The wide variety of scenthounds probably has a history just as ancient as the sighthounds. However, the progenitors of the scenthound breeds spread rapidly across the known European world, beginning with the early Greeks, by eagerly interbreeding with local dogs. As a result, no geographic or cultural isolation protected those early scenthounds’ genomes from mixing over and over again, as each region created its own version of a scenthound that was ideal for their area. What we do know from studies of the genomes of scenthounds breed is that they all share a more recent common ancestor that is distinct from the other groups of dogs that are organized by their genetic similarities.
Ancient Greece as Cradle of Scenthounds
Perhaps, the most ancient of scenthound breeds arose in Greece. In the southernmost region of Greece, Laconia, a black and tan or tri-color hound hunted hare by tracking the hares’ scent. The Pelaponessus, that southernmost section of Greece, consists of rocky, rugged terrain that can support only rough scrub bushes, and those grasses and plants that can withstand such a dry, hot climate.
Sometime in the late fourth and early third centuries B.C., the ancient Greek writer, Xenophon, wrote a treatise on hunting and hunting dogs. At that time, scenthounds were the only hunting dogs known to the Greeks. Xenophon described the ideal hound, and his description matches perfectly with a breed you may never have heard of—the Hellenikos Ichnilatis.
Through Greek conquest and trade, this black and tan hound with a good nose for rabbits found his way to all parts of the ancient world. Descendents of the Hellenikos Ichnilatis thrived and became the root breeding stock for many other varieties of hunting hounds across Europe. Because of Laconia’s mountains, which were nearly inaccessible until recent times, the Hellenikos Ichnilatis remains, to this day, relatively unchanged in both his black and tan as well as tri-color forms.
As the Hellenic hound spread throughout Europe, he had to have been crossed with the large and fierce Molloser dogs that accompanied the Romans, assisting them in their conquests. It is quite probable that the legendary St. Hubert Hound emerged as a result of these matings.
St. Hubert Hounds & Their Legacy
Hubert (656–727 A.D.) was born in what is now Belgium. The son of a duke, he loved hunting with his dogs. After a dramatic spiritual encounter while hunting, Hubert devoted his life to the Church and established a monastery in the Ardennes, a heavily forested area that encompasses what is now parts of Belgium, France, Luxemburg, and into Germany. Hubert retained his love of hunting and began carefully breeding a new type of scenthound now known as the St. Hubert Hound. He brought hounds from the Rhone district of western France, selectively breeding them to his own pack of scenthounds. The resulting hounds were mild and obedient. They were black and tan with a heavy, noble head, long ears, and long bodies with comparatively short and heavy legs. They had wonderfully keen noses and deep, melodious voices. Today’s Bloodhounds are direct descendents of these St. Hubert Hounds, but are bred for more leg length. Eventually, as the St. Hubert hounds spread throughout France, all colors became acceptable.
The St. Hubert Hounds were imported to England as early as the late 13th century. Records from this period indicate that James IV of Scotland used them to rout game, driving the animals into the open. The hunters would then release their swift gazehounds that would run down and catch the quarry. In all probability, some of those hounds were white: Enter the Talbot Dog.
..the Talbot Dogs, being slow, heavy, and methodical in following a scent, could be used on-lead to track a thief or the blood trail of a wounded animal.
Legend says that the Talbot came from Normandy to England with William the Conqueror, but this cannot be verified with any documentation. What we do know is that “Talbot” was a very common name for a hound by the time of Chaucer, and that references to a white Talbot Dog existed by the mid-15th century. Beginning in those mid-1400s, the Earls of Shrewsbury, whose family name is Talbot, created on their family crest a white, short-legged hound.
The Talbot Dog was certainly similar to the Bloodhound—“white” is given as one of the colors of the Bloodhound around the 16th and 17th centuries—and similar in size and in use to a leash-hound. In other words, the Talbot Dogs, being slow, heavy, and methodical in following a scent, could be used on-lead to track a thief or the blood trail of a wounded animal. The Talbot seems to have existed as a breed, a little distinct from the Bloodhound, until the end of the 18th century after which it disappeared (but not before adding its genes to the creation of several more scenthound breeds).
