Fur and Feather: Alley and her adventures

By Dave House

As the title suggests, this is a tale of Fur and Feather, but not as one may expect.

The fur is my JRT bitch Alley, a year and a half old rescue, adopted by my family at about 6 months old. The feather comprises of two male Harris Hawks of my own and several of my friend's hawks that can be hunted over dogs.

Alley came to us through a friend of our babysitter and came with a strict word that if she was not what I wanted in a small dog she would be looking for a new home again. A bouncer who was clearing the parking lot of stragglers after the bar had closed found her. He had surprised a junkie shooting up who fled leaving his needles on the ground.  He went over to pick up the needles and such, finding to his surprise a little puppy in a box. He and his wife at first took the pup to the pound only to bring her back home after finding out that her life would be ended if she was not adopted in short order. Having a JRT already at home, they figured she would fit right in. Unfortunately, four weeks after coming home to stay with them, the wife broke her back in an ATV accident.

Around this time I was dropping hints to my wife that I would be looking for a JRT in the spring to complement my hunting (Falconry).  Firstly, understand that my wife knows me well and knows I do not recognize dogs under thirty pounds as dogs. Also understand that I’m a big kid and when I want something I usually push my wife’s buttons until I get it. Needless to say I have been reborn on what a dog is and now have my JRT (thanks, Honey).

Alley came to the sitter’s house for a quick visit and upon first sight I asked myself what I had gotten myself into. She jumped out of the van and was tall, skinny and had an un-cropped tail. But she was cute, friendly (6 kids/2 other dogs/2 goats waiting to see her) and had her nose to the ground looking for trouble. I told the sitter I would, upon seeing her reaction, take her home for one night to see how she fit in. At home we have a seven-year-old Boxer bitch (fixed), two young boys (4-8) and had one hawk living in the bathroom at the time.

To shorten the story up, she is obviously still with us and a very important part of our family. Alley is a laid back dog who knows when it is time to hunt and when it is time to be a family pet. She doesn’t bark in the house and is very quiet in the yard. She would rather be lying with you than tearing up the place, if you know what I mean. And her friendly, quiet nature bodes well with other dogs, people and the hawks.

Dave, Alley, son, and hawk Ready to hunt.

      Why Alley is so special to me as a Falconry dog. 

In the quest to provide game for my birds I found that I was not finding enough to make the hunts enjoyable and was rather tired of all the looking and no finding! I knew the places I was going to had rabbits (#1 game species for my birds) but I wasn’t kicking them up consistently. My sponsor/mentor has a little JRT bitch that is a rabbit finding machine and also a couple of other friends have been using JRTs for years to find the bunnies. Going out with these guys hunting was a blast as the rabbits were popping up everywhere and it was nonstop action while we were out. 

The role the dog plays in the falconry hunt is pretty straightforward: “find rabbits,” and it demands that the dog is the thinking type, not a loose cannon. There is also a need for the dog to understand that once the hawk catches the rabbit, it has to step back (not a natural thing for a JRT) and respect the bird and its kill. The dogs seem to figure this out pretty quickly once the hawk tags its nose for getting too close. As aggressive as these little dogs can be, I have to say they have a certain respect for the hawk and understanding that the bird would cause some real pain if they tangled with it. 

The choice of using a JRT for Falconry is an easy one for others and myself. A small dog fits in tight places, is always willing to look for game and has a brain in its head (at least shows it does most of the time). Larger dogs will work and some falconers do use the Labs, German Shorthair Pointers etc. but I feel they range too far, which poses a problem providing close slips for the hawks.  Most (90%) of our hunting is done in city limits and a large dog would draw too much attention if it were ranging too far out. The JRTs fit this city hunting perfectly, as they will not range too far, they fit into the skid/junk piles, and if anyone comes across us while we’re out they are not intimidated by a large dog coming their way.

The relationship that I have witnessed between my hawks and Alley is amazing to say the least.

