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Authors: Cat Warren

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Nancy Hook thinks such distinctions are silly. If she wanted to, she said scornfully to me, she could train her daughter's Chihuahua, Pip, to find bodies. Lindsay drove the point home with smug delight by pointing out that her Pip could get into small spaces, unlike Solo, who is huge and clumsy.

Nancy and Lindsay were right. I ran across a National Institute of Justice report that quoted Lester Shubin, then a program manager with the NIJ. He and another researcher, Nicholas Montanarelli, would go on to collaborate on a number of projects, but at that time, Nick was a project director for the U.S. Army's Land Warfare Laboratory in Maryland. He was a military researcher who had started thinking early on about the potential of working dogs. He and Shubin were early proponents of bomb-detection dogs in the mid-1960s, when skepticism ran high about any dog's abilities. The two men didn't consider
just German shepherds or Labradors—they worked with poodles and other breeds. Unlike me, Montanarelli and Shubin had open minds, uncontaminated by the love of shepherd.

“We learned that basically any dog could find explosives or drugs, even very small dogs like Chihuahuas whose size could be an advantage,” Shubin wrote in the NIJ report. “Who is going to look twice at someone in a fur coat carrying a dog? But that dog could smell a bomb as well as the German shepherd.”

•  •  •

And when the bloodhound came to the chief market-town, he passed through the streets without taking any notice of any of the people there, and left not till he had gone to the house where the man he sought rested himself, and found him in an upper room, to the wonder of those that followed him.

—Robert Boyle,
Essays of the Strange Subtilty, Great Efficacy, Determinate Nature of Effluviums
, 1673

Enough of Chihuahuas and German shepherds. Consider the bloodhound. Surely there's no debate about that nose being the best in the business.

Of course there is. I didn't think much about the bloodhound before getting Solo. What little I knew about its history, restrictively framed by popular culture, made me uncomfortable. With all that loose skin and hulking bone and wrinkle, the bloodhound is a generous and expandable doggie container into which we can throw all the myths, contradictions, drawbacks—and yes, even the real wonders of the working dog. It's a pity that there's so much contradictory nonsense about bloodhounds, and that I briefly bought in to some of it: not the silly pictures of bloodhounds wearing Sherlock hats and smoking pipes but the more serious nonsense about the bloodhound nose being the purest and most advanced miracle of nature, or the claims of bloodhounds
being able to follow four-month-old tracks and trail cars for miles down freeways.

Exaggerations about the bloodhound's nose distract from the truth about a fine single-purpose trailing dog. If you want to watch a working dog's nose do its business, there's no more beautiful sight than that of a good trailing bloodhound. On the other hand, I've also watched Belgian Malinois run wonderful trails, as well as Labradors, Plott hounds, one Weimaraner, and a bunch of mutts. And, of course, German shepherds. Chihuahuas are probably a stretch for trailing, at least over long distances. Let's face it: None of these breeds is as evocative as the bloodhound. Or as storied. In Shakespeare's
A Midsummer Night
, bloodhounds were an absolute vision: “So flew'd, so sanded, and their heads are hung with ears that sweep away the morning dew.”

Terry Fleck, a law enforcement K9 expert who has had three German shepherds, believes that a major difference in reputation for trailing is simply that temporal edge: Bloodhounds have a few hundred years' head start over German shepherds and Malinois. “History is working against us.”

It's a hound-fulfilling prophecy. People believe that bloodhounds are great trailers and trackers, that the breed is the only one capable of working old trails. Someone lost? Bring in the bloodhounds. Combine that with an enduring interest in the breed's tracking ability. Seventeenth-century philosopher and founder of modern chemistry Robert Boyle described with both scientific detachment and fascination witnessing a bloodhound following an aged trial track, four miles long, with great cross-contamination: “[T]he dog, without ever seeing the man he was to pursue, followed him by the scent . . . notwithstanding the multitude of market people that went along in the same way, and of travelers that had occasion to cross it.”

