Hounds are so distinctive, their name is often used to describe a person who is diligently searching for something. There are art hounds, book hounds, knowledge hounds. There are also many phrases about hounds, such as “going to the hounds” and “running with the hounds.” The hound group has some of the oldest breeds and, indeed, it’s always easy to spot a hound with his unusual characteristics. Hounds have an unmistakable howl, or “bay,” which is unique to their group. If the orientations of a mixed breed dog seem undefinable, yet he is known for baying at the moon, there’s some hound in there somewhere.
Hounds are divided into three groups: the scent hounds, sight hounds and those who don’t fall into either category. Almost all hounds were bred for hunting and have an extremely strong sense of smell or excellent sight. Hounds are a diverse lot and, depending on the breed of hound, the dogs in the group are both active and laid-back, quick sprinters or slow trotters depending on the situation. But all hounds have the ability to bay, that howl that seems so mournful and lonely. Unfortunately, this vocal nature can be seen as a deterrent to prospective owners but hounds can be trained to be quiet. Many of their other characteristics, including friendliness, patience with children, exuberance and dependability, make up for their tendency to vocalize.
Sight hounds have been credited with being the oldest type of dog. They originate from Asia and the Middle East and were bred to hunt by sight. The instinct to hunt is so prevalent in sight hounds that even today they are notorious for taking off after something their owner cannot even see. Perhaps contradictorily, they tend to be very relaxed in their home environment and many make good apartment pets. Scent hounds are not so old – they were developed in North America and Europe. When hunting, a scent hound is single-minded and can get into danger crossing roads or difficult terrain. Some scent hounds were bred to track injured prey while others were bred to tree prey. Both types corner their quarry and alert the hunters by baying.
Beagle – This smaller version of a hound, either 13 or 15 inches at the withers, has been popular for a long time. The modern breed was developed in Britain in the 1830s. They were bred as scent hounds and their trainability, stamina and excellent sense of smell make them invaluable in organizations today such as the Beagle Brigade, which uses Beagles to search for illegal contraband in airports. Their sweet, friendly personalities make them excellent family dogs.
Dachshund – Also known as the “hot dog” or “wiener dog,” the Dachshund is quite a character. They retain their hunting instincts and can be determined, stubborn and somewhat ferocious when chasing anything. Despite their regal appearance, they inspire much laughter from their bravado and short legs. They come in three different coats – the smooth (or short-haired), the long-haired and the wire-haired. Dachshunds can be good family dogs if they trained but their belief that they are here to rule cannot be completely dissuaded.
Basset Hound – Like the Dachshund, the Basset Hound is low to the ground. Despite his small legs, he is a very beefy dog, usually weighing at least 50 pounds. His jowls are prominent and his loose skin may drag a bit on the floor. These hounds are natural clowns, friendly and outgoing and very good with children. In addition to the Hound bay, they use a low murmuring whine to get attention and are very food driven, which can be used in their training. They were bred as scent hounds and their large ears were developed to retain the scent of their prey.
Greyhound – Greyhounds are fast. Everybody knows that. A big back yard is ideal for the Greyhound owner, as is a local fenced-in dog park. Do not by any means take one off leash in an unfenced area. They are sight hounds and with their incredible vision they can spot something they want (say, a squirrel) yards away and be gone before you can blink. They make surprisingly great couch potatoes when they’re not running at high speed and get cold easily with their thin coats, so be sure to drape a blanket over your hound or invest in some warm sweaters. The same goes for the Greyhound’s smaller cousins, the Whippet and the Italian Greyhound.
Hounds are not particularly popular in the U.S. but many are used for hunting and for companion dogs in many European countries. Hounds are actually very charismatic creatures and, with the diversity in the group, there’s a breed for every personality. The baying can be controlled and some folks might be surprised at what great family dogs the hounds make. Because there are so many differences among breeds, it is important for potential owners to research any specific hound breed thoroughly before acquiring one.