Thursday, February 12, 2009

Don't play the cords of fame

It's supposed to be flattering and fun when "your" breed wins at Westminster, but I can't summon much enthusiasm over the Best of Group award that went to Ch. Cordmaker Field of Dreams this week. I had pulis (Yeah, yeah, the Hungarian plural is "pulik." That's how these problems get started.) before the dog show snots got hold of them.

It was 1971, and we'd been married about five months when Kathy's dog, Mordechai, ran out into traffic and was hit. We still had the dog I'd brought to the marriage, but decided we liked having two. Besides, my dog, Taylor, a small, black beagle mix, had done a nice job of training Morty and we knew he'd train a new pup, too.

We found Szabo in southwestern Michigan. I'd heard of pulis but had never seen one. The mother was on hand and was a delightful dog, a first-generation American. Most pulis in those days weren't long off the boat, imported for the most part by homesick Hungarians.

The puli is a small sheepherding dog that was apparently brought into Eastern Europe by the Magyars and is believed to be related to the Tibetan Terrier. I am told that the word "puli"comes from a Sanskrit word applied to any herding dog. They are extremely bright, nimble dogs whose signature move is to cross the herd on the backs of the sheep like a lumberjack going log-to-log across the river during a drive. They also are known for leaping on the back of a runaway, riding him until he's tired and then getting off and bringing him back to the flock.

As soon as we had a puli, we started hearing stories about them.

A construction worker acquaintance went looking for work in Ann Arbor, but his puli disappeared almost as soon as they arrived. He spent his time up there looking for Happy and returned to South Bend broken-hearted. A few days later, Happy showed up on the doorstep, having traveled the 175 miles to a place they'd only lived a few months.

A couple told of going to pick out their puppy in a pen behind a shed. The old Hungarian farmer warned that the mother was protective, so he went in first, put a ladder up against the shed and said something in Hungarian upon which the dog ran up the ladder, which he then removed so they could play with the pups while Mom watched from above. When they had made their choice, they left the pen, he replaced the ladder and she ran back down it.

The first thing we found with Szabo was that Taylor wasn't going to do a lot of training with him. Taylor started giving him the lecture -- "This is where we pee. This is my bowl." -- and it was clear that Szabo was blowing him off. For one thing, when Taylor would play tug-of-war with us, the puppy would come up and join in from the other end, jerking on his tail, which was really disconcerting since you can't bite a puppy -- especially one you can't catch -- and it's tough to lose your dignity when you are supposed to be Lead Dog.

But they worked out a good relationship where Taylor got to be Lead Dog and Szabo let him be, because he didn't really much care, until the day about two years later when an irritable Taylor growled at toddler Jed and then snapped at Kathy, whereupon Szabo delivered a beatdown that was frightening not because he was furious but just the opposite: For the coldness of it. It was clearly a punishment, a lesson and an establishment of how dogs were to behave and who was now in charge. And, no, Taylor never repeated his folly.

That episode aside, Szabo was the jolliest dog I've ever known, and had a sense of humor that Taylor couldn't fathom. Not only would he allow himself to be dressed up, but he seemed to get the joke. We added a second, then a third, puli to the family, but Szabo was the legendary presence, and, years later, Jed observed, "The thing about Szabo was, when we played monkeys? Szabo was a monkey!"

He was also willing to follow the boys up the ladder and down the slide at the park, and pretend to be a baby going to sleep so that Jed could be the Daddy playing his guitar at cribside. He played football with them and they had to keep a soccer ball on the ground when playing with him because he would "head" an airborne ball and we were afraid he'd damage his nose.

Szabo was the finest, brightest, best dog I've ever known, and I've known some good dogs.

So what about Westminster?

Well, when we got Szabo, there were two types of coats acceptable in the breed: The wavy and the curly. Either one was going to mat if you didn't keep them brushed, and we never did, assuming that the Hungarian shepherds of old did not spend their evenings brushing their dogs but, rather, lined them up once a year with the sheep and sheared them.

