Notes of a Sportswriter's Daughter
by Donna Haraway
© Donna Haraway
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Now, I see that I lied to you about Roland's 'prey drive' and 'herding' potential -i.e., his temperament, if I understand your sense of the root 'temper'. Watching him with you lurking inside my head over the last week made me remember that such things are multidimensional and situational, and describing a dog's temperament takes more precision than I achieved.
We go to an off-leash, large, cliff-enclosed beach in Santa Cruz almost every day. There are two main classes of dogs there: retrievers and meta-retrievers. Roland is a meta-retriever. (My husband Rusten points out there is really a third class of dogs too-the "nons"-not in the game at issue here.) Roland will play ball with us once in a while (or anytime we couple the sport with a liver cookie or two), but his heart's not in it. The activity is not really self-rewarding to him, and his lack of style there shows it. But meta-retrieving is another matter entirely. The retrievers watch whoever is about to throw a ball or stick as if their lives depended on the next few seconds. The meta-retrievers watch the retrievers with an exquisite sensitivity to directional cues and microsecond of spring. These meta dogs do not watch the ball or the human; they watch the ruminant-surrogates-in-dog's-clothing.
Roland in meta-mode looks like an Aussie-Border Collie mock up for a lesson in Platonism. His forequarters are lowered, forelegs slightly apart with one in front of the other in hair-trigger balance, his hackles in mid-rise, his eyes focused, his whole body ready to spring into hard, directed action. When the retrievers sail out after the projectile, the meta-retrievers move out of their intense eye and stalk into heading, heeling, bunching, and cutting their charges with joy and skill. The good meta-retrievers can even handle more than one retriever at a time. The good retrievers can dodge the metas and still make their catch in an eye-amazing leaps--or surges into the waves, if things have gone to sea.
Since we have no ducks or other surrogate sheep or cattle on the beach, the retrievers have to do duty for the metas. Some retriever people take exception to this multitasking of their dogs (I can hardly blame them), so those of us with metas try to distract our dogs once in a while with some game they inevitably find much less satisfying. I drew a mental Larson cartoon on Thursday watching Roland, an ancient and arthritic Old English Sheepdog, a lovely red tricolor Aussie, and a Border Collie mix of some kind form an intense ring around a shepherd-lab mix, a plethora of motley Goldens, and a game pointer who hovered around a human who - liberal individualist in Amerika to the end - was trying to throw his stick to his dog only. Meanwhile, in the distance, a rescue whippet was eating up sand in roadrunner fashion, pursued by a ponderous, slope-hipped GSD.
It remains true that I can call Roland off of a deer chase most of the time; coursing a deer is not a meta-retrieving task worthy of an Aussie-Chow, from his point of view.
There are terriers on the beach too, and terrier mixes of all sorts. Why don't I see what the terrieresque crowd are doing? I am going to listen and watch.
I end with an appealing, neurotic, Airedale-black lab cross who spends his beach time day after day trying to bury an old Monterey cypress branch, about 3 feet long and 3 inches in diameter, in the sand. He digs heroic holes, ignoring the pleas of his human to do anything else; but the curly, wire-haired, labish-looking pooch keeps digging deep holes of small diameter for one end of his giant and recalcitrant stick. Nothing else matters.
Beached in DogLand,
Entries in Chronological Order
MetaRetrievers on the Beach
MetaRetrievers on the Beach