There are few dogs that bring to mind the landscape of America solely with their name and perhaps none are as clear as the Coonhound rooted in the deep south. For most this mental picture calls for the Black and Tan or Redbone, but many do not know there are six coonhounds that are recognized by major kennel clubs. Although developed in the United States, the ancestry of these scenthounds is European. They, along with curs and fiests, make up the group of hunting dogs known as treeing dogs. Bred for the ability to tree game rather than sending it to ground depending on the specific breed or type can hunt anything from small squirrels to bears and mountain lions.
Like much of Colonial America's history the tale of the coonhounds origin is rich, if somewhat muddled through the years. All of the coonhounds (save the Plott) share the same ancestry, which begins when the first packhounds were brought to the New World. Two such packs primarily led to the development of the American Foxhound, and later the coonhounds.
The first documented pack was imported from England in 1650 by Roger Brooke to Maryland. His dogs were English Foxhounds (primarily black and tan rather than the more traditional tricolor), brought for the sole purpose of the gentry's game of foxhunting. Brooke became the first Master of Hounds in the United States, a tradition his family continued even after his death.
In 1770 George Washington, who was an avid hunter, imported a pack of English Foxhounds to Virginia. In 1785 he was gifted French hounds by his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. It is believed these dogs were the blueticked Grand Bleu de Gascogne which were interbred with his existing dogs. A second outcross was made in the 1830s, this time with Irish hounds to help increase the packs' speed.
The dogs from these packs spread outward and would become the American Foxhound with other unknown dogs added throughout its development. This new breed become as adapt against fox as its ancestors, however it still struggled against animals that took to the trees. After the American Revolution and as settlers began moving west and south these hounds were beginning to be kept by hunters that were not always wealthy and often on foot. In this new role as food provider its inability to tackle other prey became more evident so selective breeding became focused on improving its treeing ability and increasing its range of prey. Overtime they developed and became coonhounds, with many different varieties due to the large number of settlements and differing terrain throughout the states,
Today five coonhounds share this stock, the English, Bluetick, Black and Tan, Redbone, and Treeing Walker. The English (sometimes called the American English or Redtick) is the oldest of these breeds. It was first recognized by the United Kennel Club (UKC) in 1905 under the name English Fox and Coonhound (the Fox was later dropped). Like many working dogs that are ''rare" to the show ring it did not gain American Kennel Club (AKC) recognition until more than a century later in 2011. Although the redtick is the preferred coat pattern other colors still appear including bluetick as well as bi and tricolors.
The Bluetick has managed to retain a coat similar in appearance to its ancestor, the Grand Bleu de Gascogne, its French ties stronger than its cousins. Today there is still a larger, more hound-like bluetick known as the American Blue Gascogne (unrecognized by kennel clubs). Originally seen by the UKC as a variant of the English Coonhound the Bluetick did not split as a breed in its own right until 1946, but AKC recognition was slightly earlier in 2009.
Treeing Walkers are tricolor (white, black and tan) and were developed from a pack of American Foxhounds that had originated as English Foxhounds imported by Thomas Walker. An outcross from a stolen dog - known only as Tennessee Lead - was the basis for a separate coonhound strain of Walkers. Like the Bluetick, the Treeing Walker was once lumped with the English Coonhound, but were separated a year earlier in 1945. The AKC would not follow suit until 2012.
The Black and Tan shows an influence of the Bloodhound both in its coloring and heavier body. Although it is still related to the other coonhounds through Foxhound blood it is clear far more than a single Bloodhound or two was used in its development. The Black and Tan was the first coonhound to be recognized by the UKC in 1900 and the AKC in 1945.
It may be that the Redbone obtained its name from its solid red coat, but it is more likely it came from an early breeder, Peter Redbone. It is believed the deep red of their coat comes from an influx of Irish hounds. Early dogs were not solid red, but rather had a black saddle that was slowly bred out. This was the second coonhound to be recognized by the UKC in 1902, however, its AKC recognition would come in 2011.
This leaves only the Plott Hound, which holds no English or French ancestry and shares no ties with the other coonhounds. They are in fact German, descending from a handful of Hanoverian Hounds brought to North Carolina in 1750 by George Plott. Hanoverians traditionally hunt boar, but through careful breeding adapted to their new prey (particularly black bear) and homeland. Through generations the Plott family carefully guarded the bloodline, making only one documented outcross with a ''leopard spotted bear dog". The Plott Hound was recognized by the UKC in 1946 and the AKC in 2006.
Some may call the coonhounds outdated in the modern world, but their fanciers would argue that perhaps their time outside of the woods is just beginning as their registrations rise and their popularity grows, slow, but steady. Certainly hunters would argue, whether their dogs are used for the traditional hunt, field trials or nite competitions. Regardless, each year children around the country still relive the tale of Old Dan and Little Ann in the words of Wilson Rawls' "Where the Red Fern Grows", ensuring the tale of at least two Redbone Coonhounds and a boy live on.