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2013-01-16 / Columnists

Pets pets pets

We certainly have a smorgasbord of purebred dogs. The American Kennel Club (AKC) now recognizes 177 breeds. Most were developed outside the US. Only about 15 AKC breeds, such as the Boston Terrier and Chesapeake Bay Retriever were “made in America,” while one, the American Foxhound, has deep patriotic roots.

George Washington, the father of our country, is also the father of the American Foxhound. The first mention of hounds in America appears in the diary of one of the men of the explorer DeSoto. His journal also says that the hounds were used for hunting Indians rather than fox, raccoon or rabbit. Additional hunting hounds sailed from Britain to the colonies as far back as 1650. These became the foundation for several strains including Black and Tan Coonhounds. Washington was a huge fox hunting enthusiast who tried to fine tune his pack of hounds to work the rough American terrain. According to his diaries at the Library of Congress (which you can view online), Washington wanted to breed a “superior dog, one that had speed, sense and brains.”

Painting of Washington and his Foxhounds by John Ward Dunsmore. Painting of Washington and his Foxhounds by John Ward Dunsmore. With his background as a farmer, Washington knew the basics of animal breeding and husbandry. It became his hobby and passion to build a better pack of hunting hounds. His diaries are filled with accounts of breeding his distinct variety of Foxhound that he referred to as “Virginia hounds.” His devotion to his dogs can be detected in the names he gave them like “True Love” and “Sweet Lips” plus silly names like “Tipster” and “Drunkard.” At least 30 Foxhounds are named in Washington’s writings.

At the close of the war when he returned to Mount Vernon, Washington decided his Virginia hounds were too lightly built for sustained hunts and too distracted from the trail of the fox. When he heard his Revolutionary War friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, praise French staghounds belonging to the King, he asked the Marquis to get him some.

[Local Long Island link: Some historians say that La Grange, whose fate is now in jeopardy, built by the Higbie family around 1750, was named for Lafayette’s home in France. In 1824, the Marquis visited the West Islip inn when invited by President Madison to tour the US. There is no proof that Washington himself stopped at La Grange, yet in 1790, he did stay at Sagtikos Manor down the road a bit in Bay Shore.]

Now back to our regularly scheduled Foxhounds. Lafayette took some time to locate these hounds because the breed had fallen out of favor with French royalty. Finally he sent seven massive staghounds overseas, escorted by the young John Quincy Adams whose dad was then minister to England. John Quincy abandoned the dogs in a warehouse near NYC harbor. [One more aside: Lafayette named his only son “George Washington.” That seems like a wiser choice than “John Q. Adams.”]

Washington was upset. According to Stanley Coren in his book, The Pawprints of History, Washington wrote: “It would have been civil of the young gentleman to have penned me at least a note.” He was worried because there was a rabies scare in NYC at the time so unattended dogs were being shot on sight. Wonder if he ever truly forgave the young Adams. [Another local link: I sat next to Dr. Coren at the Dog Writers award dinner in NYC a few years ago. He is the psychologist, well- known for ranking the IQs of breeds of dogs. Border Collies were at the top of the list; and my breed, Afghan Hounds, were at the bottom. We had a lot to talk about.]

Eventually the French hounds, known as “Grand Bleu de Gascogne” were found and then shipped overland to Mount Vernon. The French hounds turned out to be so food aggressive that a huntsman had to be employed to supervise their mealtimes so they wouldn’t tear each other to shreds during dinner.

A popular story was told by Washington’s step-grandson about Vulcan, one of the French hounds:

“It happened that upon a large company sitting down to dinner at Mount Vernon one day, the lady of the mansion (my grandmother) discovered that the ham, the pride of every Virginia housewife’s table, was missing from its accustomed post of honor. Upon questioning Frank, the butler, this portly, and at the same time the most polite and accomplished of all butlers, observed that a ham, yes, a very fine ham, had been prepared, agreeably to the Madam’s orders, but lo and behold, who should come into the kitchen, while the savory ham was smoking in its dish, but old Vulcan, the hound. And without more ado, he fastened his fangs into it. Although they of the kitchen had stood to such arms as they could get, and had fought the old spoiler desperately, Vulcan had finally triumphed, and bore off the prize. The lady by no means relished the loss of a dish which formed the pride of her table, and uttered some remarks by no means favorable to old Vulcan, or indeed to dogs in general, while the chief [Washington], having heard the story, communicated it to his guests, and, with them, laughed heartily at the exploit of the stag-hound.” Martha had good reason to be quite miffed.

With selective breeding, Washington was successful in bringing out desired traits, developing the earliest American Foxhounds which retained the speed and stamina of the French staghounds, in a smaller frame, but still slightly larger than his Virginia black and tan hounds. There is a common belief that Lafayette also gave Washington a French Basset Hound, which would be the first one in America, but there is no historical proof to verify this claim.

For Adoption at Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St., W. Babylon: “Gabby” #13-22 a sweet, young Lab mix is bewildered. Her owner died, and she doesn’t understand why she has lost her person and her home. “Bruce” #12-334 a happy-go-lucky mid-size Pit plays well with others. Bruce has been at the shelter since June. More dogs: four Miniature Poodles; “Mae” #12-532-brindle Pit who is doing so well as the office dog. Oh, if you would like to adopt a Foxhound, please contact me at the Beacon. Our WV and KY transport networks always have Foxhounds in need.

Special Plea: There are still 25 dogs and 45 cats displaced by Sandy at the Mitchel Field shelter in need of foster homes. If interested, call Nassau SPCA at 516-THE-SPCA.

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