Heavy Petting

Great Plott!

The toughest dog on the planet makes its debut at Westminster.

A 2-year-old Plott hound
A 2-year-old Plott hound

The Plott hound, one of four breeds making its debut on the green carpet this week at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, is unlikely to melt the hearts of television viewers. In pose-offs against bassets and dachshunds, two of its cuddlier rivals in the hound group, it will be hard for the high-strung animals to look anything but ill at ease. Weighing 50 to 60 pounds, with a homely mien, a thin, brindled coat, and a sinewy profile, they aren’t noticeably prepossessing or much good as indoor pets.

But those who can appreciate a more rural, less homogenized America should be rooting for the Plotts whenever they step into the ring. One of only a handful of breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club as having its origins in this country, the Plott hound has been the state dog of North Carolina since 1988 and a common sight for more than a century in eastern Tennessee, where, by one owner’s estimate, “about every third dog tied up back of someone’s house is a Plott.”

Unless you’ve hunted black bear or wild boar, or you’ve spent a lot of time in the Smoky Mountains, you’ve probably never heard of, much less encountered, a Plott hound. Not withstanding the newfound respectability afforded Plotts by the Westminster initiation, dog encyclopedias seldom give the breed much ink.  

Its reputation for courage and stamina, however, is anything but regional. Outdoorsmen from as far away as Africa and Japan hold the Plott in near-mystical esteem as perhaps the world’s toughest dog. Bred to track, run down, tree, and, if necessary, grapple with a baying 500-pound bear eight times its size, it is often overmatched but rarely chastened by that fact. Inspect the coat of one that has worked in the woods for a year or more, and you will likely find slash marks from a bear’s claws or a hog’s tusks. Plotts routinely will stay on game, alone or in packs, for days at a time. Willing to sacrifice themselves before they’ll run from a showdown, they are the ninja warriors of dogdom. By comparison, the beagle is a layabout, and the pit bull a pansy.

Writer Cormac McCarthy first told me about the breed. He has hunted with them in Canada, and some 20 years ago he attended the annual Plott Days festival with his brother. This celebration is now a family-friendly affair held in the Midwest. But back then, the event was in the Carolinas and semi-illegal, as the organizers tested the dogs in various controversial ways, most notoriously in the Elizabethan rite of bearbaiting.

“It wasn’t particularly gory,” McCarthy recalled. Although he estimates that some 300 Plotts hurled themselves at a staked bear over the course of a day, the result was that “the bear got chewed on a bit, and the dogs got cuffed around.” His admiration for the breed is expressed in a terse judgment: “They are just without fear.”

The cult of the dog is best sampled in back issues of the annuals published by the National Plott Hound Association and the American Plott Association. Along with photos of deceased bear, boar, mountain lion, and raccoon draped over pickup trucks, the pages are filled with moving encomia to the mettle of old Plotts, living and dead. Owners will often boast about their dogs when they’ve “pulled hair” (bitten a bear). Breeders may hyperbolize the tracking nose of a beloved stud (“able to cold trail and jump a bear, after the track has been boohooed, foot raced and gave up on”) or relate harrowing tales of a season just past. (“I had four dogs injured before the bear was killed. Susie, Betsy, and Chuta … were all bitten badly. The bear had Chuta’s whole head in its mouth but she survived.”) Fans write in from five continents, and breeders advertise from pockets throughout the United States.

These are not the sort of people who frequent Westminster. The hunter’s needs for performance are not easily aligned with those of the dog-show world. The AKC cares about tracking a strong breeding line, however, and the pedigrees of the Plott are clear enough through centuries of North Carolina history. No other American hound shares its ancestry, which is from German rather than English stock. Most canine bloodlines have dissolved into the mists of folklore. Not so the Plott’s, which are well-documented. It is one of the few dogs in the world named for a family whose descendents have continued to maintain the breed.   

Madeleine Plott still lives on Plott Creek Road outside Waynesville, 50 miles southeast of Asheville, N.C. (Her house is not far from the Plott Balsams range or from Cold Mountain, the destination for the returning Civil War solider in Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel.) She is the French-born widow of Lawrence Plott, whose family has been breeding dogs in the Carolinas for centuries. Johannes Plott, who emigrated from Germany or Bohemia in 1750, settled in what is now Cabarrus County. He brought along a prized group of big-game hunting dogs. Whether they were related to the Hannover’scher schweiss-hund, as Lawrence Plott believed, is unclear. But records clearly indicate that their short, boxy ears and barrel chests differed from those of the droopier, less muscular English foxhounds popular in America at the time.

With minimal outcrossing with other breeds, propagation of the Plott continued from fathers to sons for five generations. Johannes, Henry, John, Montraville, and H.V. (Von) Plott all made names for themselves as superior breeders. Plott admirers outside the family and the state have also established strains with devout followers.

“My husband was very open-minded,” says Madeleine Plott. “He never believed that just because a dog came from the Plott family it was necessarily better than one that came from someone else.” (None of the seven Plotts entered in Westminster was bred by a Plott family member.)

Acceptance into the dog-show world has not been without friction. Until about 10 years ago, the American Plott Association and the National Plott Hound Association were bitter antagonists. The former stresses the Plott’s kinship with the cur, omits the word hound in its title, and encourages the older red-to-yellow “buckskin” coloring; the latter, accredited by the United Kennel Club since 1946, favors a coonhound profile and voice while disdaining any emphasis on buckskin-colored dogs.

“It was dirty, with a lot of name-calling and innuendoes,” recalls John Jackson, a former president of the American Plott Association who helped the American Kennel Club, whose judges oversee Westminster, to write the standards for the breed. “We’ve finally agreed to disagree.” The AKC standards now declare that “any shade of brindle (a streaked or striped pattern of dark hair imposed on a lighter background) is preferred. This includes the following brindle factors: yellow, buckskin, tan, brown, chocolate, liver, orange, red, light or dark gray.”

A retired elementary-school teacher in Boone, N.C., as well as a Primitive Baptist preacher with four congregations, Jackson is a Plott scholar and a self-described “fool” for the dogs. “For grit and stick-to-it-iveness, the Plott has no rival,” he attests. He is writing a book on its history and has hours of taped interviews with people in the region about their generations of trackers.

“Plotts will probably never make it to the finals of Westminster,” Jackson said to me back in 1999, when he took me on my one and only bear hunt—an expedition into the North Carolina mountains with a pack of Plotts at the front that, to my relief, did not result in the death of a bear. “They aren’t natured to be show dogs.”

Three of the Plotts scheduled to compete yesterday were believed to be too stressed to make it into the ring. And the winner of best in breed, Black Monday, did not win the hound group and so will not advance into the starry best-in-show final round tonight. But for creatures that aren’t used to standing at attention with their ears, paws, and tails just so, the newcomers performed admirably.

If they don’t flinch from a snorting charge by a wild boar, how many years will it be before they learn to withstand the prying hands and eyes of an old bore in a tuxedo?