Tugging Excitedly on their leads, four brace Beagle puppies instinctively know they are about to track a rabbit. The puppies' exuberance on this sweaty, end-of-summer September morning is heard in their joyous barking. Pushing their noses downward to the ground, they already are sniffing for rabbit scent. Their tails oscillate rhythmically like windshield wipers on a lazy, rainy day.

Holding steady to the leads while the long-eared, tricolor and chocolate Beagle puppies pull vigorously, brace Beagle breeders Ron and Josephine "Doby" Gray can't help but smile. It's been a bumper-crop year. The 6 and 7 month-old puppies are among 12 promising derby-age Beagles whelped from five litters sired by four noteworthy males. Their pedigrees, enriched with Purina Award winners and top producers, read like a Who's Who in Brace Beagling.

Five puppies are from litters split with friends; the others are from their own litters. All were born at their Gray's Beagles kennel in Georgetown, Pa. With double the usual number of pups to train and determine which ones to take to next spring's Federation derby field trials, Ron is barely keeping up. It's a good problem to have, he concedes, with a twinkle in his eye.

Pulling out a large black ledger, Ron scribbles notes by the names of the dogs he is running. "Royal Coco" and "Romeo" are males, and "Dimond" and "Debonair" are females. Those who follow Ron and Doby Gray's hounds know their trademark of giving males names that start with "R" and females names that start with "D." Brace beagles compete in male and female 13-inch and 15-inch classes, thus some beaglers run exclusively male or female classes.

"As the good ones come along, we run males and females," Ron explains. "We always try to develop the best hound we can."

Just weeks out of the puppy starting pen, these young hounds are learning to be field trial competitors. Honing their instincts to track rabbits, Ron focuses on training them solo as well as bracing them with other Beagles. In a trial, they will be judged as part of a two-dog brace. Their ability to accurately track a rabbit, with the least amount of lost motion, is fundamental to winning. They must be able to run the front and back of a brace.

"You can't hurt a good dog by running it too much," says Ron, a veteran beagler and member of the Brace Beagling Hall of Fame. "The key is not all dogs need the same amount of work. You have to follow that dog and find out its secret."

The black ledger helps Ron track their progress. He jots down notes describing desirable traits like having a good mouth, or barking with enthusiasm, and not being competitive or aggressive by bumping or pushing a brace mate. He watches for accurate tracking close to the rabbit line and a steady, slow pace. Never mind that a rabbit may make widespread jumps twisted with turns and double backs.

"The slower the dog, the more accurate and straighter the line," Ron says.

The secret to running quality brace Beagles seems to come as naturally to Ron and Doby Gray as does their secret to a good marriage. Celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this muggy September weekend, Ron and Doby have been sweethearts since high school in Jeannette, Pa. Their Gray's Beagles partnership is forged in their shared love for Beagles and respect for each other's contributions.

"This sport is our hobby, our life," says Ron, his voice trailing off. "I like it so much, I don't have to win everything."

"When we started out, the big thing was trying to make second series," says Doby. "If you did, you'd get your picture in Hounds and Hunting."

Since their start in brace beagling field trials 42 years ago, Ron and Doby have made many second series. They have bred, owned and handled two Purina Outstanding Field Trial Brace Beagle Award class winners, two National Field Champions and nine Pennsylvania State Champions. They are the breeders of 34 Field Champions, most handled by Ron to the required three wins and 120 points. They have won 1,440 trophies for placements in derby, licensed and sanctioned field trials.

Their well-rounded endeavors include judging field trials and running field trials as devoted members of their home club, the Coraopolis Beagle Club, in Clinton, Pa. Ron is on the board of the National Brace Beagle Championship and for eight years represented brace beagling on the Beagle Advisory Committee of the American Kennel Club. No one is their stranger. Ron's friendly, easy nature and Doby's contagious smile have welcomed many beaglers to the sport.

Field Trials & Families

Rabbit hunting led Ron to try his luck at a sanctioned trial with his large, red female Beagle, Gray's Whiskey Run Red, at the invitation of Joe Koda. Ron, who managed ramp services for United Airlines at its hub in Pittsburgh, met Koda, a member of the Coraopolis

Beagle Club, through Koda's work at the Sky Chef Kitchen.

The trial, held Father's Day weekend, 1969, at Beaver Valley Beagle Club in Freedom, Pa., was a family outing, with Doby and their three children, all under the age of 5, coming along. "There were so many families with children. We loved it," Doby says. "The children enjoyed playing outdoors together."

