Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Things Unseen

Laura and Dan Belkin, 1976

Sometimes people send me stuff over the transom that is pure gold, and one example is The Functional Saluki - Lessons from the Coursing Field by Dan Belkin and sent to me by Kevin P.

Dan Belkin was an evolutionary biologist and a falconer who was flying birds right after WWII when that was as rare a thing as frog hair.   A biographical squib at the top of the article says simply, "In 1971, he abandoned his scientific career in order to course Salukis full time." Right there he became my hero.

I knew this was a special article when it started off like this:

I WANT YOU TO LEAVE HERE with this idea: things you cannot see are more important than things you can. There are many things about Salukis that a judge can't see and can't feel, and functionally, those things are more important than the visible and palpable ones.

Ah, the things unseen!  The things you cannot say or write about about unless you have actually experienced them in the field.

The typists and rosette chasers will never understand that it is not about romantic history or theory, paper pedigrees or alleles.

Dogs are about sinew and desire, muscles, brains, and nose. A true dog man understands that there are different horses for different courses, and he is not looking for a theoretical dog for a course or field he will never run or hunt, but a real dog for the land that is right in front of him.

As Belkin notes in a quick line, buried in this piece:

I don't think the quarry cares about how much stop the Saluki has, or what color its nose is.

No, not at all. Nor does it care what color its coat is, or whether the dog's sire won Crufts. It does not even care if the dog breathing down its neck is a Saluki! It cares only about speed and distance, turning radius and the fire called desire. It cares only about making a zig when the dog makes a zag.  It cares only about how close the teeth are.

Belkin notes that there are many types of Salukis for different county, different quary and even different human amusements, and that dogs develop their own habits and useful idiosyncracies.

A good hunting Saluki is not necessarily a good coursing Saluki. Let me tell you a little story about that. I once took two of our top hot-shot open field coursing Salukis to the desert on a camping trip. I also took along a friend's young Saluki. This puppy was a very big red dog, about 14 months old, 29 inches at the shoulder, 60 pounds and inexperienced. The first day we went out, the coursing dogs took off after a hare and the puppy tried to go with them. After about 400 yards, the puppy quit because he couldn't see the other dogs and the hare anymore. This happened several times and it was clear that the puppy, at that time, was not fast enough to compete with top flight coursing dogs. The next day, the hot-shot coursing dogs' feet were so sore that I wouldn't let them run. The puppy went out on his own. We were camped on a hill; I could watch the puppy go out and find a hare and start chasing it. If the hare ran fast, the puppy would quit and find another one. That puppy learned how to catch half-grown hares — which are the best ones to eat anyway. He would catch one and bring it back to camp, lay down in the shade of the car for awhile, then go off and catch another one. He fed the two coursing dogs, himself and me for a week, but he couldn't have gotten a coursing championship in Merced. Now, which one of those is a better Saluki?

From the audience: ‘I guess it depends on how hungry you are!' (laughter).

Belkin notes that things went wrong right out of the box when the Saluki entered the show ring, as the goal was to eliminate differences within the type, which effectively eliminated the wide-ranging abilities of dogs within the breed to hunt different kinds of game across a wide spectrum of land.

In the Middle East, Saluki just means ‘coursing dog' or ‘sighthound.' There are Salukis that are sprinters, like Greyhounds, and there are Salukis that are marathon runners. The crusaders brought ‘Greyhounds' back from that area: they brought Salukis back and made them into what we now call Greyhounds, by breeding them to course the brown hare. When, hundreds of years later, these Greyhounds were brought to the Middle East, the Arabs called them English Salukis. We don't want to make our Salukis into Greyhounds, so we say the Saluki is a distance runner. I'll modify my working definition of a Saluki to read: ‘a dog that looks like a Saluki and can run two miles in under four minutes.' This is fairly easy for most well-conditioned Salukis, but something most other present-day sighthounds cannot do

Later on, he compares the hunting style of the Jack Rabbit (hare) Salukui with that of the Foxhound, noting that Enclosure changed the Greyhound in England even as it changed so much of the rest of the world of dogs:

What we have done with the coursing Saluki in the west is to make it into a middle-distance runner. If you want a long-distance runner, you get something like an American Foxhound — it can't go as fast as a Saluki, but it can go farther. We want a Saluki to be able to run about two miles, as that is how long it takes to wear down a hare. This they can do. If we were coursing antelope, we would want a Saluki with even more endurance, but it would be slower. The difference between Salukis and Greyhounds is that the Greyhounds are faster than most hares, and the Salukis are not - the Saluki wears the hare out; the Greyhound sprints and catches it quickly. If the hare is not killed by a Greyhound in the first mile or so, it usually escapes. Salukis often don't cause the hare much worry until that point. This is a recent development, as the Greyhounds in England, before the land was enclosed, coursed hares the way our Salukis can, and maybe better.

