Starting a Young Dachshund on Rabbits 

By Jolanta Jeanneney

 From Dachshund Club of America Newsletter
Above And Below Ground: Dachshunds At Work  
March 2003

As I am writing this column at the end of November, a cold wind is blowing outside and there are patches of snow on the ground. It will be March when you read this and it will be a good time to think about starting your young dachshund in the field. Since the last column dealt with evaluation of puppies, it is logical to follow with some tips on how to go about initial training of your pup for field work on rabbits.

Needless to say, there is no “one right way” to do it, but most dog people working their hounds in the field would agree on some recommendations, which you can try for yourself. There is not much written in the English language about starting and training young dachshunds to hunt rabbits, but literature on beagles is abundant. There is no need to reinvent the wheel and most of what works for beagles can be applied to our breed. At the end of this article, there is a list of resources that you might find helpful. The book I would most recommend is American Beagling by Glenn G. Black. There are quite a few paragraphs in the chapter on “Initial Training” that are worth quoting here.

 Before you start field training, your pup should have his vaccinations, be leash broken and have some basic obedience. Trainers of hunting dogs call this initial obedience training “yard training”. The correct handling and yard training goes a long way to “develop your puppy into a hunting companion to be enjoyed on your hunting trips for game or co-operative field trial hound that you will be able to handle to the extent of having him where you want him, when you want him  (…) It is exasperating for a handler to have to run down a wild bolter at a field trial, or for the hunter, at the end of a day when he is so tired he can hardly drag one foot after the other and so hungry he could eat a raw goat, to spend an hour, or two or three, trying to run down of those lawless maniacs.”  While I have not acquired a taste for a raw goat yet, I can relate to the above statement. I have owned a share “of those lawless maniacs” and can truly appreciate virtues of a biddable dachshund. The commands “come”, “stay” or “down” do come really handy in the field.

 Starting a puppy in the field is “the initial part of his field training from his first trip afield until the time he acquires the ability to run a line by scent for a reasonable distance in a fairly workmanlike way”. But how and when should we go about starting a puppy in the field? The dachshund is a hunter and has an inborn prey drive that needs to be awakened. For some puppies, this moment comes quite early, even when they are just 10-12 weeks old. For others it can come much later, when they are almost a year old. If you talk to a number of successful trainers, you will realize that their opinions differ vastly regarding what the right starting age is. It is important to point out that how good rabbit dog your dachshund becomes does not depend on how quickly he starts. There have been some brilliant youngsters, which deteriorated with age and there have been some excellent hunters, which were slow to start.

  Larry Gohlke , for example, likes to start his dogs very early. In fact, he likes to pre-condition the pups by having the bitch in whelp run rabbits and follow deer blood before she whelps and while she nurses the puppies. In his own words: “I feel pretty sure that the act of following scent sends some kind of energy throughout the dog’s body. I want the pups to experience this energy early in life. When the puppies are ready to leave the heat lamp in the whelping pen they will be greeted with a frozen rabbit or deer leg.” You may smile reading his words, but Larry Mueller, Hunting Dog Editor for Outdoor Life, has a theory that the dog fetuses can be conditioned by the dam’s experience. Mueller’s article provides supporting evidence and certainly provides good food for thought. And it is hard to argue with Larry Gohlke as he owns two standard wires that became field champions at 4.5 and 5.5 months.

 My own opinion is that the pups should be exposed to game and its scent by the age of 5-6 months. But it is a good practice to start taking the pup earlier for walks where he can be exposed to unfamiliar scents and sounds. The pup should be old enough to to move well and not be obstructed by tall grass and brushy areas. By the age of 12-16  weeks most pups are fully able to enjoy this kind of “nature walks”. It is good for them. It exposes them to a wonderful world of natural scents. Encourage the puppy’s inquisitiveness and give praise when he uses his nose. Talk to your puppy while you walk together. Soon the pup will realize that this is your time together in the field, you are partners in this adventure and hunting is a joint effort. The pup will learn to respond to you in the field. If you see something interesting (like fresh rabbit droppings), call the pup and give him a special command so he knows that this is something to investigate. It is up to you what you say, but be consistent. I use a question “what is it?” asked with excitement in my voice. If you take this kind of short field trips, there is a good chance you will encounter rabbits. Rabbits can be found at beagle club grounds, wildlife mana gem ent areas, parks, fields, even on suburban lawns.

 If the puppy is very young, does not range and just stays with you, walk slowly or even, better, sit on the ground. After a while the puppy will get bored with you, especially if you do not engage him in play, and he will start to investigate his surroundings. It helps if these initial outings include just you and your pup and you do not get interrupted by other people and dogs. These short trips have a specific purpose – this is not an effort to socialize the pup with people and dogs (by this age the pup should be socialized already), but to start your youngster in the field on rabbits.

 “It will require only a few trips until the pup begins to feel at home in the brush. He becomes “brush wise’ as we say. Should he happen to stumble into a rabbit on one of these trips so much the better. Just let him stumble and let him severely alone. Let him try to catch the rabbit if he takes the notion, or let him nose the line trying to figure out what it is all about if he wants to do that. In these cases do not yell or call him into the line to try to make him run it. Do not rush his first lessons. To do so will only confuse him and distract his attention away from the rabbit. Although he may hesitate and, in some cases, even be uninterested, you must have patience. His nature will assert itself in due time and his interest will become evident.

