Bad Omen #1: Rocky and I sit in traffic for an hour trying to get to Purina Farms in Grey Summit.
Bad Omen #2: Upon arriving at Purina Farms, I spend the better part of an hour chasing Rocky. Not a good sign.
Rocky and I had set out from the lovely and beautiful city of St. Louis on a gorgeous fall afternoon. The destination was the November SLASH Coursing Trial, to be held Saturday and Sunday, November 10th and 11th. "Coursing" is not what you do when you miss the nail and hit your thumb instead while using a hammer. That's "cursing," and many people are skilled at it, though few can really claim to have raised it to an art form. David Mamet really used cursing effectively in Glengarry Glen Ross, but I digress.
SLASH stands for "St. Louis Area Sighthounds." SLASH was founded seven years ago for the purpose of promoting lure coursing in St. Louis and to educate the public about the trials and tribulations of owning sighthounds.
The moniker sighthound is self-descriptive these are hunting dogs ("hounds") whose primary tool in tracking the quarry is their acute vision ("sight"). This is in contrast to, say, the Bloodhound, the Foxhound, and the Coonhound, whose primary tool in tracking prey is their sense of smell. The latter breeds fall under the category of "Scenthounds," natch.
The sighthounds consist of the Basenji, the Borzoi, the Greyhound, the Irish Wolfhound, the Pharaoh Hound, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Saluki, the Scottish Deerhound, and the Whippet. By far the most familiar of these is the Greyhound, in large part due to those scary Greyhound Bus commercials in which the dog is dressed up and appears to be lecturing a college class. Talking dogs don't bother me, per se I loved "Babe" but dress 'em up and have them teach a class? That's just plain crazy.
If you've seen a greyhound, you might assume that all sighthounds are built for speed, speed, speed. The greyhound is a sleek, slender animal that somehow looks wrong standing still. It's as if you took a photo of Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson at full stride and made that pose their resting position. The greyhound is all racing lines, with no wasted curves or muscles.
If you've seen a greyhound, then you've seen a whippet. The whippet is a comically small greyhound take a greyhound and shrink it maybe 25% and you've got a whippet. Instead of crating them, their owners just transport them around in their purses or backpacks. (Just kidding!)
Not all sighthounds have the appearance of pure speed. The deerhounds and wolfhounds are massive animals, anywhere from 100 to 150 lbs. If one were to use these dogs for their intended purpose as a breed, one would use them to track a deer or a wolf. When the hunter caught up with the dog and the prey, he or she would dispatch the animal with a firearm of some type. However, the appearances of the deerhound and the wolfhound suggest that the dogs wouldn't have much difficulty dispatching the deer or the wolf without assistance from their human companion. If you aren't strong enough to hold them on their lead, the whippet is probably more your style.
Dog owners are a strange breed of people. Dogs themselves probably don't care if they ever compete for any type of prize. Most dogs are happy to be with their people, go for walks, take naps, maybe do some tricks if dogs could talk I doubt they'd say, "Please please please can you put ribbons in my hair and enter me into Westminster?" But dog owners can't leave well enough alone, and we have them compete to run through an agility course, or catch a Frisbee, or dig a hole, or pull a cart I'm not saying the dog might not enjoy such activities, but do they really need to compete in these activities? Can't they just do it for the fun of it?
In lure coursing, the object of the competition is to see which dog is the best at chasing prey. If you saw the movie "Snatch," you saw a scene involving two eager dogs and one heckuva frightened rabbit. This is the idea behind lure coursing, except the version seen in sanctioned competition is slightly more humane. The "rabbit" is actually strips of white plastic kinda like a tattered garbage bag. It is attached to a wire loop that winds over an area the size of four football fields, strung along the way on a system of pulleys. If you've seen a greyhound racing track, you've seen the plastic bunny propelled on a track, always just out of reach of the lead dog. This is the same idea except the course is an irregular shape, and the bunny track lies along the ground.
Rocky, also known as TBPE (the best puppy ever), is not a sighthound. He's a foxhound or a coonhound think of a beagle, and make the beagle three times as big, and you've got Rocky. Rocky likes to run and chase animals. He tries to do it with me, but I tire easily. He tried to engage the cats in the chase game, but they stare at him blankly and finally hiss at him when they tire of his attempts at initiating play.
Rocky is most successful at the chase game in Tower Grove Park. To date he has chased and either treed or caught 5 possums and 1 cat. He always is very proud of himself when he detects, chases, and corners a potential target. Of course, I don't kill the animals he catches but seeing him happy makes me happy. When I first heard about lure coursing, I thought it'd be a great opportunity to let Rocky be a dog. Running around and chasing things is part of being a dog, and it's not something he got to do very often living as an only dog in the city.
