FOX: A PORTRAIT OF AN AFRICAN HUNTER’S DOG


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In the introduction to his seminal work Man Meets Dog, the Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz remarks, “The whole charm of the dog lies in the depth of the friendship and the strength of the spiritual ties with which he has bound himself to Man.”  Lorenz estimated that the process of domestication of wild canids began at least 50,000 years ago, based on the mutual recognition of benefit in hunting by both species.  Dogs are an exception to the general rule in that they’re the only species which is voluntarily domesticated.  Ancient dogs recognized humans as superior predators; and we, to our everlasting good fortune, grasped the superiority of their senses for finding and tracking our prey.  We get the meat, they get the scraps, and everyone is happy.  It’s a “contract” that has lasted for millennia and is still in full force.

It has been my good fortune in the past couple of years to have hunted in Namibia with the very fine company CEC Safaris, owned by Cornie Coetzee.  Cornie is a thorough professional and though his operation is a small one, hunting with him has brought me many very fine trophies on both plains game and the Big Stuff, including elephant.  One vital member of Cornie’s staff is his little dog, Fox.  I first met Fox three years ago, and in July of 2013 I had the opportunity to observe him in action again.  Fox, like his owner, is a very serious “Professional Hunter,” in his own right.

As his name implies, he’s a Fox Terrier.  Now, anyone who’s familiar with terrier breeds knows that they are completely unaware of how small they really are.  Fox has the cocky, swaggering attitude of a dog who’s prepared to tackle anything, and the fact that he weighs—at most—10 Kg means nothing to him.  He’ll tackle a gemsbok, wildebeest, buffalo, or anything else, with aplomb.

Cornie acquired him as a six-week-old puppy (he’s now about 6 years old) and trained him well. Cornie says the most important part of training is the “bonding” that occurs early in the pup’s life; everywhere Cornie went Fox went with him, so that he came to fuse his life and soul with his master’s.  He is emotionally committed to pleasing Cornie and has been all his life.  This training philosophy is a practical application of  Lorenz’s observation that dogs are inherently loyal to and bound to humans.

Fox is as smart and adaptable as any Border Collie I’ve ever known, which is about as intelligent as a dog can get.  Fox understands his job, has been thoroughly trained for it, and has not only amazing stamina and drive, but incredible discipline.  As Cornie says, “That one, he’s a real hunter!” Indeed he is, but Fox is more than just a bit of animated hunting gear.

 

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On a stalk, he sticks to Cornie like a burr, walking at heel the whole time, and totally silent.  His stubby little legs move fast, and it must be an effort to keep up with a man’s much longer stride, but Fox is indefatigable, with boundless reserves of energy.  He’s obviously excited by the stalk: you can see that in his movements and his eagerness. But he never breaks stride, nor barks, no matter how keyed-up he may be. 

Fox is trained to go after wounded animals that run and to find them by tracking their scent.  If the animal is still alive, then he’ll worry it and bark to alert Cornie to its location, and give him time to prepare a finishing shot: barking is a signal that the animal is not yet dead. If when he finds it the quarry has died, Fox returns to Cornie’s side and leads him to where it lies, without barking at all.  His talent has prevented the loss of innumerable animals over the course of Fox’s career.  Of course he will come on command and Cornie can call him off a chase, because while Fox is as disciplined and obedient as a Roman legionary, he isn’t an automaton.  He understands the job at all levels and he’s devoted to doing it well, but he recognizes Cornie’s authority. 

This behavior is not only a great credit to Cornie’s training but to Fox’s capacity for logical thought.  He completely understands the difference between “wounded” and “dead,” and what he’s supposed to do in each case.  He recognizes the connection between the shot and the chase, and that if no shot is fired, there is nothing to chase. If the animal drops to the shot, he’s right on the spot, watchful for any signs of life. 

Wounded game can be dangerous, of course, especially to a small dog, so Fox has been trained to harry a wounded beast only from the rear.  This is done by conditioning him with the tail of the game animal, so that he comes to associate the hind end of the beast with what he’s supposed to do.   As Cornie puts it, “He knows which is the sharp end of the animal!”  Fox is not only brave, he’s agile, fast, and (almost) always able to avoid the horns that could kill him.  He isn’t always lucky: he’s been gored by a gemsbok once, but it didn’t diminish his spirit.  He has also been shot (through the jaw, with a .375 H&H!) and not only survived, but went back on the hunt as soon as he was ready.   

