Living With Rabbit Dogs

Thinking of getting your own pack of rabbit dogs? Here's a few things this rookie has learned that'll help get you started.

Brad Gill | April 27, 2006

Mike Thomas of Social Circle sold me a pair of sister beagles a few years ago. Oh boy, I was in the rabbit-hunting business. So we built an off-the-ground pen with pressure-treated wood and chain-link fence, with a 55-gallon barrel in the back for sleeping quarters. Life was going to be great. On the first night I had them in the pen I awoke at 3 a.m. with my wife’s fist beating on my chest.

“Shut those dogs up!”

They were howling to beat the band, so I went high-tailing out through the backyard by way of moonlight wearing nothing but slippers and boxers with the water hose in hand. A good spray of cold water would stop this nonsense, and it did — I just had to reapply the same treatment for the next three nights.

The education I would receive owning my own beagles had just begun. I’ve only been in the rabbit business for a few short years — trust me, I’m still a rookie beagler, but I learn something new every time I take them out or train a new puppy.

When you live with rabbit dogs, the sport of beagling becomes a priority in a hurry, and it has forced me to pick up a few tricks of the trade. Also, I can’t continue this article without saying that without the advise from fellow beagler Mike Thomas, my beagling initiation would have been a much rougher ride. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re a new beagler.

I raise beagles to rabbit hunt, so the training phase with puppies is something I take seriously, and I spend a lot of time with them. I’ve worked with puppies two different ways. The goal is to get them to trail a rabbit by scent — and bark while doing it.

The first way I’ve trained a beagle is to put the puppy in a running pen for a few days. These private, pay-to-use pens are acre-or-so sized enclosures filled with tame rabbits and briars. I’ve had puppies in there for three or four days, and they’d come out running like they’ve been doing it for years. These places can be effective, but they cost about $30-$50 a dog, and my experience is the waiting list to get your dog in is weeks or even months.

My favorite way to train a beagle pup is to buy my own rabbit and let the puppy run the rabbit in my yard. Don’t go to a pet store and spend $75 on a rabbit. You can buy tame rabbits from breeders for as little as five or 10 dollars. Just look in your local newspaper or in the Farmer’s Market Bulletin for folks who sell them.

Jeff Russell handles a pair of beagles in a Putnam County pine thicket.

Generally, I like to start putting a rabbit in front of a pup’s nose when it’s three to four months old. Some of my beagling buddies say that starting this training program any earlier could scare the daylights out of a pup.
When you’re ready to train, pull the cottontail out of the cage — grabbing it by the nape of the neck — and make sure the pup can see it. Then, set the rabbit in front of the pup and let it go. Hopefully your pup is eager to chase its new “toy.”

Most tame rabbits will tire quickly, and the rabbit will just stop. I usually let my puppy get a good sniff of the rabbit before I put it back in its cage. I’ve never had a pup try to tear a tame rabbit apart, but watch this — I’m sure it can happen.

When you shoot a rabbit while rabbit hunting, some adult dogs will rip a cottontail in half if you don’t get to it first. I winged a rabbit last season that went down 10 yards past where I shot it, into a much thicker stand of briars. By the time I got to the rabbit all I could hear was growling, and the rabbit had been torn into pieces.

Last January, I was ready to start training a 5-month-old puppy named Angel. I bought two rabbits for $16. With two bunnies, when one would tire, I could train with the fresh one. This extra rabbit gave me twice the training time, and as a result, I feel it’s why Angel advanced so quickly.

After a week of putting the rabbit in front of her nose and letting her run down the cottontail, Angel started to “open up,” or bark as she’d chase. With other dogs, I’ve had it take over a month before they’d even bark. I knew it was time for the next step — after-dark training.

I went out the next night and let the rabbit loose in the pitch-black dark. I let Angel out of the kennel and walked her over to where the rabbit was released. She had her nose down the whole time, and when she hit the trail she started to squeal and yip while her tail was rocking back and forth. She could smell where the rabbit had been. It was that night she learned what she was born to do.

I continued this same practice for several nights, and after she would consistently blind track the scent to that rabbit, it was time for the third, and final, step in her training process — let her run with a trained dog.

