunt with a hound, the dog forces the squirrel to take quickly to a tree. While the dog barks below, the squirrel hides in place, allowing the hunter to circle the tree and eventually find and shoot the squirrel.

Serious waterfowl hunters use Chesapeake Bay and Labrador retrievers for their sport. And of all the breeds of hunting dog, these are often considered to be the most trainable and intelligent. Retrievers also can be used as field flushing dogs on quail and pheasants. Autumn turkey hunters also occasionally use dogs, which do the work of finding flocks of wild turkeys. The dog runs into the flock and chases the birds, barking and scattering them in several directions. Afterward, the hunter sits down, camouflages his dog (which is trained to sit quietly), and begins to call the wild turkeys back to the gun. Dogs used for hunting wild turkeys during the fall season are probably the least available of all hunting dog breeds. Small terriers are often the dogs of choice for this duty, although setters and other breeds are occasionally used.

Written by Andy Hansroth