England’s Northern Hound & the Southern Hound
Mainly bred in Yorkshire, but common throughout northern England, was the Northern Hound, a large, bony hound with a square head with long, trailing ears, that was usually tri-colored. He was also called the Northern Beagle and he descended from the Talbot Dog judiciously crossed with Greyhounds. The Northern Hound was, therefore, faster than the Talbot, so he was able to run down rabbits for dinner. The writer and poet Gervase Markham, who wrote a number of books on animal husbandry in the early 17th century, described the North Country Beagle as having:
“…a head more slender, with a longer nose, ears and flews more shallow, back broad, belly gaunt, joints long, tail small and his general form more slender and greyhound-like…”
By the 18th century, the upper classes preferred the fast-paced fox hunts, so the Northern Hound fell out of favor and, finally, became extinct by the late 19th century. However, the packs of this rabbit hunting hound were the nucleus of what would become the modern Beagle. In addition, the Northern Hounds were used to develop the Harrier and the English Foxhound.
The Southern Hound, as its name implies, was bred and used in the southern half of England. This hound, too, descended from the Talbot Dog and, as such, had the same heavy body, but was tall with a square head and long ears. He possessed a deep chest, a long, bony body, and an excellent scenting ability along with a melodious voice. The Southern Hound also had roots in the Gascon hounds that were a gift from Henry IV of France to James I of England at the beginning of the 17th century. Because of its lack of speed and deliberate nature, it was considered best used for hunting game such as hare or deer. Such prey animals would eventually become exhausted by the hounds’ unrelenting pursuit and could not escape to the safety of a den or burrow.
“Stonehenge” wrote that the Southern Hound had a keener nose than the Northern Hound and a sweeter voice. He also indicated that the Southern Hound had a more pronounced dewlap and was mainly black and white with blue mottling. Although these hounds fell out of favor during the 18th century as the faster Foxhound came into vogue, they served as breeding stock for the development of the Otterhound and the Coonhounds.
Foxhounds on Two Continents
During the reign of King Henry VIII, the aristocracy had so depleted the deer population that a new game animal was needed to provide sport. The king chose the red fox and used both the Northern and the Southern Hounds to pursue it. When England needed ships to colonize an ever-growing empire in the 18th century, the country needed wood with which to build and repair those ships. Vast tracts of open land were created by the resulting deforestation, open land that was the perfect venue for fox hunting. The landed gentry needed a dog fast enough to easily pursue the European red fox. Breeders used qualities from both the Northern and the Southern Hounds and then added a careful mixing of the Greyhound, for speed, the Fox Terrier, for hunting instinct, and the Bulldog, for tenacity in the hunt.
In 1650, Robert Brooke sailed to the Crown Colony of Virginia in America with his pack of fox hunting dogs. Many of the colonial landowners used dogs descended from this original pack of fox hounds, including George Washington. Added to his pack of hounds from the Brooke stock were French fox hounds given to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette. The French hounds were the Grand Bleu de Gascogne, which are similar to our Bluetick Coonhounds that are descended from the French breed. With the importation of the European red fox by British colonists to the American Eastern Seaboard in the early 18th century, upperclass sportsmen wanted more speed and endurance in their Foxhounds. So, Irish Foxhounds were also imported to breed with the local Foxhounds. The resulting American Foxhound became faster, lighter of build, and noted for its musical baying that can be heard for miles. In 1886, the American Foxhound became recognized by the AKC. One of several breeds related to the American Foxhound is the Treeing Walker Hound, a recent addition to the AKC.
The French Connection
Britain and Ireland are known as the cradle of many of the Terrier breeds, but France has produced the lion’s share of the scenthound breeds. Many of these breeds have not yet been recognized by the AKC, but they are a part of the FCI and
As a tracker of big game, the Grand Bleu didn’t need to be fast, so these dogs were known—and still are today—to be methodical, never-quit trackers that can follow a cold scent trail for days, if necessary, to locate and hold their quarry at bay. They also boast a sonorous, melodic voice to guide the hunters to their location.
One of the oldest of French scent hounds is the Grand Bleu de Gascogne, developed in the southwest of France. He holds within his appearance and structure much of the old St. Hubert Hound to which he is related. The “Grand” does not necessarily indicate the size of the dog himself, but rather it reflects the size of the game that he hunts. The Grand Bleu was already used in packs to hunt big game in France by the 14th century; wild boar, stags, wolves, and bear.
