Otterhound

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

The Otterhound is the very antithesis of a designer dog. This large, shaggy hound is unlikely to win any beauty pageants, but it has never relied on its looks to earn a living. Such was its prowess as a hunter that its quarry, the otter, was listed as protected in 1978. Thereafter, the already small Otterhound population shrank further, and it is now extremely difficult to source one of these rare dogs. However, anyone who does manage to acquire one will have a boisterous and playful companion who is more than capable of keeping up on long hikes or runs. The breed’s exuberance and clumsiness mean that they are not the best fit for young children or the elderly, but they are friendly and good-natured dogs with a steady temperament.

The long coat is a victory of function over form, and its oiliness and often strong odour are the price paid for it being weather- and water-resistant. Many owners are reluctant to allow their Otterhounds much access to the home because of their very strong “doggy” smell, and this breed is more suited than most to spending much of its life outdoors. Though it should never be deprived of human contact, it is noted for its independence, and seems to enjoy time in which to lose itself in thought. Like many pack hounds, it can be difficult to train, and house-breaking may prove a challenge. Plenty of exercise is a must, both to burn off excess energy and to prevent weight gain, something to which sedentary Otterhounds are very prone. The breed is generally healthy, although most individuals have some degree of malformation of the hip or elbow joints, and are expected to suffer from early onset arthritis. The Otterhound’s life expectancy is around 10–13 years.

About & History

Otter hunting was a popular pursuit in England from at least the thirteenth century, and the pursuit of this clever, speedy, and aggressive quarry required a dog with unique capabilities on both land and water. It is believed that Otterhounds, in some form, were bred from around the 1400s, although it was not until the early nineteenth century that packs of hounds that could be considered purebred were recorded in the northwest of the country. The term “purebred” is applied loosely here, as the practice of outbreeding with Griffon Vendeens and Bloodhounds was commonplace, as it remains today in working Otterhounds. The relationship between these breeds is complex, as both Griffons and Bloodhounds were probably used in the foundation of the breed, as was the Otterhound in the establishment of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.

The Otterhound’s large, webbed paws allow it to wade through mud with greater ease than any other dog, and its broad, sensitive nose can detect a scent trail as much as 72 hours old, even on very wet ground. These capabilities meant that it enjoyed a phenomenal success rate when hunting. With a growth in the popularity of otter hunting in the twentieth century, its prowess was such that the otter hunters themselves were prompted to inform the authorities of a critical decline in otter numbers in the late 1970s. As a result, the otter was declared a protected species in 1978, and hunting ceased. While some Otterhounds were repurposed for mink hunting, demand for the breed declined precipitously, as many of the hunting hounds had temperaments that made them unsuitable as pets, being stubborn and uninterested in human contact. From an already low population base, it is believed there are now as few as 600 Otterhounds in the world, and the Kennel Club averages only 30 to 50 registrations each year.

Appearance

Otterhound Large Photo

The Otterhound is a large dog with strong limbs and a powerful torso. It has a big, imposing head with a broad, domed skull that rises from the stop to the occiput at the back. The muzzle is long and wide, as would be expected from a scent hound, and the nostrils are similarly wide and open. The lips and flew (the loose tissue of the cheeks) are heavy and loose – and usually adorned with drool – while the jaw is strong, and carries large teeth. The long hair around the face give the breed a slightly comical look, with abundant eyebrows, along with a generous beard and moustache. The eyes vary in colour depending on the predominant colour of the coat, as do the lids, and they are set reasonably deep into the skull. The ears are set level with the eyes, and are remarkably long, reaching the nose as they sit flat to the side of the face.

The breed has a long, strong neck and back that carry a lot of muscle. The chest is reasonably deep and well-sprung, reflecting ample lung capacity. The abdomen, too, is broad, and the loins are powerful. The tail is thick, set high, and tapers to a point. The well-angulated limbs are as sturdy as the rest of the body, and have very strong bone structure in their lower portions. The paws are large, with thick padding and obvious webbing.

