American Staghounds

 M.H. Dutch Salmon

The great majority of the coursing hounds used for fox, coyote and jackrabbit hunting on the western plains today are unregistered, mixed breed hounds commonly lumped under the generic term, “longdogs.” Among them there are as many sizes, forms, coats and colours as there are dogs, but they may be divided into two phenotypes -- those with relatively short, smooth coats, and those with long, rough coats. The smooth-coated hounds are generally not described by their coat but rather by what they hunt; e.g., “he’s a coyote hound,” or, “he’s a rabbit dog.” The ones with the long, rough coats are commonly termed “staghounds” (or “stags” for short), as in, “he’s a staghound,” or, “he’s a stag.” More recently, the term “shag(s)” is sometimes used to describe the same dogs, an obvious reference to the type of coat.

The smooth-coated longdogs I will leave to another time, but in reference to stags and shags I’d like here to consider:  where do they come from?; what is their relationship to the rough-coated coursing breeds, the borzoi (Russian wolfhound), Irish wolfhound, and Scottish deerhound?;  what should a good one look like and how should he perform in the field?; and, since few of them hunt deer, why do they call them staghounds?

The best source of information about the early coursing hounds on the plains is to be found in writings by and about General George Armstrong Custer. He wasn’t the only one who used rough-coated coursing hounds back then, but he has left us the most information. In 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, Custer received orders to proceed to Ft. Hays, Kansas, to join a campaign against hostile Indians. In Life on the Plains he wrote:

“At Ft. Leavenworth I halted in my journey long enough to cause my horses to be shipped by rail to Ft. Hays. Nor must I omit two other faithful companions of my subsequent marches and campaigns named Blucher and Maida, two splendid specimens of the Scotch staghound, who were destined to share the dangers of an Indian campaign . . .”

A handful of photos of Custer with his various hounds have survived, covering the years 1868 to 1876, when the General went down at the Little Bighorn. Although the individual hounds are not named, all the rough-coated ones strongly resemble what was known then (and now) as a Scottish deerhound. The breed is described in the official AKC standard as, “a rough-coated greyhound of larger size and bone,” and was originally bred in the highlands of Scotland to take the large Scottish stag without the aid of firearms.

In the days before game laws, Custer hunted most everything with his “stags,” including jackrabbits, coyotes, fox, antelope, deer, elk, and buffalo! Custer writes of the kill of a yearling bull on the Kansas plains. After a long running fight, the buffalo was brought to bay by the hounds. Bringing him down was another matter:

“Finding escape by running impossible, he boldly came to bay and faced his pursuers; in a moment both dogs had grappled with him as if he had been a deer. Blucher seized him by the throat, Maida endeavoured to secure a firm hold on the shoulders. The result was that Blucher found himself well trampled in snow, and but for the latter (Maida) would have been crushed to death. Fearing for the safety of my dogs, I leaped from my horse and ran to the assistance of the stag-hounds. Drawing my hunting knife, I succeeded in cutting the hamstrings of the buffalo, which had the effect to tumble him over in the snow, when I was enabled to dispatch him with my pistol.”

Clearly, these early staghounds had the right stuff.

Blucher and Maida would not last long sharing the dangers of an Indian campaign. The dog was killed at the Battle of the Washita, the bitch in a firearms accident. But Custer would soon import others from the United Kingdom (UK), by some sources from a Lord Berkeley Paget in 1870, and perhaps also from the kennels of Queen Victoria. Among his favourites was the bitch, Tuck. In a letter to his wife, Elizabeth, Custer wrote:

 “Did I tell you of her (Tuck) catching a full-grown antelope-buck, and pulling him down after a run of over a mile, in which she left the other dogs far behind? She comes to me every evening when I am sitting in my large camp chair . . . First she lays her head on my knee, as if to ask if I am too much engaged to notice her. A pat of encouragement and forefeet are thrown lightly across my lap; a few moments of this posture and she lifts her hindfeet from the ground, and great overgrown dog that she is, quietly and gently disposes of herself on my lap . . . She makes up with no other person.”

If you’ve ever owned one, you know the “lap dog” description, and the aspect of singular loyalty, fits the Scottish deerhound to the letter.

In Boots and Saddles, Elizabeth Custer wrote:

“With the staghound, hunting was so bred in the bone that they sometimes went off by themselves, and even the half-grown puppies followed. I have seen them returning from such a hunt, the one who led the pack holding proudly in his mouth a jack rabbit . . . Once when the staghounds were let out of the kennel for exercise, they flew like the winds over the hills after a coyote. The soldier who took care of them could only follow on foot, as the crust on the snow would not bear the weigh of a horse. After a long, cold walk he found the dogs standing over the wolf they killed. When he had dragged it back to our wood shed he sent in to ask if the general would come and see what the dogs had done unaided and alone, for he was very proud of them . . .”

Little is known of Custer’s staghounds after the Little Bighorn. One hound, Cardigan, went to a clergyman in Minneapolis, who later had the dog mounted on display in a public building. One can assume that the others were dispersed with new owners. It is evident that Custer had already begun breeding these hounds and their new owners doubtless did, too, but if further of their hunting exploits survive in print I’m not aware of it.

The use of borzoi and Irish wolfhound on the plains before 1900 is less clear. In response to my query on the Internet, I learned from several borzoi breeders that the first of the breed was not brought to the USA until about 1890. The first Irish wolfhound was registered with the AKC in 1897. There may have been a few Irish Wolfhounds in the states before then, but the breed was still in its formative stages prior to 1890. The original Irish wolfhound died off with the wolf of the United Kingdom before 1800. The breed was recreated by Captain Graham in the UK between 1860 and 1900. None of these hounds hunted wolves, and with rare exceptions the re-creation to this day is, in my opinion, too tall and heavy to be of much use as a coursing hound, even for its original quarry.

