Travels with Darkness: Borzoi Adventures in Lure Coursing

(c) 1991 Bonnie Dalzell photos (c) J Saklad, J Mckenny, B Dalzell, used with permission
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Pictures of Darkness
Full pedigree.
Sometime in the early morning of Thanksgiving day 1990 Am & Can FCh Silkenswift Pye's Dark Design LCM VI died in her sleep. She had not appeared to be ill the day before, although we all knew of the doom that lay over her because of her surgery for bone cancer some 22 months before. At the sacrifice of her left foreleg, but not of her joy in coursing, she had beaten out the grim cancer statistics by a factor of three, adding almost 20% and a son to her life. She would have been 11 had she lived another 60 days. Pretty good for a Borzoi, you might say, but not really good enough for my friend.

Darkness was a bouncy, lusty Borzoi who existed to capture and destroy plastic bags, not rabbits or wolves. Her father was one of the most insanely keen coursing Borzoi I have ever seen and her mother was one of the fastest. I was incredibly lucky and got one puppy with the father's desire and the mother's speed & athletic ability. I have had some excellent lure coursing Borzoi since, but none to match Darkness. Since I planned the breeding specifically to produce coursing Borzoi, I have to say that it was one of the most successful projects I have accomplished. There were 2 other FCh's in the litter in addition to Darkness.

I only coursed her heavily for two years, 1981 and 1982 and she was the #1 ASFA HOUND for those two years. She continued to course after that but she took time off to be a mother and she was held aside so that some of our other coursers, perhaps lesser dogs, could have a chance at the ASFA LCM title. Her last two field trials were in Dec of 1988, at nearly 9 years of age, just before her bone cancer surgery, and she placed 2nd in fairly large Field Champion stakes.

Until the bone cancer I really thought she would be my longest lived dog, she was hearty, well muscled and active without the weakness in the rear that is so often seen in Borzois over 8. She did not have a shrunken-in face or a dull eye. She still loved her lure toy. She was not arthritic.

Her cancer was a minor inconvenience to her. She had less than 10 days of discomfort after the surgery and was up and around and running after the lure toy within a month.

Let me tell you about her:

In the beginning we had two fanatical lure coursing Borzoi, Ariel Duncan's Pyerun (The Alligator) and Dianna Darkstar (the speed demon). Pyerun was shorter than Dianna Darkstar and when Ariel and I tried to breed the two dogs we (both novice breeders at that time) had little initial success. After a lot of frustration the match was finally consummated thanks to the imaginative use of some unopened bags of dog food and creative engineering on the part of Ariel's fiance.

I had such high hopes when the pups were born 63 days later. This was the first litter I had bred for a specific purpose - the best possible lure coursing Borzoi - how was I to decide which one to keep? - We had even made jokes about the puppies, upon birth, cutting diag onally across the whelping box to latch onto the plastic bag that we had for receiving the dirty newspapers of whelping!

Because of Pye's & Dianna's reputations on the coursing field there were actually some people waiting for some of these puppies. What if I didn't keep the best one? What if the others failed to develop into their potential? How do you tell with a with a one hour old puppy if it will chase the lure? With a 36 hour old puppy? How about a 4 week old one or a 8 week old one? Those buyers are becoming insistent! I finally hit upon a completely unscientific scheme for selecting my puppy. Since Dianna Darkstar was named after two things, the Greek goddess of the Hunt and a cult science fiction movie called "Darkstar" I decided to look for astronomical markings on the pups. Darkness had, it turned out, a crescent of white on her otherwise black neck - a crescent moon - sacred to the moon goddess Dianna. There you are. The decision became quite simple. If I had picked the wrong pup it would not be my fault but, in the Greek sense a tragedy, a jest of the gods. What a relief!

Darkness was named, incidently, after a science fiction book by Phillip Jose Farmer, the book was called "The Dark Design", that title in turn came from a nice depressing Arabic poem that I quoted in the last BI in Darkness' memorial ad. At the time she was named we had some ideas of teaching her to recall to the command "Gather, Darkness!" but we never went through with it.

As the pups grew it became rather obvious that I had made the right choice, she was the fanatic. Plastic bags were never safe in her presence and she would even course small knots tied in the coursing line. We started to worry that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Plastics would attempt to kidnap her. My favorite photo is one of her is leaping into the air after her lure toy.

