Harrier

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Harrier

Often confused with either the Beagle or the Foxhound, the Harrier is an ancient English dog breed that has been used for hunting hares and foxes for at least the last 800 years. Despite its background as a pack hound, it makes a wonderfully affectionate pet, although would-be owners may find it difficult to source a litter of Harrier pups. This is a dog bred to live in an extremely social setting, a fact reflected in its outgoing and friendly demeanour. It is virtually useless as a guard dog, as it is more likely to welcome an intruder than attempt to chase him away! Harriers are generally extremely good with children, as they are non-aggressive, good-natured, and have an extremely high pain threshold, so are very unlikely to lash out even after extreme provocation.

As a working breed, they need a lot of exercise, and despite their positive attributes, are not suitable for owners that cannot devote at least two hours a day to some form of dog-centred activity. They can also be very difficult to train, and this includes the process of house-training. Though this is mastered by most pups within weeks, some Harriers appear to never quite grasp the concept. Their high prey drive means they cannot be housed with non-canine pets, although they are invariably non-aggressive with other dogs, and will fit happily into an existing multi-dog household. The breed is generally very healthy, and the average life expectancy is around 11–13 years.

About & History

Nobody is entirely sure of the Harrier’s background, for it was first recognised as a pure breed in the 1200s, long before anyone thought to document breeding programmes in detail. There are several theories as to how it might have been developed, with the prevailing one being that Bloodhounds, Talbot Hounds, and Bassett Hounds were crossed over several generations. Another school of thought holds that it was the product of Foxhound, Greyhound, and Fox Terrier matings, while yet another sees it as simply a smaller, more refined Foxhound. Whatever the case, the Harrier was one of the most popular hunting breeds in England for hundreds of years, at least until the end of the nineteenth century.

Its appeal lay in its incredible stamina, rather than speed. There are many recorded cases of packs of Harriers pushing their prey to the point of collapse from exhaustion, simply through their steady, relentless pursuit. Strangely, although the breed was amongst the earliest recognised by the Kennel Club, no Harrier was registered by the organisation from 1915, and it was dropped as a recognised pedigree in 1971. Instead, the breed registry is now maintained by the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles. Harriers were first exported to the United States in the 1700s, but never really gained much of a foothold, with only handfuls of dogs being registered with the American Kennel Club every year.

Appearance

Harrier Large Photo

This is a medium-sized, strong but slender dog that resembles the Foxhound, but with more refined features. It has a moderately large, heavily boned skull that is flat between the ears, and has a pronounced occipital prominence. It has a well-developed stop and a long, tapering muzzle. The black nose has large nostrils, reflecting a keen sense of smell. The upper lips hang slightly loose to cover the lower jaw. The medium-sized eyes are oval in shape, and a deep brown in colour, and the broad, V-shaped ears are set high and flat against the side of the head.

The neck is long and elegant, but well muscled, with a prominent muscular arch towards the top, and it runs down to a strong, level back. The loin, too, has a muscular arch, and it then leads to a sturdy, relatively short tail that is held straight at, or slightly above, the horizontal. The broad chest has wide, thick ribs, and the abdomen tucks slightly. The limbs are quite upright, carry plenty of muscle in their upper portions, and have strong boning. The paws are medium in size, and have remarkably thick pads and interdigital skin; features that allow the Harrier to cross rough terrain and remain impervious to sharp stones and thorns underfoot.

The coat is short, thick, and coarse, with white being the predominant colour. Overlying markings may be all shades from black to orange, with tricolour dogs being especially common on the Continent. Harriers range in height from 48 to 55 cm, and are generally between 20 and 30 kg in weight.

Character & Temperament

It seems no Harrier has ever had a bad day – they are universally cheerful, friendly, and sociable dogs that enjoy whatever life throws at them. Their non-aggressive nature means they get on well with other dogs, and are difficult to antagonise. They love people, and are always open to an approach from someone they don’t know, meaning they are great fun to walk, but also hopeless as guard dogs.

This is a breed that is suitable for all ages of children, but it is important to understand that these virtues depend on the owners being able to provide plenty of time and energy for their dog. Their huge requirement for exercise means that some end up bored and frustrated by family life, in which case they can become quite destructive and hyperactive.

Trainability

The Harrier was never intended to be a star in obedience trials. It has a very well-developed stubborn streak, and is a challenge to train, to say the least. A devoted owner with a lot of time and energy may manage a reasonable level of obedience, but more than anything an understanding of what can reasonably be expected from this pack dog is what is required.

Although puppy socialisation is generally a breeze, house-training often is not, and many juvenile and some adult Harriers need an indoor cage in which to sleep at night to prevent accidents. As an alternative, this breed is hardy enough to live in a sheltered outdoor space in temperate climates, but this must be seen simply as a sleeping arrangement, and not somewhere the dog should be relegated to during the day.

Health

There are few serious health problems that affect the Harrier, although hip dysplasia and epilepsy do affect a good proportion of the population. Screening of the breeding stock should help reduce the incidence of both conditions, but the reality is that most Harriers are bred by hunting lodges, and such screening programmes are neither practical nor affordable in these settings.

  • Epilepsy – A primary brain disorder that causes intermittent bouts of seizure activity. These seizures can be dramatic, convulsive episodes, or may manifest in other ways; for example, confusion or uncontrollable salivation. If the seizures are severe or are occurring very frequently, then medication should be considered, although all anti-epileptic treatments result in significant side effects.
  • Hip dysplasia – This is the most significant inherited cause of lameness in many breeds. A combination of genetic and environmental factors combine to cause growth abnormalities in one or both hip joints, resulting in signs of lameness in growing dogs. As mentioned above, radiographic screening of the parents can reduce the incidence, but affected dogs rely on some combination of anti-inflammatory medications, joint supplements, and possibly surgery to alleviate discomfort.
  • Hound ataxia – Seen in several of the hound breeds, this degenerative neurological disorder causes muscular weakness, and potentially paralysis. Its cause remains under investigation.
  • Anal furunculosis – Also commonly seen in the German Shepherd, this is a painful inflammatory disorder that causes deep, infected tracts to form alongside the dog’s anus and rectum. Thought to be some form of allergy, as usually responds to a combination of immunosuppressive treatment and dietary modification.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Harriers require a huge amount of exercise to meet their basic requirements, and must be given at least two hours of walking every day. Unfortunately, they have very poor recall skills, and cannot be left off-lead in an open space, as they are likely to disappear in chase of prey, real or imaginary.

Grooming

The hard-wearing coat requires virtually no grooming, with just an occasional brushing sufficient to remove loose hair and dirt. However, it does shed constantly, and owners should expect a trail of hair around the home. The breed’s thick nails are likely to need clipping around once every six to eight weeks.

Famous Harriers

Sir Elias de Midhope was the proud owner of the first recorded pack of Harriers, known as the Penistone, in 1260.

Cross-Breeds

Harriers are sometimes crossed with other pack hounds, such as Foxhounds, and Beagles, but they are a little too rugged to be likely “designer dog” candidates. However, despite the Harrier’s scarcity in the United States, the Bluetick Coonhound Harrier, which is a Bluetick Coonhound and Harrier mix, is a recognised hybrid.

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