Read and learn about the various coonhound performance events, such as Nite Hunts, Bench Shows, Field Trials, and Water Races, as well as the dogs that compete in them. Article by Michelle Zimmerman.
In the glow of moonlight, four handlers reach for the collars of the tri-colored coonhounds on their leads. Standing in a line at the edge of a field, dense, dark woods ahead of them, they await the judge’s call to release—“Cut ‘em!” The handlers point their cap lights toward the woods as they unsnap their leads, releasing the hounds into the darkness. After a moment, the first dog lets out a melodious bawl that echoes off the hills. “Strike Sally,” a handler calls… and the race is on!
Coonhound Nite Hunts
The pillar of coonhound performance events, the Nite Hunt showcases the coonhound’s natural trailing and treeing instinct in a truly wild environment. A group of up to four dogs, called a “cast,” is drawn at random from the total entry of dogs. Casts are assigned a judge and a guide, who may or may not also be handlers of dogs on the cast. The judge’s primary responsibility is to maintain the integrity of the hunt, including scoring dogs in accordance to AKC Nite Hunt Regulations and ensuring sportsmanlike conduct of handlers and spectators.
The judge has authority to “scratch” or disqualify dogs from competition for displaying aggression, babbling (barking when no trail is present), or failing to show hunting activity within required timelines. The judge may also scratch handlers for misconduct while on the cast. The guide’s responsibility is to provide safe territory for the cast to hunt; the guide should be very familiar with the property and be able to alert the cast to any terrain concerns, obstacles, or dangerous areas. The ideal hunting territory is close enough to the hunting club to allow the cast ample opportunity to hunt for the allotted time (Nite Hunts may be 60, 90, or 120 minutes in length) and return by deadline.
When the cast arrives at its hunting territory, the guide directs the cast and judge to the location in which the hounds will be released. At the judge’s call, the dogs are free-cast into the designated area. Unlike Pointer or Retriever Hunt Tests, Nite Hunts do not occur in an environment with planted game. The dogs are not confined to a certain area; they are expected to trail and tree wild raccoons in a natural environment. The distance the dogs travel from where they are cast is dependent upon how far they must go to “strike” or locate a track and how far the track goes before the raccoon is “treed.”
Unlike Pointer or Retriever Hunt Tests, Nite Hunts do not occur in an environment with planted game. The dogs are not confined to a certain area; they are expected to trail and tree wild raccoons in a natural environment.
In mountainous, rugged areas of the United States, such as the Southeast, tracks may be a half-mile or more in length, while in flatter, more open terrain, such as the Midwest, tracks may only be a few hundred yards. Points are scored in a Nite Hunt based on the handlers’ call of their dogs—informing the judge throughout the duration of the hunt what the dog is doing, based on the sound of the dog’s voice. The dogs wear GPS collars so that their handlers are aware of their location; however, handlers may not use the GPS receiver to aid in calling their dogs.
A dog is declared “struck” by its handler upon its vocalization that it has located a track, and points are awarded in a descending manner based upon the order dogs are struck in. The dogs will continue to vocalize as they work the track until they locate their quarry. When the raccoon is located, the dog will give a unique bark, called a “locate,” signifying that it has found its quarry, before its voice rolls over into a “tree” bark, which is distinctive compared to its trailing bark. As dogs are declared treed by their handlers, again, points are awarded based upon the order of tree calls.
The judge or a majority of the handlers on the cast must see a raccoon in the tree for both strike and tree points earned to be considered “plus.” If no raccoon is found in the tree, or “off game,” such as an opossum or bear, is seen in the tree, strike and tree points will be “minus.” If there is evidence that a raccoon could be in the tree, such as a hole large enough for the raccoon to take refuge in or a canopy too thick to see through, the dog will be given the benefit of the doubt and points will be “circled” on the scorecard. Circled points will not count toward the final tally, but can be used to break a tie. If hunt time remains, the dogs and handlers move to a different area and the dogs are released to hunt again.
No live game is ever taken during a Nite Hunt; treed raccoons are left to go about their lives after the dogs are led away from the tree. At the end of the hunt time, the dog with the highest tally of points will be declared the winner of the cast. In AKC-licensed Nite Hunts, dogs are not separated by titles earned; dogs that have achieved Nite Hunt titles (Nite Champion, Grand Nite Champion, or Supreme Grand Nite Champion) may be hunted in the same cast with registered (untitled) dogs. Each first-place cast win counts toward title progression.
Coonhound Hunting Styles
AKC recognizes six breeds of coonhounds:
- Treeing Walker Coonhound
- American English Coonhound
- Black and Tan Coonhound
- Bluetick Coonhound
- Redbone Coonhound
- Plott (Hound)
Apart from the Plott, which developed from German big game hounds, the coonhound breeds descend from Foxhounds imported to the New World well before the American Revolution. The distinctive coonhound breeds were developed as hunters selectively bred dogs that produced specific physical characteristics as well as a particular hunting style. The “hot-nosed” breeds excel at trailing fresh scent tracks, while the “cold-nosed” breeds specialize in working aged tracks with fainter scent.
