July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:14 PM
"The two pooches in Gillen Tankard's kitchen don't exactly look like hunting dogs. With their flaps of wrinkled skin, sad eyes, portly bodies and short little legs, they seem more like chubby sea lions than the tall, deep-chested dogs pictured in sporting magazines.The dogs waddle as they move across the room and periodically roll over, inviting anyone with fingers to scratch their well-fed bellies until drool rolls from their lips.But the members of the new Whidbey Island Basset Hound Club swear that the slothful-looking dogs are downright enthusiastic when they're outside tracking animals and can chase game into the kind of brush no other canine dare enter.Ten local basset hound owners started the club this year in hopes of holding field trial and tracking events on the island, but also to share their experience and love of the dogs with one another.For some of the members, their love of the good-natured hound dogs has changed their lives pretty dramatically. Randy Diefert, the president of the Whidbey Island Basset Hound Club, convinced many basset hound owners from across the country - including Tankard and board member Gail Allen - to move to Whidbey. With the rural areas and diverse landscapes, he says it's the perfect place for training and competing with bassets.We're thinking of calling it 'Basset Island,' said Diefert's wife, Peg. According to Randy Diefert, there's nothing in the world like field trialing with basset hounds. He remembers the first time he ever went to one of the events and woke up in camp early one morning. One hound started baying and was soon joined by a chorus of deep, rich wails.The hair went up on the back of my neck, he said. I thought, this is what I want to do.A field trial is basically a judged rabbit hunt, but the bunny probably never realizes it's being chased. There are no guns involved and the two-dog team usually doesn't see the rabbit and only tracks it for a few minutes. The dog owners don't usually call it a hunt but a trial.Diefert said that all the hound owners form a line, with the hounds on a leash, and walk through the brush or woods, beating the ground as they go. When a rabbit is flushed out, the person who sees it yells tally ho. Then the two-dog team, called a brace, is brought to the spot where the rabbit was last seen. The dogs are supposed to work together and track it. A judge watches for five minutes or so and scores the dogs on their tracking ability.The toughest part of the event, club member Gail Allen says, is getting the dogs to came back after the trial is over. Basset hounds are remarkably swift and single-minded when they're on the trail of a cottontail.One of the things Diefert says he loves about these events is that it allows the basset hounds to do what they were bred to do. And that is tracking little creatures.Everything they are is for a reason, he said.The smelling power of a basset hound's nose, Diefert says, is second only to its cousin the bloodhound. The hounds' short legs allow them to stay closer to the ground and closer to the scent. Their distinctive long ears hang on either side of the nose, sort of funneling the scent to their sniffers.Diefert they are the best breed of dog there is for hunting in thick brush. Their short legs allow them to stay low and move through rabbit runs. With loose, wrinkly skin and short hair, they can push through the brush without getting hung up and injured.In fact, he took his hound pheasant hunting in Central Whidbey this year and amazed all the lab owners who scoffed at his big dog with little legs. They stopped laughing after the bulky hound walked straight into the nastiest patch of briars and scared the birds out.But for all their tenaciousness and tracking ability, basset hounds tend to be pretty stubborn when it comes to things outside their normal realm. They aren't retrievers, for example. If a basset hound actually catches a rabbit, Tankard said the dog won't even kill it. Sometimes a hound will just sits on the rabbit and howl for the owner to come see what he caught.But even for people who aren't into competitions, the club members say bassets are great dogs to have. The happy hounds with sad eyes can be downright comical at times. They don't need tons of exercise, they won't turn your home into a mad house by constantly running around, and they won't chase livestock. Basset hounds won't maul the neighbor kids - though they might cover them with drool with their lickey tongues. And it's easy to fence in a yard for a basset.If you drive into Tankard's yard, past the horses and barn, you might to a double-take if you notice the fence behind her house. It's only a couple of feet high and looks like something that could keep guinea pigs corralled. It's all she needs to detain a couple of happy-go-lucky, rambling basset hounds. "