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Ch. Doughal of Caber Feidh, JC

An old dog died today.

Eleven and a half years ago, he was born. He was the first one out of the whelping box, the first to learn how to climb up the stairs, the first to go up the hill and the first to come tumbling down.

Some might say 11-and-a-half isn’t so old, but he was a Scottish Deerhound, a giant breed dog with an average age of death between 8 and 9 years. So Doughal – Champion Doughal of Caber Feidh, JC, to be exact – was always an exception to the rules.

The “Champion” before his name means he’s an AKC show champion, and the “JC” after his name stands for “Junior Courser.” For those who don’t know what coursing is, it’s short in this case for “lure coursing,” a competitive sport where sighthounds (all the dogs of the greyhound family) chase mechanical plastic lures to mimic jackrabbit coursing. It’s a chance for dogs bred for speed and the chase to safely do what their instincts tell them to do. It’s fun for the dogs, and also for their owners. A “JC” award is given by the American Kennel Club for those dogs who successfully run two complete courses before a judge. It’s the most basic of the coursing tests.

Doughal’s early coursing talents weren’t “basic,” though. He actually was quite an amazing courser, full of heart and enthusiasm. He once beat a whippet (the breed for whom lure coursing was invented) for the coveted Best in Field award. Why, then, didn’t he get any of the more advanced coursing titles?

There are those who hold to the theory that all Scottish Deerhounds are born with a finite number of runs after the lure in them. (There is no known limit to the number of times they’ll chase a real jackrabbit, or a deer, or even a squirrel.) Some of the truly great coursing hounds, like the legendary Rory, never hit that number, but for Doughal, alas, that day came almost immediately after his Best in Field triumph. Still cocky with victory and proud of my fast boy, I confidently walked with him to the line, the starting point of a lure course. With me was Frank Morales, with Rory’s sister Wyvis, a hound whose genetics and inclination sang one song and that song was CATCH IT! Unlike Doughal, Wyvis didn’t limit her coursing to mechanical lures; Wyvis had chased real jackrabbits in the open field.

When Frank and I got to the line with our hounds, the huntmaster asked a bit condescendingly if our dogs had “ever coursed before.” Frank and I both drew ourselves up (Frank a bit higher, because Wyvis is not the first great coursing hound he’s brought out, and Frank is himself a coursing judge), and assured him that Doughal was a Best in Field courser and Wyvis was, well… a star.

I’m sure you can predict what happened next. The huntmaster shouted “Tally Ho!” and Doughal and Wyvis immediately took off in the opposite direction of the lure to run and play in the green, sunny field. Rarely is hubris punished so quickly.

True to her origins, the lovely Wyvis went back to her winning ways the next time. I like to tell myself Doughal might possibly have done so, too, but fate intervened in the form of a mighty wind.

The term “lure” is a very glamorous way to describe what is really a white plastic garbage bag. These bags are tied to a cord that runs through a pulley system staked to the ground in a long and elaborately twisting course meant to mimic the movements of a hare running for its life. It’s powered by a generator and controlled by a lure operator, who usually stands on a ladder so as to have a clear view of the entire field.

This particular day, up at Windance Farm in Pescadero, the wind was definitely dancing. And just as the huntmaster shouted “Tally Ho!” for Doughal’s run, the wind set the entire bag of back-up lures dancing, too. Doughal delightedly raced after the dozens of bags, grabbing them in his mouth and tearing them to shreds. Order was soon restored, and he was happily led back to the line to start over, the bag safely secured beneath the ladder.

“Tally Ho!” called the huntmaster, and Doughal raced right around to the ladder, grabbed the bag, and started strewing bags all over the field again. He never again started to course without first racing around to the lure operator and seeing if there was a bag of lures there. He seemed bewildered as to why any sensible hound would run after those really fast ones when there was an endless supply just lying there waiting for you without having to run an inch.

When he was 10, already very old for a deerhound, Doughal was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a heart disorder fairly common in the breed. Our veterinary cardiologist put Doughal on a drug called Pimobendan that we had to import from Switzerland. The effect of this drug was nothing short of miraculous, and the last months of his life were truly wonderful, full of long walks and sniff fests, delicious meals, and cool evenings lying on the screen porch, listening to the creek rushing past.

The end came, of course. Only an idiot would think that great heart would go on forever. My mom and I, who had known Doughal from the moment he was just a twinkle in his daddy’s eye, who saw him take his first breath, were with him when he took the last. We were idiots to the end.

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