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Hog dog trials

David Alexander's dog Jive stays with his hog during Uncle Earl's 13th Annual Hog Dog Trials, in Winnfield, La. AP

WINNFIELD, La. — Nine-year-old Trey Skains sat in the dirt
with Steele, scratching the dog's belly and bragging about the
spotted pooch with bright blue eyes.

"He's a pretty dang good dog,'' Trey said. "He's won me a lot
of trophies.''

Trey and Steele are players in hog baying, in which dogs go into
a ring to round up a wild hog. At Uncle Earl's 13th Annual Hog Dog
Trials last week, they got the chance to show their stuff in a
competition billed as both a Southern and a family tradition.

"This isn't a sport, it's our heritage'' said Clem O'Bryan, 70,
a founder of the event. "This is families together sharing
something we've been doing for generations.''

In an era of animal rights activism, O'Bryan is quick to point
out that hog-baying differs from hog-catching.

In hog-catching, dogs, usually pit bulls, are sent into a pen
and timed for how quickly they can pin a hog. Once they bite, the
dogs usually must be pried from the hogs with a specially designed
bar. The practice — sometimes called hog baiting — outraged animal
lovers and sparked prohibitions across the South.

In hog-baying, the goal is for a dog to corner a boar in two to
four minutes. The dogs sometimes bite, but it counts against them
in scoring.

Louisiana bans hog-catching, but permits the Uncle Earl's event.

The Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
worked on the law that exempted Uncle Earl's, said spokeswoman
Gloria Dauphin. The society has never received a complaint about
the event, Dauphin said.

And all usually ends well for the hogs, which are released after
the event.

Trey Skains and Steele did well at Uncle Earl's this year,
winning second place in two events. Twin sister Rebecca and her
dog, Pongo, took fourth place in an event.

The siblings and their father, Reg Skains, were among the
thousands of people who jammed Winnfield, population about 5,400,
for five days of watching everything from puppies to old dogs chase
wild hogs.

"It's the biggest event in Winn Parish,'' said Lawrence White,
president of the Winnfield Chamber of Commerce. "I would guess
five to six thousand people come to the event over the course of
the week. And we probably have upward of a thousand who actually
spend two or three nights here.''

The event was named for Earl K. Long — "Uncle Earl'' — who was born in Winnfield in 1895. Long, brother of Gov. Huey P. Long, was
one of Louisiana's most colorful politicians. He was governor three
times between 1939 and 1960 and was an avid hog hunter. He also was
known for his relationship with New Orleans stripper Blaze Star.
Paul Newman portrayed Long in the 1989 film "Blaze.''

O'Bryan, clad in overalls and a white cowboy hat, a half-chewed
cigar stuck in the side of his mouth, said he hunted with Earl Long
as a boy, and for a time cured the boars Long shot.

Reg Skains said he began taking his children to hog-dog bayings
when they were in strollers. They grew up appreciating the skills
of the Louisiana Catahoula leopard dog, and the black-mouth cur —
considered the top dogs for rounding up wild hogs.

Around the Winn Parish Fair Grounds, youngsters fed and watered
hundreds of dogs tied up outside recreational vehicles, listened to
men discussing the merits of the dogs and sought advice on training
puppies.

Hog-dog traditions, O'Bryan said, are rooted in Southern
agricultural customs.

Settlers often let their hogs run loose, he said. The animals
fattened up on acorns and vegetation in the woods until late fall
when they were rounded up and slaughtered.

"Those hogs were good for extra food, maybe extra goods, they could be traded for things people needed,'' O'Bryan said. "The
hogs were a farmer's bank account, but his bay dog was the key he
needed to open it.''

For the dogs, which weigh 45-75 pounds, dominating a 200-pound
hog, many with sharp tusks, requires instinct, athleticism and
finesse.

"You got to go through a lot of dogs to get a really champion
one,'' said Levi Jones, 10, who won the Youth Bay with his dog,
Blue.

Herding is instinctive for the Catahoula — the state dog of
Louisiana — and the black-mouth cur, breeders said.

"We breed them to do this kind of work,'' said Sherry Bondo,
62, of Lumberton Miss., who has been competing with Catahoulas for
20 years and hog hunting with them for much longer. "They love it.
You don't see them going into that pen with their tails between
their legs.''

Barking almost constantly, the dog is judged in the event on how
it contains the hog, like a sheep dog handling sheep, O'Bryan said.

But just because no biting is permitted doesn't mean the
situation doesn't become tense — especially for the hogs.
Confrontations at Uncle's Earl's ranged from stoic hogs that
hunkered into a corner in defensive posture to feisty boars that
charged the dogs. At least twice on the final day a hog tossed a
dog into the air. Both dogs were wearing high-tech protective vests
covering their necks and bodies.

The dogs are big investments. Star performers have sold at the
Winnfield event for as much as $15,000. This year prices generally
ranged from $100 to $450, but one dog sold for $8,500.

The sport can be costly, but also has its rewards.

The Skains family owns about 40 dogs, said Reg Skains. The
monthly food bill is about $600. Then there are trailers, cases for
transporting the dogs, vet bills and fees for entering events.

"But I won about $29,000 one year when I was real serious with
it,'' Reg Skains said.