"We won the trial out of about 20 dogs and got a ribbon," Ron says, fondly recalling their start in brace beagle field trials. "We beat out a near Field Champion."

Later that year, Ron and Doby became members of Coraopolis.

The era called for a faster-running hound than competes today in brace beagle field trials, accounting for Ron's success with his gundog Beagle, "Whiskey." The oldest Beagle field trial sport in the U.S., brace beagling dates to 1890, when the first trial was held in Massachusetts. The sport and the hounds have evolved to become a precision tracking competition, where every inch of the rabbit line is important in a field trial.

Heavier with a lower, longer body than most types of Beagles, the brace Beagle is known for his slow, ponderous movement, long ears and deep voice. Bred to work the line slowly and accurately, the brace Beagle never chases the rabbit. A handler places the dog on the rabbit trail after a cottontail is flushed from the brush. At a trial, shaggers and the gallery chase out a rabbit, and a spotter shouts, "Tally ho!"

Almost as soon as they started in field trials, the Grays began breeding Beagles, crossing their bitches with males that produced qualities they needed. Their first litter, whelped in 1970, was sired by FC Appledale Barney out of Gray's Debbie. "Most of our breeding goes back to George Nixon's Pearson Creek Beagles from hounds we got from Joe Koda," Ron says.

Enjoying their hounds and the camaraderie at field trials, the Grays competed whenever they could. In 1973, Doby took the children to a trial at the Oil Creek Beagle Club in Tionesta, Pa., while Ron worked, hoping she could finish Gray's Ralph, a 15-inch tricolor male Beagle who only needed another win to become a Field Champion. After the trial, she called Ron and reported they hadn't done anything, though that was not exactly how the trial went. "Ralph" was in the last brace of a class of 63 dogs. In second series, he made the high brace. When Ralph and his brace mate came to a check, a tricky spot where the rabbit made a turn, Ralph kept working the check, barking on the scent and tracking the rabbit line. He worked through the check and won the trial, becoming Gray's Beagles' first Field Champion. Doby drove the children to Ron's office, sneaking in while he was out, so they could prominently display Ralph's trophy and rosette on his desk. When Ron came back to his office, his eyes got big, and he exclaimed, "You lied to me!"

"After that, I never lied again," laughs Doby.

Sanctioned trials held every month and the annual state championship offered opportunities to compete with finished Field Champions. In 1974, the year after Ralph became a Field Champion, he captured the male class at the Pennsylvania State Championship. He also won the Absolute Award when braced with the winning female Champion. That day, Ralph outperformed more than 200 Beagles. It was a proud moment for Ron and Doby.

Though placements in sanctioned trials do not earn points toward a dog's AKC Field Champion title, they do help prepare hounds for licensed trials. They also provide a training ground for people wanting to learn how to judge trials. In 1973, Ron judged his first sanctioned trial.

"Judging helps you develop your own dogs," says Ron. "I probably judged 200 sanctioned trials before taking a licensed trial."

Years later, Doby complained to Ron about how a judge had scored one of their Beagles. "He asked me, 'Did you look at all the braces?'" she says. "I had not."

His comment led to Doby following Ron's lead in becoming a judge of sanctioned trials to learn more about the sport. Five years later, she judged her first licensed trial.

Ron still watches as many braces as he can. "I like to watch the stud dogs and also their pups run," he says. "At the Federations, you see dogs from around the country. I try to watch every brace."

For many years, Ron and Doby juggled family life with beagling. Their daughters, Dannette and Christine, played softball, and their son, Ron Jr. took part on baseball, football and wrestling teams. When Ron retired in 2000, after a 40-year career with United Airlines, he finally had ample time to devote to beagling.

It wasn't long before a daily ritual evolved. Every morning, Ron loads his truck with a few hounds and drives half an hour to Coraopolis Beagle Club, where he meets up with fellow retired club members Bill Bushmire, Jim Watson III and Dick Shafer. Besides running dogs, they enjoy one another's company.

Founded in 1932, Coraopolis holds five licensed and seven or eight derby trials a year, as well as the International Brace Beagle Federation and the National Brace Beagle Championship. Some of the largest brace beagle field trials in the country are held here. Ron is the field trial secretary, although he has served the club in every officer role. Doby manages the kitchen, often preparing and serving meals to more than a hundred people.

'Our Own Little Beagle Club'

Three moves over the course of the Grays' marriage have each time produced better facilities for breeding and training field trial Beagles. "We have our own little beagle club here," Ron says, describing their operation on 12 1/2 acres in rural Georgetown, Pa., where they have lived for the past 20 years.

