By Chris Lamphere
For some, the idea of hunting with hounds brings to mind savage images of salivating dogs chasing some terrified animal through the woods, culminating finally in a bloodbath as the animals rip their prey to shreds.
As experts on the practice will attest, nothing could be further from the truth.
Tracking bears with hounds isn’t a fair-weather hobby aimed at amassing trophies; it’s a way of life that revolves around the special relationship between dogs and their masters.
Enthusiasts say the amount of time and money they put into training their hounds — as well as the emotional investment they make in each animal — differentiate the practice from any other type of hunting in Michigan. Mike Thorman, of the Michigan Dog Hunting Federation, said at 72 years old, he still has yet to kill a bear and doesn’t know if he ever will. It’s the satisfaction of seeing his dogs successfully track down a bear that he relishes.
“If you’ve never been in that lifestyle, it’s hard to understand,” Thorman said. “Once you get into hounds, it’s not about the kill. It’s like being a coach on a little league team. Dogs aren’t like your children, but they’re somewhere in that line. They’re part of your everyday life.”
Thorman said there’s something almost “primeval” about the feeling he gets accompanying the dogs on a hunt — something akin to the feeling he imagines people thousands of years ago must have felt when they first began domesticating wild wolves. Unlike ancient man, however, modern hunters spend most of their time in the field letting bears escape as part of the training process for their dogs.
Everyone does it a little differently, but the basics of training a dog to track a bear are the same and boil down to this: take them out into the field and let them learn through experience.
Training the dogs
Tim Dusterwinkle, with the Michigan Bear Hunters Association, said it’s important the dogs are properly leash-trained before taking them into the field.
When he’s deciding which dogs to take on a hunt, Dusterwinkle said he observes their social skills among other dogs, as well as children, as an indication of how manageable they will be.
He also looks for other attributes including intelligence, stamina, courage, and gameness to take part in the chase.
Dusterwinkle said he typically brings six dogs with him at a time, ranging in age from 1.5 to 10 years old. He said each dog plays a different role in the hunt depending on their experience and natural abilities.
Once he finds signs of a bear (more on that later), Dusterwinkle said he’ll release his best “start dog” — the one with the best chance of jumping the bear.
It’s imperative for this dog to have an excellent sense of smell, as oftentimes they are working with scents that are up to 18 hours old.
A dog able to track down a bear from an old scent is often referred to as a “cold nose” dog, Dusterwinkle said.
Although most dogs can detect an old scent, Dusterwinkle said it takes intelligence for that dog to connect that smell to the live bear somewhere in the woods.
Dusterwinkle said he listens closely to the animal’s barking. When the barking becomes more frequent and excited, it’s a sign he is close on the bear’s trail. At this point, he’ll release the rest of the dogs.
This is when it’s important for the hunter to also be smart, Dusterwinkle said, as the dogs can easily be misled by other smells, depending on when they are released.
“It’s all about timing,” Dusterwinkle said. “It’s not as simple as going into the woods and letting them loose.”
When it’s clear the dogs have the bear treed or cornered somewhere on the ground, the hunting party makes its way to the site. Once on scene, Dusterwinkle said he’ll tie the dogs up nearby and allow the bear to escape. He makes sure the younger dogs get a good view of the bear as it runs away to drive home what they have been tracking the whole time. During the training season, Dusterwinkle said he takes his dogs out four to five times a week.
Locating a bear
Before any dogs are released on a bear’s trail, hunters first have to locate one. Dusterwinkle said there are several different ways hunters do this: they look for paw prints on two-track roads; they set up a bait pile; and they “rig hunt,” which is driving the dogs around in a truck until they catch a whiff of a bear. Thorman said one of the tricks he uses when looking for tracks — which are often difficult to see because bears don’t apply much pressure per square inch of their paws — is to drag an old tire or snowmobile track on the road to fluff the dirt about a quarter of an inch. This makes the tracks more noticeable. This practice is illegal in some places, including National Forest lands, Thorman said, but many places allow it.
Mark Morse, a hound trainer who lives near Traverse City, said finding bears can often be quite difficult, especially in the summer months, when their feeding patterns change with the ripening of various berries. To keep his dogs sharp year-round, Morse said he tracks coyotes in the wintertime. He said it’s pretty amazing to watch the dogs automatically make the transition from tracking bears to coyotes, seemingly as a result of snow being on the ground.
The moment of truth
Like many hound trainers, Morse said he rarely takes a bear himself but helps others get into a position for a clean shot. Morse hunts with a group of outdoorsmen and women each year, and between them, they typically have a couple of bear tags to fill out. While a bear will likely try to make a break for it if they notice any signs of a human in the area, they also are quite distracted by the dogs, which makes it easier for a hunter to make an approach. Before taking a shot, Morse said he tries to determine the animal’s size by getting it to cross a road within his view.