The book we bought, "How To Raise And Train Your Puli," even happened to have a pair of wavy-haired pulis on the cover, champions who would never make champion today.

Here's what the breed standard says:
The dense, weather resistant coat is profuse on all parts of the body. The outer coat is wavy or curly, but never silky. The undercoat is soft, woolly and dense. The coat clumps together easily, and if allowed to develop naturally, will form cords in the adult. The cords are woolly, varying in shape and thickness, either flat or round, depending on the texture of the coat and the balance of undercoat to outer coat. The Puli may be shown either corded or brushed. It is essential that the proper double coat with correct texture always be apparent. With age the coat can become quite long, even reaching to the ground; however, only enough length to properly evaluate quality and texture is considered necessary so as not to penalize the younger or working specimens.

And here's what wins in the show ring -- nice long cords to the floor. And, as the owner of Ch. Cordmaker Field of Dreams told reporters this week, the cords do not form naturally but must be trained.

Meanwhile, the pulis I've known have often been overprotective. We had to be very vigilant at the park because they would not tolerate strange dogs approaching us, and, while Szabo played cheerfully with the boys and their friends, we had another male they had to put inside during rough games because he wouldn't have understood. The fact is, the dogs aren't many generations away from their days among the sheep, and they still have a strong impulse to guard their flock.

With a good, stable dog, you can socialize and train to a point where that instinct is not a distraction. But that's assuming you've bred for temperament and not for some odd, irrelevant feature like the ability to produce a corded coat.

The lovely corded handbags I've run into since Szabo's days have been snappish and unpleasant, and I'm sorry to see a modern puli win anything, since it only encourages irresponsible breeding.

Maybe if I didn't still miss Szabo so much, some 25 years later, I wouldn't feel so strongly about it.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Sounds like a wonderful companion, Mike -- and your illustrations for this post are exceptional.

A few years earlier than you shared a home with Szabo, Doug and his mom and I had a remarkable Siamese cat named Shimbleslink, one of the top three cats I've ever lived with.

Several years and three thousand miles separated from him, I happened on a tv show about purebred Siamese cats... and was revolted by what I saw: cats with faces that looked like they had been stretched out by some diabolical suction machine, and personalities that an old sneaker would outshine.

I understand that there are now two kinds of Siamese recognized by the "[cat] show snots": regular ones (actually the sucked-out faces ones) and "apple-heads," the latter kind of retro-bred to look like my old friend Slink.

Anyway, great post, and thanks for the enjoyment.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

The relationships dogs have to one another are really interesting and cool to watch. When my dad acquired a big young bird dog, circa 1970, we worried that the elderly sort-of-beagle, Sparky, would have trouble with Jake, but Jake said "You're the boss" early and they did more than just take assigned places, they became great friends. A few years later, in one of many failed attempts to own a trained hunting dog, Dad brought home a black lab, probably too close to grown, and dear gentle Jake went ballistic.

And the closeness of the dogs' bonds with each other just no longer even surprises me.

I would've said that cat relationships are a lot more simple and boring, if i were confined to my own experience, but the Fort Harrington clan is an eye-opener. Ours have always related as "You may exist" or "You're history."

Mike said...

Sherwood: I went to a cat show once and it was very different. Dog people want you to love their dogs. In fact, Thursday, I interviewed the #1 basenji in the country (well, the owner) and they were just tickled that the dog was my BFF by the end of our time. By contrast, cat show people want you to look but not touch for fear of disease or breakage or ... something.

Ruth: Just visited with an old GF yesterday and she was telling me that her ridgeback had the exact same reaction to her new puppy that my old boy had had when we brought her (first) ridgeback into the house -- turned his back on it literally. With my dog, that meant standing facing into a corner. With hers, it means sitting in a chair but facing the back. It's the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen, but in a few months they'll be friends.