501 ASSESSING A LURCHER
ASSESSING A LURCHER
For perhaps the best part of a thousand years in Britain the humblest of hunters have had their very own hound, with pride in its performance never in its pure-breeding, yet purpose-bred in the pursuit of hunting excellence just as shrewdly as any foxhound, setter or spaniel. Forever associated with gypsies, poachers and country characters, the lowly lurcher has survived the campaigns of rural police forces, watchful gamekeepers and wary landowners and to this day still fills the pot of many a working class household. Yet nowadays the lurcher fancier is truly classless, sometimes even being owned by its traditional opponents. The phenomenal spread of lurcher shows in Britain in the last three decades has indicated the level of interest in these extraordinary hunting dogs of mixed heritage. But it has also brought at times a tendency to breed a type that will win at shows rather than a "chase, catch and kill" champion.
But in these times what exactly is a lurcher? If you look around at a lurcher show, it is soon apparent that the event would be better labelled "any variety, sporting dog", for the height, weight, coat and colour is essentially anything but uniform. For a lurcher must be a cross-bred dog, fast enough to catch a hare, crafty enough not to get caught doing so, silent at all times and able to endure the cold and the wet. Old-timers would say it really must be a working sheepdog cross Greyhound to be a true lurcher, but Deerhound, Whippet, Saluki, Bedlington terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier blood have all been used down the years to instil gameness, a more protective coat, stronger feet or greater stamina.
It is common to find the less diligent researchers linking the 'tumbler', quaintly described by a number of sixteenth century writers, with the lurcher. Correspondents contributing to country sports magazines on the subject of lurchers often sign themselves 'tumbler'. But the tumbler was the decoy dog, a very different animal altogether. The much-quoted Dr. Caius, for all his learning, knew little about dogs and yet has, over the years become known as some kind of authority. But even he mentioned the 'thevishe dog or stealer, that is the poaching dog'. His lengthy and hyperbolical description of the tumbler is a graphic account of the antics of a decoy dog and valuable for just that. I know of no lurcher which hunts by 'dissembling friendship and pretending favour', as he described the hunting technique of the tumbler.
'Stonehenge' referred to lurchers well over a hundred years ago with these words: "A poacher possessing such an animal seldom keeps him long, every keeper being on the look-out, and putting a charge into him on the first opportunity; and as these must occur of necessity, the poacher does not often attempt to rear the dog which would suit him best, but contents himself with one which will not so much attract the notice of those who watch him". Strictly speaking, on this evidence, a judge at a lurcher show should automatically disqualify any dog which would appear to a gamekeeper to be a coursing dog! That would thin out the class sizes in no small way! 'Stonehenge' has managed however to convey the essential ordinariness, the vital anonimity and the lack of type if a lurcher is to survive. Variety was not just the spice of life, it almost assured a life!
This variation in type manifests itself at lurcher shows today, with classes for rough and smooth-haired dogs and those under or over 26 inches at the withers. Some breeders swear by the Saluki cross and others by Bedlington blood; some fanciers favour a rough or harsh-haired dog and others the smooth variety. A minority prize the 'Smithfield' blood from the old drovers' dogs and there are often more bizarre crosses such as Beardie cross Dobermann, German Shepherd Dog cross Greyhound and Airedale cross Whippet. The concept, as always with a hunting dog, is to find the ideal match between quarry, country and conditions on one hand and speed, determination and hunting instinct on the other.
I have heard Kennel Club show judges scoff at the whole business of even attempting to judge such wide variations at a show but then they aspire to judge best in show at Crufts, which could see a Chihuahua alongside a Great Dane. The ideal lurcher judge is a man who has hunted with one himself, a man who visualises the dog before him in the ring in the chase. But I believe that it is possible to judge lurchers more precisely than the all-too-usual highly subjective judgement by eye, without ever spoiling the fun and country atmosphere of these shows. I suspect that some lurchers succeed in the ring in spite of their anatomy; that's not good for breeding plans.
First of all, does a lurcher have to be so big! Are clandestine gazelle hunts being held, with a need for thirty inch dogs? I regularly see lurchers at shows which must weigh 90-100 lbs. I would have thought that even for pre-ban hare-hunting on Salisbury Plain or around Newmarket, 60-70 lbs was easily big enough. The famous coursing greyhound Master M'Grath, three times winner of the Waterloo Cup, believed by many to have no equal for pace, cleverness and killing power, weighed 52-54 lbs. Wild Mint weighed 45 lbs and Coomassie only 42; both were superbly effective coursing dogs. I hate to think of how much food a brace of these 100 lb monsters eats!
But whatever their size it is possible to judge these admirable dogs more effectively. If we are going to judge them, let's do it properly. A hound which hunts using its speed must have the anatomy to do so. Immense keenness for work will always come first but the physique to exploit that mental asset comes close second. A lurcher must have a long strong muzzle with powerful jaws and a level bite. How else can it catch and retrieve its quarry? The nose should be good-sized with well-opened nostrils, for, despite some old-fashioned theories, sighthounds hunt using scent as well as sight.
