Vortrag Malaysia 2018 Ways of the hunting dog

Twelth International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS XII), Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia, 23.-27. July 2018


Thorsten Gieser, University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany

For decades now, anthropology has seen a plethora of publications that deal with our ‚Western’/’Euro-modern‘ dichotomisation between Nature and culture, humans and animals, body and mind. And according to Kirsten Hastrup’s recent book Anthropology and Nature, we have finally managed to leave these dichotomies behind and to have developed theoretical perspectives that move beyond this type of thinking. We seem to be in a position now to recognize ‚the animal other‘ not as passive containers of human symbolic/cultural meaning construction, but as active actors with sentience and intentionality that co-shape lifeworlds alongside us humans and many other non-human actors. I doubt, however, that – even in the so-called western societies –  animals were ever conceived as less than active actors for those people who lived and worked with animals. As this is not the place for extensive case studies of farmers, fishermen, shepherds and so on, I focus here on hunters in Germany today to serve as an example to prove my point. Although Germany is certainly not a hunter-gatherer society in any sense, there are about 380,000 hunters who hunt in an ever-changing, continuously re-invented ‚tradition‘ that is centuries old and adjusting to ever-new challenges by postmodern economisation, bureaucratisation and scientification.

I shall look here on the relationship between hunters and hunting dogs in particular as it exemplifies at least two important issues. First, it calls into question a distinct ontological separation between humans and animals, of ‚us‘ and ‚them‘. As I will show, the line between us and them in hunting practices is not between humans and animals but between hunters (both human and dog) and prey (game animals). And second, the relationship between hunter and dog undermines understandings of the wild and domesticated. As we all know, the dog is the oldest domesticated animal and could well be considered a symbol of domestication. Yet it is understood as well that its ancestry goes back to another symbol – a symbol of wilderness in Western public discourse – the wolf. So the dog – in postmodern, Western worldviews as well as on the level of people’s lifeworlds – retains an ambiguity between wild and domesticated. In this paper, I discuss this ambiguity in reference to Tim Ingold’s (2000) ideas on domestication as a matter between trust and domination. Building on his insights, I will argue that the hunting dog – as a working dog – resolves its inherent ambiguous status through skill – its own hunting skills and its skills in working together with human hunters. To demonstrate this, I tie my argument to a hunting material culture artifact: the leash and what it means to ‚put on a leash‘ and to ‚unleash‘.

The following ethnographic vignettes tell the story of a pressure hunt on wild boar, red deer, and roe deer, with hunters positioned throughout the forest and human beaters and hunting dogs driving the game towards them so they can be shot and killed. In order to give justice to the ideas of animals as active, sentient and intentional actors, i focus the story on one particular hunting dog called Jacko, a Kleiner Münsterländer (as this breed is called), a dog I have hunted with dozens of times during the past three years. The story is, in a sense, the dog’s story: of his actions, of his hunt. This is not to say that I claim to have privileged insights into his thinking and how he experienced the hunt. This is not a cognitive experiment in ‚taking the role of the other‘ or to experience ‚what it is like to be a dog‘ (as the philosopher Thomas Nagel tried to do in a thought experiment). Rather my approach is practice-based and phenomenological. I tell what the dog does, based on my participant observations. I simply shift the focus of my descriptions: instead of focusing on the actions of human hunters I highlight the dog’s actions, with the hunters receding into the background. What I talk about is still the relationships – to other dogs, to humans, to game animals – but the actions of the dog determine the storyline.


So let’s dive into the story and to the first ‚hunting situation‘. In the morning, hunters and dogs meet in the forest and wait for the hunt to begin. While dogs use this time to meet and greet humans and dogs alike and to establish order amongst themselves for the hunt, the hunters are mostly engaged with other hunters and expect their dogs to control their affects. But as hunting dogs are bred for their hunting ‚drive‘ and keenly feel that a hunt is about to start this is not always an easy thing to do.


The hunt has begun now and the dogs engage in what I call roaming, the dogs‘ main task for the hunt. Having been unleashed, they run into the forest and search for game and try to get them on their feet and move around so the hunters can see and shoot them. Whereas human beaters walk a few kilometres only, the dogs usually cover distances of more than 20 kilometres in three hours in rhythms of what I call ‚roaming and returning‘ and of ‚roaming and resting‘. They run around and search, then ‚touch base‘ with their human beaters; run around again, come back, and so on. If the area has been thoroughly searched and nothing more to be found and the beaters not fast enough for them to advance further, they rest and resume roaming as soon as the beaters move into new territory.


Although the aim of roaming – from the human perspective – is only to drive the game, sometimes the dogs come in bodily contact with the game and fight. As wild boar can be vicious, these hunting situations are the most risky – for dogs but also for the hunters who feel obliged by their own hunting ethics called Waidgerechtigkeit (and are obliged by animal protection laws) to intervene, i.e. to kill the wounded animal and to prevent their dogs from getting hurt in the fight.

I’m hearing a shot, then the barking of several dogs running towards a common point. Where is Jacko? Is he with them? I walk towards the bearking, scanning the forest for him. The barking has gathered now and becomes more aggressive. A high-pitched squiek of a sow! And more aggressive barking as I walk hastily towards the noise. I’m looking down a slope and there, perhaps a hundered meters further down on a path, I see a hunter, a wounded sow and three dogs at her. Jacko is halfway down the slope and I call him back several times, each time with a more determined voice. „Jacko! Jacko! Come here! Stay! Jacko!“ He hesitates – part of him wanting to join the other dogs, the other part wanting to obey my voice.

