You’re no stranger to dog sports. You own multiple St. John suits or you have six different pairs of running shoes to suit each Agility surface. Your wardrobe is heavy on orange for the Hunt Tests and you’re getting to be as good as your dog at Scent Work. What you’ve been missing, though, is a real Hog Bay. It’s part rodeo, part Herding Dog Trial, part Earthdog Test, and a whole lot of spirited competition between some very well-bred and trained dogs and their equally spirited and capable handlers.
Among dogs that are trained to hunt hogs (also known as wild boar, feral pigs, Razorbacks, or Russian Boar) in the US, there are those that are considered “Bay Dogs” and those that are “Catch Dogs.”
The Bay Dog’s job is to locate the quarry and hold it in position by circling, barking, and lunging until the hunter can arrive to humanely dispatch the hog. That process is very much like that employed by Norwegian Elkhounds on moose or Rhodesian Ridgebacks on lions. Many other breeds also use this tactic to assist the hunter.
The Catch Dog, on the other hand, actually catches and disables the quarry. That’s risky business. Known Catch Dogs are banned from Hog Bays as are Pit Bulls and any dog in poor condition or displaying undue aggression.
The first mention of a Hog Bay usually brings shrieks of horror from those who are ignorant of the event, its purpose, and its rules. It’s not a bull fight. There’s no blood on the walls, no shouts of “Ole,” and the nearest bacon for sale is at the grocery in town. The events are legal and, in many cases, state-licensed.
The Hog Bay is a structured competition for dogs whose “day job” is to track and bay feral hogs. There are classes for puppies and adults, and for single-dog baying as well as two-dog baying. There is a strict set of rules intended to insure both the fairness of the competition and the safety of the dogs, handlers, and hogs. Each entry begins with 10 points and is given two minutes to bay the hog.
Deductions are made for any number of faults such as losing eye contact with the hog, interrupted barking, or failure to maintain control of the hog. The worst fault is over-aggression, and a deduction of .1 point is made for each time the dog contacts the hog. Should the dog remain in contact with the hog for five seconds or more, it is disqualified.
The hogs themselves are trapped in the wild and kept in facilities adjacent to the bay pens. In Texas, the keeping of these hogs is controlled by state license, and the facility and the animals themselves are inspected monthly by the state which also performs regular health testing. At the Boar’s Nest, a bay pen in Tyler, Texas, the hogs spend their time in a heavily wooded, seven-acre, securely fenced tract. Perfect accommodations and plentiful food ensure a happy, healthy hog. As with the rats used for quarry in Earthdog Tests, the life quality and expectancy are actually better than in the wild. A hog’s career may last from five to eight years.
The ”Westminster of Hog Bays” is the Uncle Earl’s Hog Dog Trial, held the fourth weekend of March in Winnfield, Louisiana. Held annually since 1995, the event draws literally hundreds of families and their dogs from across the country. Along with plentiful Jagdterriers there are Catahoula Leopard Dogs, Black Mouth Curs, and more recently, the Dogo Argentino, although the latter appears to be a better Catch Dog than bayer.
At most hog bays there is a large contingent of Coonhounds. Blue Ticks and Treeing Walkers are particular favorites. These breeds offer the advantage of a super tracking ability (although that isn’t used in the Hog Bay) together with a distinctive bay that lets the hunter know from a distance that the quarry is at bay.
The bay pen itself is a smaller version of a rodeo arena, complete with a grandstand, judges’ stand, and excellent lighting for night trials. The oval pen contains at least one built-in corner where the hog may safely back up and remain in place for the two minutes. The hogs, however, being a bit spicy by nature and feral by birth, frequently don’t see it that way and feel obligated to have a bit of a run.
Along with the judges, the ring crew includes three very able-bodied young men or women who carry wooden or heavy plastic shields to protect all the contestants from each other, should that become necessary. This ring stewarding is not for the faint of heart. One young man has mastered the art, though. When charged by the boar, he simply stands his ground and jumps straight up in the air as the boar passes under him. (Sorry, no photos yet, but I’ll keep trying.) It falls to these folks to protect the handler, who must remain at the release point during the entire bay. They are also charged with “breaking it up” when an infrequent “scrapulation” occurs between hog and dog. It would be a disservice to liken them to rodeo clowns, but they share that love of the sport and the ability to keep everyone safe.
Now, the whole object here is for the dog (or couple of dogs) to maintain control of the hog in a fixed location within the bay pen and to continue barking loudly for the entire two minutes. This, of course, is much easier said than done, and most dogs rack up a significant number of “deductions” from the ever-vigilant judges. Should the hog decide to move, the dog must stop it and regain control, and may do so without deduction. For the most part, the dog(s) should work within five feet of the hog. Even losing eye contact will cost a .1-point deduction. Almost inevitably, the dog will nip at the boar; but even that momentary contact will cost it .1 point, while being in contact with the quarry for five seconds or more results in disqualification.
Let’s be honest, though, a perfect ten-point run with no deductions is a bit of a bore (sorry). The hog is released into the bay pen. The handler chooses his time and releases the dog(s) who fly across the pen to confront the quarry, all the while barking that particular bark that indicates quarry at bay. The very wise boar backs himself into the corner and menacingly stares down the gladiators confronting him. The two minutes elapse, the dogs are picked up, and the boar returns to the holding pens. Simple, eh?
Fact of the matter is, most of the hogs—most of the time—have different ideas. Maybe it’s the preponderance of Russian Boar blood or maybe it’s the annoyance of that noisy canine trying to control you, but in any case, very often they choose to move or charge. In Hog Bays, the large tusks are removed from the boar, but you still have several hundred pounds of pi$$ed off porker that is intent on ridding himself of this nuisance.
The dogs’ challenge is to stay out of harm’s way and convince the surly beast to stand down. Quite often, the hog will butt or toss the dog with its snout. This results in a flying dog and some grand photo ops, but seldom any damage at all to the determined canine who picks itself up, dusts itself off, and starts all over again. Dogs that can regain control without deductions quite often get a standing ovation from the grandstand audience. This is one dog activity that is very much a spectator sport.
We all know that dog people are inherently competitive, and houndsmen and terrorists are no exception. Many of the Hog Bays are heavily sponsored and offer large cash prizes to the winners. And those competitive owners, well, let’s just say I’ve seen some significant financial transactions at ringside. If you can’t bet on your dog, where’s your confidence? (Of course, that would be illegal and they were probably only buying groceries.)
At a recent Hog Bay that we attended, the oldest handler was eighty-six years young, while the youngest young lady to release her dog was just four years old. The campground was full of kids as well as those of us a bit long in the tusk. There’s always a central bonfire lighting the way and providing warmth, and someone puts on a giant cauldron of chili, free for the taking. Handmade dog equipment, knives, and hunting horns abound, and the vendors carry telemetry and GPS collars. Dogs are staked out as they would be at a sled dog event, and more than one dined sumptuously on the chili. Uncle Earl’s (named after former Louisiana Governor “Uncle” Earl Long) lasts a week. Maybe that’s long enough to take it all in. Maybe not.