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Saving Private Sarbi
By Sandra Lee
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Sandra Lee
All rights reserved.
LITTER OF DISAPPOINTMENT
Sarbi didn't start life as a heroic explosive detection dog, nor was she bred to join the Australian Army and serve her country on foreign battlefields. In fact, she started life as an abject disappointment. Not to Ric Einstein, though. Disappointment was the last thing on his mind when a customer walked into his pet shop one spring day in 2002, carrying a pair of fluffy, squeaking pups wriggling with wonderment at the newness of life. They were two of a litter of eight.
The former computer executive knows dogs, loves them, and has done all his life. He quit his fast-paced life and a high-powered job for a tree change in the picturesque town of Mittagong in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales in 1990. Seeking a new business opportunity, he bought a pet shop in a handsome corner building constructed in 1882 on the old Hume Highway, renamed it Animal Magnetism, and hung out his shingle. The shop previously didn't sell pups, but Einstein changed that and by 2002 had a thriving business selling dogs from reputable breeders.
Einstein's customer, the one with the pups, explained that she had a pair of pure-bred black Labrador retrievers that she had wanted to breed. They were show dogs and, as with most hounds that brave the show ring for judgement day, were just magnificent. Show dogs must be as near to the prescribed definition of physical perfection as the breeder is capable of producing. The Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC), one of the overarching bodies that determine all things to do with breeding, nominates seventeen stipulations that, if met, will allow all dogs including the lovable Lab, as they are commonly and affectionately known, to be anointed with the ultimate status of 'pure-bred'.
The list is exhaustive and would test the tenacity of all but the most determined breeders, showers and doggie stage mothers. General appearance, characteristics and temperament are covered. So too, in minutiae, the dimensions and looks required of the head, the shape of the skull, and the positioning of the eyes, ears, mouth and neck. Forequarters, hindquarters, body, feet, tail, gait and movement, coat, colour and size must also be just so.
Labrador tails, for instance, are known as Otter tails and should be medium in length and covered in thick, dense, short fur that grows evenly all the way around. It must be absent of feathering and, here is its intrinsic charm, 'may be carried gaily'. Mind you, though, not so gaily that it curls over the dog's back. It's a Labrador, not a pug! Coats should be short and dense, hard to the touch, and again, without waviness or feathering off into little tufts of errant fur that don't sit flat. Eyes should be medium-sized and express intelligence, although if you've seen enough Labs you've probably seen one or two with a permanently quizzical look that makes them seem, well, somewhat less than intelligent and perhaps a little dopey.
A small white spot on the chest is tolerable, but only just. As the American Kennel Club states, a white mark is permissible but 'not desirable'. Cow hocks, or feet that turn out while the hocks turn in, are 'highly undesirable'. A 'snipey' jaw will win you no favours from the meticulous judging panel, a powerful one will. Dog fanciers are themselves a fastidious breed. The canines' deviations and flaws, which the Nobel Prize–winning Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz dismissively described in his book Man Meets Dog as 'well-proportioned triumphs of modern hairdressing', are seriously frowned upon. Pity the poor hound that has the temerity to be shown with any, and pity more its owner who will receive a particularly galling humiliation — disqualification of their dog.
Pure breeds are bred and bred and bred to conform to the rigid, some say sclerotic, specifications, often with disastrous consequences. Not so the lesser mutt whose genetic imperfections and physical flaws are taken for what they are — marvellously muttly. They make the dog stronger and less prone to illness. Hybrid vigour, farmers boast.
Most people regard the handsome, blocky Labrador as the dolphin of the canine world because it, too, appears to perpetually smile. But technically, they are gun dogs bred to help hunters retrieve their felled prey. However, the majority of real working Labs these days are employed as assistance dogs for people with illnesses or disabilities. They are among the most common canines in the Western world because they make for dependable family pets and are routinely included in the top ten breeds in terms of popularity. Nicely tempered, not shy or aggressive, intelligent, keen and biddable all adds up to making the Lab an adaptable and devoted companion, as the ANKC points out. Very keen swimmers, too, a legacy of their original purpose and provenance as retrievers of fishing nets in the cold waters of Newfoundland on the northeast coast of Canada. And there is a bonus for the fashion conscious: Labs come in three colours: jet black, shades of brown, and gold that can range from fox red to light cream.
Ric Einstein knew the kennel club standards and that the pure-bred black Labradors belonging to his customer were faithful to them. There was one problem: the two pups she brought in that spring day were not. Cute they might be but there was no escaping the obvious. They plainly weren't quite Labrador enough. Einstein's customer couldn't have known that when the bitch fell pregnant in early July. It only became evident that the trusty black Lab wasn't so trusty after all when she whelped on 11 September. She was a tearaway who had made a break from the confines of the family backyard during the most crucial days of her three-week in-heat cycle, the time when an indiscreet doggie dalliance may very well result in pups. And it had. Her intended mating and house partner, it turns out, was not the sire. 'It was a mistake mating,' Einstein says now. 'They had absolutely no idea who the father was.' The woman had come to Einstein for help. Labrador pups are easy to identify for those in the know. Not so this lot. Did he have any idea? Einstein took one look at the giant pups, which had the softest, waviest, feathery fur, impossibly wide-set eyes, and snouts nearly as broad as their heads, and knew instantly. The Lab had mated with a Newfoundland. Who that Newfoundland was, however, was another matter, but he had his suspicions — there can't be that many un-neutered dogs in the area.