My first fear was of Alley being seriously injured, if not killed by one of the birds. I know you all are thinking that your JRTs would tear up a feather duster in seconds but trust me, a Hawk knows no equal when it comes to holding on and inflicting damage ... they do not register pain like other living things. And to top it off, hawks instinctively grab and hold the head and they will not give up once they think something should be their meal. Alley has had a couple close calls with my two birds in the initial hunts that have left her with an unwritten respect. She was never injured or attacked because she was deemed a food source. Her first incident was on her first ever hunt with a hawk (2 days after coming home with me) and involved a sulking bird that just lost a duck because I couldn’t get to it and help hold on. Hawks don’t like to lose and will sulk like a three-year-old child. The hawk was sitting on my glove and as Alley walked under him he dropped down on her. After a quick roll on the ground they separated, Alley was no worse for wear and had a new respect for this so-called friend of hers. Just so you don’t think that the dog's relationship with the birds is all about fear, every night after I would exercise this bird, Alley would lick clean the hawk's feet and beak of blood from the meal it had had. This is not something I have ever heard others dogs doing, again a special trait of Alley.

The second time was with my other hawk that became bored in the field because no rabbits it started had been put up for a long stretch and it started to buzz Alley. Hawks like action and come to see the dog as a provider of game. Some birds, depending on their mood that day, will give the dogs a little tag on the shoulder to say “come on let’s see the bunnies”. Alley was not actually grabbed and continued on hunting (maybe a little harder).

In two hunting seasons, Alley has easily put up more than 300 rabbits for the birds.

On some days it has been up to 30 rabbits flushed with 10-15 being the average. Also in this time frame, she has caught on her own 25+ rabbits.  The rabbits she has caught have been taken one of two ways ... holding in cover too long, or in a full out run trying to get away. She possesses some lightning fast reflexes and I am forever amazed at her speed from zero to sixty.

Her attributes that make her a dog that I will forever admire are as follows: willing to hunt with other dogs and show no dog aggression (Oreo, her hunting JRT buddy and her are an amazing team in this way); listens almost to a fault in the field; respects the birds (mine and others) and has made my falconry hunting 90% more enjoyable and successful.

One thing that I would like to note with Alley that makes her a real treasure, is the fact that if she knows that I or the hawks are not close enough or in position for a flush, she will lock up on point and wait for us to get ready. This is a Godsend because there is nothing worse while on a “death march” (I’m sure some of you who hunt your JRTs know what this means) to see rabbit after rabbit fleeing while you and your hawk watch, knowing there is no way it can be caught that far away. And throw in the tail of your JRT leaving with said bunny.

   On the kill and actually in the last few seconds before the catch Alley has proven to me that she has a brain and knows how to use it.  She will, in the last few seconds, let the hawk have the catch (she hears the bells above her). After the catch is made, if the rabbit stops moving, she will back right away but if the rabbit is struggling to break free, she is there for the bird. Sounds strange I’m sure, but with both my birds will actually give Alley a look that says, “Hey, give me a hand”. When a hawk catches a rabbit it doesn’t kill the rabbit, it will hold it until it thinks it has enough control to start eating (sorry, I don’t like it either but it is a fact of life). We, as falconers rush in and dispatch all game so no extended suffering happens.  If the rabbit is struggling, Alley has permission to step in and take hold of the backend. The birds recognize that in order to have their cake and eat it too, the falconer and dog are part of its hunting team. This is totally out of character for a hawk, which is by nature a solitary hunter.

The “Team” feeling is evident in the fact that the hawk will follow from perch to perch behind the dog(s) knowing that they will produce game. They actually learn the dog’s behavior and know when things are going to erupt.  That being said the dogs also learn the sound of the bird’s bells and if the bird is heading in a different direction to turn on the burners because the action is with the bird. Not all birds react the same to having the dog close to them but a smart dog will know its boundaries.

Alley and friends.