Eric Hewitt loves Bassets. In particular, he loves Chloe, a white-faced senior of almost 12 years, Vivian June, 6, and Ruthie, who hasn’t lost her puppy charm at 10 months old. Drive up to their Jamestown home sand a chorus of deep-throated baying greets you. After some initial petting, Vivian will fetch her favorite toy for show-and-tell, unless Ruthie has stolen it.
Bassets rank 41st in popularity, according to the American Kennel Club, far below that other rabbit-hunter, the Beagle, who ranks fourth. That’s not something Hewitt understands, because, he says, Bassets make great family pets.
“I’ve heard the myths,” says Hewitt, “but I don’t find them hard to housetrain, and I don’t think they’re stubborn. Both Chloe and Vivian obey me instantly.” He smiles. “Ruthie, of course, is just learning.”
It’s hard to resist his Bassets’ happy, friendly nature, and even harder to resist stroking those long, velvety ears.
Those long ears are one of the characteristics that help make the Basset a great hunting dog. Like the Bloodhound, the long ears and loose facial skin help to funnel the scent toward the nose, a nose ranked second only to the Bloodhound. Bassets have over 250 million scent receptors per square inch, as opposed to humans, who have roughly 5 million receptors per square inch.
The sturdy Basset was originally developed in France as dog hunters could follow on foot, and Lafayette brought them to the United States as a gift for George Washington.
Chloe, Vivian and Ruthie are family pets, but they also have their breed’s keen nose and they love to do what they were bred to do, which is sniff out and follow rabbits.
That’s what led Hewitt to the American Hunting Basset Association in 2008. The AHBA sanctions family-oriented, no-kill field trials that highlight the skills of the dogs. At his first trial, Hewitt liked the looks of a promising puppy, and purchased her. Vivian June fulfilled that promise, and has just recently been inducted into the AHBA Hall of Fame. This year, Hewitt had the chance to acquire a half sister of Vivian’s, and Ruthie, at 10 months, is following in her big sister’s paw prints. She took first place at her first trial this spring. Chloe, the pack matriarch, is also a Rabbit Champion.
The AHBA offers several levels of hunt trials and points are awarded the hounds as they find and follow rabbit trails. Local clubs sponsor hunts and there are also state and regional hunts, as well as an annual World Hunt. There are five regions (Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern and Central) and these regions, along with the World Hunt make up “Big Six” hunts. Dogs receive more points for placing at these hunts than at the local or state level.
All the trials have three classes: open, champion and grand champion. To become a Rabbit Champion, a dog must earn three first place wins and at least 100 points from the open class, and no more than 50 of those points may be earned from a single club’s trials. After winning five firsts at the champion level, the dog becomes a Rabbit Grand Champion.
During a trial, three to six dogs are “cast,” or sent out into the field, as a small pack. The dogs are worked for one hour while being judged on their ability to find a trail and follow it. They are also judged on their ability to find the trail again should they lose it. Points are awarded during the trial, but points may also be deducted. If a hound collects 30 minus points, no matter how many plus points he may have, he is disqualified. (For complete rules and regulations, visit www.bassetnet.org)
The dog with the most points at the end of the hour is the winner of that cast. If no dog has any points, the judge awards one dog 20 points for hunting and handling. If there is a tie at the end of the hour, the hunt is extended for another 30 minutes. If there is still a tie, there’s a 10-minute sudden death overtime. If there’s still no clear winner, the judge awards 10 points for best hunting and handling to determine the winner.
At the end of the trial, each club also holds a conformation show as the AHBA supports both what the dog was bred to do and what the standard says is the ideal for the breed.
The AHBA also has a Hall of Fame for dogs who have excelled in the field. To gain admittance to the Hall of Fame, dog must be a Rabbit Grand Champion and needs to earn 50 Hall of Fame points. These points are based on performance, with 10 points awarded for first place in a Big Six Hunt, for example. As these points accumulate, a dog may also lose points. Ten points are deducted the third time a dog is reported running deer, fox, elk or coyote.
Chloe, Vivian June and Ruthie have won a table full of awards. Chloe is a Rabbit Champion. Vivian is a Grand Rabbit Champion and a Hall of Fame member, as well as being a Bench Champion. Ruthie is already showing her potential with her win at her first trial, but, for Hewitt, the awards are not the point. The field trials allow him to spend time with his dogs, bond more closely, and to enjoy watching them as they, in turn, find joy in doing what they were bred to do.