Einstein backed his call with first-hand field evidence. He checked the paws—'they were massive'—and found the hallmark webbing between the toes, a signature of both the Labrador retriever and the Newfoundland. On top of that, he had raised two Newfoundlands from pups and was more than familiar with their idiosyncratic physiognomy. His first was named Tiny — because he wasn't — and the one he had with him in the shop that day was Goofy, a protective bulk that could sniff friend or foe from ten paces and place himself between danger and his master without causing offence. Einstein's third, Sampson, is a Landseer, a rare sub-breed of Newfoundlands recognised by the large amount of white in its long coat and startlingly pretty blue eyes. 'They are incredible dogs, known as the gentle giant of the dog world,' he says.
Einstein cast his eyes over the pups one more time just to be sure and was certain beyond doubt of the rogue paternity. The genetic fingerprints — pawprints? — of the Lab were there ... but.
'They looked just like Newfie pups. They were big, much bigger than Labs at the same age. The thing about Newfies and Labs and golden retrievers is that they all come down through the same genes,' he says. 'The goldens and Labs were bred from the Newfoundland, that is the predominant gene.'
Breeders breed to order, usually for very prescriptive clients. Einstein's customer explained that those who had been destined to receive the pure-bred black Labrador pups weren't interested in taking any of these mixed-breed mistakes. Theoretically they were mutts and people who spend good money to buy pure breeds don't want dogs of indeterminate pedigree with no papers to brandish, no matter how enchanting their little faces.
Fortune shone on Einstein. The woman offered her litter of disappointment to him. He was happy to take them on, for a price.
'I took the whole litter, which I normally don't do, but I took these because I knew I would have no trouble moving them,' he recalls fondly, eight years down the track. 'They were lovely.'
The dogs were black, all black, except for one thing. Each had a tiny tuft of fur in pristine puppy white on its excitable chest, the telltale blaze of Newfoundlands and Labradors.
One of them was Sarbi. She was not such a disappointment after all.
* * *
Something strange but indescribably lovely happens to humans when we see a tiny helpless puppy, a coiled-up bundle of fur with oversized paws and over-long ears it has yet to grow into. We coo, we sigh, we tickle, we smile, and we become radiant with a love so pure it could right all the wrongs of the world in a heartbeat. Even if the puppy is not ours it has the power to make us melt into puddles of mush, like ice-cream left in summer's sun; to make the hardest of us soften with a tenderness we might never have known existed.
We are driven by an inexplicable primal urge to pat the soft little upturned head, punctuated to perfection by beautiful beseeching liquid eyes, a tiny wet nose sniffing, sniffing, sniffing, and a panting pink tongue insistently licking with unrestrained pleasure, to taste and to touch, to learn and to know. A little nip from razor-sharp puppy teeth elicits a squeal, a knowing grimace, but rarely a stronger rebuke. Instead, maybe even an affectionate rub around the ears — after all, he's just a puppy, what does he know?
Biologists and sociologists, scientists and anthropologists might debate the many whys — why are we compelled to react the way we do? But they would not, no, they could not, dispute the axiomatic truth of this: the flood of emotions that washes over us at the first sight of a pup is instinctive, instant and ever so intoxicating. Addictive.
Pups, simply put, are just plain goodness. They are innocence and joy with a healthy dose of naughtiness and cheekiness to boot. The beauty is in their simpleness of purpose — they intrinsically want to please and love us and we in turn want to be pleased and loved. They want to bond and we need to bond. It is a genetic imperative, a survival drive, and a burning social need. Dogs are pack animals. Humans too. Neither species does well if left to its own devices. And we do so much better in a pack, or family. It can be a human pack or a blended pack of different but equally adoring species that have adopted each other for mutual benefit. We are united in work, play and companionship and have been for 15,000 years, at the very least, and maybe even 100,000 years.
Pick up that puppy you're lovingly cooing at and feel its little puffs of warm breath on your face, like a shower of gossamer kisses. You're guaranteed to feel infinitely better than before. Watch as he nuzzles into the protective crook of your arm or next to your bosom, or rests his fist-sized head over your shoulder, followed by the plop of a paw, and you'll understand unconditional trust and, in response, feel a bloom of warrior protectiveness. Dogs make people better. Puppies make us giants.
And dogs make us feel better, too, healthier in body and soul and mind. You don't have to rely on the hocus pocus of psychobabble to explain the magical connection between humans and canines; you really can measure it in scientifically quantifiable ways. Your body chemistry will change. Your hormones will race. The ones that make us feel good, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, and those related to social attachment and bonding such as oxytocin and prolactin, will go up. True for the dog, too. The stress-related hormones like cortisol, on the other hand, will go down. Like a finely calibrated set of scales. Your blood pressure will ease, your heart rate will relax, and your mood will improve — until, of course, he piddles on you.