Darkness proved to be a true plastic fanatic. She had one great mission in life. To catch plastic bags. Cats? no. Small dogs? no. Rabbits? no. Squirrels? maybe. Fresh strips of fur on lure lines? no - she would dive for the plastic bag, not the fur strip. She didn't even like to chew raw beef bones. I suppose that as a hunting dog she might have been a failure but for the civilized sport of lure coursing she was perfect.

Taking Darkness lure coursing was a challenge. In the beginning she got car sick so long trips were planned so that we would arrive a day early so she could recover. After her first six months of coursing she stopped being actively car sick but I thought that she was a stronger competitor on the second day of coursing if we had traveled a long distance.

Further, in order to preserve the integrity of the inside of my car (a Ford Pinto sedan) she could not be allowed to see the coursing field if left in the car on cool days. She would eat rear view mirrors. I had to tie her up to something (no room for a crate in a Pinto Sedan) with a chain. People used to give me a really wierd look when they saw me pull out the chain to tie the dog.

So eager was she to course that she quickly learned to relieve herself on command before the run. If she didn't have to go she would come and sit down in front of me when I told her to "go hurry up!"

She had her father Pyerun's mad desire for the lure and her mother Dianna Darkstar's speed and agility. She was also smart which is not good if you are trying to go #1 with a lure coursing Borzoi as they learn to cut very quickly. I adopted a strategy of trying not to run her on any one small field for more than 2 weekends in a year. This was a problem because clubs that gave lots of field trials frequently used only one field. The alternative was to travel a lot, which we did in the beaten up green Pinto. Usually I took only Darkness and maybe one other Borzoi. Campaigning her to #1 that first year was one of the least expensive years I had in ASFA competition since the Pinto got excellent gas mileage and one dog is a lot cheaper to enter than 6 or 7. I also became a critic of lure operators as a bad one can teach a keen dog to start cutting very early in its career by pulling the lure too far ahead of the dog, especially to accomodate another dog that is already cutting. I suspect that these lure operators do not realize the long term impact of their incompetence on the dog's future performance.

As a result of my care in not repeating the fields she was run on we went to 54 field trials in 1981 and she took BOB in 36 of them, defeating an average of 8 Borzois per trial.

Darkness was very agile and could snap up the lure at a full gallop without falling down. (You know how most Borzoi show their agility, they fall down when they try and catch the lure.) So I never worried about lure operators who kept the lure too close to her, she simply caught it. She also had the ability to seem to be running very fast and then to get on a straight-away and suddenly run twice as fast so that she would just pick the lure up in the middle of the straight and continue to run with the lure in her mouth until the next pulley where it would then come off the pulley and the course would be stopped. She never learned her father's trick of standing across the string waiting, jaws gaping, for the lure to come to her, which was fortunate because that trick - while quite astute - really lowered Pyerun's scores - it also earned him the nickname "The Alligator".

The lure operator's challenge - or running twice as fast as we look like we can.

A really athletic Borzoi has a very flexible back which is the source of their ability to sprint and attain high speeds. Racing Greyhounds have the same back as a fast Borzoi but mentally they always run "all out." Not so the Borzoi; it is smart and will gallop along at a fairly good speed, rather comparable to a Saluki (28 or 29 mph) until it sees an opportunity to sprint and catch the lure. Then it will engage the back and take off. I do not know of any of the other sighthound breeds that regularly do this. The fast whippets and greyhounds tend to run all out until they tire, Salukis, Afghans, Pharaohs and Ibizans lack the flexibility for the really high speeds. Deerhounds don't seem to care enough about plastic bags although they look to me to have the conformation to pull off the trick.

The result of this ability of some Borzoi (not all - there are a lot of stiff backed ones out there) is that they catch the lure a lot or misjudge when to sprint and end up on top of the lure at a corner, just as it turns. Being on top of the lure when it turns usually results in this fast dog shooting off into a wide turn, sometimes being unsighted, and usually being marked down by the judge on agility and follow rather than getting a plus for speed and enthusiasm. Many lure operators seem to build their careers on luring Borzoi to sprint for the lure just before the corner so that they can then unsight the dog. However Darkness was too agile for this, if she was on top of the lure when it turned she would just reach down over her shoulder and grab it. In her prime while she was on the field, lure operators HAD to follow the ASFA regulations and keep the lure 10 to 30 yards ahead of her or she would get it! Boy was that satisfying!!.

