The sun's rays were still new and struggling through the mist when the "sighthounds" came to play on a breathtaking piece of land overlooking the ocean an hour or so south of San Francisco. Lure coursing may be a sport to the humans who put days like these on their calendars, but to the dogs who compete it is joy unleashed.
Sighthounds were designed to track game by eye, not nose, and to give chase, and their bodies reflect the work they were bred to do. Deep-chested and long-legged, with elegant necks and wise, narrow faces, the dogs danced at the ends of their leashes or waited impatiently in exercise pens. The humans who brought them in the smattering of vans and motor homes so common to any canine event might have had rules, titles and glory on their minds. For the dogs, there was but one goal: They came to run.
Like most dogs today, they don't get much chance to. We have meddled from the beginning with our canine companions, developing dogs to retrieve, to dig out and dispatch vermin, to pull sleds, to run down game. Few dogs do any of these things today, and it says a great deal for the strong bond we have with this species that most are content to spend their days alone in our homes and yards and their evenings in our company.
Some of the more dedicated dog-lovers are determined to provide more, which is how three dozen or so dogs and their owners ended up in such beautiful surroundings on a cool fall morning.
Lure coursing is sort of a compromise sport from the start. Hounds were bred for specific prey, but we have thankfully little stomach today for watching cherished pets tear the entrails from living creatures, be they rabbits, deer, wolves or even lions. The compromise is chasing a "rabbit" that is anything but: white garbage bags secured to a line powered by a small engine. The lure whips through the field just a bit faster than the dogs run, with a jerky rhythm and sudden turns meant to duplicate the run of startled prey.
The morning's runs were for the beginners, brought to the start by their owners and held firm until the "rabbit" ran.
The instinct to chase clicked in with dogs who had never been exposed to any opportunity to do as their ancestors had for centuries. They ran with intensity and joy so palpable that onlookers stilled to concentrate on the fleet-footed animals. The steam that rose from cups of coffee was the only other thing moving until each run was done.
Christie Keith, one of a pair of friends who had invited me to watch, has been in love with sighthounds for nearly 20 years. She has put coursing titles on many of her Scottish deerhounds, including two dogs who became both field and show champions. My other friend, Linda Batson, was new to the coursing but not to her breed: Her Rhodesian ridgebacks are some of the very best in the country at dog shows.
Their dogs did well, as did most of the dogs at the trial. Titles were won and prizes awarded. For my friends, though, that seemed like icing on the cake, with the treat being the opportunity to talk dogs with others just as fervent, and, of course, to watch dogs run.
"It's beautiful," said Keith, and despite the astonishing surroundings it was clear that she was talking about only one thing: The sight of a lanky dog stretched long with effort, running, running, running as fast as the winds kicking off the ocean.
"They love to run," she said. "And I love to see them."
It's a sight I cannot wait to see again.
PETS ON THE WEB
You can find information on lure coursing from the Web site of the American Sighthound Field Association (www.asfa.org), which sanctions field trials throughout the United States for 11 sighthound breeds. The site explains the rules, the titles available to competitors, and includes both information on upcoming events and results from trials past. The American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) oversees its own lure coursing events, and offers information on its trials, rules and titles on its Web site -- put "lure coursing" in the page's search engine to find the information fastest.
The popularity of reptile pets has more than a few public-health experts concerned about salmonella, a bacteria present in the intestinal tracts of pets such as iguanas. A salmonella infection can make healthy people violently ill and can be lethal to the very young or very elderly, or those with compromised immune systems. For those people, as well as pregnant women, reptilian pets are not advised.
For others who enjoy these exotic pets, common sense dictates careful attention to basic good hygiene. Iguanas should not be allowed to walk on counters where food is prepared or eaten, nor should they be given baths in sinks or tubs that humans use. After handling these pets or cleaning their cages, be sure to wash your hands in warm, soapy water. Since iguanas and other reptiles are often children's pets, be sure your children get the message, too.
Finally, keep things in perspective: Although salmonella infections traced to pets have risen along with the popularity of iguanas and other reptiles, reported cases are still low -- a few dozen nationwide every year. A few basic precautions are all you need to keep from being one of those statistics.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Regarding your "tip" on using a "power tool" on a difficult animal's nails -- are you crazy? I've been a groomer for 10 years and would never think of using a power tool on a pet that is already petrified of this procedure. It would take longer, and the noise alone would scare any animal! -- C.P., via the Internet
Q: I asked my veterinarian's office about your recent note on using a grinder on dog nails. They said they'd never heard of such a thing. What gives? -- C.R., via the Internet.
A: Yes, I'm crazy, but not when it comes to grinding nails on dogs. So many dog owners, breeders and show handlers do it, the company that makes the dominant brand of pet clippers, Oster, also makes a pet-nail grinder. (I find the multipurpose Dremel a better fit for my hand, but that's just personal preference.)
I agree that it may not be the best tool for a professional groomer, who doesn't have the time to slowly introduce the animal to the grinder over time. (As for it being a "power tool," though, what an odd concern. What do you think clippers are?)
For patient pet owners, though, this is a nail-maintenance technique that can prove superior -- easier on both dogs and owners. When you grind nails, there's no guessing where the quick is, no bleeding when you cut too far. With grinding, the nail is shortened in tiny, tiny increments, which gives you time to stop before you get into any trouble.
Let me again stress the word "patient." Introduce the grinder to your dog by tapping his nail with the power off, and then by turning it on an arm's length away. Praise and call it a day. When the pet is comfortable with the sound, bring it close enough to touch a nail tip while on and no more. More praise, another lesson over. Eventually you'll be able to grind off the tip and smooth up the sides of each nail.
It took me a long month of small steps -- done while watching TV in the evenings, mostly -- to get my big retriever, Benjamin, used to the grinder. But he almost relaxes when his big nails are ground now, which is a big change from the hatred he had for getting his nails clipped. My friend Penny, who has been grinding nails on her massive Irish wolfhounds for years, says she hasn't the strength to cut through those monster nails -- grinding is the only thing that works for her.
If you and your dog are happy with clipping, by all means stick with it. I have been clipping my oldest dog's nails for a dozen years and have no reason to change. But if you are having problems, grinding is an option.
One final point: Wear a dust mask while you work. To get a good look at what you're doing, you'll be close enough to breathe in the dust from the grinding -- and it can be irritating.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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