He does have one peculiar behavior that is perhaps related to his training to “avoid the sharp end.”  As soon as the beast is down for keeps, Fox immediately runs up and bites it on the anus! It doesn’t matter what the animal is: zebra, warthog, buffalo, impala, it’s all one and the same: “It’s down, so I have to bite it on the anus!”  It seems likely that the training regimen with the tail is the root of this behavior, but perhaps Fox has also come to regard it as a canine form of coup de grâce.

Though he is as brave as a lion and completely indifferent to size disparities between himself and the game he tracks, Fox does understand that he has some limitations.  I saw this on an elephant hunt.  We had found a big old bull who didn’t immediately fall to the shot. As it lumbered away, mortally wounded, Fox went off after it, full of determination to bring it to bay.  It was, however, his first elephant and he hadn’t quite reckoned on the presence of the rest of the herd. 

As Fox dashed into the fight, Cornie called him back, out of fear he’d be trampled by the 50 or so other elephants, who had started to stampede. But  Fox’s blood was up, he had the beast in his sights, and he was determined to come to grips with it.  He sailed into the fray like Nelson at Trafalgar…but once in the midst of thundering feet the size of serving platters, he thought better of it.

Recognizing the truth of the adage that “Discretion is the better part of Valor,”  he did a bit of broken-field running that would have done credit to a Rugby test match champion, then scurried back to Cornie’s side somewhat chastened!  How he managed to avoid being stomped to death will always be a mystery to me, but perhaps the elephants decided he was too small to bother with.  And yes, once the elephant had fallen, Fox was at his hind end, tearing away at the anal opening.  In this case, his...ahem...attention to duty “liberated” a fecal bolus from the elephant that was almost half as big as he is.

 

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On a hunt Fox rides in the back of the open vehicle with the trackers, carefully watching and waiting.  As we bumped along the roads and crashed through the bush, it was clear that he loves to ride, just as most other dogs do.   He doesn’t have to stick his head out a window: he watches the roadside through the rails of the truck bed.  When the vehicle stops, Fox waits to see what happens next.  If Cornie dismounts, so does Fox: if not, Fox stays put and waits for orders.  If for some reason he does get out of the truck he’ll hop back in on command or as soon as the engine starts, whichever comes first.  This is true no matter if the stop is in the field, in a filling station, or at a hunting property. 

 

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It’s the same in a boat. One day we were pursuing buffalo in a conservancy along the Chobe River.  A fairly long high-speed boat ride was needed to get to the hunting area. Fox sat in the bows the whole time, carefully watching the shore.  If we stopped for any reason, he’d hop out to lift his leg or follow Cornie, but would immediately hop back in again when it was clear that we were about to leave.  Once we reached the actual hunting area and were on the track of buffalo, he took up his position and waited for action.  Once a buffalo had been found and shot, he did his job: though that buff didn’t need to be tracked, the mandatory bite on the anus was delivered.

Though he is much loved, Fox isn’t a house pet.  He sleeps outdoors at Cornie’s home, and he eats dog food, not people food (though he isn’t above swiping a scrap or two when a carcass is being processed).  Dogs are pack animals, and when Cornie isn’t around, Fox interacts with the other four dogs on the property as would any other member of a dog pack.  But when Duty calls, he is all business and always ready: if Cornie leaves him behind, he “…goes crazy”  when he knows a hunt is in prospect.

 

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The intimate relationship between Cornie and Fox cuts two ways.  Fox is a vital member of the hunting team, but he’s been at it a long time in the context of “dog years”; inevitably he will get old and lose his stamina.  He is now six, and Cornie hopes to get at least 5 more years with him, but all good things come to an end.  The parting moment will be hard on both of them.  Cornie will continue with another puppy, and Fox, one hopes, will enjoy his Eternal Hunt.

When the body that lived at your single will
When the whimper of welcome is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You still discover how much you care
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
"The Power of the Dog” (1922)