Two training grounds, a puppy starting pen, two heated kennel buildings, one that is used specifically for whelping puppies, and ground kennels comprise a dream setup. Even before their house was built, Ron and Doby built the first kennel, a 10 by 16-foot storage building that Ron customized, dividing it into 15 individual dog kennels and adding insulation and gas heat for cold Pennsylvania winters.

Shortly after they moved, the state conservation department helped the Grays develop a natural wildlife habitat on land that abuts the highway and runs alongside their house. Grain sorghum and clover were planted to attract turkey, deer and rabbits. Later, Ron mowed strips through the entire property, enabling them to maximize its use for training Beagles.

Surrounding their property is Raccoon State Park, a lush 33,000-acre park used for hunting, boating, hiking and camping. Each autumn, Ron enjoys deer hunting during bow season, usually bagging a white-tailed deer. The park provides a sound barrier that serves the Grays and their hounds well. Though the past summer has been unusually hot for Pennsylvania, the Grays' lawn is green, meticulously mowed. Running to greet visitors are "Chester" and "Donut," Beagle house dogs. They bark a welcoming "Hellooo." Two people-friendly Labrador Retrievers, "Maggie" and "Cutter," complete the house dog menagerie. The kennel buildings look like quaint cottages. On this warm day, the doors are open, showing walls decorated with framed AKC Field Champion certificates, plaques, trophies and photographs from field trials. Individual kennels are numbered, and the dogs' registration papers, protected in plastic sleeves adhered with matching numbers, hang above the kennels.

Doby opens some of the kennel doors. Out pops the heads of Gray's December and Dan Arts Jolette. Their sweet, soulful eyes would melt any dog lover's heart. Explaining her love for Beagles, Doby says, "They don't ask anything from you except to be petted and fed. I can have a bad day, but when I come to the kennel to see the dogs, they make me smile."

Among their 38 Beagles are four male Field Champions and 14 female Field Champions. The rest are young hounds competing and being developed for trials. Some of the retired dogs live in spacious ground kennels. No Beagle sits idle in his or her pen. Ron and Doby enjoy letting their dogs trail rabbits in their 2 1/2-acre fenced enclosure.

Though there are fewer sanctioned trials today than years ago, they still can be found, plus the state championship continues to draw a large entry. Ron has held every office in the Pennsylvania Association. Doby is the secretary-treasurer for the Tri-State Association, and she helps promote entries in the state championship by producing a program book where beaglers advertise their top dogs and kennels.

The heated whelping kennel is designed to comfortably accommodate up to four pregnant bitches, although it is seldom at capacity. Though Ron and Doby breed about three litters a year, Doby offers a puppy delivery service to brace beaglers. She estimates that 76 litters have been born at their Gray's Beagles kennel. Baby monitors with video cameras allow Doby to watch dams and puppies when she is in the house. The wooden whelping boxes are sterilized between litters and during use. Pads placed under the whelping box floor provide warmth to newly born puppies. Stocked with supplies for caring for puppies, the whelping kennel is well-equipped.

"We move our pregnant bitches into the whelping box about two weeks before they are due to deliver," Doby says. "I start dams right away on Purina Pro Plan Performance or Pro Plan Puppy. Both formulas provide optimal nutrition during pregnancy and nursing. We also keep them in good condition through exercise."

Ron and Doby currently are working on a four-generation Field Champion bitchline consisting of FC Gray's Dot, FC Gray's Deb, NFC- FC J&B's Deb and a potential Field Champion female puppy named Gray's Debonair. Great-granddam "Dot," who produced five Field Champions, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009.

Ron practices linebreeding, choosing distantly related breeding partners. Field Champions are 2 to 3 years of age before bred. "When I work puppies I learn what a dam may or may not have put in her pups," he says. "This tells me what I need to look for in the sire when I breed her the next time. Do I breed for more mouth or more stay or other traits?"

When evening comes around, another daily ritual begins. Ron and Doby go together to the kennel. Ron cleans the individual dog kennels, and Doby feeds Purina Dog Chow and gives fresh water. She washes all the bowls and cleans the kennel building. When the work is done, they steal away to the enclosure to watch a brace run a rabbit.

When the brace beagle Federations start next March, Ron will know which of the derby-age dogs he'll be taking to the Southern. It's been 26 years since Gray's Dixie II made the high brace in the second series at the International Federation her derby year. Though Dixie lost her rabbit, her amazing career included becoming a Field Champion in three trials at 9 months of age and winning the 1985 Pennsylvania State Championship.

As long as they make second series, it will all work out.