The coat grows in a tangled mess to around 8 cm in length, and can be any colour, although the following are the most common:

  • Grizzle
  • Sandy
  • Red
  • Wheaten
  • Blue
  • Lemon
  • Blue
  • Pied
  • Liver
  • Tan
  • Any combination of these with white

It is of a harsh, rough texture and has a dense undercoat that makes it almost impervious to water, and should be left unclipped. Male Otterhounds are usually 67–70 cm (26–27 in) tall, and weigh 50–55 kg (110–120 lb). Females are distinctly smaller and more refined, measuring 60–62 cm (around 24 in) and weighing 35–43 kg (77–95 lb).

Character & Temperament

Otterhounds are jovial characters without a hint of aggression. They are amusing, if somewhat boisterous dogs that enjoy bouts of play with their owners or other dogs, with whom they usually socialise very well. Their large size, exuberance, and smelly coats mean they need an adult family that doesn’t mind getting dirty while romping around – these are not dogs to meet while wearing one’s Sunday best.

They are also almost uniquely independent, and will decide when they have had enough fun to take themselves away for a nap or to continue investigating whatever smell catches their sensitive nose. Although they will give a hound’s baying bark when the doorbell rings, they are too good-natured to act as guard dogs.

Trainability

The breed’s independence and the speed with which it is distracted make it a challenge to train, and Otterhound pups often seem to have great difficulties with the concept of house-training. Because of its size and propensity to jumping up on people, it is important to establish some basic good manners, and patience, coupled with food rewards, usually pay dividends over time. Teaching recall is extremely difficult, and Otterhounds should not be allowed off the lead in open public spaces.

Health

Apart from unfortunately appalling joint health, most Otterhounds are very healthy, with few inherited conditions of concern in the breed.

  • Elbow dysplasia – Inherited deformities of the elbow joint that cause discomfort and predispose to early onset arthritis.
  • Epilepsy – Certain families of Otterhounds appear prone to epileptic seizures, which may be seen from six months of age.
  • Glanzmann’s thrombasthenia – A rare, hereditary bleeding disorder due to impaired function of platelets, the specialised white blood cells that plug tears in blood vessel walls.
  • Hip dysplasia – Like elbow dysplasia, this is an inherited condition causing joint pain and arthritic change, even in young dogs. The Otterhound has the worst average hip score of any of the breeds, and breeding adults should be screened for both elbow and hip dysplasia to attempt to reduce the incidence of these debilitating conditions.
  • Hypothyroidism – Deficiency of thyroid hormone can cause weight gain and skin and coat changes in middle-aged dogs.
  • Sebaceous cysts – The breed is prone to developing these benign skin lumps containing thick, cottage cheese-like sebaceous material.

Exercise and Activity Levels

This is a working breed of great stamina, and should be allowed a minimum of 90-minutes of exercise each day. Otterhounds love to swim, and the condition of the oily coat also benefits from access to water.

Grooming

Although intensive pampering is not required, the shaggy coat needs to be brushed at least once a week, as it is prone to matting. It should never be clipped, as this damages the hair shafts, and regrowth can take years. Bathing should also be avoided if possible, as shampoos strip the oils essential to the health of the coat.

However, the beard tends to gather food and other particles, and becomes malodourous if not wiped clean after every meal. Most Otterhounds need their nails clipped every few weeks to prevent them growing into the pads of the feet. This can usually be done at home with a strong set of nail clippers and a steady hand.

Famous Otterhounds

Of all the packs of Otterhounds being used for mink hunting and other pursuits today, only the Pembroke and Carmarthenshire Minkhounds have an entirely purebred Otterhound pack, making them the best-known examples of the breed.

Cross-Breeds

Many of today’s working Otterhounds are actually crossbred with other hunting dogs, the Bloodhound in particular. However, the low numbers of purebred individuals in the world, along with its poor hip quality, mean that it is not used to produce any of the recognised hybrids.

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