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Every dog has a job. The job of hunting furred game over rough terrain or heavy brush requires, first and foremost, a great nose to find the scent of the prey. The dog needs to move on the trail at a speed that allows the hunter to follow on foot, and he must have the endurance to keep up the chase for hours. Of equal importance, the dog needs to be determined that he will find the game — even if it takes all day.

If you plan to feed your family tonight, you take the right partner; you take a Basset Hound.

The nobility of the Basset Hound is often unappreciated, in good part due to their suitability to this singular task. Popular images such as the cartoon “Fred Basset,” or the television character “Cleo” from the 1950s, portrayed the breed as clownish, with an easy-going — some would say lazy — attitude that amuses and frustrates its owners.

The insults get worse: In 1994, neuropsychologist Stanley Coren published The Intelligence of Dogs, and rated the Basset Hound 71st out of 79 breeds for “working/obedi­ence intelligence,” mainly based upon the breed’s unwillingness to obey commands on the first try.

What Basset Hound owners appreciate is that the breed’s thoughtful, indepen­dent nature is part of a set of tools needed to perform a job for which they was bred centuries ago. Understand the job, under­stand the dog. To know the Basset Hound is to love him as a unique, steady companion, but also as a hard worker.

From the Monastery

The early history of the Basset is often lost in the confusion created by their name, basset, which in French means “low.” Reference to Basset Hounds referred to the dog’s height at the withers, but what was considered low changed over time. Around 200 C.E., a “low” dog was any dog under 28 inches.

By the 16th century, that standard had dropped to 16 inches. The dogs generally thought to form the foundation of the modem Basset Hound appeared around 700 C.E. at the Abbey of St. Hubert, in the Ardennes region of France. During the medieval period, monasteries were the centers of knowledge and education, and one of their main products was agricul­tural technique. In addition to clearing land, reclaiming swamps, and learning to grow crops on a large scale, monks undertook the breeding of dogs for their wealthy, royal clientele. Basset Hounds were one such product.

Bassets and the Bard

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the dog we identify as a Basset Hound was slowly refined to become the dog we know today. The Art of Hunting, 1561, described a family of has dogs, including both rough and smooth coats, further divided by the degree of crook in the forelegs. This last is a defining element of the Basset Hound today, for the modern Basset is a true achondroplastic dwarf (in which limbs are gener­ally stunted), lending him not only his “crook’d” legs but his massive bone; Basset Hounds carry as much as 25 percent of their body weight in bone, proportionally the most of any breed.

The breed type was recognized well enough by the end of the 16th century to inspire Shakespeare’s description in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew’d, so sanded, and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee’d, and dew-lapp’d like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but match’d in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla’d to, nor cheer’d with horn.

By the 19th century, various minor variations of the St. Hubert Hound had emerged, but a concise history of the breed might start with a pair of hounds Comte de Tournon gifted to Lord Galway in 1866. In 1874 a Basset-Model- was purchased at the Jardin d’ Acclimation show, and taken to England by Sir Everett Millais, who showed the dog at Wolverhampton in 1875, the first reported showing of a Basset Hound in conformation. After several genera­tions of breeding these and other French importations, especially from the kennel of the Comte de Couteulx, the Kennel Club (England) recognized the breed in 1880, and the first separate classes for the breed were offered at Wolverhampton that year.

Not long after, the Basset Hound reached American shores. In 1883, Lord Aylesford brought two to his ranch in Texas for rabbit hunting, and another pair went to the Maizeland kennels of Lawrence Timson in Red Bank, New Jersey. One of these, Nemours, was the first Basset to appear in a U.S. conformation competition-the 1884 Westminster Kennel Club show.

pack of basset hounds in england 1935

Drop of Bloodhound

Concerns over inbreeding led English breeders to exper­iment with various additions to the Basset lines in the late 19th century, including Basset-Beagle crosses, and crosses to Bloodhounds at the end of the century by Sir Millais. Sir Millais reasoned that, given their purpose, the Basset Hound head type should emulate the Bloodhound.

