Posts Tagged ‘breeds’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

March 12, 2009

From here on the Ridge the sun is bright behind thin clouds. I can look out over the valley, and, over where the hill shoulders down to the river, there’s a thick spread of white cloud. “Freezing fog,” the forecast says, limited visibility. In a little while, I’ll head out to experience it myself, but, for now, I’m content to be at the kitchen table with a cup of peach ginger tea and this laptop.

Yesterday was Jeter the standard poodle’s first birthday and he e-mailed his sister Lucy and brother Kooba (the whole family has celebrity names–Lucy’s a red-head) to wish them happy birthday. For his birthday, he got two dog cookies from the fuel delivery man, a long walk, and a couple of pieces of cheese. A bath and a grooming would probably not have been a welcome present for him, though he needs it.

After sixteen years of living with our old dog, Kermit, living with a young dog is both a challenge and a joy. Though we had done plenty of research on dog breeds and, like the Obamas, had considered breeds like the Portuguese Water Dog, we still had some resistance to buying a breed dog rather than adopting a mutt like Kermit from the shelter. But when the poodle puppies showed up in the paper, we took a ride out to see them, and when the largest brown puppy lay in our arms, so mellow and sweet, there was no question. And the poodle at my feet has been a wonderful dog. He’s smart, energetic, enthusiastic to a fault, and, for the most part, eager to do what we ask him. I’m finally seeing, now, that things we ask of him are becoming routine, so there are fewer communication problems. However, in spite of his baseball player name, he’s not too keen on the game of “fetch.” He gets bored after a while and claims he can’t find the ball or the flying squirrel toy and would much rather run up the hill to see what’s happening there or go off and grab a piece of frozen horse manure to bring into the house. I think more mental challenges are in order.

I know that spring is on the way. Here, schools are on spring break. I have students coming by to see Mattie and Sam today, and our horse club will visit Tom Hart’s blacksmith shop this Saturday. The seeds arrived from Renee’s on Monday and I need to set up the shelves and lights to start the tomatoes for the greenhouse. The Iditarod is halfway over, though I’m not following it the way I did the Quest. Birds flit onto the planters on my deck, nibbling the remains of last year’s flowers, and zipping away. They still ignore the feeder we hung from the roof beam. The days are filled with light.

Still, there’s deep snow everywhere. I went out to work with Mattie yesterday, using the clicker to work on “stand” and “ears up.” Mattie is less fit at this point than Sam is, partly, I think, because she spends so much time sulking in the run-in shed while Sam is out enjoying the view in all weather. Her back doesn’t seem as muscled as his is, so I’m starting off with hand-walking, practicing “walk” and “whoa” and “ears up” all at once. As we circle her side of the corral, we end up walking through the parts where she doesn’t usually walk, and she and I both sink in to our knees. Good exercise for us both, but not very practical and a bit scary, since I know there are frozen brown piles under that snow–the ones we were planning to pick up the day the snow storm hit and that we’ll see again at snow melt in late April or early May.

This is the time of year when we feel most out of synch with the rest of the world, here in the Interior. We have spring fever–our minds wander, we think of places where there are flowers, we plan our gardens and summer training schedules-but we could be hit with snow and 20 below any day.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

February 20, 2009

It’s time to write about dogs.

On Wednesday, Jeter, the brown standard poodle, went in for “the big snip” and a crown reduction. We waited till now–he’s eleven months old–to do the neutering in hopes that his bones would develop better and his underdeveloped lower jaw would grow in. It didn’t, and he has an overbite and what used to be called in humans a “weak” chin. Dr. Jean, the canine dentist, pointed this out to us the first time we brought him in as a nine-week-old pup, and we’ve been monitoring it since. The lower canines were growing inside the upper ones, pressing against the roots. To make matters worse, the lower incisors were making holes in his upper palate. He’s a happy dog and loves treats, but has always seemed a bit picky about crunchy food like puppy kibble.

At one point we considered doggie braces–yes, they exist–but the teeth had too far to move to be in alignment, and the problem was really the lack of jaw growth. So Dr. Jean decided to cut down the points of the canines and file back the lower incisors, hoping to relieve the irritation of the upper jaw. He’s a bit mopey now, but healing, and pretty much the happy dog he’s always been.

I could write about the problems of inbreeding, but won’t. Jeter’s parents weren’t closely related, but in breed dogs, like in horses, there are certain lines that show up in most pedigrees, and a dog like Jeter, with all his wonderful qualities, can end up with a recessive gene.