Dan Belkin notes that a good hunting dog is not all about speed or teeth; it's about brains too. Can the dog problem-solve? Does it study its quarry? Has the dog been given enough experience to actually learn the game?

The standard says nothing whatsoever about the most important aspect of the head: what's inside it. When we first went coursing in Merced, the dominant Saluki was a Billa de Esta dog, named Lance. The way the judging was done in those days tended to reward a dog for hunting rather than coursing. The reason Lance was such a great hunting dog was that he knew hares — he acted as though he could read their minds. The hounds would be slipped and off they would go. Off Lance would go in a direction 90 degrees from that taken by the hare — and the hare would come to him — always! Many Salukis, particularly those that have run the lure, will hedge (run to one side of their quarry, rather than at it). Some of the coursing Salukis will hedge, taking a chance that they know which way the hare will turn. Some of the good hunting Salukis can identify a place where the hare might escape, such as some brush or a fence, so they hedge and give away a little ground to keep the hare from going that way and getting to the cover. I never saw Lance make a mistake. He would go to where the hare was going to go. Lance loved to course, and loved to run hares. He didn't particularly want to kill them. When he caught up to the hare he would run alongside and look at it, occasionally looking back over his shoulder to see if the other hounds were catching up. If he saw them catching up he would kill the hare. He had the best coursing record of his time — because of what was in his head, not because of his athleticism, as there were many Salukis that could run faster and turn better than he could.

Belkin does an autopsy on the standard, noting that "the standard doesn't say anything about whether or not the Saluki is deaf" despite the need for the dog to hear whistle or voice commands, and he also notes that a level or scissors bite does not matter a whit.   Ha!  True enough for terrier work as well!

As for chest depth and lung size, Belkin notes that even with running dogs one has nothing to do with the other, a point missed in nearly every breed description, but provable by science. 

What about heart? Well there are two types of "heart," and Belkin discusses them both.   As for the muscle that pumps blood, it starts out large in Salukis and can be excercised and conditioned larger, but there is always room enough inside a chest for that!

Belkin closes, before a question and answer session, with this point:

The last thing I would like to impress on you is that if you don't select for something, you are going to lose it. If you fail to select for visual acuity for a long enough time, your Salukis are not going to be able to see at all. If you only select your Salukis for moving correctly at a trot, eventually you are going to have Salukis that can't gallop well enough to catch anything. Look at show Afghans if you want to see an example of that. That's the way selection works. That's the way genetics works: any characteristic which is not actively selected for will degenerate. It will go away. That's true throughout the animal kingdom and is true for our dogs as well.

Nice! Excellent. Read the whole thing. Much thanks to Kevin P. for sending this to me, and to Steve Bodio at the Querencia blog for the picture, below, of Impulse, one of Dan Belkin's gorgeous working Salukis.  Dan Belkin died of an inoperable brain tumor in April, 1998. His words and thoughts live on.


M said...

Truly a great article.

"‘eyes, dark to hazel and bright, large and oval, but not prominent.' It doesn't say anything about whether or not the Saluki can see."

thanks for sharing :)

Steve Bodio said...

He was the best. John Burchard still carries the torch (against the rising darkness) in California, as I try to in my small way.

I'll link with a pic of one of his dogs--- one thing show zombies don't understand is that beautiful form follows function...

Anonymous said...

Very cool article. Here is an example from my sport of a moment in training that only the experienced eye can catch. It was the dogs correct decision made in a flash, that caused me to chuckle. I slowed it down for all to see. Look at 1:48 for the moment and then the slo mo comes soon afterwards.

The concept is: the dog should bite the leg closest and not chase the moving leg simply because it is moving. We call this "Pivot Technique"
The rest of the work on the video depicts the training we do to teach the dog to "zig" when the decoy "zag"s we use a barrel to teach the dog to cut the corner and go for the leg leading the turn rather than the trailing leg which is easy to miss.

Tonight at my club we are doing a seminar that focuses entirely on the "unseen things" that are made clear through high frame rate video. Our guest speaker is Yann Armand of France. Check out his slow motion Ringsport videos at:

Wish you could come Patrick. Someday I would love to have you do a talk for the club. Your blog is the best dog blog around. I'm a huge fan!

Donald McCaig said...

Dear Patrick,

John Burchard and I corresponded on the old Cangen Forum and one afternoon John showed up at a California Sheepdog trial. After I explained what the sheepdogs were doing John kindly agreed to show me what his Salukis did and he and a partner with a greyhound took me to a BLM tract where the dogs hunted jackrabbits. An unforgettable doggy afternoon with a great working dog man. I'm so glad John still carries the torch.

Donald McCaig