SLASH is just about the only organization offering lure coursing in the St. Louis area. Their competitions are open to sighthounds and sighthounds only. However, at their practices they allow other dogs to try their luck at chasing the bunny. And at their competitive events, they open the course to all comers on Saturday after the competition ends.
Rocky and I headed out to Purina Farms. (Side note: this is yet another undiscovered treasure of St. Louis. There are very few facilities in the U.S. equipped to hold large-scale competitions involving animals. Purina Farms hosts all kinds of national competitions at its Grey Summit location. Watch Animal Planet long enough, and you'll find some kind of national contest involving animals taking place at Purina Farms.) Grey Summit is only about 45 minutes outside of St. Louis, on I-44 past Six Flags. Usually, you can set the cruise at 70 mph once you're outside of I-270 and just coast. Not on this Saturday. I never found out what the problem was, but Rocky and I spent an extra hour just getting there.
Then, when I finally found the field of competition, Rocky and I let each other down. I let him out of the car without hanging on to his collar. My mistake. Rocky took this opportunity to smell the surrounding square mile of trees, fields, and puddles. Rocky is pretty good at "sit" and "stay," but not so good at "come." He's got an incredible nose, like all scenthounds, and the countryside just has too many intriguing, delicious smells to compete with a short, squat, hairy guy yelling, "Come here, Rocky! Rocky! Come!"
How bad does it look when you are at a competition with well-trained, registered dogs, and you can't even get your dog to come to you? When I finally corralled him, I hoped that from the distance of the course, it looked as if I were merely exercising and stretching out my animal.
At 4:30 p.m. they were still 'pre-certifying' registered sighthounds. The competition had ended for that day, but before they opened the course to the general public, owners of registered sighthounds were given the chance to use the course first. Evidently, serious lure coursing isn't measured by which dog is the fastest. The dog must reach various levels of distinction, similar to advancing from white belt to black belt in the martial arts. The top level (I think) is Field Champion. Woe is it to be the owner of a dog who is almost an FC but then takes a nip at a competitor during the trial. Your dog gets busted back to buck private, or something like that.
Rocky and I watched the "real" dogs run. It was quite enjoyable. The course had a lot of sharp turns. The lure doesn't change direction like a real animal the wire goes around the pulley at a precise angle, and the lure follows. Some of the dogs were so focused on the bunny, they changed directions like they had a hinge running through their centers. The head snapped to the new direction and the tail followed, like old time fire trucks.
Other dogs became less interested when the lure changed direction. One whippet in particular got off the lure's track and started running around the field. This of course did not please his owner, who went off across the pitch, yelling for her dog.
Other dogs managed to catch the lure. They happily would begin tearing into it like a two year old into his birthday cake. SLASH must go through a lot of trash bags.
Rocky reacted to this with interest. When the lure drew near to the spectator area, Rocky whined and pulled at his leash. This is a huge reaction for Rocky. TBPE barks once a day at the mailman. Outside of his daily postal bark, he barks maybe once a month, typically in response to the doorbell. In fact, for a while I was convinced that he was mute, so to hear him whine for something was a big deal.
While awaiting Rocky's chance to chase the bunny, I chatted with a few dog owners. Interestingly enough, the overwhelming majority of the dog owners were women, probably 80%. Generally men are considered to be more competitive than women, but this does not appear to be the case in the sport of lure coursing.
Time passed. The skies started getting darker. I asked when they would close the course. The field clerk told me they would go until the lure operator could no longer see the lure. As the sun was getting close to the horizon, I didn't think we had much time left. But then, tragedy struck the battery died! The wire loop is propelled by a car or boat battery. Like beautiful fall afternoons, batteries don't last forever. The lure operator announced that she had squeezed the last bit of juice out of the battery, and so the course was closed for the day.
Rocky and I headed to the car. It's hard to say who was more disappointed. But stopping at Steak N Shake and Krispy Kreme on the way home helped both of us perk up. I think we'll give lure coursing another chance.
If you'd like to join us, the next SLASH practice is Dec. 16th, at 11 a.m. at Purina Farms. Call Cecil Corbett at 636-273-6123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in case of inclement weather.
Ajay Zutshi lives, works and plays in the fabulous and beautiful city of
St. Louis. He is currently torn between the wish that Rocky (TBPE) could
talk and the fear that his first words wouldn't be, "I love you so much,
you're the best owner ever!"