Darkness and the BCDV Tri-Athlon:

Even though she did not have her father's trick of running ahead and then standing astride the line until the lure came to her, Darkness was a challenge for lure operators. One year at the Borzoi Club of the Delaware Valley's Tri-Athlon she caught the lure 7 times before it reached the 1st pulley (since the lure travels in a straight line to the first pulley there is no way that a dog catching the lure before the first pulley can be said to be cutting). She was just too fast for the equipment that day. Aatis Lillstrom also suggested that she had been to more field trials than most of the judges and the lure operator and was thus more experienced. The judges finally required me to muzzle her so that the course could be run without stopping. She happily galloped along on top of the lure for the entire course.

At the Grand National in Colorado -

For each of our coursing dogs I have some very sharp picture of a wonderful thing that they did. For example Darkness' mother Silkenswift Dianna Darkstar once leaped over a crouching field clerk. Having something large pass between you and the sun can be startling, the poor woman went dead white and I thought she was going to faint. Darkness had many striking activities while coursing but we have the time she leaped off the small cliff (maybe 15 feet high) in Colorado on film in slow motion. She came down running and won best of breed that day. She just parachutes through the air, seeimg to take forever to fall....

At the same trial she misjudged the size of a depression and took a fall. She tumbled head over heels and then slid along for about 15 feet (we had that on film also). As you watch the film you get the impression that she is thinking "well I'm sliding, still sliding, I'm tired of sliding..." so she suddenly gets up and resumes galloping after the lure.

She won BOB at the Friday and Saturday trials at the GN but on Sunday the open dog, that she had previously beaten for two days in a row, won the Grand National. Darkness cut part of her mid course while he stopped exhausted two pullies before the end. The judges decision was that the cut was more serious than failing to finish the course. Well that's what happens when your dog finally learns to cut. I was pretty disappointed at the time but Darkness went on to many more triumphs. I was lucky, I had a lot more years of Darkness while the other dog's owner only has a lovely purple & gold 3 foot long ribbon, tragically his dog died before the end of the year.

Several years later Darkness' son Nick Danger (Silkenswift Tammuz, LCM) won the Borzoi section of the Grand National so Dulcie Long has a giant purple & gold ribbon also.

Behavior with her pups.

Darkness was a good mother and an easy whelper. However her fondness for her pups continued long after they were weaned. She was one of the few Borzoi mothers I have had who could be left unattended with her small pups in a very large yard. Many Borzoi mothers will become very excited when the pups start scampering around at 8 to 10 weeks of age and they will course the pups and can hurt them by accident. Even if they don't hurt them the terror created by being run down by mom can last into adulthood causing the pups to be cautious when lure coursing and to dodge aside when another dog gallops up behind them. Darkness led her pups rather than chasing them. When her first litter was six months old I was playing with the pups in the front yard using the lure toy (a rag tied to a horsewhip). Darkness suddenly lept into the game and snatched the rag off the end of the whip. She then shook the rag in front of the puppies and took off into the front field shaking the rag and holding it aloft. We often have lure coursing trials in our front field. Darkness ran in front of those pups with the rag and followed a circuit that was very close to the pattern we had used in our last field trial. It really looked like she was showing the pups "this is what you do, and this is where you will do it!"

Once the pups are older, we keep all of our dogs in a large yard during the day where they can mix socially as a pack. I noticed that for several years after she had had her litter, whenever Darkness would lie down her pups would settle down around her, forming a mini pack within the larger group of dogs. There she would be sitting splendly in the green grass with her issue lying beside her. It was a lovely sight to see.

Darkness was a very mouth-oriented dog. She liked to lick you to show her affection. If you were driving she would often get into the front seat and reach over and lick your hand. If you were watching TV in the evening with your shoes off she would sneak up and try to clean your feet. When she was upset she would nose and bury her food rather than eat it- I always called it "food tamping" and "NO food tamping!" was one of the commands she knew.

She was obedience trained but I kept putting off taking her in for her CD, and then it was too late.


Many Borzoi grin but Darkness was the most prodigious grinner I have ever had, she is the only dog I have had that would grin on command, most do it when they first see you but once she found out that you could get treats if you grinned she would wrinkle up whenever we said "grinnies!" or "lip cramps!" or "nose cramps!" She would grin so hard that she would start sneezing, thus I could even tell even in the dark if she was grinning.

We never got a photo of her grinning because she reacted to a camera lens as if you were trying to dominate her, she would become submissive and look away. She was a very hard dog to photograph. I have many many more photos of her not looking at the camera than I do nice portraits. She was the dog that taught me to use a real telephoto lens when doing dog pictures, once the camera was far enough away she ignored it.

