HUNTING

Rabbit Hunting Dogs: Trained to Catch Cottontails

Dog hunting for rabbit
Shawn Harrison
Written by Shawn Harrison

Hunting is a fulfilling and practical way to spend your spare time. The activity allows one to feed the family with the highest quality meat as well as ensuring a near constant supply of food in the event of normality being disrupted.

Hunting is an activity that is best enjoyed in the company of other like minded and loyal friends. There does not exist a more loyal companion than a dog. Moreover, a hunting dog is both friend and colleague. Rabbits are rife all over the country and make a great meal.

Breeds of rabbit hunting dogs

They are also great to hunt with a canine friend. Rabbit hunting dogs are in a league of their own. They must be fast and agile if they are to have a chance at keeping up with a rapid rabbit, as well as highly trained.

Not every dog fits the bill, however, so how does one go about selecting a great dog for hunting rabbits? It’s useful to look at various breeds of hunting dogs, what it takes to locate and catch rabbits and finally some great rabbit hunting dog breeds.

Types of hunting dogs

There are a great many benefits to using a dog to hunt with, especially when hunting rabbits. While rabbits are not uncommon, they do tend to hide well, often under thick cover or underground. While an experienced hunter can locate rabbits with a bit of experience, even the best cannot begin to compete with a dog.

A well trained rabbit hunting dog can sniff out a rabbit from far away. They are also capable of flushing them out into the open, allowing the hunter to get a clear shot. A good dog will even bring shot prey to its master. In a nutshell, a dog can significantly improve the odds of bringing home a delicious rabbit or two, or perhaps much more.

Dogs hunting rabbits

Before we focus specifically on rabbit hunting dogs, it’s useful to have a look at the types of hunting dogs. The different types of hunting dogs have their own strengths and use when out hunting.

Sighthounds

As the name suggests, these dogs are typically used for spotting prey. They should possess keen eyesight and great speed. While their primary function is to spot prey, they are typically able to carry out a wide range of tasks.

Coursing involves spotting, tracking, chasing and even killing prey and many sighthounds will be used for these purposes. As such they need to be tough, fast and intelligent if they are to perform their task well. The most common sighthound is the greyhound, though whippets, deerhounds, and afghan hounds are also frequently used.

Scenthound

With a remarkable sense of smell, scenthounds are great for sniffing out and trailing prey and this is their primary purpose. However, many scenthounds perform much more tasks such as flushing out, chasing and killing prey.

Blood hound breed

They generally hunt as a pack and must be trained to work together as a team. The bloodhound is widely considered to have the best sense of smell, closely followed by basset hounds and beagles.

Lurchers

Lurchers are cross bred, typically a sighthound mixed with scenthound or terrier, creating a dog designed for hunting. Generally fast, with excellent eyesight and sense of smell, these mutts are fantastic hunting dogs.

Retrievers

These intelligent and obedient dogs are primarily used to fetch shot prey to their master. They must be well trained and obedience is key. Typically they will stand near their master and only move into action when commanded. Labradors makes excellent retrievers, as do German shepherds and golden retrievers.

Setters

These are excellent dogs for locating prey. The name comes from the way they freeze in place when they spot their prey. They are typically only used to locate prey, allowing the hunter to close in and take a shot.

Pointers

These act in a similar fashion to setters and as such are used for the same purpose, that of locating prey. They will point to where the prey is located, allowing the hunter to close in and take the shot.

Small game dogs

This final group of hunting dogs is trained to seek out their prey by invading their burrows and driving them out into the open. They can be trained to catch and kill their prey or to chase into the range of the hunter. Terriers, curs, and feists are typically used for such roles.

A little about rabbits

Having had a look at a variety of different types of hunting dogs, it’s clear that they all have their strengths and weaknesses. When considering a dog to use for hunting rabbits, it’s important to understand a little bit about rabbits. Once one knows where rabbits typically live and their habits, it’s easier to select the perfect dog for the job.

One wild hare

Rabbits, commonly referred to as cottontails are not too difficult to locate when you know how. However, simply knowing where they are, doesn’t guarantee you will see them. They are experts of camouflage, with hunters typically unable to see a rabbit that is just yards away, unless they catch the glimmer of its eye.

Where to find them?

Cottontails enjoy a simple diet of grass, clover, wheat, weeds, twigs and bark. Where these are found rabbits are likely to be nearby. However, they are also wary creatures and prefer to feed in areas close to thick covers, such as woodland.

Grassy fields next to woodland or scrub. Thick and low cover is their preferred hideout, such as blackberry bushes and thick, tall grass. Their choice of cover is worth considering when thinking about the best dog to choose.

Rabbit reactions

A startled rabbit will jump up from what it was doing and make a run for it. These amazingly agile creatures make good use of their speed and mobility and few creatures are able to keep up with them. They can change direction quicker than a blink of the eye.

Rabbit in the wild

They do tend to run around in wide circles when being chased, however. Again this is worth bearing in mind when thinking about rabbit hunting dogs. If the rabbit outpaces the creature chasing it, it will generally stop for a second to take a look behind, this can be a great time to take the shot.

