An’ a lurcher wise as Solomon an’ lean as fiddle-strings
Was joggin’ in the dust along ‘is roundabouts and swings.
I blummin’ love dogs. All of them, all shapes and sizes. I prefer not to be slobbered on or eye-bogeyed – and I’d rather not deal with an unsheathed lipstick – but otherwise I love them all. Cat-lovers, please don’t feel left out. If I had enough space I’d own a cat as well as a dog but, as I don’t, I always reserve a special pat when out and about for cats who want to say hello.
Above all though, I love lurchers.
Harry is my lurcher dog. When I take him out for a walk, I rarely put him on a lead. He always stays on the pavement, doesn’t wander far from me and comes when called (eventually). It wasn’t a conscious decision not to walk without a lead, it just sort of happened.
The rescue home we got him from (The Forever Hounds Trust – please click on this link and support their excellent work!) suggested that I walk him for the first few months with a lead and a muzzle on, just until we got used to each other and the local environment. Harry looked so very sorry for himself – almost literally hang-dog – that I jettisoned the muzzle half way down our first street. The lead followed not long after when I realised that he wasn’t going far and could be relied upon not to run away: but also because he also looked sad when I put the lead on him.
I had thought, until now, that this decision of mine was entirely voluntary but I’m starting to see how well Harry has trained me.
One of the first things I learnt about lurchers, having been surrounded by other types of dogs all my life, is that you don’t give them orders. You negotiate with them. If I want us to cross the road together then I might just have to wait until he’s finished smelling that lamp post – then we can trot over smartly, in unison. If I call him and he doesn’t immediately answer then it’s not because he hasn’t heard me, oh no! He just needs to be called again, a bit louder, then he’ll definitely come. He knows I don’t want him to leave the pavement, so he’ll always wait at the edge of it for me and he knows I’ll wait for him if he’s found something particularly interesting to sniff. Teamwork, see?
Lurchers can, but often choose not to, engage in parlour tricks for the amusement of you and your friends. They know you’d never demean them by asking them to roll over or dance for Scooby snacks, right? And they’ll only play fetch if there are a few wide acres of space to make it worth their while. It’s truly a thing of beauty to watch a hound ducking its head and going into top gear across an open space – their racing lines are astonishingly powerful and graceful. They’re also lovely to watch when they’re taking it easy: they have a sweet jinky lollop that’s hard to beat.
They can’t easily sit because their thighs are too powerful and they look like kangaroos waiting to take off (something they share with greyhounds) so they either stand or lie down instead. Or, and this is one of the loveliest bits, they’ll mosey on over to you, give you a quick glance as if to say ‘I’m assuming this is ok with you?’ and take a gentle lean against your leg. Lurcher (and lurcher-owner) heaven…
The average lurcher doesn’t have much fat or hair to cover their bones, just muscle where they need it, with big deep chests for their massive hearts and lungs. So, whilst other dogs will try and convince you that they deserve to be on the sofa, a lurcher really needs it. For such big dogs, they curl up very tightly and contort themselves into pretzel positions to make the most of the soft cushions. Sometimes Harry’s long neck drapes over the side of the sofa and his nose almost touches the floor, looking for all the world like a dead duck hanging up after a shoot. However, should you move or make a noise like a rustling poo bag (easier than you think) or a packet of treats, then he’ll be up in a flash.
He rarely ever barks, his belly and under his legs are bald so he doesn’t pick up dirt or smell a lot and he likes the odd walk or two though he doesn’t beg for them – or anything else, for that matter. He once had the Christmas turkey off the kitchen surface whilst we were going to Midnight Mass but we heard the crash as we left the house so we salvaged it pretty quickly.
So, from whence did this very paragon of virtue spring?
The pedigree of the lurcher is a long and interesting one. Sight hounds or gaze hounds as they’re known (they look for movement rather than the smell or sound of their prey) are some of the earliest dogs we know to have existed. Dogs were domesticated for the protection they could give (mastiff type dogs) or their hunting abilities (sighthounds). Light, long legs, powerful muscles, deep chests, little or sleek hair and long, pointy and curled tails for balance were the hallmark of the breed.
But a lurcher is always a crossbreed: a greyhound mixed with something else like a terrier or a border collie to make a healthier, hardier dog with a great deal of intelligence.
No one truly knows where the word lurcher comes from. ‘Lur’ is an ancient Romany word meaning thief and ‘cur’ is another Romany word for a crossbreed or mongrel so the combination of the two might have taken place over time. Or the Middle English word lorchen/lurken (to lurk) might be part of its derivation. Others have suggested that it comes from the old French Le Chasseur (to hunt)* – all or none of these might be true but their uniting thread is that they describe an intelligent hunting dog; a thief who can sneak in, take prey and bring it back to its master without needing much instruction. They’re not known as the Poacher’s Dog for nothing. Whilst I’m not a supporter of blood sports, I can admire the creation of such a perfect hunting machine.
*Thanks to http://my-lurcher.com/ for some of this history
Early Roman reports of Britain list hunting dogs as one of the Celts’ chief exports. These were prized animals and pairs were given as ambassadorial gifts between powerful rulers.
By the Middle Ages, the greyhound was a highly expensive hunting dog, permitted only to the noble classes (although it’s unlikely that peasants could have afforded them anyway).
Any peasant owning such a lurcher-type dog, and caught hunting in the King’s forest, would face the kind of dreadful penalties dreamed up to discourage anyone from chasing royal game. The owner could be fined, branded or maimed. The lurcher might be killed, maimed (toes or tails cut off) or hambled (toenails pulled out) to prevent it hunting again.
