by   David Hancock

The sheer scale of big-game hunting, whether by Genghis Khan when training his cavalry or in Central European hunts more recently, is hard to visualize in contemporary times. On one day, the 12th of January 1656, on Dresden Heath, 44 stags and 250 wild boar were killed; in Moritzburg in 1730 the bag was 221 antlered stags, 116 does, 82 fallow bucks, 46 fallow does and 614 wild boar; in 1748 in Wurttemberg during one hunt 500 animals were killed; in Bebenhausen in 1812 in one hunt alone, 823 animals were killed, including 116 stags. It is easy to see how this near-obsession with hunting led to the extinction of some species of big game in Europe. It nearly led to the extinction of recklessly-brave hunting dogs too!

Inevitably, hunting on this scale led to an enormous demand for dogs. The Greek Philostratus refers to 'Indian' dogs in his description of a boar hunt. These were huge hunting mastiffs originating not from modern India but from Sumerian/Assyrian territory linked to the Euphrates and the Tigris and the north-east. 'Indian' dogs were among the 2,400 hounds that paraded in Ptolemy II's procession. Marco Polo, when visiting the court of Kubla Khan in 1298, recorded that: "He hath two barons...the Keepers of the Mastiff Dogs...there are 2,000 men who are each in charge of one or more great mastiffs..." He was not of course referring to the Mastiff, the English breed, but powerful big game hunting dogs; his translator used the word 'mastiff'' to stress such a dog's size to a western reader.

Nearer home, in Central Europe, big-game was hunted using strong-headed, hard-running 'hetzruden', best translated as boar-lurchers. Duke Henry Julius of Brunswick was reputed to own the largest number of hetzruden, 600, in 1592. Whilst each castle featured its own kennels, the sheer numbers led to forcible boarding out. Shepherds were required to board at least one, in addition to their stock dogs, or their lambs were confiscated. In the 17th century, millers were required to board a specific number each year. Eventually over-hunting led to a vast reduction in boar numbers and a consequent reduction in hetzruden. In time only small numbers of them were kept at the princely courts. Towards the end of the 19th century, they increasingly became the property of private citizens. The last of the Hessian dogs was sold in 1876. They were described as being fawn or red-fawn with black masks and muzzles, part-ancestors of today's Deutsche Dogge or Great Dane.

Between 1562 and 1580, two artists, Liberala and Hoefnagal, produced a whole range of acquarelles entitled Dogs of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. The types covered a wide collection of sporting dogs, ranging from land and water retrieving types and scenthounds to coursing dogs and dogs for hunting the bigger game. The latter embraced the famed Englische Dogge, or running mastiff, and the saufangers or boar-seizers. Subsequently, artists such as Tempesta, Ridinger and Riedel in sketches and  Snyders, Rubens, De Vos and Desportes in paintings depicted these dogs in the boar, bear and bull hunt; Tempesta depicted too the auroch hunt in one of his works. We therefore have a fair idea of what such hunting dogs looked like.  

The invention of firearms brought not just enormous bonuses to hunter-sportsmen but a greatly reduced risk to their lives. This reduced their dependence in some forms of hunting on determined courageous dogs. We live in times when powerful dogs brave enough to tackle boar, bear and bison are banned in some countries, not because of any current misdeeds, but purely because of their past as a type of dog. It would be good to see appropriate recognition for the hunting mastiffs, whether described as seizers, holding dogs, pinning dogs, perro de presas, filas, bullenbeissers or leibhunde. They should at least be respected for their past bravery and bred to the design of their ancestors. A former big-game hunting breed like the Mastiff of England is prized nowadays solely for its bulk. Such a ruined breed wouldn't last long in the ancient hunting fields! It is possible that in the boar-hunting field in Central Europe in the period 1500 to 1800 more catch-dogs were killed than the boars being hunted. Those that survived had to be extremely agile and elusive, without losing dash. 

More recently, in his 'Hunting Big Game in Africa with Dogs' of 1924, the American Er M Shelley describes how the catch-dogs were not allowed to run with the trailing hounds but held by natives until they were needed. This was the role of the hunting mastiffs in medieval Europe. I believe the term 'bandogs' referred to leashed catch-dogs and not to chained yard dogs as many writers record. The risks to the dogs in hunting big game are described by Shelley: "Dogs are very fond of hunting them (i.e. warthogs), but it usually proves disastrous for the dog, for these hogs have two long tusks that protrude far out from the lower jaw, and they use them with deadly effect. Dogs can be maimed or killed much more readily by hunting these hogs than by hunting lions." In his bobbery pack Shelley used mainly 'curs' i.e. hounds from the United States, with a famous Australian Cattle Dog as a seizer. In nearby Rhodesia, settlers used locally-bred hounds, to bay the lion, leading to the evolution of the Ridgeback from there. They were used on a wide variety of big-game too, not excluding elephants.