Feeding habits

Rabbits tend to feed during hours of minimal light, early morning and early evening. This is when they’re most active and less likely to burrow down to the safety of their home and as such is the best time to hunt them.

A dog with great eyesight and a keen sense of smell will be useful during these hours. Also, one that makes some noise will be easier to locate.

With a little knowledge about the rabbits the dogs will be after, it’s easier to imagine the type of dog that would be best suited to hunting them successfully.

Rabbit hunting dog breeds

Bearing in mind the physical attributes of the rabbit, as well as where it can be found, we can understand that a dog has got its work cut out when hunting them. Certain types of dogs excel in these conditions, however.

Bay retriever dog

The ideal dog will be quick, agile and able to negotiate thick ground cover. It should also have incredible stamina and gritty determination. An ability to locate cottontails by smell or keen eyesight is essential and it should also communicate with its master.

Does such a dog exist? Nothing is absolutely perfect, but the following breeds come close to perfecting the art of hunting rabbits.

Lurcher

These mixed breed dogs have been bred to exhibit the best of all worlds. Lurchers are typically a mix of sighthound and scenthound. However, this is not set in stone and many hunters have found that a mix of terrier and sighthound create an ideal rabbit hunting dog. These beasts are capable of quickly catching and killing a rabbit.

They will even bring it back to their master. There are many mixes that one can choose from, though it’s not as simple as selecting two different dogs and gaining the best attributes of both. Hunters have had great success with deerhound/beagle mixes and greyhound/border collie.

Terriers

These small and tenacious dogs make great hunting companions and are always happy to chase rabbits. Their small size allows them to dart through low, thick cover with little effort. They can be very quick when the chase is on, though they are not as agile as other breeds.

Staffordshire bull terrier

Their senses of sight and smell pale in comparison to other hunting dogs but do not be put off. Many hunters have had great success with well-trained terriers. Scottish and Patterdale terriers, in particular, are considered to be excellent rabbit hunters.

Their determination alone makes up for their weaknesses. Terriers are also commonly mixed with sighthounds such as whippets to create a breed of lurcher that is excellent for rabbit hunting.

Labrador

Labradors typically fall under the retriever category, though they can be trained to successfully flush out rabbits and chase them. They are very versatile dogs, capable of speed and agility as well as jumping large obstacles.

They can also swim well and as such are able to cover a wider variety of ground. These loyal companions are very intelligent and are easy to train compared to other breeds.

Basset hound

The basset hound, a classic scenthound, has a keen sense of smell and can locate rabbit in no time. They are not huge dogs and keep low to the ground, enabling them to traverse the thick cover rabbits are so fond of. They are surprisingly fast and agile and will generally keep up with a rabbit long enough to drive it towards the hunter.

Basset hound puppy

These prolific hunters also make good pets at home, with their calm demeanor and friendly appearance. They can however soon become lazy and put on weight if they are not encouraged to exercise. You may have seen many basset hounds and noticed their stubby legs. If so you’re probably wondering how they could ever keep up with a rabbit?

These dogs have unfortunately let themselves go. A basset hound that is kept active and gets plenty of exercise is remarkably mobile. Finally, they are vocal and will bark when chasing a rabbit. This allows the hunter to consistently know where the action is.

Beagle

Finally, we come to the undisputed champion. The beagle, another scenthound, is widely considered the ultimate rabbit hunting dog. It has history too, with evidence of beagles being used as rabbit hunting dogs in England from as far back as the thirteenth century.

They are not too dissimilar to the basset hound, however, their body structure enables them to move faster and with better coordination and agility. They are determined and headstrong and won’t give up until they have succeeded. They are almost as fast as a sighthound, though much lighter, enabling them to change direction as quick as a rabbit.

They are smaller than sighthounds as well and can negotiate thick cover with little trouble. Their excellent sense of smell ensures that rabbits are located and flushed out quickly allowing the hunter to take a shot when the opportunity arrives. Their stamina is equal to their determination and the rabbit is more likely to tire before the beagle.

Beagle dog breed

They are also incredibly vocal, as anyone who has lived with one will know, in fact, the name translates to “loud mouth”. The entire time they are chasing a rabbit they will bark and bay, allowing the hunter to follow and track constantly.

A purebred beagle will even have a white tip on the tail, ensuring that it can be seen no matter what cover it is in. Hunting aside, they make excellent pets, with their calm and friendly nature. They crave activity however and soon grow bored, so one must keep them occupied.

They are best trained as puppies. In this way they will soon grow into excellent companions on a rabbit hunt. Hunters typically use a pack of beagles to hunt. They must be trained to respect the pack and to work together as a team.

Typically they do this well, with the first dog to catch the scent barking, letting the others know that they have a lead. Together, they will then flush out the prey and continue to chase it until the hunter has taken a shot, or the prey has been caught.

