Many canine historians believe that huge, fierce Molossian dogs, kept by the Ancient Greeks, were brought to British shores by Phoenician traders in the sixth century BC and became the ancestors of the early mastiff-type dogs. These canine giants were used as dogs of war. Julius Caesar, in his account of the Roman invasion of Britain in 55 BC, described how the Britons fought side by side with warriors dogs. The Romans were impressed by the dogs and called them "Pugnaces" or "the Broad-mouthed dogs of Britain." They took many of them back to Italy where the dogs fought beside the Roman legions and were used as canine gladiators in the amphitheaters pitted against bears, lions, and even armed men. From Italy, the war dogs spread to many parts of Europe.
THE EARLIEST SCENTHOUNDS
When studying dogs, it is important to understand that before modern times they were not categorized as specific breeds, but were bred and classified according to the job they did. For hundreds of years, one excellent trailing dog was simply bred to another, no matter whether the breeding partners resembled each other or not. It is widely believed that the Celtic people first realized that some of the mastiff-type dogs had incredible scenting ability, and used them for hunting. Long before the Christian era, the Celtics selectively bred those Alaunt-type mastiffs that were best at following a trail, and created a sort of gigantic scenthound. Later many scenthounds may have been crossed with speedy sighthounds. Over the years, the pendulous mastiff ears and thick, heavy skin were retained, but scenthounds of lighter bone, less bulk, and obliging temperament were developed. These moved faster, did not tire easily, and were controllable during the hunt.
INDIVIDUAL BREEDS EVOLVE
Selective breeding to establish breed type in scenthounds began in a Belgium monastery called St. Hubert's during the Middle Ages. Using Celtic dogs from Gaul (France), the monks developed a medium sized, black and tan dog with a heavy head and a large bone. A deliberate, reliable, but slow hunter, this hound attained renown for its melodic voice and superior scenting ability. A direct ancestor of the modern Bloodhound, the St. Hubert Hound spread throughout Europe and was a progenitor of many scenthound breeds. One of these was a variation with a pied or liver coat called the Talbot Hound, and another was the predominantly white Southern Hound.
Hounds were hunted in packs and lived in large groups, so they were selected for sociable temperaments and the desire and ability to hunt without direction from humans. Hunting was diversion for the wealthy landowners (peasants were not permitted to take game), and many kept hundreds of dogs.
As hounds spread throughout Europe, they were also selected for those attributes that made them most suitable for the climate, game and terrain of each locale. Deer and fox hunting were the most popular sports, but hound types more appropriate for tracking wolf and boar, or following hare in heavy cover, were also developed. None, however, were bred to hunt raccoon, because there were no raccoons in Europe.
ANCESTORS ARRIVE IN AMERICA
Over 100 years before the American Revolution, the titled and wealthy brought English, Irish and a few French hounds to the New World from England. The American foxhound, and all the Coonhound breeds with the exception of the Plott, descend from these imports. Although stemming from common ancestors the separate breeds, as we know them today, exhibit distinct physical and performance differences.
In 1659, Robert Brooke arrived from England with the first pack of English Foxhounds to be used for hunting in America. He was honored with the title of first Master of Foxhounds in the New World.
Several of our nation's founding fathers, including George Washington, were foxhunters. According to his own records, Washington received a gift of three dogs and four bitches, called French Staghounds, from Marquis de Lafayette in 1785. Although reliable cold trailers, Washington found them too slow for his taste.
Many historians surmise that descendants of these French hounds, or others like them, when crossed with the English Foxhounds already in use played a part in the development of the scent hounds originally preferred the colder, northeastern states. Many years later, these heavier dogs, with longer ears and more voice, became especially popular with the hunters who originated the uniquely American sport of coonhunting.
The common man and the landed gentry both hunted with hounds in the New World, and scent hounds were selectively bred to trail the local predatory animals. Coonhounds developed from dependable, extremely cold-nosed foxhounds that were considered too slow for hunting the speedy red fox that took refuge in a hole or den. When those reliable hounds had the instinct to tree game, and remain at the tree proclaiming their victory until their owners arrived, they helped keep meat on the family table. In the North, where the slower gray fox also took refuge in trees, the increasingly popular night-hunting coonhound often doubled as a foxhound during the day.
Because raccoon hunters lived in various climates and contended with diverse terrain, distinctive hunting techniques were preferred in different areas. Over the years several breeds of coonhounds emerged, each unique to a particular hunting style.
HISTORY OF COON HUNTING IN AMERICA
The wild coon hunt was originally conducted for sport, and sport - despite the money and prestige that go to the owners of the top dogs is what the AKC registry strives to preserve today.
It's remarkable that such a widely popular contest, mirroring a centuries - old sport, dates back to no more that the years after World War II. Before World War II, competition among coonhound owners was limited to field trials. Dogs competed against one another in water races, treeing contests and drag races, all still popular today. Although these contests are entertaining, and test a few of the quantities that make a hound good, they fall hopelessly short of judging what make a good coonhound.
Following World War II hunters in several parts of the country began experimenting with ways of competitively judging dogs in the woods. One of these groups included Brook Magill of Blue Springs, MS. A Redbone man, Magill was a major inspiration behind the novel idea of judging a hunt.
THE EARLY HUNTS
Magill's group met at the courthouse in Tupelo, MS to outline what kind of sporting competition they could devise. They created a hunt where a judge, using no standard but his own, chose the best hound in each cast in an elimination event. After naming their hunt the World Championship, they scheduled it for 1948 in Wickliffe, KY.
Over 20 dogs participated at the first hunt. After the cast, the judge simply picked the dog he thought performed best at striking, trailing and treeing, and named it the winner. This put a lot of pressure on the judge. He had to listen to four dogs he had never heard before and select the best. No points were awarded for strike or tree, as they are today.
The winner of the first hunt was Dan, a registered Redbone, owned by LeRoy Campbell of Blue Springs, MS. The following year the hunt moved to Blue Springs, MS, where Lester Nance, of Arcadia, IN won the World Championship with his Treeing Walker, White River Boon. In Tupelo, MS, in 1950, a Black and Tan named Jack, owned by Hardie Richardson, of Ripley, MS, won in a three-night elimination hunt.
Because of the inherent difficulty in subjective judging, the fledgling group realized that some sort of scoring system had to be developed. Experience brought new situations to address and the new association understood that rules were needed.
GOVERNING THE HUNT
Several coon hunters, most notably Robert Graves of Alexander City, AL, created a set of rules to govern the hunt. No longer would a judge just pick the hound he thought was best. Now there was a scoring system and a time limit to the cast - fours hours. The new rules were tried at the following year's World Hunt in Alexander City.
This was also the last year of the elimination hunt. In these hunts, only cast winners advanced. One problem was that by the third night, only a handful of hunters remained. At the Tupelo hunt in 1950, for instance, on two hounds were still in the contest after two nights. It was then decided to hunt all dogs three nights and award the win to the hound with the highest total points.
The new rules helped, but there were still some misinterpretations. Though scoring became a part of judging, no scorecards were taken to the field. The rules were read at the clubhouse and from there were carried only in the judges' and competitors' heads.
Each year more shortcomings were eliminated. Eventually the hunting and trailing categories were removed from the scoring leaving striking and treeing as the only way to accumulate points.
By 1956 the popularity of the wild coon hunt was evident. At Oblong, IL 137 hounds were entered in the World Hunt. From the '50s through the '60s, night hunting competition continued to grow.