The hunter is trying all the time to use his body to push the dogs away from the wounded sow in order to kill it with a dagger but the dogs seem to be all over the sow. Squiek! Squiek! Jacko is still looking intently from afar, as are I, and the fighting continues. Somewhere inmidst the squeaking and barking and fighting the hunter finally manages to get close enough to the sow and deliver a deadly blow with his dagger. I’m still calling Jacko to order and only now that the ‚action‘ seems to be over, my voice has enough ‚pulling power‘ to convince him to come back with me and continue our roaming elsewhere.


About twenty kilometres (at least for the dogs) and three hours later, the hunt is over. The dogs are exhausted, tired and muddy and we collect them and put on their collar and their leash. We drive them back to the central meeting point where others have already started a fire and prepared food for the hunters. Having arrived there, I tie Jacko to a trailer as his owner has not come back yet. He lies down on the muddy cool ground and waits. Meanwhile, the hunters arrive and and all the killed game is gathered and field dressed. Dogs are usually tied up somewhere or brought back into their car as hunters do not want them to interfere with the field dressing – and of course, every dog is very keen to interfere! Sometimes the dogs are allowed to lick the blood and to smell on the dead animal bodies but nothing more as dogs who want to grab a bite are frowned upon by the hunting community.

Having joined us now, Jacko’s owner asks me to see if there is a roe deer’s heart for Jacko so I go and get one that has not already gone into some hunter’s bag to take home. I grab one heart and bring it to the dog. He’s immediately standing up, keenly interested, and watches my hand with the heart in it. I put it down in front of him and he gulps it down in one piece within a few seconds. His owner tells me that this is his treat after almost every hunt while most other dogs get a can of dog food after the hunt. Having been fed, Jacko is taken to the car, jumps into his crate and rolls up to sleep. The hunters are having their feast now.


In this final part of my paper, I now want to discuss the four hunting situations in terms of what the philospher Merleau-Ponty called the Ineinander or intertwining of hunters and dogs, whose actions refer to each other, link up with each other and build on each other in corresponding ways. Nothing makes this intertwining more visible and tangible than the leash. The hunt starts and ends with the dogs on the leash. As a verb, to leash means to control, to check, restrain, hold back or suppress. The dog’s leash is a sign of domestication, control and discipline. Dogs are kept on a leash when affective behaviour is unwanted, like at the beginning of the hunt when hunters meet other hunters or at the end of the hunt when dogs would disturb the field dressing or the hunters‘ feast. Yet we should remember that a leash has two ends – it entangles dogs and hunters alike in two ways. It binds human and animal together in one unit, making clear that they can only move and act together. And indeed, ‚being on a leash‘ most often is unproblematic for both sides. But sometimes, hunter and dog get so entangled that they become ‚ensnared‘ (see the first video clip). The leash thus not only controls and disciplines the dog but the hunter as well. The leash is thus an ambiguous artifact of a complex human-dog relationship.

Something happens when the dog (and human for that sake) is unleashed once the hunt begins. The character of their intertwining changes. If to ‚keep on a leash‘ meant to control, suppress, to check, to ‚unleash‘ has the ambiguous effect of either to ‚allow to run free‚ or to ‚allow to run riot‚. Beating during a pressure hunt would be difficult if not impossible with a dog on a leash. They need the freedom to roam in order to do their job properly. Control is to be released and needs to be replaced by trust. But how to trust a dog that is known both as a disciplined dog and a dog with a ‚healthy‘ hunting drive? If the dog is allowed to run free without running riot this trust can only be build on skill. The dog needs to be an experienced dog, one who has learned the skills to hunt independently (selbständig jagend), has a good sense of orientation, persistence, a sense of the right distance between himself and the game when chasing, and being fährtenlaut (i.e. barking when chasing). Only through these roaming skills can a dog be trusted in potentially risky hunting situations. But even then trust can never be complete as the messy encounter I have described showed.

Thus freed (from the leash), the skilled hunting dog is ready to become entangled in a very different way. Running on game trails, following scent trails with the nose, ears twitching to notice the slightest sound, the forest and its animals now pull at the dog’s attention., affording various things to do. The landscape transforms into their field of action –  a taskscape as Ingold (2000) has put it. And a similar transformation takes place for the hunters and beaters – now free of the leash as well. Now they also can engage in their tasks within their taskscape which is – of course – inextricably intertwined with the dogs‘. Hunting dogs thus co-shape the hunters‘ cultural landscape and practice through corresponding actions. Neither a separation between nature and culture nor between humans and animals make much sense here to understand what has happened during the pressure hunt. The hunting community of practice operates with both human and non-human actors, synchronizing their actions towards a common goal while allowing for different motivations, ways of doing things and roles in the process. As a skilled practice for humans and dogs, hunting always is a risky and messy business, full of ambiguities and unclear situations that require both trust and skill to cope with them successfully. This pragmatism counters the impossibility of complete control  – over the hunting practice, over dogs and game, over the hunting landscape – that is often advocated by state institutions, official discourses and management regimes.