"Hunting elephants with dogs! Impossible." This was the instant verdict of a colleague of mine in a discussion a few years ago.  I gave my disbelieving colleague some extracts from Sanderson's 'Elephant Catching in India' of 150 years ago and he went very quiet! The value of dogs in elephant hunting was once well recognised. In his 'The Illustrated Natural History' of 1862-3, the Rev JG Wood wrote: "When wounded, the African Elephant is a most formidable animal, charging impetuously in the direction of the foe, and crashing through the heavy forest as if the trees were but stubble. In such a case, the best resource of the hunter is in his dogs, which bay around the infuriated animal, and soon distract his attention. The bewilderment which the elephant feels at the attacks of so small an animal as a dog is quite extraordinary. He does not seem to know what he is doing, and at one time will try to kneel on his irritating foes..." Sanderson used dogs for a sound conservation role however.

Sanderson worked for the Forestry Commission in India and in his field work often had to live for extensive periods in the jungle. He needed protection for himself and his workers and, as a keen sportsman, he naturally turned to dogs. His experiences and his advice on breeding the right dog for such a task are worthy of study. Sanderson was inspired by Sir Samuel Baker's experiences as recorded in his classic 'The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon'. Baker stresses the huge difference between hunting elephant in Africa to that in Asia, where the jungle leads to short-range confrontations. (I discovered this myself whilst serving in Borneo, when a well-armed patrol from the Gurkha Brigade I was serving in was surprised by a charging elephant and a soldier killed.)

Whilst building up his pack, Sanderson learned valuable lessons when encountering bear, bison, panther and wild hog, and especially when capturing a young wild elephant which "the pack seized without hesitation." He developed a pack of six seizers, that is seizing/gripping/'holding' dogs, nowadays represented by the perros de presa of Spain, the filas of Portugal and Brazil, the bull-breeds of Western Europe and the smaller mastiffs. The six comprised: a 'Bullmastiff' of only 40lbs, two 'country-bred' Bull Terriers of around 35lbs and three young dogs from a mating of the first two. Sanderson wrote firmly that "show dogs are not required".  

The first elephant captured using the dogs was a two year old weighing around 900lbs. The dogs seized the elephant by the cheek, the ears and the trunk, slowing it down sufficiently for men to approach and secure it with ropes. The elephant recovered quickly, its wounds healing in a week. It then joined Sanderson's department, working in the forests. One day, a recently imported Bull Terrier that had never seen an elephant before, met this one and without hesitation seized it by the trunk and 'held' it before being removed. The elephant was not harmed; the dog's instinctive behaviour and reckless courage being remarkable. This pack once engaged a panther, with only one dog being bitten, but not badly. 

For use against panthers, Sanderson advised the use of a thick leather collar on the dogs, 3½" wide, and without spikes, writing that the presence of spikes made the quarry seek another vulnerable spot. He considered "two really good bulldogs a complete match for any bear". He went on to write that "When it is considered with what ease one good dog can pull down the largest tame buffalo or bullock, it may easily be imagined that a bison or wild buffalo has no chance against three or four." He did not use his dogs to kill animals but to 'hold' them, rather as practised by medieval hunters. His quarry was not savaged by his dogs but 'gripped' by them and slowed down. His trained dogs were rarely severely wounded.

He used his seizers only after the 'finders', usually terriers, had put up the quarry. The seizers were restrained on leashes until they were needed. This is in the mould of the 'bandogs', in early medieval hunting, that were leashed until the hounds of the chase had brought their quarry to bay. I do not support the theory that bandogs were merely 'tied-up yard-dogs' as some writers infer. Mastiffs were big-game catch-dogs when respected as functional dogs, not bred to be massive, cumbersome and lacking agility; without agility a catch-dog would not live long. I have attended a Bullmastiff seminar where the breed expert on the podium claimed that only a dog weighing 120lbs could knock down and 'hold' a poacher. This despite the best night-dogs weighing around 90lbs and the recorded experiences of real experts like Baker and Sanderson.

Ostrich hunting by mounted huntsmen and catch-dogs was a favoured medieval sport in parts of Africa, the huntsmen using lances or spears with long shafts to attack the prey. Catch-dogs are used to this day in Australia in the kangaroo hunt. The renowned Australian 'roo culler, Charles Venables, hunted kangaroo for over fifty years, using Deerhounds, Deerhound X Weimaraners, Foxhounds and Jack Russell-type terriers. He favoured Bullmastiff bitches as catch-dogs. In the 16th century aurochs and wild bulls were hunted by mounted hunters, again using lances and supporting seizers or catch-dogs. Water buffalo have proved more difficult to hunt with dogs, mainly because of their preferred habitat and style of living.