Lurchers have retained a certain allure since those early days. They’ve never gone out of fashion in the hunting community and their lovely long lines and gentle temperament mean that they make excellent house dogs. They’re elegant enough for great houses, clever enough for work and characterful enough to ensure that no one ever mistakes them for being snooty.
Looking at Harry sprawled on the sofa, it’s hard to imagine him as a fierce hunter of ancient lineage. His hunting bag consists of two rabbits (one myxy and one very young one that literally fell over his feet one morning on a walk), a badly injured pigeon and a bit of a squirrel.
Let me explain about the squirrel.
He had a kind of Wile E Cayote relationship with a squirrel on a patch of open ground near our old house. One day he finally caught it and, whilst I’m very squeamish, I was kind of happy for him to have achieved one of his long term life goals. Then he squealed and let it go because it had bitten him on the nose – and he has never caught another one since. So, a bit of a squirrel and no more…
He was also once menaced by a Border Terrier pup that wouldn’t stop chasing him so I had to pick him up and hold him out of the way whilst the owner put the puppy back on its lead.
He’s a bit of a softie, liable to shriek if scared and he hates loud noises so Bonfire Night is a terrible time for him. Like many lurchers, he’s quite highly strung. I love him all the same though – I don’t like loud noises or sudden surprises either.
For years he was me and my husband’s furry son. He went everywhere with us and, because of that, he gently eased us into a form of responsibility that the rashly unaware might mistake for parenthood.
And then we actually had some children and Harry’s world changed. All he ever wanted was a quiet life but that was now unavailable. As soon as they could crawl, Harry’s tail and fur seemed magnetically attractive and sofas were no longer the refuge they formerly were. Although the kids were warned not to maul him – and to be fair to them, they were pretty good at that – the whole house was a lot noisier than it ever had been. I had to apologise to him and promise that things would get better as they got older; there would be more time for him, for us, and perhaps a little less noise.
So the children have got a bit older and can be relied upon not to use him as a climbing frame. There’s not a lot less noise but there are fewer surprising shrieks or sudden cries that rocket up your adrenalin levels.
However, whilst they were growing older, so was Harry.
Now he’s about 12, he’s slowing down. There are fewer mad dashes across fields than there used to be. But there are more lumps. Harry is already shorter by a third of a tail (an unpleasant incident with a car door) and he’s had plenty of nicks and scrapes in his time but earlier on this year he had to have a major operation to remove two large lumps, one benign and one malign, as it turned out. He came out of surgery with a huge line of stitches up his side, like a Franken-dog, and wobbling about woozily on his feet. I had hoped that was the end of that (partly because the b*stard insurance company wouldn’t cover the costs, though mostly for Harry’s own sake) but last week we found another lump in the same place.
By the time you read this post, Harry will have had his second operation in 6 months to remove a lump. This time we won’t be sending the results to the histology lab because we know what to expect. We’ve agreed with the vet that this is the last operation she will do on him. He’s an old man now and it’s unfair to make him go through another anaesthetic and recovery period. Now it’s about the quality of the life that is left to him with us. For the first time I’m having to confront what life might be like without my lully boy, my first child.
But not yet, Canine Death, not yet. His health is good as are his blood counts. For now he has a fighting chance at an excellent recovery and he still has a few years in him. We have a bigger car now so we can fit him in and take him with us in comfort as we travel around the county and the country on our weekend sight-seeing tours. The girls know how to treat him kindly and he enjoys his trips to my husband’s work as well as walks around the local countryside. Life is good for our Harry.
So forgive me if I’m a bit sad, all the same. I’m just looking a little further into the future that I have to plan for. A future I can’t let the girls see just now. And, though I know he’ll be fine after the op, I still think that he deserves all the snoot boops he can get to help him through it. So, if you have a little time today, please send all the boops, Scooby snacks, leg leans and scritchscratches you can spare winging their way over to the goodest pupper who ever lived. He might just need them.
”Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more:
…I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George’!”
Henry V, Act 3, Sc 1,
As a bonus, please find below my favourite lurcher poem…
It was early last September nigh to Framlin’am-on-Sea,
An’ ’twas Fair-day come to-morrow, an’ the time was after tea,
An’ I met a painted caravan adown a dusty lane,
A Pharaoh with his waggons comin’ jolt an’ creak an’ strain;
A cheery cove an’ sunburnt, bold o’ eye and wrinkled up,
An’ beside him on the splashboard sat a brindled tarrier pup,
An’ a lurcher wise as Solomon an’ lean as fiddle-strings
Was joggin’ in the dust along ‘is roundabouts and swings.
“Goo’-day,” said ‘e; “Goo’-day,” said I; “an’ ‘ow d’you find things go,
An’ what’s the chance o’ millions when you runs a travellin’ show?”
“I find,” said ‘e, “things very much as ‘ow I’ve always found,
For mostly they goes up and down or else goes round and round.”
Said ‘e, “The job’s the very spit o’ what it always were,
It’s bread and bacon mostly when the dog don’t catch a ‘are;
But lookin’ at it broad, an’ while it ain’t no merchant king’s,
What’s lost upon the roundabouts we pulls up on the swings!”
“Goo’ luck,” said ‘e; “Goo’ luck,” said I; “you’ve put it past a doubt;
An’ keep that lurcher on the road, the gamekeepers is out.”
‘E thumped upon the footboard an’ ‘e lumbered on again
To meet a gold-dust sunset down the owl-light in the lane;
An’ the moon she climbed the ‘azels, while a night-jar seemed to spin
That Pharaoh’s wisdom o’er again, ‘is sooth of lose-and-win;
For “up an’ down an’ round,” said ‘e, “goes all appointed things,
An’ losses on the roundabouts means profits on the swings!”
Patrick R Chalmers