U.S. courts have followed history's footsteps. Early on, courts required proof of purity of bloodhound stock before they would accept trailing evidence. As an Ohio court noted in 1896: “It is a matter of
common knowledge, and therefore a matter of which courts will take notice, that the breed of dogs known as bloodhounds is possessed of a high degree of intelligence and acuteness of scent. . . . ”

It's not just legal precedent: Habit and niche needs work against us. Practically speaking, a law enforcement handler is going to train a patrol dog to track the guy who broke into Pizza Hut an hour before. Spending weeks or years training the dog to intersect and then follow a two-day-old trail isn't cost-effective, although more than one dog trainer thinks a shepherd or Malinois would do fine with a two-day-old trail. Bloodhounds have an edge because no one expects them to pay attention to anything but their nose on a trail.

“Dogs of any breed with the proper temperament that are trained the way top bloodhounds are can probably do as well as the best bloodhound,” wrote retired Maine state game warden Deborah Palman. “One advantage of bloodhounds and other single-purpose tracking dogs is that they are not taught to hang on every word or gesture of the handler. They learn to track and do that job alone, without the interference of having to know sit, down, and heel.”

The “history is destiny” sentiment also backfires against the bloodhound. Put a dog that huge and ungainly on a pedestal, and it's bound to fall off. All the overstatements (some of which come from a few delusional bloodhound handlers) work against the professional bloodhound handler who has to contend with the myths. A truthful, talented handler sounds like he's badmouthing the breed or his own dog when he's just being honest. A bloodhound and handler can accomplish something amazing, such as following a long, cross-contaminated eight-day-old trail—which, in its own small way, is like landing a disabled jetliner safely on the Hudson River—yet people think, “Hey, no big deal.” After all, bloodhounds do that all the time.

Roger Titus is a big fan of bloodhounds, which is as it should be, since he's had fourteen during his long career. He has run behind thousands during trainings, and he's vice president of the National Police Bloodhound Association, “dedicated to the advancement of the
man-trailing bloodhound.” The association celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2012. Roger, who is seventy and still running, traces the rise and slow fall of the bloodhound in law enforcement with some regret. Part of the bloodhound's decline as a law enforcement dog is simply a question of time and money: Everyone is a pragmatist these days. A dog who trails like nobody's business but doesn't do anything else for a small or medium-sized K9 unit isn't going to be a department's first budget choice. If a police department is going to buy a dog, Roger notes, a German or Dutch shepherd or a Malinois—who can protect its handler, find dope, do short tracks, and bite people—will be considered the ideal candidate. But multipurpose dogs aren't always wonderful at every single thing they do. There are only so many hours in a dog and handler's week to train all the different tasks. And even if a police department does decide to commit to a bloodhound, it takes a special kind of K9 cop to want one. Here's the most delicate way to put it: It takes a handler who doesn't think the dog is responsible for carrying the handler's masculinity credentials for him.

One glorious fall morning, I watched with Roger while a young female bloodhound bounded right past the human scent trail laid for her four hours before, dragging her equally inexperienced handler behind.

“That little pissant,” Roger said. Her galumphing leaps took her right out of scent. “She's going to have to slow her little butt up and try to concentrate.” It wasn't just the young dog who was the issue; it never is. “I believe the boy wants to be a patrol dog handler,” Roger said in a mild and almost nonjudgmental tone.

That's a pity. Despite all the myths, I've fallen for bloodhounds. Not only for their noses, but for their slobber that flies in big goobers, the concurrent flopping echo from their cavernous jowls every time they shake their heads, the red haw under their eyes that's punishment for those heavy jowls, their oily kennel stench, their tendency to gaze at you with a kind of walleyed abstraction, and the way they delightedly snorkel up hot dogs or Vienna sausages as a reward at the end of a long trail, like big wet vacuum cleaners. Later in their training, good bloodhounds
don't need hot dogs. Running a good trail is itself the reward, just as the act of herding rewards an experienced border collie. Bloodhounds' doleful baying from the backs of trailers and pickups, with metal crates amplifying the bass tones, sounds like the essence of North Carolina foothills in the morning. Just to get rid of another myth: They don't trail together and bay like fools, “opening up” on the trail. It's a physical impossibility to sniff scent and vocalize at the same time. Try talking or laughing and inhaling simultaneously. Bloodhounds make noise if they lose a trail and get frustrated; when they pick it up again, they fall silent.