Her infirmity and my reaction to it.

Generally Darkness was very sturdy and healthy. She was only injured once while lure coursing, someone had set the corner pulley at the bottom of a hill a bit too close to a pine tree. All the other Borzoi cut and thus were no problem but Darkness followed that lure into the corner and ran head on into the pine tree. She damaged the big superficial vein of the foreleg, the cephalic vein, and her whole front leg swelled up. She was fine by the next day, however.

When she developed the bone cancer, it was in the upper arm bone (humerus) in the shoulder of her left forleg. We had no warning, no preliminary lameness, one Saturday she was very lame. The following Monday she was still very lame so I had her radiographed. The orthopedist thought (from her overall condition that she was only 2 or 3 years old so he really didn't think it was bone cancer at first (until I told him she was over 8). She had a fractured humerus, fractured because of the weakness caused by the bony tumor, it would never heal. It hurt her.

Here I was with a perfectly healthy bouncy dog with a broken leg that would never heal. She was not an old tired dog who was not enjoying life, one that you can bring yourself to put to sleep and end its suffering. She was a bouncy, grinning dog who was lame. After a lot of internal (and external) debate I decided to have her leg amputated. I thought it over and I decided that most of the dread of amputation was because of my feelings about cosmetic disfigurement and not because it would be any more unpleasant for the dog than keeping her alive with the tumor until she was in so much pain that putting her to sleep would be a kindness. In retrospect it was the correct decision for both of us. Darkness was uncomfortable for 10 days after the surgery and then was fine. She had already been getting around on three legs since she had broken her leg, it was easier when she no longer had the dead weight of the useless limb. She could still run after the plastic rabbit, she could play with the lure toy, she could beg for food and do all of her other Darkness things. In fact a year after the surgery we bred her one last time, and she had a puppy, Atilla, who she loved and raised.

The only thing I think, in retrospect, that I should have done differently, was that I should have had one cycle of cisplatin chemotherapy. We decided on no chemo because the statistics on it were very poor as far as helping a dog with osteo. She lived almost 2 years after her surgery but metastases in the lungs got her in the end. The average post surgical survival, at that time, was 4 to 8 months without chemo, 6 months to a year with it. I had felt that the time spent being ill with the side effects of the chemo was too great in relation to her expected extra months - why extend her life if those extra months are going to be spent feeling ill? One round of chemo might have caught the metastatic cells right after the fracture had released then from the tumor, however.

It is very hard not to play "if only" when looking back on one's actions. It is better to try and look at the positive.

What I learned about bone cancer from Darkness is this. If you are going to do something other than put the dog down, do it quickly - do not wait until the tumor has become so large the dog is obviously suffering - you will be wasting your money then and causing the dog needless suffering. Think about how you feel about having a three-legged dog. Some of my friends gave me a real hard time, they were distressed about disfigurement, others welcomed the chance to get one more set of "grinnies" from Darkness. Darkness herself seemed not to care, she was athletic, she could do every thing except scratch herself while standing, and come down long flights of stairs. She could get up, chew bones, run around after the lure (ASFA passed a rule that a dog with three legs is to be considered lame - just for her!), play with her lure toy, and do obedience at matches.

Strangely she had trouble turning rapidly in the direction of the remaining leg, not the missing leg. The reason she had trouble with long flights of stairs is that I could not trust her to walk SL-O-O-O-LY down them. She would try to run down them. I was unwilling to let her learn the consequences of running down stairs unaccompanied.

The Legacy of Darkness

- One of the advantages of giving a dog a poetic name is that you can then have lots of poetic turns of phrase when discussing the dog -

Darkness was bred three times. The first time was the most carefully planned - she was bred to Ch Windrift Kindred Spirit, a lovely dog who had sired many excellent coursing dogs as well as bench champions. Her puppies were one of his last few litters. There were 7 puppies in the litter 4 males and 3 females. Four of them showed a lot of coursing interest, the three non-coursers were sold as pets. Only one of the pet buyers has kept in contact with me. Sadly, one of the pets males died of heat stroke in the summer when the owners truck broke down and they left their dog and their cat locked into the truck while they went off to seek aid.