The introduction of the Bloodhound outcross cemented the modern Basset Hound type: long, low-set ears, doleful yet noble expression. Indeed, up until 1956, when the standard was rewritten, the Basset Hound was commonly known to have a “Bloodhound head,” proportional to his reduced size (the reference to the Bloodhound was written out of the standard at that time).

Much of this early history is deceptive in that the dogs comprising English and French packs were better noted as progenitors than as prototypes of today’s popular Basset. Photographs of the famed Walhampton pack in England, for example, from which many American kennels took their foundation dogs, show decidedly leggier and lighter­ boned dogs than described in the current standard, which was approved by the BHCA in 1964.

Ch. Siefenjagenheim Lazy Bones, Basset Hound. c. 1956.
Ch. Siefenjagenheim Lazy Bones, Basset Hound. c. 1956.

In 1943, Lynwood and Margaret Walton established the Lyn Mar Acres kennel-and the foundation for generations of Basset Hounds to come. The Lyn Mar emphasis on front structure, length of body, and strong head type created a high demand for the Waltons’ dogs, and a photo­graph of the regal-looking Am./Int. Ch. Lyn Mar Acres M’Lord Batuff is often shown as an exemplary specimen of the breed. The preeminence of this kennel is documented by its worldwide influence. In 1959, the Basset Hound Club of England purchased a puppy, Lyn Mar Acres Dauntless, with club funds to help rejuvenate the gene pool. Initially an unsuccessful show entry, the Dauntless dog lived up to his name in the breeding room, and by the late 1960s there was hardly a Basset Hound pedigree in England that did not include his name.

Other Lyn Mar dogs had similar influence on Basset Hound breeding programs throughout the world.

Proof of the American efforts to develop the Basset Hound to its current form can be seen in the Fédération Cynologique Internationale adoption of the essential American standard for the breed.

1955 LIFE magazine photo of a basset being trimmed
Basset Hound Lyn-Mar Acre’s Talked About receiving a meticulous manicure from handler John Murphy, in a 1955 LIFE magazine feature on primping for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

What’s It All About?

This brief developmental history suggests how the Basset Hound arrived in its current form, but does not explain that form. Perhaps more than most breeds, the Basset Hound’s form follows function. To keep in mind the elements that allow a dog to spend long hours on a trail pursuing game while his master trails behind on foot is to identify correct Basset form.

In the 1879 British standard for the Basset, a points system identifies those areas of critical importance

to the judge: The head and the front structure were given equal and highest weight, and it is these two areas that still define a proper Basset Hound. The head is the beginning and end of hunting ability for a Basset, for if they cannot find the game, being able to wander all day is of little use. The head, like the Bloodhound, starts with parallel planes and good width of muzzle to provide a large and direct passage of scent to neural olfactory networks. As the dog moves forward, his head low to the ground, the long, low-set ears and wrinkled, loose skin and dewlap help to trap air (and scent) around the nose.

basset hound on best in show podium 1980

My Way Or…

Since their introduction to North America, the Basset has likely spent more time as a companion dog than a game tracker, and his temperament is suited to each task equally well. Described as an “armchair clown” in the 1950s, the Basset owns his family as much as any family owns the dog.

“They are supreme actors and entertainers,” says Paule. “If they do something funny, and the crowd laughs, they’ll do it again and be very pleased with themselves.”

Around the house, the opinionated Basset Hound is affec­tionate and tolerant company, but never for a minute thinks that he is wrong, at least until convinced by other means. In daily life, this means that the Basset Hound is likely to remain on the couch, in spite of your request, until he is “paid” to move with a treat. This is not a lack of intelli­gence; it’s a desirable trait, developed over centuries, that results in a successful hunt at the end of the day.

Related article: Portuguese Water Dog History: The Fishermans Loyal Working Dog
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