For any sighthound to succeed, its eyes should be fairly prominent and be set slightly oblique, to the side of the head. One eye should look away to the right and one to the left so that, like any good rangefinder, both eyes can be used for long distance marking. It is likely however that at close range only one eye is used at a time. The neck should be long but symmetrically so, muscular and firm. Length of neck does not improve 'pick up'; flexibility in the 'swoop' comes from the placement of the shoulder blades.
A lurcher must have well laid back sloping shoulders; I always apply the 'two fingers width' test to the space between the shoulder blades of a stooping dog. Many show Greyhounds have to spread their feet to drink from a bowl of water on the ground because of excessive narrowness in the set of their shoulder blades. The lurcher's back should hint at suppleness and power, be slightly arched in the lumbar region, yet have a mainly level topline. The loins should be noticeably strong, so that the power from the hindquarters can be harnessed fully.
The chest should be deep from the withers to point of elbow but be fairly flat, with the underpart of the brisket fairly broad across. The ribs should be well separated, with good lung room and space between the last rib and the hindquarters to allow a full stride. At full stretch, the impress of a hare's hindfeet is implanted in front of that of the forefeet; the lurcher should have the same capability. There must also be freedom of suspension in the ribcage or thorax in the way it is 'cradled' by the scapulae -- the dog needs to utilise this when hurdling a farmgate or turning at high speed.
The hindquarters must be powerfully constructed if they are to propel the dog forward in the chase, but symmetry and balance fore and aft are the key to turning ability. Every sighthound depends upfront on good long arms and forearms, and, in the hindlegs wide and muscular thighs and second thighs, length of stifle and good angulation. The feet must be really compact with well-knuckled toes and short claws, naturally worn from working or sound exercise. Some Greyhound experts have been known to assess a dog by looking at the tail first, noting any sign of coarseness, desiring the tail of a rat in appearance, long and whiplike with little hair.
Smooth-coated lurchers are sometimes handicapped by too little hair, lacking protection from wire and chill winds. Whilst not advocating a shaggy wolfhound coat, I can see operational merit in a stiff-haired, wire-haired or linty coat. The jacket of any sporting dog should shed the wet not hold the wet. Waterproofing comes from hair density and texture not profusion of coat; if you look at the originally-imported Afghan hounds and then compare their coats with today's specimens, you can see how function has been forfeited to fashion.
But the best physique is squandered without keenness in the chase and immense determination, an alert eager expression in the eye indicates this and is essential. A judge has to ask himself: will this dog hunt? Can this dog hunt with this anatomy? Better judging, based on a more measured assessment, should lead to the production of better dogs. Fieldsports folk have too much sense to allow such a concept to degenerate into a judgement based purely on cosmetic appeal, mere handsomeness and not ability to function in its designed role. Lurcher shows are a bit of fun; the only real test for such a dog is in the chase. But that 'bit of fun' can raise standards too if the judges' criteria are sound. Who wants to win with an unworthy dog?
The word lurcher does give many the impression of a coarsely-bred dog, with no regard to soundness, just a mongrel sighthound of questionable merit. But a number of them that I see at country shows have been skilfully bred by knowledgeable dog-men, men with decades of experience with hunting dogs. They are superb canine athletes, quite beautifully formed and devastating in the field. The sheer muscularity of Bull-lurchers (those with plenty of Bull terrier in the blend), the awesome stature of the Deerhound hybrids and the deceptive power of the Whippet crosses is impressive. Lurcher breeders are seeking performance not appearance yet still manage to breed some strikingly handsome dogs. The huge difference between show breeders and lurcher breeders lies in the priority given to appearance and capability. That is not say, of course, that there are not some highly effective pure-bred coursing Deerhounds, racing Afghans and Whippets, and lure-casing Salukis. Show Greyhounds do however disappoint me.
It is easy, at a lurcher show, to see the components of the blend of breeds manifesting themselves. The Ridgeback cross is soon revealed by the fiddle down the spine; the Deerhound blood by the shaggy coat; the Bull Terrier infusion by the more muscular build. Lord Orford once crossed his Greyhounds with Bulldogs to instil more gameness; that is unlikely to be repeated with today's Bulldog! But, as the esteemed Stonehenge once wrote (in 1867), the Bulldog blood is soon dissipated: 'It might naturally be supposed by any person who has not been convinced to the contrary, that it would take several crosses to get rid of the heavy form of the bulldog when united with the light and graceful shape of the greyhound. But on actually trying the experiment it will readily be seen that in the third generation very little trace remains of the bulldog, while in the fourth there is none whatever apparent in external form.'
He illustrated his words with engravings of the progeny in each generation of such a cross. Even 'Hecate' with a quarter Bulldog in her blood, looks wholly sighthound. Ian Cuthbertson's champion Bull/Greyhound lurcher, Barney, winner at the Cotswold Hunt Show of 2004, demonstrates how a harmonious blend can be achieved. Lurchermen argue long into the night over the best blend to achieve superlative hunting dogs, even debating the merits of coursing Greyhound blood against that of racing Greyhounds. One much respected breeder, Bill Doherty, makes full use of Deerhound blood and has high quality Deerhounds himself. We have come a long way from the days when, in order to survive, the lowly lurcher had to be quite unlike a coursing dog. The artist Philip Reinagle portrayed a lurcher nearly two centuries ago. He captured the workmanlike but quite nondescript appearance these dogs will always display, entirely functional - and better for it!