Other ways of ascertaining the animal’s size are by checking out its ears and head, along with examining pictures taken through a trail camera or during a previous training session. In the Lower Peninsula, making your way to where the dogs have the bear cornered is usually pretty straight-forward, as forest areas are compact and segmented by roads. In the Upper Peninsula, it can be much more difficult to locate the dogs, as the forests and swamplands are much more expansive. Even with the use of GPS collars on the dogs, Morse said it sometimes can take several hours to get to the site.
Morse said getting to the dogs as soon as possible can be a matter of life and death for the animals, as the presence of wolves in the U.P. has increased over the years. “We’ve very much changed how we’ve hunted (because of wolves),” Morse said. “We’ve lost six dogs in the last 10 years to wolves.”
Getting to the dogs immediately is one of the ways they have adapted to the threat of wolves, Morse said. Another is to simply stop hunting certain areas. “We’ve let some nice bear go over the years,” Morse said. “It’s not worth losing a dog.”
While wolves are an ever-present danger to dogs in the U.P., the bear itself is no slouch when it comes to defending itself. Morse said injuries to his dogs from being bitten or swatted by a bear usually are puncture wounds to their rear ends. One of the most common scenarios is for the bear to spin in circles as it wards off the dogs that have surrounded it, barking and nipping. Injuries to dogs are mostly minor, but once every five years or so, a hound will be seriously injured by a bear, Morse said. As the hunting party inches their way toward the bear, Morse said they are careful to turn their radios off so they don’t spook the animal.
Generally, the entire hunting party will stop a good distance from the bear and dogs, and only the person with the license will proceed further for a killing shot. Owing to the large amount of fat that bears carry on their bodies, it’s important to cool off the carcass after the kill to prevent decomposition of the flesh. A trick that Dusterwinkle uses is to place the animal in a stream so the water cools off the carcass before they move it. Morse said some hunters pack ice with them before the hunt in the event they are able to take a bear. He prefers to pump cold water through a garden house into the cavity of the bear to keep it cool. Some hunters, like Dusterwinkle, dress and quarter the animal in the field. Others, like Morse, prefer to drag the whole carcass back to the truck. He said three to four guys will drag the animal using ropes through the swamp and thick woods. This is definitely hard work, but Morse said it’s part of the fun and adds to the camaraderie of the experience for the entire hunting party.
Criticisms of hunting bear with hounds
Thorman, Dusterwinkle and Morse all said one of the common critiques they’ve heard from people about hunting bears with hounds is that they don’t think it’s very sporting-like. They all had a similar response to this criticism, which goes something like this: anyone who says hunting bears with hounds is easy or lazy has simply never done it. “It takes a lot of work and dedication to train the dogs,” said Dusterwinkle, who added that once the dogs corner a bear, the hunters often have to trek through miles of dense forest and swampland before they are able to reach them, not to mention back again once the hunt is over.
Morse said the notion that the bear doesn’t stand a chance is also a misconception, particularly in Michigan, where there is a limit on the number of dogs a hunter can bring with them. Thorman said another comment he hears from some people is that tracking with hounds is cruel and causes psychological harm to the bear. He said this belief is predicated on the idea that bear have similar emotions of fear and anxiety as humans do. An analogy he often uses is that of a rabbit, which would never venture outside if it truly felt fear the way humans do because everything is trying to kill it. “It’s so far from the reality,” Thorman said regarding the idea that hunting with hounds is a cruel practice.
More than just a hunt
Jason Morrison, a Rapid City resident who hunts bears with hounds in the eastern U.P., said one of the coolest things about tracking a bear is being able to see areas of the woods that people might not have seen in a long time, if ever. “It’s stress free,” Morrison said. “All those things in life weighing you down … when you hear those hounds, they go away.”
As a lifetime bear tracker whose father brought him along on hunts as far back as he can remember, Morrison said he learned early the value of sharing these experiences as a family.
Today, Morrison and his wife take their 4- and 7-year-old daughters on hunts with them. “They like seeing the bears,” Morrison said about his daughters. “They also love just being with dad and learning about Mother Nature. We pick blueberries and look at the plants and butterflies.”
Thorman and Dusterwinkle agreed that sharing the bear hunting experience with youngsters, as well as everyone else in the family, is one of the most rewarding aspects of the sport.
“It’s a lot of excitement,” Dusterwinkle said. “I haven’t taken a kid yet who didn’t like it.”