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“There between the graves, a beautiful red fern had sprung up from the rich mountain soil. It was fully two feet tall and its long red leaves had reached out in rainbow arches curved over the graves of my dogs. … I had heard the old legend about the red fern. How a little boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.” —Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows

For a dog whose reason-to-be is the down-to-earth job of chasing critters through the woods, there is something mysterious, mystical even, about the Redbone Coonhound. Author Wilson Rawls knew it when he penned his 1961 autobiographical novel.

After the Fox: Beginnings of the Redbone Coonhound

The modern Redbone started to take form sometime in the decades before the Civil War. That’s when hunters in Georgia, accustomed to gray foxes, found themselves facing a new adversary—the quicker, more wily red fox, noted Joel Chandler Harris in an 1893 edition of Scribner’s Magazine. It was confounding the hunting packs. “‘Old Spot,’ to characterize the long-eared ‘blobber-mouthed’ hound was nowhere. Old Spot and his breed could run down a gray fox in five or six hours, but the red ran right away from them, leaving a cold trail behind him,” Harris wrote.

After a disastrous night when his dogs disappeared in pursuit of red fox, only to arrive home the next morning, exhausted and dispirited, Georgia plantation owner L.F.W. Birdsong resolved to develop a hound up to this opponent. He based his breeding on the hunting pack of Dr. Thomas Y. Henry, a grandson of Patrick Henry. The name may have come from a later breeder named Peter Redbone.

Careful selection eventually produced a fleet, courageous hound, with superior skills at tracking and treeing game and a very cold nose, one that can pick up a trail that was days, even weeks, old. Redbone breeders focused on looks as well as hunting savvy, and cultivated a lean, muscular appearance and a striking crimson coat. Fanciers will tell you that a good Redbone should look as if he’s been carved from a block of mahogany.

By the mid-20th century, the Redbone was favored among hunters who wanted a partner to be all business when it came to treeing the game, whether it was a raccoon or a cougar. They were also said to be the most uniform of the coonhound breeds, and, as they are viewed today, the most beautiful.

“Redbones we have owned have sung to us in tones we can still hear. They were all among the top cooners we have owned,” wrote Leon F. Whitney, DVM, and Ancil B. Underwood in 1952 in The Coon Hunter’s Handbook. “One seldom finds a Redbone that potters. While many dogs of other types seem to enjoy the scent so much that they don’t care whether they ever get to the tree, the Redbones seem determined to get the coon.”

Beyond “Where the Red Fern Grows”

At the dawn of organized coon hunting, after World War II, the breed dominated the competition. A Redbone named Dan, owned by Leroy Campbell from Mississippi, won the first AKC/ACHA World Championship in 1948. Redbones also were prized among those who hunted, not just for trophies, but to put food on the table.

The Redbone Coonhound was recognized by the United Kennel Club in 1902, the second coonhound breed to gain recognition. In 2010, the breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club.

It was the story of two such Redbones, Little Ann and Old Dan, that introduced the breed to the general public. Several of today’s dedicated fanciers picked this breed after reading or seeing the movies made from Where the Red Fern Grows.

The book was an influence on Christine Smith and her husband Mike when they were looking to add a dog to their family. Smith, president and founder of the Redbone Coonhound Association of America, believes that the children’s classic offers the truest depiction of the breed she loves, especially the devotion of Little Ann and Old Dan. “That was one of the factors that got us, the relationship with the boy,” says Smith, who was primarily interested in a family companion for her two sons.

At the same time, Smith wanted a dog for her husband, who enjoyed coon hunting. Today they share their life with seven Redbones, and all have proven to be excellent companions at home and on the hunt. They possess terrific noses and a never-say-die intensity about treeing. Smith also believes they are extremely accurate, less likely to be fooled by the raccoon’s tricks. “Redbones seem more certain,” she says.

More Than Trailing: The Modern Redbone Coonhound

The qualities that make Redbones great on a raccoon’s trail are proving invaluable for one of the most vital modern canine jobs—search-and-rescue work. It’s an area traditionally dominated by Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherd Dogs, and Bloodhounds, but some handlers have started to try coonhounds, with excellent results. Joan Brehm, Ph.D., president of Illinois Search Dogs, a nonprofit volunteer organization in Bloomington, got her first K-9 partner in 1997. Chief, was a Redbone mix who worked in avalanche, land, and water cadaver searches.

Redbone was dominant in his blood, and Brehm was consistently “amazed by the high sensitivity of his nose and his ability to locate the target odor in the smallest amounts and over extended periods of time and distance,” she says. “As I continued to work with Chief I knew that I wanted my next SAR dog to be a full Redbone Coonhound due to their amazing power of smell and also their tenacity. They do not give up hunting for the target odor until they find it, no matter what.”

Her current partner, Sula, is everything Brehm hoped for— an exceptional nose, especially for cold trails, and boundless endurance. She has earned certification from the International Police Work Dog Association in advanced land cadaver detection, water cadaver detection, and trailing. “Her ability to be proficient and certified in multiple disciplines also shows how versatile the breed is—they can do more than just trailing, which is what most people think of when they hear coonhound.”

Not that it’s all been a breeze. Some of Sula’s most valuable traits—tenacity and independence—presented significant training challenges. “With patience and persistence, I was able to use that independence in my favor and condition her to hunt for what I wanted her to hunt— people, not coons or other critters.”

Once they got over that hurdle, Sula became a superb SAR dog. “I have been on numerous searches with Sula so far in her young life and she has never disappointed,” Brehm says. “For me, the Redbone breed has proven to be an outstanding choice, and one that I would make again in the future.”

Any Redbone Coonhound owner will tell you, as Wilson Rawls wrote, that there is something sacred about the bond between Redbones and their people.

Related article: Kerry Blue Terrier History: From Irish Farm Dog to Sophisticated Terrier
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