The four coursers are Abargi LCM (Leigh Littleton), Ishtar LCM (me - Bonnie Dalzell), Nick Danger LCM (Dulcie Long), and Moreta F Ch (me). Moreta went to a couple of homes and has come back. Somewhere along the line she hurt her back and she is now 30 points shy of her LCM but does not want to run hard any more. Moreta is in turn the dam of three ASFA titled Borzoi (sired by Silkenswift Wynd Hunter, Am & Cn CD): Katrina LCM (Cindy Lastaukas), Razzmatazz LCM (Charles Seltzer) and Alicia FCh (Susan Sills & Andy Meier), Moreta's son Caber (Denise Carroll) is currently working on his FCh and is doing fairly well, Hexie (Peggy McFarland)- who broke a leg as a puppy is being shown in obedience and conformation. These lovely Moreta daughters are now mature and are starting to appear in shows so we hope to get dual titles on them.

Ishtar became a mother this year to produce the Ishbert Barnabas, and the 4 Halstars, Joset, Angelique, Kylar, and Little Darkness (who looks exactly like Darkness). We hope that they will all do well coursing. There were actually 7 puppies in the litter, one small one with a crooked tail and another small one with an incomplete soft palate. Ishtar, who is a fanatic like her mother but sort of bizzare in personality, like a character on "Northern Exposure", decided that she beleived in eugenics and proceeded to kill the two pups who were not perfect through agressive neglect. We didn't stop her. She also had another annoying trait for a mother. She would not tolerate food near her whelping box. Since we set the whelping box up in the extra kitchen in an X-pen so we can watch the pups, we couldn't just put the food on the other side of the room without having to exclude all the other dogs from the house. Ishtar tore a couple of pounds of splinters out of the side of the whelping box to bury the food! She dug up all of the newspapers in the whelping box to bury the food! She shredded the plastic wading pool to bury the food! Finally one day she used all of the puppies to bury the food! After that she only had food while I was looking at her. She would then try and tamp it down ("$#$@^ no food Tamping!") unless I fed it to her by hand. Normally I let the mother decide when to wean the pups (this is one reason that we leave the food dish in with the puppies). We weaned those pups as soon as possible. Of course once the pups were weaned, in a related behavior, Ishtar was convinced that they were getting no food at all and so she would gorge on food and then patiently wait until she could sneak in with them so that she could vomit up her hord for their benefit. All the wolf instincts were there, they just didn't work quite right.

Before going out to live with Dulcie Long in Colorado, Darkness' son Nick Danger was bred to my lovely LCM Splendid Stripe. He was a lot shorter than Stripe and when we got the tie I did not realize he was literally hanging by an important part of his anatomy. Afterwards the poor little fellow was abraded and bleeding so we did not try them again. We got one pup, Singlet (Silkenswift Solitaire) FCh. Singlet was a very good running dog until a lure operator ran him head on into another Borzoi, damaging his back leg. I have not run him competitively since then.

Abargi was bred to Windhound's J'Ai Joy by Leigh Littleton and Judy Godsey and the puppies I have seen from that litter are really great. I hope that they will live up to their dual coursing heritage. Sadly Abargi followed in Darkness' footsteps this spring and died early.

Darkness' second litter was sired by a Hilary son, Silkenswift Roadwarrior, F Ch. This litter of four bitches was not as successful in coursing as her first litter. One daughter, Tasha lives in Maine - a land of no lure coursing - with her owner Peggy MacFarland is both ASFA and AKC pointed. Hilary, incidently, is my first excellent lure coursing Borzoi. She is still alive at 15 and I plan to write a little living memorial essay on her as I learned some useful and important things about lure coursing from Hilary. Her story is also entertaining.

For Darkness' third and final litter I tried to approximate the successful formula of Moreta's pups. We bred Darkness to Kane (Silkenswift Citizen Kane, FCH - a Hilary grandson) a brother to Moreta's mate. The single puppy, Atilla - a white with red brindle spots - courses enthusiastically and is a FCh. Physically he is not his mother - but he has her fanatic drive and her very sweet but bouncy personality.

In general my good Borzoi are not bred early because they have their careers to pursue and because I believe that waiting a bit allows you to see who is vigorous in middle age and thus breed for longer lived, healthier dogs. You also get to see the full development of their personalities and make better decisions on the choice of mates. Thus Darkness, whelped in 1980 has only recently appeared as a granddam in pedigrees, while some Borzoi bitches are already six generations back and lost off the right side of a pedigree page in the same period of time.

Darkness' descendents were not mass produced, they were hand crafted and her special abilities are there in most of them. Even though she is gone I still can see that flash of extra speed, that crafty grab for the lure, that manic scream upon sighting a fluffed up white plastic bag lying in the green grass as they pull their owners onto the coursing field.

Some of the Descendents of Darkness


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