As a tracker of big game, the Grand Bleu didn’t need to be fast, so these dogs were known—and still are today—to be methodical, never-quit trackers that can follow a cold scent trail for days, if necessary, to locate and hold their quarry at bay. They also boast a sonorous, melodic voice to guide the hunters to their location. Although not numerous, Grand Bleus are currently used in Africa to hunt leopards and in the Western US to hunt bear and mountain lion. In the US, his descendants are the Bluetick Coonhounds, developed as a breed to track and tree the racoon, a distinctly North American animal.
Hunting quarry of this size requires a large dog—and they are! Grand Bleus stand approximately 28 inches at the withers and weigh 80 to 120 pounds. The coloring is basically white with black patches on the head and back, with lots of black ticking throughout the base white coat. The ticking gives a slate blue appearance to the dog and lends him his name. The “blue” color was developed to help them deal with the hot, dry temperatures in the south of France. The [coloration] is said to help reflect the sun and keep them from overheating while they are hunting.
The Grand Bleu de Gascogne has a closely related cousin, the Gascon Saintongeois, also from the southwest of France. Their shape and size is quite similar to the Bleu, but the Saintongeois lacks much of the mottling that characterizes the Bleu. White dominates the coat of this hound, with patches of black on the head, back, and sides.
Porcelaines have been bred to hunt in packs, independently of humans. They have great tracking ability, plus a melodious, resonant voice. During their heyday in the 1700s, the Porcelaine was considerably larger than the modern breed of today—which is a reconstruction.
French nobility created this Saintonge breed by crossing a black St. Hubert Hound with a white Talbot Dog and a Greyhound. For the Saintonge Hounds, wolves were the quarry. These hounds tenaciously tracked wolves on even cold trails. Old documents record hunts of three to four days of relentless hunting by the Saintonge Hounds until they brought down a wolf. However, because the Saintonge was identified with the aristocracy of France, only three hounds of this breed, a bitch and two dogs, survived the French Revolution. In the 1840s, Count Joseph Latour crossed the last of the old Hounds of Saintonge with a few of the remaining old-type Bleu de Gascogne. The hounds that were white with black markings were retained and later given the name Gascon-saintongeois. Today, the breed survives, but is quite rare outside of France. Only approximately two thousand dogs exist today. Those that are hunted still perform beautifully, tracking larger game as well as hare.
Yet another French scenthound breed is the exquisite Porcelaine, developed by the French aristocracy in the 1600s from the Talbot Hounds to hunt roe deer, hare, and in the north, wild boar. For many years, the Porcelaine Hounds were kept by monks in monasteries and abbeys in the Luxeuil and Cluny regions. The name Porcelaine refers to its short, fine, shining coat that makes the dog look like a porcelain statuette.
Porcelaines have been bred to hunt in packs, independently of humans. They have great tracking ability, plus a melodious, resonant voice. During their heyday in the 1700s, the Porcelaine was considerably larger than the modern breed of today—which is a reconstruction. Along with much of the French aristocracy, the original Porcelaine breed did not survive the French Revolution. A small handful of Porcelaine were discovered on the French-Swiss border. From this remnant, dedicated breeders re-created the breed in the 19th century, when breeding records began being compiled in 1845. They added Harriers and Swiss Laufhunds to the mixture in re-establishing the breed.
Other French hound breeds exist that space doesn’t allow me to describe here. There are also various sizes and leg lengths of many French hounds that are now distinct breeds. Let’s just say that France outdid itself in the creation of hunting hound breeds.
The European scenthounds breed have provided the gene pool for our coonhound breeds in this country, too. The Treeing Walker, the Redbone, the Black and Tan Coonhound, and the Bluetick Coonhound are US-developed scenthounds that now occupy a branch on the scenthound family tree.
The history of scenthounds breed is, indeed, a long and winding road through the centuries. Neither wars nor famine nor revolutions could obliterate these great dogs. Scenthounds have not only survived, they have thrived and adapted to 21st century demands. Their incredible sense of smell is still used today to track down lost people and to find cadavers or escaped criminals. They compete in hunting trials and tracking competitions. They accompany their owners on recreational hunts and are the source of endless discussions on which dogs have the sweetest, most melodious voice. Most of all, scenthounds are the beloved pets and companions of people who appreciate all of the attributes of a scenthound. Long may they thrive under our care!