Harris' hawks and dogs
Contact: Toby Bradshaw <email@example.com>
The teamwork between a falconer, dogs, and Harris' hawks is the essence of the sport. In many parts of the country, hawking rabbits without good dogs is either difficult or impossible. Some Harris' hawks get along well with dogs from the outset, but most Harris' hawks need a careful introduction to dogs, and some hawks never do overcome their animosity towards dogs. Here in western Washington, we depend so much upon our Jack Russell terriers and beagle crosses that a Harris' hawk which won't hunt with dogs is useless. We've spent a lot of time trying to understand the interaction between Harris' hawks and small dogs, and we've developed some breeding, rearing, and training methods that work for us.
There are three responses a Harris' hawk may have towards a dog: acceptance, fear, or aggression. Acceptance is the preferred response. Fear can be overcome with patient training. Aggression is a serious problem, especially with female Harris' hawks and small dogs. If aggression is unchecked, it may never be conquered. A dog-grabbing hawk is unsafe to fly in many situations. It is bad enough to have your own dog nailed by your hawk, but it is far worse if your hawk injures someone else's dog.
The easiest way to achieve acceptance is to rear the young hawks in the presence of dogs. Our breeding Harris' hawks are proven falconry birds that have been flown successfully with dogs. The breeding chambers are surrounded by dogs, so the eyases learn that dogs are not a threat. However, even though the young hawks are not afraid of dogs, it is very unwise to begin hunting a young hawk in the company of dogs. Inexperienced hawks are extremely hot-blooded, and reflexively chase and grab anything that moves through the brush. They do not distinguish between a scurrying rabbit and a Jack Russell slithering along in the briars. It is absolutely essential that the young hawk catches several (5-10) rabbits on its own before the dogs are added to the equation. Once you are sure that the hawk knows that the hunt is for rabbits, bring along one dog (the biggest you have) into an area where there are plenty of rabbits and where the hawk can see the dog well. This reduces the chances of the hawk mistakenly grabbing the dog, or hitting the dog out of boredom. After a few successful hunts, the hawk learns that the dog's 'yip' is a sure sign of a moving rabbit, the dog learns that the hawk's bell is always directly over the bunny, and the falconer becomes a satisfied spectator of the action.
If a hawk grabs a dog by accident, usually it will let go when it realizes its mistake. However, young hawks can have an iron grip, and the howling of a caught dog really seems to fire up some young birds. Under no circumstances should the hawk be offered food to get it off the dog! The last thing you want to do is reward this kind of behavior. Try dunking the hawk in water or spraying it with a hose. If necessary, grip the hawk around the head with your gloved hand, covering the eyes and squeezing gently. Prying the talons loose is the final option, but it is possible that the talon will be damaged or even pulled out of the toe. Unfortunately, a hawk that has once grabbed a dog is more likely to do it again in the future, so prevention is the key. Make sure that the hawk is wedded to rabbits before bringing a dog into the field.
Harris' hawks that are reared in the absence of dogs frequently show a fear response by opening their wings in a threat display and pivoting to keep the dog in sight. Fear is overcome by having the dog hang around the weathering area and during manning/training sessions. After the hawk has caught a few rabbits on its own (for the same reason outlined above), the dog can be introduced in the field. As long as the hawk shows the fear response, it will not grab the dog unless the dog runs in on a kill and the hawk feels the need to foot the dog to defend itself. This sort of defensive behavior is not dangerous for the dog, and in fact teaches the dog to keep its distance. For a time the hawk may be afraid to catch a rabbit right in front of the dogs, but eventually it will learn that the dogs mean no harm and will allow them to help it kill a struggling rabbit. Harris' hawks recognize individual dogs and many hawks will not hunt well except with familiar dogs.
The final category of Harris' hawks is those that are aggressive towards dogs. Several factors contribute to this. First, some pairs of Harris' hawks seem to produce offspring that have a predisposition to grab dogs. Make sure to buy hawks from a breeder whose birds are known to fly well with dogs. Second, Harris' hawks taken too young from the parents never attain a proper respect for people, other Harris' hawks, or dogs. We believe that 16 weeks is the minimum age for taking a young Harris' hawk from its parents, as described in our philosophy of breeding and rearing Harris’ hawks. Third, Harris' hawks that are flown at low weights will sometimes tackle a dog out of extreme hunger, and once in awhile a Harris' hawk that is flown fat will smack a dog out of boredom, especially if the dog is lollygagging around outside the cover. Don't pick up your dog and hold it near the hawk, since this seems to invite an attack from some Harris' hawks. Most dogs seem to know this instinctively and try to avoid making eye contact with the hawk when they are being held. Finally, dog grabbing is much more common among female Harris' hawks. Tiercels rarely have problems with aggression towards dogs.
We don't know of any way to cure a Harris' hawk that is truly aggressive towards dogs. The aggressive hawk treats the dog as quarry, binding to it and pulling at it with the beak. The only solution for this kind of aggression is to find the hawk a home with a falconer who can deal with the problem, or euthanize it. No hawk with this behavior should ever be placed in a breeding project.
Toby Bradshaw updates the information from time to time. The revised