By IV Hendrix. Photo: Members of the North American Veterinary Blood Bank at the Middleburg Hunt kennels by Georgina Preston

Middleburg Hunt huntsman Richard Roberts approaches hound health like he does hunting: “’Good enough’ isn’t good enough,” he says as he sits atop a fence post surrounded by his pack lying in the December sun after their daily walk.

Roberts steps down from his perch and makes his way across a pasture toward the kennel. Puppies jump back and forth over a stacked stone wall as older hounds stick close to Roberts, pining for one more biscuit from his vest pocket. 

Back at the kennel, three women clad in scrubs are unloading veterinary equipment from a van. Roberts grins and issues a half-hearted “steady” as the pack greets them. 

“I call them the vampire girls,” Roberts says. But if the hounds are worried, they’re certainly not showing it. 

Several years ago, Roberts registered his pet dogs with a canine blood donor program through the North American Veterinary Blood Bank (NAVBB), which operates a clinic nearby. NAVBB relies exclusively on privately owned pets as donors— and they were desperate to meet demand from veterinarians for life-saving blood transfusions. Roberts wondered: Could it be done on a larger scale?

So Roberts and Masters Penny Denegre, Jeff Blue and Tim Harmon approached NAVBB director Casey Mills, who agreed to begin a pilot donation program with a small group of hounds. 

The program has since been expanded to include all eligible hounds and has proven mutually beneficial: Each hound receives a physical exam and screening for organ function, infectious diseases and parasites, and NAVBB receives access to a large and healthy donor pool.  

“Going into it we were excited. It’s a lot of hounds— and that helps us,” Mills said. “There’s a huge canine blood shortage. As soon as we’re pooling it, it’s being used. So these hounds are really saving lives.”

For Roberts, the blood donor program has reduced the burden of record keeping and has given him confidence that his hounds are receiving the best preventative health care measures possible.

“It’s been a great addition to our kennel and pack health management program,” Roberts said. “It gives me a good foundation of where the hounds are because I have a health history on each one.”

Once a week, a team of NAVBB technicians travel to the Middleburg Hunt kennels and set up shop for the day. Hounds are organized into donation groups— each hound gives blood once every six to eight weeks— and go through a routine intake process that includes weighing and blood screening before each donation. During the donation, which takes only a minute or two, a technician lies down on a padded table with the hound. And like human blood banks, NAVBB provides snacks for donors afterward. 

The Middleburg Hunt Hounds being cared for throughout the blood drive. Photos by Georgina Preston

Kim Roberts (no relation to Richard Roberts), a licensed veterinary technician with NAVBB, said she wasn’t sure what to expect when she heard that she would be working with hunting hounds. 

“I was pleasantly surprised because I didn’t expect them to have as much human interaction as a house dog, but they love us,” Kim Roberts said. “Every time we come, they’re excited to see us. They’re easy to work with and listen very well.”

Kim Roberts, who has over a decade of experience in the veterinary field, has worked with other working canines— but none as friendly as foxhounds, she said. She credits the Middleburg hounds’ affable, easy-going nature to the relationship they have with their huntsman.

“When we first started, some of the hounds weren’t as confidant as others when donating,” she said. “When Richard would come in and sit with them the first time, it was amazing to see the difference in their personalities and the trust they have. It’s a beautiful thing to see that relationship.”

After a few months, Kim Roberts and her colleagues began to build their own connections with the hounds. “I don’t play favorites,” she cautions before naming Middleburg Poldark ’19 and Middleburg Sniper ’20 as hounds of which she’s especially fond. 

Richard Roberts said that any apprehension he had about involving his pack in the program evaporated once he saw the NAVBB technicians work with the hounds.

“The lovely thing is they come here and handle it how good animal people do: It’s not about getting it done, it’s about making sure the animal is comfortable and it’s probably quicker that way,” he said. “[The technicians] are patient and empathetic, and a lot of the hounds fall asleep when they’re donating now.”

It’s easy to see why the NAVBB staff have become fan favorites with the hounds, Roberts said, and the sentiment extends to the Masters and staff as well. Roberts invited the NAVBB team to walk out with the pack on an autumn morning, and Penny Denegre, MFH, encouraged them to see the hunt off and enjoy a stirrup cup before a recent Saturday meet.

“Walking out and seeing them in their environment, where they’re running free but they know all their names and come back and see how responsive they are to Richard, it’s very cool,” Kim Roberts said.

NAVBB director Casey Mills has taken an interest in the sport and said she’s enjoyed seeing the hounds in action while car following the hunt.

“I have an admiration for the sport. I didn’t know a lot about it going into it, but being able to watch these hounds who are saving so many lives do what they’re bred for is incredible to watch,” Mills said.

Mills said she was proud— and a little surprised— to hear that Middleburg Rose ’15, who she considers to be a star donor, was named top hound at the Bull Run/ Blue Ridge Performance Trials in October .

“Little Rosie who is so shy and sweet in the kennels is a crazy intense hunter,” Mills said, laughing. “It’s hard to believe she can go from a soft, quiet donor who snuggles up with us to winning the performance trials.”

The best— and most enthusiastic— ambassadors for the sport are the hounds, Denegre said, and she hopes the NAVBB staff will continue to be involved. 

“As people who are new to the sport, it’s great that they are getting involved with the hounds first,” she said. “They are the true stars of the sport, so it’s terrific that [the NAVBB staff] are becoming involved through their interest in the hounds.”

Roberts and Denegre both said they would encourage other their peers at other hunts to explore canine blood donation programs. Between hunting, hound care, and country work, huntsmen are busy. But for Roberts, the peace of mind that comes with knowing his pack receives the best in preventative care is a great reward for investing his time with the NAVBB. 

“I recommend it to every hunt. It’s  a great thing not only for the community of dogs in need and for veterinarians, but it’s a good move for promoting foxhunting in a positive light,” Roberts said.

“It’s a canine giving back to a canine, that’s the real beauty of it.”