I've seen only three good rabbit dogs in my life—and I roomed with two of them one semester at Central Michigan University. Gary Huard, now a physical education teacher, was one. Dave Cope, now a state trooper, was the other. The third? Ahem, myself.
Oh, I've hunted with real beagles, the traditional rabbit dog. Mostly, I've hunted for real beagles when it came time to go home, hunted them down when they had taken off cross-country after deer. We started one such hunt on a Saturday morning and ended it just before dusk Sunday. We finally guessed where the deer, a tired doe and her twin fawns, would cross, and after they passed by we tackled the beagles three minutes later.
We actually tackled the little devils. I remember grappling with one in the snow, finally pinning him underneath my body, and then having him look at me with that docile, doleful beagle look as if to say, after an absence of a day and a half, "Oh, were you calling us?"
Cope, Huard and I could be counted on never to run deer, unless that was what we were hunting. We were superior to beagles in other ways, too, besides being housebroken. Given proper snow conditions, we could stay on a single fresh rabbit track through a maze of other bunny tracks, even those made within the hour. Which is more than I can say for the beagles I've hunted with. Given an area of confusing rabbit trails, the simpleminded beagle will take the most convenient.
Our real strength lay in our intellectual superiority. We knew the strategy of a flushed cottontail rabbit. Every rabbit hunter knows it. They circle. It's that simple. But nowhere is there a beagle or basset hound that understands this very basic game plan. Nowhere. While hunting with these simpletons, I've often thought that if only I could have three words with one, if somehow a three-second-long communication channel could be opened—man talks to dog for three words—I could create Super Beagle.
What I'd do is grab him by the scruff of the neck, bring an ear up to my mouth, look him in the eyes, and in a tough, gangland voice say, "They always circle." Then, like Bogart, I'd push him away and nod once, grimly.
If beagles could understand this one simple fact, perhaps, just perhaps, they could be something more than a nuisance on a rabbit hunt. I still have my doubts, because even if you could make a beagle understand that a rabbit always comes back to where he was jumped and that is the reason you're waiting there with a shotgun, the question remains: Would a beagle care?
It's been my observation that most beagles hunt only for themselves; after you let them out of the car they are on holiday in the woods. They would rather not have you there at all, shouting and cursing and otherwise spoiling a romp in the bunny patch. I doubt very much if there lives a beagle that cares about staying with a single rabbit until it completes the circle.
But we cared, Cope, Huard and I. It was a matter of pride to run a rabbit back to the hunters. It was shameful having to return to the stand after losing the track. You lied about it. "He holed up," you'd say. Never admit to having lost the track from among a bunch of others.
Objectively, I would have to say that, of the three of us, Huard and I were the best beagles. Perhaps "best" is not the right word. Nobody could bring a rabbit around faster than Cope, which has to be the measure of a good rabbit dog. But Cope wasn't beaglelike. That's why Huard and I were better beagles. We were traditionalists. Cope was an animal.