Big-game hunting became almost an obsession with some Victorian sportsmen, Sir Samuel Baker describes in his book 'The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon' the use of various dogs in big-game hunting. He took a pack of thoroughbred Foxhounds there with him from England, but only one survived a few months hunting in Ceylon. He favoured, for elk-hunting, a cross between the Foxhound and the Bloodhound (the pack version not the show type), using fifteen couple, supported by lurchers. Baker stated that the great enemy of any pack was the leopard, which would leap down on stray or isolated hounds and kill them. Baker was fond of 'deer-coursing', the pursuit of axis or spotted deer using Greyhound and horse. He used pure Greyhounds, "of great size, wonderful speed and great courage", rather like the 'strong Greyhounds' of the medieval hunt. A buck could weigh 250lbs and would turn and charge its pursuers, unlike the elk which stood at bay. With some sadness he wrote that "the end of nearly every good seizer is being killed by a boar. The better the dog the more likely he is to be killed, as he will be the first to lead the attack, and in thick jungle he has no chance of escaping from a wound."

A similar lack of sympathy towards dogs existed in the hunting field, especially in the boar hunt. Historians list the appalling totals of quarry killed but never the number of dogs which lost their lives in such hunts. Elector John George I of Saxony (1611-1656) held hunts in which nearly 32,000 wild boar were killed; his son only managed 22,000 in his lifetime! But it is likely that several dogs died for every boar. There was an old German expression which translates as 'if you want boars' heads you have to sacrifice dogs' heads'.  The scale of hunting in the 17th and 18th centuries was quite staggering: on the 12th of January 1656 on Dresden Heath, 44 stags and 250 wild boar were killed; in Moritzburg in 1730 the haul was 221 antlered stags, 116 does, 82 fallow bucks, 46 fallow does and 614 wild boar. It may well be the case that on Dresden Heath on January the 12th 1656, several hundred dogs died in the hunting conducted that day.

A wild boar is a fearsome adversary, its speed in the charge is like lightning, its tusks can rip through the flanks of a dog and its underbelly with devastating effect. In his 'A Month in the Forests of France'  of 1857, Grantley Berkeley related how one old boar at bay killed or rendered hors de combat 14 of the 18 hounds attacking it. He considered this a higher canine casualty rate than usual but expressed no surprise at the fact that dogs were routinely killed in such a hunt. The attitude towards the recklessly brave dogs that closed with the wild boar at bay is aptly summed up in The Master of Game of 1388: "They are almost shaped as a greyhound of full shape, they have a great head, great lips and great ears, and with such, men help themselves well at the baiting of the bull and at hunting of the wild boar, for it is natural to them to hold fast (i.e. seize and hold) but they are so heavy and ugly, that if they be slain by the wild boar it is no great loss".

A comparable lack of compassion is seen in the use of dogs to bait animals for the amusement of spectators. Hentzner, in his 'Itinerary' of 1598, provides this description: "There is a place built in the form of a theatre, which serves for baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bulldogs; but not without risque to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens they are killed on the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired."  Baiting dogs were clearly regarded as expendable, valued even less than the wretched baited quarry. The hooves and horns of bulls and the claws and teeth of bears must have accounted for around ten times the number of dogs as their target in the ring. Little is made of this canine sacrifice and suffering, if anything the formidable dogs involved are often blamed for their participation, as if they had a choice.

Whether it is lion-baiting, auroch hunting, the staging of exotic contests between dog and hippopotamus or dog and ostrich, public sympathy has been urged towards just the quarry. But dogs are victims too in such human-instigated activity. For every dog killed in such 'combat', another is cast into the fray. The injuries sustained by dogs in such cruel activities are hardly superficial; a lion can tear a dog to pieces, an auroch's horns can rip a dog in two, an ostrich can shatter a dog's skull with one well-aimed kick. Even a smaller native animal quarry, like the badger, can all but severe a terrier's head with its powerful jaws. I have immense sympathy for the badger, which has every right to defend itself, but concern too for the terrier. Dogs used in the hunt, when misused by man are victims too. Little consideration was given to Foxhounds in the recent debate on their use. In Scotland last year more Foxhounds were killed than foxes. Big-game hunting with dogs may appeal to human hunters but it does no favours at all to the faithful hounds that loyally support man's hunting pursuits - and have done so for over four millennia.