small pack trials…

The days of slow, plodding beagle trials are all but over. They still hold brace trials where two dogs of the same sex compete in following a rabbit’s trail exactly, but far more popular are small pack trials. The beagles are faster and more exciting to watch.

Five dogs make up a cast in small pack trials. Both males and females run in the same cast. For most trials, beagles have to measure less than 15 inches tall at the shoulder. They must also be registered purebreds: AKC, NKC, or UKC in addition to ARHA (American Rabbit Hound Association) registration. Some registries have their own trials with their own requirements.

Dogs compete by class: open, champion and grand champions. In the final cast, the winners of each class run against each other. Open class beagles are those that are not champions or grands and make up the largest group. On a good day, 50 or 60 open dogs might compete. Champions have won 100 points, based on placing first through tenth. First place is 40 points, second 30 points, third 25 points and so on down to five points for 10th place. They must have at least one first place trial win and cannot have more than 50 points from one club. Grands have to win at least one of the major regional hunts or place first five times in club hunts. Several beagle clubs hold trials around the state.

There’s also a bench competition based on conformation. Best male, female, puppy and best of show are awarded. Puppies are between six months and a year old. Over a year old, the dog must also run in the trial to be eligible for the bench.

Trial registration takes place early; most close by 7 a.m. Each entry is assigned a number. Once all the dogs are registered, the Master of Hounds randomly draws those numbers to make up five-dog-casts in each group. Not all casts run five dogs; it depends on the number entered. Fifty-eight open dogs would break down to 10 casts of five dogs and two casts of four. Champions and grand champions are similarly grouped. Both of these classes require at least three dogs to make a cast. The Master of Hounds also settles disputes and challenges.

The Master of Hounds assigns a judge for each cast. His job is to score and handle the dogs—he cannot judge his own or a family member’s dog. The owners only handle their dogs when instructed by the judge. The rest of the time they watch with other spectators. Judging is a young man’s job; trying to keep up with the dogs to award points correctly takes stamina. The cast runs for an hour.

Each dog wears a different colored color—red, green, blue, yellow and white—to help judges recognize each dog. Electronic tracking collars are allowed, but not shock collars. Dog owners can’t carry collar receivers during the trial.

Running usually takes place of private lands; the DNR requires permits to run on state land. If five guys each take a dog and hunt they can use state land, but organized trials need permits. Seems kind of unfair. No guns are allowed during a field trial and rabbits are not killed, although rarely, a dog might catch one.

Sometimes it seems the rabbits enjoy the chase as much as the dogs. Rabbits that get run often get smart. I’ve seen them run into an old, dilapidated barn, and somehow come out on the upper main floor. One rabbit ran up into a pocket, about 18″ above the ground, formed by multiple trunks of a big oak. He’d played this game before.

The judge explains the rules at the start of the cast and double checks to make sure he has the right color assigned to the right dog. He then turns the dogs loose to hunt and starts his watch. As stated earlier, the judge directs the dogs’ search areas.

Dogs score points based on three criteria; strikes, jumps, and checks. A dog that barks three times on a track is “put on the clock.” That dog or any other in the cast has three minutes to produce a rabbit or advance the track. A strike scores 10 points. However, if at the end of the three minutes no rabbit is produced the strike dog has 10 points taken away for not producing game.

A jump is the rabbit actually being jumped and scores 30 points. The rabbit may move before a dog has a chance to strike or the strike dog might track the rabbit and then jump it. Then he would score a strike-jump and receive 40 points.

All the dogs in the cast must run the same rabbit once jumped. If the track breaks down—the rabbit backtracks, runs atop a downed tree trunk, or any of several escape tricks—the dog that unravels the puzzle and advances the track scores a check worth 25 points. There can only be one strike or jump per chase but multiple checks are possible. Any dog that pulls the pack out of the check area by barking on the wrong track or by backtracking loses 10 points. If after a certain amount of time, at the judge’s discretion, none of the dogs advance the chase, say the rabbit holes up, the track can be called dead. Or the judge may stop his watch and move the dogs to where the spectators saw the rabbit last, and if the owners agree, start the chase again, awarding a check if the rabbit is produced.

Dogs also lose points for running off game; squirrels, cats, etc. A dog with three minuses is removed from the cast. Running deer is an immediate disqualification. Entire casts have been disqualified when one dog takes a deer and the others follow, even if they come back quickly.

The judge can either move the cast himself to a new location or have the owners handle their dogs, He may also call a break, say it’s a hot day and the dogs need water. The clock stops for breaks.

The winners of each cast in each group run again later to determine the trial winner. If there are lots of open dogs, some may run two or three times before the finalists are determined. It takes a tough dog to run two or three casts, even with a break in between runs.

Luck plays a big part in the final cast. It’s not that champions or grands have an advantage. Two dogs might follow the same track or hunt the same area. One turns left, the other right and jumps the rabbit. Game over.

Winter’s here. Get out and participate or watch competitive beagling.