The Bloodhound (canis sanguinarius) is a large dog used for tracking. It probably originated in France. An early form of the Bloodhound, the Saint Hubert hound (chien Saint-Hubert), was bred as early as CE 1000 by monks at the Saint-Hubert monastery in Belgium.
The earliest references to the Bloodhound in English records occur around mid-14th century. The breed was used to track deer and wild boar.
Although large, the Bloodhound is gentle and has an affectionate temperament. Modern breeders like to say that it gets its name not from any viciousness or association with blood, but because of its careful breeding. It’s a “bloodhound” in the sense that William is a prince of the blood, or a horse is of the bloodline of Man o’ War.
This kinder, gentler etymology of the name is a fairly recent suggestion, dating from the 19th century. Earlier records indicate that this type of hound was in fact used to track wounded (bleeding) animals.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists a reference from Coverdale (1550) that uses the word in a sense that suggests bloodthirstiness: “Manasses…was a very bloodhound and a tyrant.”
The Bloodhound has the keenest sense of smell of any canine because its nasal chambers are larger than those of most other breeds. When it tracks a person, it is following the scent of skin cells. It can detect as few as one or two cells. Its long dangling ears prevent the wind from scattering the scent while the dog’s nose is near the ground. Even the wrinkles on its neck serve to catch scent particles in the air.
Because of the dog’s sleepy look, the breed is often used in cartoons and movies to represent a lazy dog, like Duke in The Beverly Hillbillies. At the work of tracking, however, Bloodhounds have plenty of stamina; they can keep going for hours over vast distances.
In modern fictional renderings of ante-bellum American life, escaped
slaves are often shown or described as being tracked by packs of Bloodhounds. It’s not known when the first Bloodhounds were imported into the U.S., but it was probably towards the end of the 19th century. As late as 1881, a poster advertising a dramatized version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts Eliza crossing the ice pursued by a pack of dogs, but they are clearly not Bloodhounds.
Another name for the Bloodhound is Sleuth hound. Sleuth is from an Old Norse word meaning “track” or “trail.”