The Politics of Identity in Hunting Dogs

Written by Teresa Tyler, MA

My insights into the hunting dog’s world begin with my own experiences of Cypriot hunting dogs, and an engagement with data that exists in my home and workplace in Cyprus. It makes its presence known to me continually and is not to be ignored. Indeed, the beliefs and values I have about hunting and the dogs involved are influenced by these dogs’ stories, which are woven into my professional self and personal scenarios.

Arguments about the difference between hunting and pet dogs are used to justify the legal and moral standing of the dogs, and where and how they fit into the Cypriot life. The demarcation of hunting dogs is vague. They exist in a liminal space, being neither companion, working, or farm dogs, with the closest definition I can conclude being an accessory to a leisure pursuit. Yet they exist in an anthropocentric world where some are revered, and some abused.

A brief cultural history of hunting dogs

Dogs have been modified by humans to fill their many roles, either aesthetic or utilitarian, yet the role that appears to have the most longevity is that of a hunting partner, with Downs (1960) suggesting that wolves were domesticated for a symbiotic hunting role,1 although this has since been disputed. The use of dogs by subsistence hunters has been recorded in a wide variety of locations and habitats dating back to Palaeolithic times.2

Literature tells us that humans benefit significantly from their relationships with dogs.3-9 It seems that dogs can be adapted for human companionship either through their own choice — when they choose to accompany humans, for food or company, for example — or through genetic manipulation and training by humans to make them as we would wish, for whatever purpose we intend for them.

It is known that humans’ hunting ability is more successful when assisted by dogs than by humans alone.10,2 In his ethnographic book about the hunter-gatherers of the Andaman Islands, Cipriani describes how the Onges acquired dogs for hunting purposes in the mid-1800s in order to capture pigs. Before this, the group survived on a predominantly fish-based diet, and the introduction of dogs revolutionised their lives. Cipriani claimed that the Onges’ affection towards dogs was unbalanced as a result and that the dogs became a pest, outnumbering the humans and sharing their fleas, yet this did not diminish their love of the dogs.11

Similar relationships have been noted in other areas of the world. In Indonesia, the Matinen people hunt wild pig and buffalo, accompanied by dogs. “In the hunt, locally bred dogs play an important part. During the hunts, but also at home in Makatian hunting dogs are affectionately cared for by their male masters.”12

The Swedish explorer Carl Lumholtz spent four years with Aboriginal communities in Queensland where he discovered an affectionate relationship between the humans and dingoes that were used for hunting purposes. He said:

The dingo is an important member of the family; it sleeps in the huts and gets plenty to eat, not only of meat but also of fruit. Its master never strikes, but merely threatens it. He caresses it like a child, eats the fleas off it, and then kisses it on the snout.1

It is interesting to note that Lumholtz describes the dogs used in areas where dingoes were scarcer, as dogs that “are of different breeds, for the dingoes of the natives quickly mix with the shepherd-dogs, greyhounds and terriers of the colonialists.” I am reminded of a similar mixture of greyhound and shepherd dog that I see here in Cyprus, where dogs are locally bred for similar purposes.

Modern hunter-dog relationships

Members of the hunting community across Cyprus — where hunting is a leisure pursuit, not a necessity for subsistence — vary in their connectedness with their dogs. For some the bond appears to be strong, with the relationship being of paramount importance for both human and canine, and ultimately resulting in a good working partnership in the hunting field and an appreciation of “personhood.”14 of their dogs. Five hunters who I have spoken with tell me they keep their dogs inside their homes or in kennels attached to or on their property and share in their daily lives. However, having seen many more just in my own locality that are kept away from residential areas and in cages, I presume that the majority do not have such a close attachment. It is these caged conditions that spark controversy amongst non-hunting groups and animal advocates, who deem them to be poor in terms of welfare.