All of Angel’s training was going on during hunting season, so she tagged along with me and the first two beagles I bought. I had all the confidence in the world in her — she knew what she was supposed to do — but for some reason she wouldn’t run with the other two dogs. Several weeks later I went hunting with a buddy and five of his dogs. She’d run all day with the pack, but she never opened her mouth.

Then, one day in late February my dad shot a cottontail that had been run by my two adult dogs, and we noticed that Angel wasn’t with them. Then, we heard her 100 yards off open up on a different trail. The two adult dogs went to her and all three dogs were running together. The rest was history.

Remember, I’m still new to this beagling game, but from the six pups I’ve raised, and from talking to other beaglers, a newly trained puppy not running with adult dogs isn’t uncommon. I had one pup that could run, but she’d only run with her sister. If you put another dog in the race she wouldn’t run at all. She got over it, but I believe she just needed some experience. I’ve got two pups right now that can smoke a tamed rabbit, but they haven’t opened up with my pack yet — and they’re 10 months old. I talked with a buddy of mine about this, and he said he had a 1-year-old puppy that just started running. He told me each dog is different — some start trailing rabbits sooner than others.
I run my dogs year-round, and I’m not alone. Everyone asks, “Are you worried about rattlesnakes?” You’re dang right I am, but I’m not going to leave them in the kennel from March through November, either.

Running the dogs keeps them in shape, their noses sharp, and I just like running my dogs. It’s fun, and I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer night than circled around the back of a pickup with good friends talking hunting while listening to dogs.

When I go out with my dogs in the summer, I’ll go right before dark or right before daybreak, and I won’t open the dog box until I see a rabbit sitting in the road. This way my dogs won’t get exhausted searching for a rabbit in the summer heat and humidity, plus it won’t give a puppy time to wander around and discover new smells — like deer. You want that pup to think, rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

I won’t run my dogs in the summer unless there’s some sort of moisture on the ground. This can be an afternoon thunderstorm or a good dew first thing in the morning. The dogs must have moisture to smell.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “How do you get your dogs back?” Great question, and it’s one I laugh at because I really haven’t figured out the answer, yet. First of all, you ain’t getting them back while they’re hot on the trail — unless they’re crossing a road and you can get your hands on them.

When they’re in thick cover, I’m not going in there with the ticks and snakes. When I’m ready to head for the house, and the dogs haven’t barked on a track in five or 10 minutes, I holler, like every other beagler I’ve seen, trying to sound like a dog. That does work a lot of times. However, I’ve got some stubborn dogs that sometimes won’t leave an area even if they lose the track. They know that rabbit is there, and they’re not going to give up looking for it.

Eventually, and I use this word very loosely, the dogs will give up and come on to the truck. A word of warning — the odds are good that when five dogs are coming back to the truck, they’ll jump another rabbit. I went out in July with some buddies. There was a light rain falling through the night and the dogs were hammering — they could smell so well. I was out until daylight that time.

When I get home from running or hunting, my dogs live on an 11X11 concrete slab, inside a 10X10 kennel, complete with roof. The addition of the concrete slab means the dogs can’t dig out, and it allows me to hose out the waste onto the dirt. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that dog waste on the dirt wasn’t going to work — or at least my wife told me the smell wasn’t going to work.

Me and a buddy put in a septic system. Now the waste goes out the back of the kennel onto sloped concrete and into a 55-galloon drum with holes drilled in the bottom and on the sides. Three-quarters of the drum is buried, and we filled the drum one-third full of big-sized gravel. We also put gravel around the outside of the drum. We included an overflow pipe out the back for times of heavy rain. I put lime in it about once a week, and the system keeps the beagles in a much cleaner environment. I’ve already learned this month, as the leaves have begun to fall, that I need to put a grate over the mouth of the drum. Leaves will get in the barrel and can clog it. I told you I still keep learning.
It’s a lot of work, and there’s still tons of beagling tricks to learn. When opening day of rabbit season hits on November 13, I’ll be spending it with good friends, and when the first dog opens its mouth on fresh cottontail scent, everyone will be excited.

That’s what makes the hard work that comes with living with beagles all worthwhile… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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