Treeing Walker Coonhound
Known as “The People’s Choice” due to the breed’s popularity among competitive and pleasure hunters alike, the Treeing Walker Coonhound is a quick, hot-nosed, sensible hunter. The Treeing Walker is a wide-ranging, endurance hunter, well suited for just about any type of hunting terrain. A typical Treeing Walker’s strike/trailing bark is a melodious bawl—a long, drawn-out bugling voice that is easily heard from a distance—although some lines have a “chop” mouth, which is a shorter, quicker sequence of barks. When treed, the Treeing Walker may chop or bawl; tree voice is often of a markedly different pitch than trailing voice.
American English Coonhound
Best described as a “super-charged hunter,” the American English Coonhound is a hot-trailing hound that is competitive, fast, and perhaps a bit impatient. The American English excels at short-range hunting due to its speed and racy build, but possesses sufficient endurance to go the distance in areas with thin raccoon populations. Voice may differ according to bloodline, but the typical American English has a chop bark that varies in pitch when trailing vs. when treed.
Black and Tan Coonhound
The Black and Tan Coonhound is a deliberate trailing, extremely cold-nosed hunter that can track and tree a raccoon even in the worst conditions. The breed’s supreme scenting ability comes from its Bloodhound influence. Confident and courageous, the Black and Tan is known for its musical voice.
Bluetick Coonhounds were originally part of the English Coonhound breed. However, there was a division of preference in size and hunting style among breeders; the larger, albeit slower, cold-nosed hounds were selected to become the foundation of the Bluetick breed. The Bluetick is an open trailer with a bawl voice on track that changes over to a steady chop on tree.
The Redbone Coonhound is a surefooted, aggressive, cold-nosed hunter that excels at hunting difficult terrain. Early Redbone breeders focused on differentiating the breed by its flashy red coat; then turned their focus to consistent hunting ability. The Redbone’s voice is a bawl on both track and tree.
Plott (Hounds) are cold-nosed, aggressive hunters that excel at hunting raccoons, as well as big game like bear and wild boar. Plotts are nimble dogs, able to traverse all types of terrain with speed and grace. The Plott produces a loud, ringing chop on track and tree, although some lines may have a bawl mouth.
Coonhound Bench Shows, Field Trials & Water Races
In addition to Nite Hunts, coonhounds are eligible to complete and title in AKC-licensed Field Trials, Water Races, and Bench Shows.
Coonhound Field Trials
Coonhound field trials use a scented lure to lay a track, length dependent on the terrain and general conditions of the trial site, and then the lure is hung in a tree located at the end of the track. Field trial classes are separated, Open and Champion, based on the dogs’ title status. In a field trial, groups of dogs are released at the start of the scent track and have 15 minutes to work the track and come treed. The first dog to cross the final set of flags that mark the track is declared the Line winner, and the first dog come treed at the tree containing the scented lure is declared the Tree winner.
Coonhound Water Races
Water Races are similar to a field trial, except that the dogs swim across a body of water after the lure. The water race pond should be approximately 50 yards in length and deep enough to guarantee that the dogs must swim the entire length. A water race event has a Novice (non-titling) class for beginners, as well as an Open class that is open to all coonhounds, regardless of water race title status.
In a water race, dogs are placed in a starting box at the entrance to the pond; a scented lure is suspended on a cable above the water or floated across the pond. The lure is drawn across the pond, and the dogs swim after it. The first dog to exit the water in the direction of the tree will be declared the Line winner, and the first dog to show treed at the tree is declared the Tree winner.
Coonhound Bench Shows
Bench Shows bring the demonstration of form and function together at a coonhound event. In a typical event, after the field and water events, and prior to the Nite Hunt, handlers showcase their dogs’ conformation to the breed standard. Dogs are gaited individually in a pattern, usually a down-and-back followed by a go-around, and then examined by the judge on
individual benches. Evaluation and placement should equally consider movement on the ground and the exam. Dogs earn points toward their Bench Show Championship as they advance through the Class, Breed, and Best of Show levels of judging.
Coonhounds in Conformation
When judging a Coonhound in the Conformation ring, it is important to understand that many of the dogs exhibited today remain close to their working heritage. Some dogs may be hunted during the week and be cleaned-up for the show ring on the weekends. Others may enjoy a full-time show dog’s life of luxury but still exhibit their breed’s natural hunting instinct if given the opportunity.
When judging a Coonhound in the Conformation ring, it is important to understand that many of the dogs exhibited today remain close to their working heritage. Some dogs may be hunted during the week and be cleaned-up for the show ring on the weekends.
The breed standards describe an ideal working dog and should be interpreted as such. Coonhounds must be sound enough to hunt from sundown to sunrise, in terrain varying from rugged mountains to swamps. Some get to hunt most of their nights in the flat Midwest, but must still be able to handle rough terrain, when necessary, especially if they are campaigned in National Level Nite Hunts. It is not uncommon to see top-ranked competition dogs aged seven-plus years old; the emphasis coonhound breeders put on producing a sound, structurally correct dog is exemplified by their longevity in the woods.
American Kennel Club. Regulations for AKC Coonhound Bench Shows, Field Trials, Nite Hunts, and Water Races. History and Standards for Coonhound Breeds. www.akccoonhounds.org.