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Original Issue

Integration in the basset world

A moderately amiable peace treaty is negotiated between show and field basset hounds

For a quarter of a century, or ever since its founding, the Basset Hound Club of America periodically has resounded with low and menacing growls. The growlers are the members, and their well-chewed bone of contention has been the relative merits of field and show bassets—i.e., those bassets who hunt rabbits to justify their existence and those bassets who merely stand around at dog shows and look sadly appealing. Field bassets, say the show dog partisans, may be swift of foot and keen of nose in pursuit of quarry, all right, but they look like a bag of rags, are carelessly bred and in general seem to be going to the dogs. Show bassets, the field people are quick to answer, may be handsomely conformed, all right, but they are also overweight, over-bred and more likely to run from a rabbit than chase one. Recently, however, for the first time in the club's history, the two factions of bassetry suspended personal animus long enough to show that their barks were worse than their backbites. They actually got together for a combination field trial and conformation show. The truce did not do anything to establish whose argument was the sounder, but it did move the world of basset hound fanciers a few steps nearer to integration.

Because of its dual structure, the meeting was the largest all-basset assembly in the memory of anyone present. It was held in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, an agreeable agrarian region 80 miles west of Philadelphia. The weather was agreeable, too, being of the pumpkin pie and apple cider sort, and the fields and thickets were appropriately aglow with the season's colors. Some 200 bassets, and slightly fewer people, had collected from the states of lower New England and the Middle West.

The field trials were spread over a three-day weekend, and as the low-slung bassets went waddling in full cry after the rabbits that run wild on the land, a babble of baying and howling and woofing rose from their throats. "It's quite a racket they're making," said a show dog man, laying down his comb and shampoo lotion, his whisker snips and toenail clippers to climb the nearest hillside for a look at the goings on.

"Well, it sounds to me like celestial music," said one overalled field dog man in transport.

From the hill, as the bassets emerged from the sea of high grass, both factions could glimpse the hounds running in pairs, while two judges on horseback followed to keep score. Each dog's ability to straddle the rabbit's trail, to give the proper tracking signals (a basset is obliged to bay when he's on the trail, to button his lip when he's off it) and to recover the scent should it be lost were considered in the judging. When the judges finished, the dogs were called off, and the rabbit hopped home free. The best rabbit hound in the field, the judges finally concluded, was Shellbark's Michie, a female owned by Loren Free of Bainbridge, Ohio.

On the night of the first day the show dog people had their turn, and the field people, reciprocally, came to watch and wonder. The conformation show was conducted in the Mount Zion Fire House Hall, where some 60 bassets, fat, lazy and complacent as dowagers, were subjected to considerable undignified probing and inspection by a judge who searched relentlessly for the best set of teeth, the most forehead wrinkles, the longest ears, the shortest legs (the word basset is a corruption of the French meaning "low set"), the loosest skin, the straightest back and the gayest gait. While the show people beamed with proprietary pride, the field people graciously admitted that they had seen some pretty fair specimens of basset hound that night, in particular the best-in-show winner, Ch. The Ring's Brunhilde, owned by Robert Noerr of Stamford, Conn.

But for all the outward signs of prevailing good fellowship among the two breeds of basset lovers, they were still divided by rifts too wide to be bridged by a single get-together. Perhaps the greatest compromise was achieved at the annual meeting held during the weekend, when the show dog people, an admitted 30% minority, cagily engineered the election of their candidate for president—a field trial man suspected of tolerance toward show bassets.

With this augury of mutual understanding to build on, the members unanimously decided to repeat the combination outing next year. And one man went a long way out on bassetry's liberal limb and disclosed plans to train two of his show dogs for the field "just to prove that coexistence is feasible."

"We probably all got a chance," said a field basset man, "to realize that the difference in our attitudes was a lot greater than the difference in our dogs."

"At least," said a lady from Connecticut who favors the show ring, "we made some progress by occasionally making reference to the field dog people by some word other than just 'they.' "