James Jordan described similar dichotomies with hunting dog value and treatment in the rural South of America. He notes the appreciation of the dog within that society, yet identifies what he calls a serious objection that arises out of the callous and cruel treatment of the dogs, and rightly states that “this apparent schizophrenia of the rural white Southerner in his relations with his dog is not without parallel elsewhere.”15 He debates the ability of humans to turn their canine companions from subjects that are handled humanely to objects where no care is given. He provides three possible reasons, all of which I can agree to a certain extent with from my observations of hunter-dog relationships here in Cyprus. Firstly, economic constraints and financial hardship may elicit the indifference to their dogs’ welfare. Secondly, he proposes that a masculine ethos of toughness that enables people to endure such hardship may be applied equally to the dogs. By doing so, the masculinity could be an unconscious defence against loss of the dog through straying, disease, or accident.  Finally, he claims that the dog having a subordinate status becomes an outlet for the men’s dominance, power or displaced anger in communities where men tend to feel displaced and powerless themselves.15

David Blouin offers an insight into an ambiguous relationship that humans have with their pets, stating that:

Pet owners typically exhibit one of three orientations toward pets: “dominionistic,” “humanistic,” or “protectionistic.” The dominionistic have relatively low regard for their pets, valuing them primarily for the uses they provide, such as protection. Those employing the humanistic orientation elevate their pets to the status of surrogate humans and value their pets primarily for the affective benefits they enjoy from their close attachments. The protectionistic have high regard for both pets and animals more generally. They view pets as valuable companions and as creatures with their own interests.16

These three typologies help us to understand the contradictions and complexities of our interactions with dogs, often according to which cultural message they have been exposed.

Welfare concerns

Three days a week I work in a local veterinary clinic as a nurse. Hunting days often bring business from hunters whose dogs have been bitten by snakes, poisoned allegedly by rival hunters or, on occasion, accidentally shot. Outside of the season, pregnant bitches used to produce new generations of hunting dogs are frequently brought in, sick or having difficulties giving birth. The dogs are transported to the clinic in metal cages built into the bed of the pick-up trucks, or metal boxes, welded onto the tow bars of 4×4 vehicles. Dogs are carried in at arm’s length by the scruff of their necks and the loose skin on their backs as they are not leash trained and are usually dirty and smelly. Most are covered in ticks, many are in poor condition: underweight, lacking muscles and having overgrown nails, as they are kept caged except for when used for hunting.

What strikes me about these dogs is their lack of interaction with me. They are vacant, avoid eye contact and show no behavioural clues of connection like a fleeting look, lip lick, or tail wag.17,18 They avoid touch and affection, however kindly it is intended, and I am intrigued by the apparent learned helplessness demonstrated by their behaviour.19 An observer might argue that the behaviour is a result of lack of socialisation20,21,22 or fear of being at the clinic, and these are possible; however, I have seen other under-socialised dogs during many years of veterinary work that presented with a variety of behavioural issues, but none consistently demonstrated learned helplessness like the hunting dogs brought to this clinic. I consider that it could be a breed trait influence, but am more convinced that it is an experiential process that produces this behaviour as its functional purpose fits with learned rather than innate reasons.

Possible causes of learned helplessness in hunting dogs

Hunting dogs are not pets in the way many describe.23-26 They are also not free ranging, as they are restricted by human activities; they are mostly not under direct human supervision, but total human control.27,28 For hunting dogs, the practice of caging means that the dogs are not able to behave in ways which free-ranging dogs would —travelling, scavenging for food, often alone or in pairs, and so on — but they are also not given the opportunities for enrichment and attachment that pet dogs typically are (although of course, the way owners treat their pet dogs should also be subject to scrutiny, especially in terms of how much we restrict their opportunities for choice and how human behavioural norms around keeping pet dogs causes behaviour problems like separation anxiety).

Cypriot hunting dogs do not typically share a bond with their human owner in the same way that companion dogs might. For them, the daily routine may be nonexistent, and training might be confined to one month a year where the dog can roam so far as their owner will allow, before shocking them with a remotely controlled electric collar to prevent them disappearing over the horizon. They may see their owner once a day, to be fed, watered and cleaned, but the rest of the time they have only canine companionship in their caged environments.