I've also fallen in the love with the fact that bloodhound personalities are all over the place, as dog personalities should be—don't buy the AKC bloodhound lobbyists' line that all of them are slow, gentle, and mellow. Nonsense. How boring that would be. The dogs should be able to run hard and pull hard; if a dog is any good, her handler should be a poster child for rotator-cuff surgery. Some working bloodhounds have a decided edge. I don't walk up to an unfamiliar bloodhound anticipating automatic adoration any more than I do a German shepherd I don't know.

It's understandable that a few bloodhound lovers will try to sell the public on the notion that they are harmless goofballs. Liberal dog lovers like myself, even more than dog lovers generally, can twist themselves into knots trying to explain the Byzantine history of a breed and its uses and misuses. (Trust me, I know: I have a German shepherd.) So a certain genre of breed fan will spend futile time explaining how incredibly sweet a breed is, trotting out docile “ambassadors” to disprove a bully breed's reputation. Dogs sleep just fine. They aren't monitoring their position on the annual U.S. dog-bite index. Whether they have bitten someone, justly or unjustly, or tracked an innocent person who was then arrested, they don't lie awake at four
. stewing that their true purpose—whatever the heck that is—was perverted.

As with most working-dog tales, the history of the bloodhound is steeped in lore, tiny tributaries of breeding programs that petered out,
and popular-culture portrayals: from the noble early hound in medieval France, Le Chien de Saint-Hubert, to the sleuth hounds (a Scottish term) used in Europe for centuries to track both game and people. In the United States, we have McGruff, the animated crime buster, on the positive side; and on the other, the vicious prison bloodhounds tracking Paul Newman's character in
Cool Hand Luke
. Walt Disney's model for Pluto came from his grim 1930 cartoon
The Chain Gang
, in which Mickey escapes from prison and a pair of prison bloodhounds track him. When they open their huge mouths to bay, their fangs are enormous. It must be noted that it was the era when Mickey Mouse was skinny, had disturbing teeth as well, and looked like a rat.

It is slavery, however, that casts the longest and most inaccurate shadow on the modern bloodhound. You can see why the breed's devotees try to deny the accuracy of that history. They are right to. The dogs who tracked and attacked throughout the South during slavery and the Civil War have little relationship to the bloodhound in the United States today.

During slavery in the southern United States, the catchall phrases for any dogs taught to follow human trails were “blood-hounds” or “Negro dogs.” They were instruments of terror, encouraged to be both trackers and attackers. The term “blood-hound” was an indiscriminate holding pen into which you could throw any number of dog breeds: hounds, foxhounds, bulldogs, mixed breeds. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about such tracking dogs in her classic
Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Not once did she use the word “hound” or “blood-hound.”

Nonetheless, abolitionists were as aware as slave owners of the symbolic power of the dogs and of the term itself, which represented the horrors of slave tracking and slaveholding. The iconic illustrations in magazines, newspapers, and flyers of the era didn't resemble the bloodhound of today; instead, the depictions matched what was known as the Cuban bloodhound—a mastiff-like war breed, brindled, with clipped ears and broad heads and snouts. Cuban bloodhounds were a powerful symbol: These were the same huge dogs imported by British
forces to Jamaica in 1795 to suppress a slave revolt. General Zachary Taylor, to his everlasting regret, approved importing them into Florida to track and attack Seminole Indians. The dogs weren't any good at finding the Seminoles, but they did create a public outcry, so they were removed. As historian John Campbell noted, southern slaveholders who used the Cuban bloodhounds provided abolitionists with great evidence to condemn slave chasing.

The ensuing decades have seen highs and lows for real bloodhounds in the United States. One of their principal working uses was for tracking escaped prisoners. Those dogs—tall and lean and less wrinkled than the AKC version—were usually trained and handled by prison trusties, a good number of them African-American. Many a trusty would be freed from prison, wrote bloodhound specialist Leon Whitney, and find a criminal excuse to make it back so he could continue working with his beloved bloodhounds.

BOOK: What the Dog Knows
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