Bloodhounds, also called sleuthhounds and slough dogs (because they pursued offenders through the sloughs), have existed in English history and lore since the middle ages. The Oxford English Dictionary includes citations from 1350 (“blod-houndes”), 1440 (“bloode hownde”), 1483 (“blude hunde”), and 1548 (“good blood hunde”). The OED finds "sleuthhound" in use by 1375.
The drawing is from the Thierbuch of Konrad Gessner, published in 1606 long after his death. The caption uses the Latin for bloodhound, Canis sanguinarius, adding the adjective sagax, clever (from which sagacious). Gessner (1516 – 1565) had received drawings of English dogs from John Caius, co-founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and the inspiration for Dr. Caius in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. The drawing may suggest that a long lead was commonly used with tracking dogs even 450 years ago.
George R. Jesse, in his 1866 work on the history and laws of the British dog, devotes a chapter to bloodhounds. Jesse quotes Lesley, Bishop of Ross, who, in a work on the Scots published in 1578, describes a kind of “scenting dog,” similar to those that chase game. He describes this dog as “for the most part red, marked with black spots, or vice versa,” and it is apparent that he is describing bloodhounds:
“These are endowed with so great sagacity and fierceness that they pursue thieves in a direct course without any deviation; and this with such ferocity of nature that they tear them to pieces even by chance lying down in company with many others; for from the first scent the dog perceives (with his master following), although other men meet, come behind, or cross him, he is not at all confused, is not in the least diverted, but constantly sticks to the footsteps of his departing prey. Only in passing rivers they are at a loss, because there they lose the scent: which the thieves and cattle-stealers knowing, they, with many circles and mazes, pressing now this, now the opposite bank, drive off their plunder, and pretending to make their exit both ways beyond the banks, rejoin at the same spot. In the mean time the dog, filling the heavens with his clamour, does not desist till he has overtaken the steps of the fugitives.”
The bishop states that this skill comes to the dogs by training, though he does not describe this beyond to say that the dogs fetch a high price because of their abilities. It appears that the dogs were trained not so much to alert as to attack when they found the person or persons they were following. It also appears that they were trained in how to cast for a trail after losing it, and were well able to ignore other trails that might cross the one they were following. The length of time after a trail was laid that a bloodhound could follow was debated centuries ago as it is now. Jesse quotes Robert Boyle as follows:
“Inquiring of a studious person that was keeper of a red-deer park, and versed in making bloodhounds, in how long time after a man or deer had passed by a grassy place one of those dogs would be able to follow him by the scent? he told me that it would be six or seven hours: whereupon an ingenious gentleman that chanced to be present, and lived near that park, assured us both that he had old dogs of so good a scent, that, if a buck had the day before passed in a wood, they will, when they come where the scent lies, though at such a distance of time after, presently find the scent and run directly to that part of the wood where the buck is.”
Some areas of England were apparently so rife with outlaws that farmers often abandoned their properties, so dogs that could track down bands of thieves and rustlers became essential to keeping the peace. A history of Westmoreland and Cumberland quoted extensively by Jesse indicates that a tax was collected on local residents where slough dogs were kept for their protection.
“The sheriff, officers, bailiffs, and constables, within every circuit and compass wherein the slough-dogs are appointed to be kept, are to take care for taxing the inhabitants towards the charge thereof, and collect the same, and for providing the slough-dogs; and to inform the commissioners if any refuse to pay their contribution, so as thereby such as refuse may be committed to the gaol till they pay the same.”
The text dates from 1616, during the reign of James 1 (responsible for the great translation of the Bible into English). Rawdon Briggs Lee in his History & Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain & Ireland (1893), remarks upon this tax:
"No doubt there was considerable difficulty in obtaining the levy or tax from the inhabitants to keep these hounds in condition fit to run down a man, and not hungry enough to eat him when they had caught him.... It would be quite interesting to note whether such imprisonment was ever enforced. Whether it was so or not. I have not found any record to show...."
I doubt that a modern politician proposing a separate tax to support police dogs would stay in office very long. Still, the idea has some merit, perhaps even wisdom. Ulster County, where I live in New York, has a bomb dog, paid for in large part by federal funds, but the cities and county have given up drug dogs due to the lack of any federal subsidy and the mounting labor costs for police dog handlers. The primary function of an explosives detection dog in the county is sweeping schools and businesses after bomb threats. Meth labs are a bigger problem, yet most police authorities in the county cannot afford a dog that might help shut them down. King James had a point.
Sources: George R. Jesse, Researches into the History of the British Dog, from Ancient Laws, Charters, and Historical Records (London 1866); Leslaeo Episcopo Rossensi, De Origine Moribus et rebus gestis Scotorum (Rome 1578); Nicholson and Burn, History of the Antiquities of Westmorland and Cumberland (1777); Of the Determinate Nature of Effluviums, in Robert Boyle’s Life and Works (1772); R.B. Lee, A History & Description of the Modern Dogs of Great Britain & Ireland (Sporting Division), Horace Cox, London, 1893, at 4-5; Stonehenge (John Henry Walsh). The Dog in Health and Disease. Spottiswoode and Co., London ("Under the old excise laws the shepherd's dog was only exempt from tax when without a tail, and for this reason it was always removed.").
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