by   David Hancock

In The Illustrated London News of March 2nd 1850, there is a fascinating article on kangaroo hunting in Australia, with images of this activity. Such a hunt is described as 'boomer-sticking' by the Australian hunters and perpetuates similar activity by aboriginal hunters, using boomerangs and nets. The latter hunters are described as "...very cunning in taking the kangaroo. They go forth to the chase armed only with a slender spear and a short stick; depending more on their own subtlety and acuteness, when in pursuit of wild animals, than on the efficiency of their weapons." Modern kangaroo hunters use specially-bred lurchers, combining the blood of the Deerhound, the Greyhound and sometimes a 'strong' Saluki, but benefiting from more distant use of Irish Wolfhound and Borzoi stock when those breeds were still sporting dogs. In Australia, their lurcher-like running dogs are a type described either as Staghounds, Kangaroo Dogs or Bush Greyhounds. Their similarity illustrates how function dictates form.

The American sporting writer, Freeman Lloyd, likened a day’s coyote hunting with antelope coursing in Africa and an open ‘go as you please’ coursing match in Australia. He mentioned the ‘Strathdoon Dingo Killer’, a blend of Borzoi and Deerhound with the tried and tested Kangaroo Hound. The latter was described by him as ‘a large Greyhound, having in many cases the coat of the Deerhound’. The kangaroo can be a formidable quarry, capable of disembowelling a hound with its immensely powerful hindfeet. His words emphasise the endless need to embrace terrain, climate and quarry in developing an efficient hunting dog, especially a longdog, even from a blend of well-tried types. Motivated by powerful prey-drive, such hounds depended on the physique to allow function, the ability to summon up great speed at short notice, allied to the stamina of a steeple-chaser and the feet to withstand a wide range of surfaces. When I look at the slack pasterns, splay feet, short backs, weak loins and bored eyes of so many show sighthound-breed exhibits, my mind often strays to the sheer virility of the Australian lurchers.

The sighthound build is a superb combination of bone and muscle, a unique balance between size/weight and strength and quite remarkable coordination between fore and hind limbs. The Greyhound sprints in a series of leaps rather than running in a strict sense. It is what is termed a 'double-flight' runner, where the feet are all off the ground at the same moment. This is unlike a 'single-flight' animal like the horse which, when racing, nearly always has at least one foot on the ground. The Greyhound's leaping gait is rooted in quite exceptional extension, especially forward with the hind legs, but also rearwards with the front legs. Anatomically, the most vital elements in such a dog are the shoulders, and their placement, and the pelvic slope, which determines the forward extension of the all-important hindlimbs. That's where the power comes from. It always saddens me to see a sighthound in the show ring displaying upright shoulders and short upper arms, together with a lack of pelvic slope. It is even sadder when such an exhibit is placed by an ignorant judge – having been entered by an ignorant owner! I see these fundamental anatomical faults being condoned at far too many championship dog shows, but why can’t the owner/breeder see such basic flaws?

Whilst the sighthound breeds have a common silhouette, the differences in their hunting styles, hunting country and the local climate have produced small but key differences, such as ear-shape, between the various breeds in the group. All need the long loin to provide flexibility in the fast gallop, a deep chest to enable lung power and immense propulsion from the rear. Sighthounds need length in the forearm to facilitate the fast double-suspension gallop. The Ibizan Hound has a different front from most of the sighthounds, designed to allow greater jumping agility. It displays a noticeable ‘hover’ in its gait. The Whippet has more tuck-up and loin-arch than the Mediterranean breeds. The Greyhound, from the side view, shows the anatomy its users have learned provides speed in the gallop. The shoulder blade is not as well laid-back as in say the ‘endurance’ breeds, like the sled-dogs, and the upper arm is more open than in a non-sporting breed, with a proportionately longer fore arm. The Greyhound’s front pasterns are long and sloping due to the immense ‘bend’ needed there at great pace. Many Saluki owners prefer the smaller, more energy-efficient type, since the breed is expected to cover substantial distances in the heat at the trot. The ratio of weight to height matters when speed with stamina is sought.

Australian hunters have made good use of imported longdog blood, blending the blood of Salukis, Borzois and Scottish Deerhounds with the long-utilised Greyhound source. Kangaroo Dogs from the famous Wheatbelt line have strong Greyhound blood; Staghounds from the same line have clear Saluki blood, intended to improve their heat tolerance and long distance sprinting capability. The Wheatbelt Kangaroo Dogs remind me of the outstanding longdogs once bred by Nuttall of Clitheroe, who, I believe, used a purebred Deerhound sire to a retired track or coursing Greyhound dam. Brian Plummer once described them as ‘truly magnificent animals…leg weakness, a common fault in deerhounds and in first-cross deerhound hybrids was practically unknown in these kennels, partly due to the judicious selection of both sire and dam by Nuttall and partly due to careful feeding of the whelps at his kennels.’ Those words sum up the key ingredients for the successful breeding of any longdog: the selection of breeding stock and wise rearing. For me, the contemporary beau-ideal for such a lurcher is exemplified by David Platts's emergent English Deerhound line. May such admirable hounds keep the sporting dog flag flying here just as the Wheatbelt kangaroo hounds are down under.