 If he has become thoroughly brush wise without encountering a rabbit, it then becomes your job to help him find one. Kick around in the brush and beat the brush with a cane to get him accustomed to a little action and overcome any tendency he may show to be shy. If you kick up a rabbit call the puppy over to the line, point to the line with your finger close to the ground following in an effort to get him to nose it and follow it by scent.

Some puppies will catch on promptly with this simple procedure and will soon acquire the knack of following the line for a fair distance, while others may require coaching and patience.”

 Some folks are very successful by starting a pup on a scent line laid by dragging a dead, frozen rabbit. The rabbit could be a road kill or an asked-for gift from a hunter. The advantage of the frozen rabbit is that you can use it time after time. Bring the pup to the area where the line is and watch his reaction. If he does not respond to the scent, the pup may be too young or he may need further help. Show it the frozen rabbit, let the pup sniff it, pull some hair and chew on it. Toss it, most likely the pup will go after it. Praise your puppy lavishly because he has accomplished something wonderful. Drag the rabbit it in front of your dog, but try to hold the dog back. While you are moving away with the rabbit being pulled on the string, most dogs’ response will be to follow it. Great. Encourage and praise him. Next, make this game more difficult and prevent the pup from seeing where the rabbit has been dragged. You will be encouraging your pup to use his nose. If he follows the line successfully, reward him. You can make this rabbit scent line more difficult, when you think the dog is ready for the next step. Age it more and introduce turns. Keep it fun!

 One of the questions often asked is “should I run my puppy with older dogs and let him learn from them?” The answer is no. Puppies start and learn at their own pace and the best thing is to let them do the learning on their own. More often than not, the dynamics of your dog pack would  interfere with the pup’s desire to follow the rabbit line and these pack dynamics are not favorable for you puppy. The pup most likely will follow older dogs, will try to keep up with them and will not pay enough attention to the rabbit scent line. Not only that, the pup will not pay attention to you, his handler and the lesson that hunting is a team effort will be completely lost on the youngster. Even if the pup is very talented and actually follows a rabbit started by more experienced dogs, he may quickly become dependent, too dependent on his “canine mentors”. In my opinion, the disadvantages of starting a young dog by running it with older, more experienced dachshunds outweigh possible benefits.

 Some field trialers like to start their young dogs in puppy pens that can be found at beagle club running grounds, but be careful -  when rabbits are plentiful this practice may encourage “sight chases”. Seeing the rabbit can certainly help a young dachshund start, but the “sight chases” should be kept to minimum. We want to encourage the dog to use his nose in trailing a rabbit and sight chasing is not a way to do it. Once the dog is interested in following the rabbit scent, you do not need the visual stimulation any more. Of course, it is impossible to eliminate sight chases altogether – they will always occur when a dog bumps a rabbit. But when a dog is started and can run rabbit reasonably well, it will be able to advance the line by following the scent. We want to prevent the situation in which a pup is placed in a small puppy pen with plenty of rabbits and runs wild with excitement from one rabbit to another relying on his eyes mainly.

 Most young dogs will make plenty of mistakes when starting such as out running their noses or backtracking. Give the dog opportunities to get enough experience to get better. Most dogs, when given a chance to establish their own working style and gain confidence in their own work, will get better. Their work will be closer and cleaner.

 Don’t rush your young dog to field trials too soon. Your patience will pay off in the long run. Young dogs can learn very little from working in a brace with another dog. A lot of youngsters become very competitive and try to outrun their bracemate. They can learn bad habits quite quickly and it may take a long time to ‘unlearn” the unwanted behavior in the field. In some cases, young dogs can get discouraged quite quickly in the field trial setting. Runs in open stakes are usually short and dogs are picked up quickly. Put yourself in your pup’s place. Would it be fun for you if just when you were starting to unravel the mystery of line, somebody would call “pick them up” and you would hear “down” thundering over your head? Participating in field trials is not a right way to start a young dog! Be patient – your young dachshund will be a better rabbit dog if you give him opportunity to learn on his own, at his own pace, without the pressure and competitiveness of field trials. Remember that your role as a trainer and handler is to bring out natural instincts in the pup and to discourage the development of bad habits. The dog’s working style is influenced in a great deal by genetics and there are limits to how much you can improve it. Unfortunately, you can ruin working style much more easily by running your pup in a competitive situation too early.

 Try to maximize your pup’s chance of success. Especially in the beginning, work him when the scenting conditions are good. Don’t set your pup up for disappointment by trying to run rabbits in the middle of the day, when it is dry, hot or windy. Take walks with the pup just after dawn or before dusk in areas with lots of rabbits. Your good bet for rabbits are hedgerows around fields of grass, clover, or alfalfa.

Some dachshunds possess an innate ability to give voice on rabbit’s trail. The terms used to describe the sound that dachshunds make while following the scent trail are “giving a tongue” or “opening”. In German this ability is called “spurlaut”. This is a unique kind of “barking”, and you will recognize it when you hear it for the first time. The ability to open when trailing a rabbit is critical for the dog to be useful for natural rabbit hunting with a gun. If a hunter cannot hear his dog and follow his voice while the dog runs a rabbit, how will he know where to expect the rabbit to appear and how far back the dog is following? This is an important safety consideration.

The ability to “give a tongue” is worth more than just one paragraph and should make a good topic for the next issue’s column.