Certainly borzoi and some Irish wolfhounds were used on the western plains after 1890, and they no doubt were crossed with the various greyhounds, longdogs, staghounds and deerhounds that were already there. It seems clear however, that it was the Scotch deerhound, imported from the UK by General Custer and others as early as 1868, that formed the basis for the unregistered rough-coated longdogs we know today as “staghounds.” In the early days, the deerhound/greyhound cross was likely the original source of staghound puppies; since then, staghounds have been crossed, and produced, by a myriad of combinations. The deerhound connection also answers the question as to why the term staghound came into common use on the western plains, where most of the hunting was for coyote, fox, and jackrabbit. Staghound is a derivative of deerhound, and Custer was calling them “Scotch staghounds” as early as 1868.

What, then, is a staghound? To me it’s any mixed breed coursing hound with something of the rough, wiry coat that is characteristic of the Scotch deerhound. I’ve heard the term “smooth staghound” used, for smooth-coated dogs in an otherwise rough-coated litter, but for me if it doesn’t have something of a rough, wiry coat it’s not a staghound. Stags come in all colors and color combinations, and in size may range from 25 to 27 inches at the withers (jackrabbit and fox) to 28 to 30 inches (coyote, deer, and other large game).

It may seem surprising that no breed standard or registry has emerged for the American staghound, though they have been around for well over 100 years. Well, we Americans have proved to be great dog hunters, but not great dog breeders. Yes, we produce some great individual dogs for the field. And we have developed a few new breeds -- the various coonhound breeds (or are they strains?) come to mind, and the Chesapeake Bay retriever. But within the coursing hound set, all our breeds come from overseas. The aesthetics required to standardize a breed as to type as well as function so far do not appeal to the American coursing hound enthusiast.

And what of the original Scotch deerhound that Custer brought over from the UK? This is an AKC registered breed; however, there are less than 200 new registrations (mostly puppies) in the USA each year. Logically, the breed probably totals more than 1000 individuals in North America but relatively few of these are ever used for hunting. I’ve owned three; I hunted with them, and I’ve seen others in the field. Though breeding for show has had its bad effect on the breed, there is still some ability there. The most common faults in the field are too much size to allow for good action, and a lack of desire for a long race. The breed does seem to have retained much of its courage, however. Bob Schulz of Minnesota tells of his deerhounds Mo (a Donna Brookman breeding) and Tonto (from the Fernhill Kennel in Ontario). I owned Mo for a time and he was the better runner. But Bob said that Tonto was the most awesome coyote killer he’s seen. Tonto would usually arrive late at the catch, Bob said, but would grab the little wolf by the neck and shake it with such force that he would literally throw the other hounds off the kill. Tonto needed no help to kill a coyote. With but one exception, however, none of the deerhounds in my experience have had the running ability of the many good staghounds I’ve owned or seen on the Great Plains.

If I were once again a deerhound owner and breeder, I would immediately outcross to a good-running staghound to start a new foundation that would recreate the kind of Scotch deerhounds that accompanied General Custer in his hunts on the plains. Part of the strategy should be to change the AKC deerhound standard back to the original as to size. For dogs: 28 to 30 inches and 85 to 110 lbs.; for bitches: 26 inches or more and 65 to 80 lbs. The standard should state that deerhounds over 32 inches at the withers “are not to be considered representative of the breed.” Size wins in the ring but not in the field. A strict size limit is the only way I know to get away from the current tendency towards the over-tall, stilted dogs that win in the shows.

A literary descendent of Custer as a houndman was Leon Almirall who hunted with what he called Scottish deerhounds on the plains of Colorado between World War I and World War II. Some of the hounds pictured in his book Canines and Coyotes are clearly mixed breed staghounds. But one of his favourites was Jeff, photographed in several outdoor scenes. Whether Jeff was an AKC registered Scottish deerhound cannot be known. My guess is he wasn’t. But he looks very close to being a purebred Scottish deerhound with a sandy coat; certainly the deerhound influence is strong. The fawn-coloured deerhounds were more common in the early days, and the colour acceptable and even well liked, though most today are dark blue-gray.

Another deerhound impressed Almirall greatly:

“A Scottish deerhound, Sandy, came to join this pack of mine in the high-up country. Owned by a rancher and ill-treated, he foraged for himself largely. One day on a high mesa he ran into two coyotes. These varmints, apparently believing there was safety in numbers, planned a little fun for the deerhound. In this they got the jolt of their lives. They had reckoned so wrongly that one was jolted right out of his life. Sandy had the fun and I saw the battle. The deerhound tied into both coyotes with such fury that he put one to flight and killed the other --no mean feat if you know coyotes . . .”

Due to a warm climate and a focus on jackrabbits, I am mostly working saluki crosses these days and have just one staghound in my kennel. He’s a lovely young pup named Beech-Nut, out of a track greyhound mother and a black staghound father who is proven on coyotes and jacks. Beech-Nut got his sire’s staghound coat, colored dark blue-gray; at first glance you might just call him a Scotch deerhound. With his bloodlines, he’ll run to catch.

The staghound of today has, with few exceptions, been a mixed breed hound for many generations. Go back far enough, however, and you’ll find he got his rough, wiry coat, size, strength, endurance and tenacity from an old breed, the Scottish deerhound. As the deerhound contributed to the abilities, character and traits of the staghound, it will be interesting to see if today’s staghound, used judiciously as a cross, can restore the original Scottish hound to the greatness he knew when such as General Custer and Leon Almirall rode with him on the plains.