Leave the little pup for a day and see what happens. Your welcome home will be as exuberant as it is energetic — where have you been so long? And that's even if you were gone mere minutes. Impulsive paws will dance on the floor and your toes, a muzzle will nudge at your ankles, a tail will wag as fast as a bee's wings and an expression-filled face, showing happiness and relief, will make you wish you'd never left. As Edgar Allan Poe once wrote so beautifully, 'there is eloquence in true enthusiasm'. Stress? What stress?
And this will be yours for several thoroughly enriched years, depending on your dog's breed, or if you're really lucky, maybe fifteen, sixteen or, bless, seventeen years. The oldest known dog, a beagle in the United States, reached a very ripe 28, roughly 196 in human years. That's a lot of doggie love.CHAPTER 2
THE NEWFOUNDLAND: A BRIEF HISTORY
Ric Einstein was delighted with his litter of disappointment. He trusted his instincts about the eight black Labrador–Newfoundland mutts with their perfectly webbed feet, each with its own personality. He had a particular affinity for the giant Newfoundland. Two years after turning the local pet shop into something more like a bespoke business, Einstein bought his first Newfie, as he affectionately calls the breed. The purchase was no fluke. He'd been asking every customer who came into the shop about the breed of dog they owned and was struck by one thing. While everyone raved with obvious pride about their pedigree or bitza — bits of this, bits of that — those who owned the petite and pretty King Charles Cavalier or the bearish Newfoundland had one thing in common. Clearly, it wasn't size. 'They all had a gleam in their eye,' Einstein recalls.
Being a bit of a bear of a man himself, Einstein was not too keen on the King Charles but the consistent response from customers about the Newfoundland intrigued him. He asked one of his clients to bring her dog by the shop so he could examine it up close. 'His name was Griz, short for Grizzly Bear, and when I saw him I thought, I want one of those,' he says.
Bred as a water dog, the Newfoundland is an instinctive lifesaver, as loyal and gentle as — some might argue more loyal and gentle than — the Labrador, which is descended from it. They are physically impressive beasts, exceptionally strong, said to be the strongest of all canines, and built boxlike with stout legs. The male stands, at shoulder height, about 75 centimetres above the ground. The female is only slightly smaller. She can weigh, at her slightest, about 50 kilograms, and he can be as heavy as 80 kilograms — although don't be fooled, none of the weight has to do with fat. The Newfoundland is an agile, muscle-bound, massively boned dog capable of swimming for miles in frigid conditions, or pulling loaded carts beyond the capacity of man. If you are in trouble in the water, you want a Newfoundland beside you. As if by some mysterious telepathy, they intuit danger and will haul you out of a pickle before you knew you were in it, and have done countless times over the centuries, rescuing imperilled fishermen and seafarers, and scores of drowning people caught in rips, tides and dangerous waterways.
Their shaggy coats, long, oily and waterproof, are built for their function as water dogs, evidence again of evolution's preference for function over form or, for the more spiritually minded, an example of how Mother Nature knows best. Either a dull black or a rich brown that verges on chocolate or bronze, and sometimes with tinges of both, they often have a white blaze on their chest and occasionally a sprinkle of white fur on their toes. All of which is heritably acceptable.
The Newfoundland is curiously handsome, not pretty so much — though don't tell an owner that — but noble and elegant. Still, to the dog lover's eye, the Newfoundland face is an all-round heartbreaker and reminds us of all things impossibly sweet. It looks poignant and slightly sad with droopy large jowls that hang like curtains from a perfectly square nose, large again, atop which sit dark, deep-set and small eyes that border on soulful and yet betray an acute intelligence and easy disposition, usually one of utter contentment and docility.
The breed has history on its side, too. It was first noted when Newfoundland was colonised in the early 1600s that the fishermen there used two types of big dogs to help them work. The names are self-explanatory, the Greater Newfoundland and the Lesser Newfoundland, or St John's Dog, which became the founding breed of the golden retriever. How they got to the isolated island is a matter of conjecture but it is thought the modern day version is a mix of the island's native dogs cross-bred with the giant black bear dogs imported by the adventurous Vikings around the year 1000. Portuguese fishermen later introduced the mastiff to the breed sometime in the fourteenth century, ensuring they remained big. True or not, the Nordic connection adds enormously to the romance of the dog and explains how it might have got to Newfoundland.
How it left, on the other hand, is a different story. Explorers and fishermen from Ireland and England arrived in the nineteenth century to fish the species-rich waters off the Grand Banks and they too saw the sense in utilising the clever, workaholic dogs. The dogs' tenacious, biddable and protective natures earned the respect of the industrious, hard-working men. When these nineteenth-century interlopers left, they took the Newfies with them, which is how they found their way into polite company in Europe and, later, America. Possibly because of its unparalleled heft, the breed became a status symbol and was paraded like a prize-winning magnificent mobile showpiece.
Excerpted from Saving Private Sarbi by Sandra Lee. Copyright © 2011 Sandra Lee. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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