How caging is stressful for hunting dogs

Free-ranging dogs have physical space, which allows time for solitude, but the forced closeness of caged dogs can contribute to territorial behaviours rarely seen in free-ranging groups, as well as other issues like sleep deprivation. The inability for hunting dogs to behave normally due to their housing, I suspect, is one of the main contributors to stress indicators that I have observed. Beerda et al. (1997) state: “Poor housing conditions, harsh training sessions and uncontrollable or unpredictable social environments are examples of situations that may lead to reduced welfare status in dogs. Individuals that suffer from poor welfare presumably experience stress and may consequently exhibit stress responses.”29

I have seen dogs displaying repetitive behaviours such as pacing, wall bouncing, excessive licking, continual barking — stress behaviours that have been documented for decades.30-33

Yet, for many hunting dogs, boredom appears to manifest itself in a lethargy or even apathy, particularly in the Beagle and hound-type dogs, something identified by Corson and Corson (1976) who noted Beagles’ stress responses were absent or described as a withdrawal response compared to terrier-type breeds, that showed a more usual flight or fight response.34 I question whether hunting dog breeds hide their stress responses so that to the observer they appear to be content with their environments when in fact they are not. This is not necessarily a correlation to breed, more a response to the environment in which hunting dogs live.

Even though some hunters claim to treat their caged dogs well, the mere practice of caging many dogs without sufficient space (4m2 per dog as per Cyprus welfare protocol) is in itself abusive.

The long periods of confinement in cages, lack of stimulation and socialisation, combined with poor husbandry, seemed to have the most detrimental impact on the dogs. The dog’s basic needs were not met mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically, and they suffered as a consequence. However, many much-loved companion dogs are left confined in training crates within the home for long periods, while their guardians are out. Pierce and Bekoff (2019) explain how this type of captivity can be detrimental to millions of dogs suffering from boredom, loneliness, anxiety, and frustration.35 These feelings can manifest into behavioural problems such as excessive barking, destructiveness, or overeating.

Other contributing factors to overall poor welfare are more evident. Irregular food, lack of fresh water, minimal mental and physical stimulation, and lack of preventative medical care are, to passing visitors, grounds enough for complaint, yet the fundamental ethological needs are often missed even if the dogs do have food, water and shelter. Indeed, I suspect the happiest times for those dogs are when they are hunting and free to experience normal behaviours, can express themselves physically, and are stimulated mentally.

Hunting dogs and rescue dogs

When considering the plight of many hunting dogs in the broader picture of animal suffering in Cyprus, the ethical theories which enable focusing on a particular feature, in this case hunting dogs, can in effect flatten or obscure the more significant, complex moral problems that exist.36 When considering the ethical concerns of hunting dogs, I agree with Gruen that more should be done to focus on their norms, as a species and as individuals. Paying attention to hunting dogs’ needs, and indeed their individual difference rather than trying to apply a label, is necessary to enable them to flourish and live more comfortably in their worlds with their humans.

I have discovered that the “hunting dog” is often misunderstood in terms of behaviour, needs, and how they experience their lives. I have found that they are not alone in this, as companion dogs too can suffer similar misunderstandings. The view that dogs can only be happy inside a house, with a human family to take care of them, seems to be the most popularly held one by those who contest the hunters and their dog-related practices. Hunting dogs, like many other species, are dominated by humans who control and dictate how their lives will be lived, regardless of whether those people are hunters or “rescuers.” The rescuing of hunting dogs is a small-scale industry in its own right, with competition for the neediest cases in Cyprus because of the financial benefits to the rescue organization; leading to approaches that did not always benefit the dogs. This is another form of exploitation.

Canines are a species that can form communities, find niches for themselves, and live a life more appropriate with their own, within varying degrees of proximity to humans. They are not lost souls waiting for human saviours. They exhibit agency and free will.

Throughout my time spent with these dogs, I encountered and bore witness to the dogs’ presences, experiencing a deep intersubjectivity and honouring them, both in life and death. I explored my role as an advocate for them and I invite others to do the same. I hope by raising awareness of the physical and mental impacts enrolment into hunting has, the needs of the dogs in this context will be better met.


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