But the big dog news here is the Yukon Quest, which started a week ago in White Horse, Yukon Territory, and is on its way to Fairbanks from the mid way point in Dawson City as of today. Like the more famous Iditarod race, this race covers 1000 miles of historic gold rush trail. Unlike the Iditarod, which is mostly flat, the Quest covers rough hilly terrain, with several challenging hill climbs such as Eagle Summit. Unlike the Iditarod, mushers on the Quest must carry all their supplies and be prepared to camp along the trail.

For the mushers, it’s a purer race, taking them back to the days when the dog sled was a main form of transportation. There are long stretches of trail where the mushers and their teams are alone with the sound of snow under the runners. When they come in on the frozen Chena River, they’ll be frosty and a bit wild-eyed, their faces lean with hunger and lack of sleep. The dogs, once they realize it’s the end of the race, will flop down in the snow and rest watchfully till the finishing hoopla dies down, then dutifully hike over to the waiting dog truck for a meal and a boost into a waiting straw-lined dog box, their moveable den.

The dogs in long-distance races are bigger and a bit shaggier than the slim little dogs of the shorter 15-30-mile sprint races. They are bred to pull and are eager to get in harness and move out with their “pack”. Breeding sled dogs is a whole craft industry in Alaska, each breeder mixing his or her own combination of traits throughout years of breeding to develop the ultimate dog. These are not Malamutes, though there are some dogs that have that big shouldered white-masked look. Many sled dogs trace their lines back to early “Eskimo dogs” with lots of other types mixed in. In past years, mushers have tried breeding in greyhounds, shepherds, various hunting hounds, even poodles. One year a musher went the whole 1000 miles of Iditarod trail with a team of poodles, but, since a poodle coat is basically soft undercoat, the dogs would freeze to the snow where they lay down at the rest stops.

Jeter will never have to worry about being recruited into a race team.

And the Horse (Excerpts from a work in progress)

January 28, 2009

The Beauties of the Animal Body

 Dogs lie–as any one who has fed a dog knows first hand. A dog will tell you he hasn’t eaten in weeks, that he didn’t hear you calling while he chased a car, that he’ll just die if you don’t scratch his ears right now. But look at a horse: that large body nearly ten times the size of ours, the eyes clear as glass at the corners of the head, the ears pointed up if he’s interested, pinned back if the situation’s not to be trusted. That body–all muscle, bone, and hoof–can move in an instant, bolting in fear or softening in trust. A horse doesn’t lie, though we may not know what he’s responding to, and, if you spend enough time around a horse, you begin to value his honesty in a complex and hard-to-predict world.

But if it were just that–cats don’t lie either, though interpreting their truth is another matter–it wouldn’t explain the power of the horse over our imagination. Is it the strength? A horse, after all, concedes to carry us on its back and more, to enter with us into the hopeful endeavor of training: to race other horses, or jump fences, or cut and rope cattle, or meander along a quiet road heading nowhere in particular. We ride other animals, elephants, for instance, but do they participate in our dreams for them?

The shape of the horse shapes our dreams of it. Those who breed horses pay attention to subtle shadings of conformation: the arch of neck, the set of the tail on the rump, the length of bone below the knee. Any horse-crazy child can tell you the difference between a Morgan and a Thoroughbred and a Quarter horse, though to a non-horse person, these are differences that seem insignificant–the subtle widening of the neck into the shoulder, a vertebra’s difference in the length of a back, the proportion of upper to lower leg. No one argues the existence of dog breeds. A poodle and a Corgi are recognizably different, for instance, and mutts come in such a variety that each one seems unique, even to the unattached.

But horses: it’s the body. Over the years, breeders have shaped the horse’s body to do what we need it to do, creating for us the knife-sleek body of the Thoroughbred or the bulked-up body of the Belgian or the flashy curves and gaits of the Morgan and its descendants: the Saddlebred and the Tennessee Walking Horse. To a horse person, these names evoke images of the shape of the horse, but that shape can’t be separated from action, so that breeds of horses are depicted in motion and recognized by that motion.

Then there are the color breeds: the Appaloosa with its white “blanket” and spots, the paint with its flashy white splotches and blue eyes, the palomino’s gold coat and creamy mane, the black, the gray, the “cremora”–in any breed. But breeding for color distracts us from what a true horse person loves about the horse–the way he uses his body and the way that motion fits with what we dream of doing.

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