This last Saturday I was at Luton Park running on those wooded, curvy trails. I saw three dogs, faithful companions to other runners, each without a tail.
The first was a small, female German Shorthaired Pointer. These are strong hunting dogs that typically can run all day in the field if they are in good cardiovascular shape. The best in this breed have incredible noses and will lock up on point at the faintest whiff of even residual game birds--was there a bird hunkered down in that brush fifteen minutes ago? This dog will detect the scent the bird left behind. They bob these dogs' tails right after birth. What shocked me was how this dog was trotting obediently, slavishly, not 12 inches behind its master. If you have ever known a "Shorthair," you know these dogs don't trot beside you. This was an extremely well-trained dog that someone went to great effort to bend its natural instinct buried deep in many generations of DNA; namely, to run with intense purpose in 50 yard swaths in front of its human companion looking for game to point. I can't imagine the time and discipline this took. I would have suspected a shock collar was involved, but the dog didn't have one on so it must have been done through practice and discipline. But there it was, running in single file behind four trail runners. It avoided me as I reached down to pet it as it passed--it obviously felt obliged to stick to the heels of her owner. I've never seen a Shorthair do this.
The second tailless dog was an Australian Cattle Dog, also known as a "Blue Heeler." Again, similar to the German Shorthaired, this is a dog with a working purpose, in this case, herding cattle as opposed to sniffing out upland game birds. I asked the owner how she does on the run . . . "Oh really great," she said. "She will hardly stop to pee without permission," she said. Hmm. OK, cool. I don't know the Blue Heelers as well, but this breed is viewed as having one of the highest IQs in the dog world. The owner could probably just give this lovely blue dog a Smartphone and have it text her when it needed a break. They bob these dogs' tails at birth too.
The third tailless dog was a Hungarian Vizsla. This incredible breed has DNA that goes back to the 1350s. These are beautiful, noble dogs whose graceful gait is awe inspiring to any runner. Watching these dogs move is like watching a gentle wind wisp through waves of Kansas wheat. My neighbor has a Vizsla--and when I see "Radar" run, I really can't take my eyes off of him. The Vizsla I saw last Saturday may not have been with a trail runner. It was off leash, not too far in advance of its owner, gliding and turning through the open field like a young wizard in a quidditch match.
The fourth dog I want to talk about has a long, feathered tail; he's my own English Setter named Huckleberry. (his papers say, "Kaw River Huckleberry" but that's another story). Huck is seven years old now and he's gone out to run (off leash) in 25 acres of open field not far from my house nearly every day of his life. He's not so graceful as the Vizsla, but he runs with speed, incredible agility, and without fatigue. He can run for seven or eight hours as long as he has access to water and as long as it's not too hot out. But what is most compelling about Huck is the absolute joy that he brings to running. The image above does a pretty good job of capturing the joy and agility of this dog. When I see him run, I think about what a joy it is to just run. He knows it too. Indeed, he helps me to see it in myself and in my many trail running pals. Lots of animals run if they have to, but only a few run just for the joy of running--and English Setters are one of those kinds of animals. This is my fourth Setter (going back to childhood) and they all loved to run--perhaps to a fault. But none of them ran with the inspired abandon that Huck does. And none have reminded me, like Huck, that running is a physical joy. Getting winded, getting thirsty, feeling fatigue, feeling pain--these are annoyances, but they don't eclipse the joy of running. Huck knows this fact and every day that I see him run, I am inspired by these reflections.
A good friend of mine, Bob Tremmel, a teacher and a poet and a bird hunter among other things (from my Kansas days) owned a German Shorthaired Pointer named Gretel. I'm sure that Gretel was the inspiration for this poem that he wrote about 15 years ago.
You Will Think If You Run My Dog
The walk down from the house
takes you across new, flinty soil,
fattening itself on lichens, bluestem,
buckbrush run up out of the timber.
She takes it all in stride:
what was once covered by an inland sea
is now covered by a single dog,
washing over it in waves,
finding out the smallest
seep hole and hiding place
of still air.
When you see her you will think
how fine it must be to move that way,
weightless mind, body
floating across fallen logs, stones,
drifting through barbed wire,
each obstacle occasion to dance.
In the same breath you will think
how short her life is too.
Where the mullien stands out
on the slope above the creek
seven winters from now
it will not have moved more than a shadow,
yet she will run no more and think nothing of it.
And you will think how short your life must be,
when you fail to leave the ground
with even one step, fail to hear the sound
of waves you know are there
grinding away beneath you,
of wind blowing across the water,
the carcasses of larger, faster animals
washed up at your very feet.