Breed History

The Otterhound, one of the most ancient of the British breeds, was developed in England to hunt otter. The Otterhound was greatly favored by the nobility and dates back to Henry II in the 1100s. Several British Kings were titled “Master of Otterhounds,” including King John, (1199-1216), Richard III, Charles II, Edward II and IV, Henry II, VI, VII and VIII and Elizabeth I (known as the first “Lady Master of Otterhounds).

The origin of the Otterhound is unknown. Many different breeds and combination of breeds have been suggested as the foundation of true Otterhound, among them the now extinct Old Southern Hound, the Griffon Nivernais from France, the Bloodhound, the rough coated Welsh Harrier or Foxhound, Griffon de Bresse, Griffon Vendeen, Bulldog and even the wolf. The French Origin of the Otterhound appears to be one of the most reasonable. The opinion of one of the early writers, Marples, states it is almost the exact duplicate of the Vendeen Hound of France. The two breeds are alike in both coat and body formation.

The otter, as the breed’s name suggests, is this dog’s preferred prey. Otters were classed as vermin and Otterhounds were used in packs to protect fishponds holding food stocks and control the otter population, since otter competed with fisherman for the natural trout supply in rivers and lakes. The Otterhound has a sense of smells so acute that it can smell in the morning an otter that passed through the water the night before. It has a great swimming ability by nature, and would rarely stop after hours and hours of swimming. Since it has a naturally protective coat, the Otterhound can dive into water and seek its prey and its prey’s den in very cold and wet conditions. The breed has also been used successfully to hunt raccoon, bear and mink.

The hunting of the otter is probably one of the oldest sports found in England in which scent hounds hunt in packs. Almost all monarchs since Henry II maintained a Royal Master of Otterhounds. The sport was first practiced because the otters were preying on the fish in the rivers and streams to an annoying extent. Eventually, it became very popular with English gentry because it was the only hunting possible from March thru October. In the late 1800’s there were sometimes more than a dozen packs operating in Britain during every hunting season.

Between the 1800’s and the early 1900’s, otters were systematically hunted by sportsmen other than royalty. At this time regular otter hunting establishments existed, known as subscription packs because of a fee paid for the privilege of hunting with the pack and wearing its uniform. Subscription packs survived until the late 1900’s. Otter hunting reached its peak of popularity in the years preceding World War I. At that time there were more than 500 hounds in 24 packs which hunted otter, though most of those dogs were not purebred Otterhounds. Indeed, the hunt packs continued to cross-breed their hounds well into the 20th century to improve hunting abilities. One of the results is that all current purebred Otterhounds pedigrees go back to a Bloodhound/Griffon Nivernais cross done in 1958.

The ‘purebred’ Otterhound, the hound we have today, was standardized sometime during the 19th Century. Many generations of breeding for special purposes have strengthened and perpetuated the particular characteristics of the breed. Selected breeding has produced the best animal for the work intended. A written standard was developed to define the ideal animal, reflect the purpose of the breed and also to provide goals for breeders in improving the stock.
The AKC Breed Standard of the Otterhound can be found at AKC web site: AKC Meet The Breeds: Otterhound.

In the early 1970s there were reports of dramatic reductions in the otter population, and the Association of Masters of Otterhounds undertook a formal study. It was found the changes in farming practices were creating disturbances to habitat and deaths due to the widespread use of chemicals and water polution. It was decided to cease hunting otter at the end of the 1977 season and in 1978 otter-hunting was banned in England, followed two years later in Scotland. As a result, the Otterhound’s existence was severely threatened. To ensure the survival of the Otterhound the Masters of two remaining packs, The Dumfriesshire Otter Hunt of Scotland and The Kendal and District Otter Hunt of England, worked with several respected breeders and the UK Kennel Club (formed in 1978) to register the remaining pure bred hounds. Most of them were dispersed to private owners, with some going to the mink hunting packs. British and American Otterhound fanciers are forever indebted to Captain John Bell-Irving, Master of the Dumfrieshire Otterhounds from 1955 until the end of otter hunting Scotland, for the continued preservation of the true Otterhound. Through the educational and public relation efforts, concerned show and pet homes received many hounds and thereby insured the survival of valuable genetic lines upon which the future vitality of the breed would depend.

Otterhounds made their first appearance in the United States about the year 1900. They made their bench-show debut with six Ottehounds exhibited at AKC show in 1907 in Claremont, Oklahoma, and registrations were recorded. At that time Otterhounds were mostly used in the field and reliable records were not maintained on all hounds. The breed was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1909. However, it was not until 1937 when Dr. Hugh R. Mouat, a veterinarian living in upper New York State, started to breed and hunt the Otterhound, that the fine old breed finally took firm hold in the US. A bitch and dog, Bessie’s Countess and Bessie’s Courageous from Dr. Mouat’s first litter became the breed’s first AKC champions in 1941. The Otterhound Club of America was founded in 1960 and held the breed’s first National Specialty in 1981.

Today, Otterhounds make a strong family companion: very attentive, loyal, affectionate and enjoy an active lifestyle in a variety of environments. They are shown in conformation, obedience, tracking and agility. Some have been trained to serve as search and rescue dogs and certified service dogs. While attracting and keeping loyal following, this wonderful breed has never seen widespread popularity. It is considered rare and endangered. There are fewer than 1000 Otterhounds world wide, with the largest numbers in the UK and US, and smaller populations in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It’s estimated that there are about 350 Otterhounds in the US and Canada.

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