Training a rabbit hunting dog

A rabbit hunting dog has its work cut out for it. It takes a disciplined dog to complete the task successfully every time. A dog is only as good as it’s master however and the responsibility falls on the hunter to ensure the dog is well trained, obedient and disciplined enough to concentrate on the task in hand.

Training dog to hunt

For example, scenthounds such as beagles have such a good sense of smell they can often become distracted by something else that smells appealing in the vicinity. Training a dog to hunt does not mean that it cannot function as a family pet. In fact, it gives the dog a lot of exercise and enables it to burn off excess energy.

This is great, as more intelligent and energetic dogs often get bored sitting around at home and can soon become lazy and put on weight. Training a dog to hunt gives them something to focus on and instills an obedience and discipline that can otherwise be hard to train.

  1. Training a hunting dog should start when the dog is a puppy, around four weeks or so. Basic commands should be mastered first, such as sit. Train the dog to come to you when called as early as possible. These basic commands set the foundations for obedience and discipline. Keep training sessions short as puppies at this age have a fairly short attention span.
  2. Basic tracking techniques can then be introduced, at about eight weeks of age. Many hunters like to use the fur from a recently hunted wild rabbit, or a rabbit’s foot for this. Allow the puppy to play with the fur/foot in order to get used to the smell of wild rabbit. After a week or so of this, start to play hide and seek with the fur or This encourages the puppy to follow the scent. Initially, the pup may need some help from time to time, but they will soon improve. One can also tie a string to the fur or foot and allow the puppy to follow it or chase it.
  3. The next step is to introduce the puppy to a live rabbit, generally at around 12 weeks old. Take the puppy out to local areas you know there are wild rabbits. Keep a hold on the puppy and an eye open for rabbits. When you see one take off, release the puppy and allow it to chase and track it. At first, they may not be very good at this, but practice makes perfect. Try to avoid letting the puppy see the rabbit, in this way they should begin to rely on their nose.
  4. After a few weeks of this practice, the puppy should be able to search out rabbits on their own. Head for a small area where rabbits are rife and release the puppy. They should be able to seek rabbits out and chase them for several minutes.
  5. Once the puppy is able to chase a rabbit for ten to twenty minutes or so, you can introduce them to a more experienced rabbit hunting dog, or even a pack. Allow them to run rabbits with these dogs. They may not initially respond to the communication of their partner/pack, but this too will come with time, normally two months or so. During this time, ensure the puppy still goes out alone, in order to grow in confidence and develop its own skills.

It normally takes over a year to train a rabbit hunting dog fully, though they will continuously develop their skills over the years that follow. Another very important aspect of the dog’s training is to familiarize them with the sound of gunfire.

Rabbit hunting training

This should be done from a fairly young age by incorporating distant, low volume gun fire into daily activities. The dog will soon get used to the sound and you can gradually get closer until you are at a realistic distance that will be mirrored on a real hunt.

It’s a terrible idea to introduce a dog to gunfire on its first hunt. The dog will quickly get spooked and panic and may even develop a fear of the sound.

Release the hounds

With a good understanding of what is required of a rabbit hunting dog, the best breeds for the job and how to train them to be the best for the task, it’s time to get out there. Find a four-legged friend and treat them to a life all dogs crave.

Terrier running and hunting

Look for a dog that is as fast as the wind and as agile as a ninja. Ensure they are equipped with an incredibly sensitive nose and the determination of a soldier. They will become a lifelong friend and colleague and will ensure you both have plenty of rabbit meat to eat.

Do you have a favorite breed of rabbit hunting dogs? Let us know in the comments section!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shawn Harrison
Shawn Harrison

Shawn Harrison is our expert in hunting. He was born in Alaska, so hunting was his hobby since high school. Later, Shawn took a Hunter Training at Alaska Department of Fish and Game to structure his knowledge and now he is open to share his knowledge with our readers. Shawn is taking ‘Safety First’ approach on all of his trips, especially is some people are going hunting for the first time.

  • Chris Stratton

    Small Munster lander is always my first option. It’s the best rabbit hunting dog ever, plus an outstanding family member. When not hunting, they are playing with children all day long. When hunting they’re unstoppable until they find what they’re looking for. I convinced a friend to buy one, and he says he’s done searching for a perfect breed for hunting rabbits.

    • Shawn Harrison

      The Small Münsterländer is a very energetic, very strong-willed dog that seems to be tailored-fit to hunt rabbits and other small game. They also make amazing family pets and with their mild temperament, they do well with families that have children.

  • Alexander Russell

    I’ve been hunting with beagles for 16 years. They are loyal and fantastic hunters from birth. While hunting, we function like a perfect killing machine. Every breed has its own cons, so does a beagle. They love to dig, so I had to make a fence around my garden. Otherwise, it would look like a mine field. Also they constantly keep their nose to the ground and don’t pay much attention to the traffic

    • Shawn Harrison

      Beagles may come across as the very timid and endearing dog breed, but it is actually a very instinctive hunter and hunting companion when you give it a chance. It all depends on how you train it, but as a member of the hound family, this dog breed delivers.

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