by Leslie Lowes, Hjaltland Kennel
Shetland Isles, UK
* Photos of Tess by E. Lowes *
Throughout history, dog and man have had a symbiotic kind of relationship. Dog grows dependent on man for food and shelter. Man grows dependent on dog for help with hunting, carrying, herding, protecting, guarding and deterrence. In addition, dogs have worked their way into man's affection as companion animals, the role that most of our dogs fulfill today. Dog and man became best friends, although I think man got the better deal.
Take a closer look at that Westie curled up in his favourite chair, or sprawled across your best Persian rug. His modern lifestyle is far removed from his original purpose. A pampered pooch now perhaps, but scratch the surface just a little and the tenacious and mischievous character of the terrier emerges quicker than a rat flushed from a rat run. Make an invitation to come and play and your dog is with you, prepared, tense with a sense of the excitement to come, ready to have fun.
Your Westie will follow scent, he will dig (your garden?), he will guard your (his?) house and he will give you total loyalty ... well, total loyalty after he chases that squirrel out of his yard. He might also win at conformation shows and confound doubters of the trainability of terriers by winning obedience trials as well. And as always, he enjoys the hunt. The hunting field by the way, starts right outside the door of your (dog's) house. That is why he is so delighted when you pick up that lead. It does not signal "we're going walking" at all. It signals "we're going hunting ... whoopee!"
If you are simply going about your daily tasks, Westies love to come along to "help" and that natural, insatiable curiousity makes sure that everything you do is scrutinised. Fully scrutinised. Everything you touch is sniffed and looked at, even poked perhaps, with an investigative paw. I love to see that, watching my dog, Tess, satisfy her curiosity about everything.
When it came to our guinea pigs though, curiosity had to be curbed. It was time to worry about their safety. Tess had an abiding interest in guinea pigs. Fortunately, she mostly liked just gazing at them while they grazed. Of course, when the runs were moved to fresh grazing, excitement levels rose as guineas dashed about under the chicken wire in momentary panic. I suppose on the pig panic scale, moving house like that is the equivalent of a Richter three to four earth tremor. Tess just likes it when the guineas get animated.
We had a couple of dozen pigs, or cavies as some call them, at the time. They were housed on the lawn, in portable outdoor runs of chickenwire. I moved them to fresh grazing two or three times each day. They are the most amazing lawnmowers. They keep the grass like velvet on a card table. They leave slim liquorice packages in their wake, so you get the greenest lawns ever from these self-propelled, autofertilising lawnmowers. By the way, they don't use oil and their blades never need sharpening. They also whistle to each other to keep in touch as they graze. If they escape, they move like lightning and "melt" into longer grass. There they camouflage perfectly, no matter what their coat colour. Like when a submarine has crash dived, you have no idea of the course the fugitive has taken. You must wait, patient, like a deer hunter, for your quarry to flicker an eyelid and then pounce quickly. Waiting works. Like any sociable animal, guineas need company of their own kind. In the end, they always head back to the run and surrender themselves, desperate to get home. The secret, is to find any escapee before one of the neighbouring cats does.
Tess thinks guinea pigs were created as a performance test for Westies. For a start they are rodents, so they look slightly ratty. They can run fast and they can squeak, so they would be great fun to chase, like a bouncy ball with sound effects! They are nervous and suspicious, so even if they stay quite still, they look as if they are about to make a run for it. Once they escape, they go for long grass where you can exercise all your canine skills on a hunt for them. See? A guinea is the ideal challenge for any Westie. Anytime I had to do anything with guinea pigs, Tess turned up. She wanted to sniff at them and did, and wanted to grab them with her teeth, but couldn't. Spoilsport here, would not let her. Well, how could I have explained the carnage to my daughter who, allegedly, took care of these guineas?
One fine sunny morning I was moving runs. Unnoticed by me, there was a slight depression in that part of the lawn to which I moved Badger's run. Badger's coat colouring earned him his name. He was a guinea with an all-over mane of long hair, of frantically nervous disposition, kept solitary for reasons of birth control. His was a splendid isolation however, because Badger was surrounded by his harem of lovely females in their own chickenwire palaces. He flirted with them by regular squeaks, which created as much excitement in the female quarters as a parlour rumour in a Jane Austen novel. This Mr D'Arcy spent some of his time eating grass and quite a lot more of his time dashing handsomely around all the boundaries of his run, making conversation with the ladies and showing off his long flowing hair. This not only kept him superbly fit, but gave Badger a wonderful slim profile with which to impress his females. He must have been elated to discover a slight depression in the grass that morning. Changing into shapeshifter mode, Badger squeezed his handsome, shaggy frame beneath the wooden groundrail of the run. He emerged outside the wire, checked his bearings and, like the Lothario he was, promptly set off to make closer acquaintance with the nearest female. Tess, meanwhile, was supervising my efforts at moving the last run of the morning, when an electric current appeared to pass through her. Every appendage stood, shocked to attention. Like a pointer, she took a bead on her quarry. There was a miniature badger, loose on her lawn!
Meanwhile Badger, gigolo of all guineas, having spotted electrified Tess, decided amorous adventures should be postponed to a more fortuitous time in favour of current cowardice. Displaying all the cunning of a seasoned guerilla fighter, rather than a guinea pig, and with Tess still momentarily electrified by excitement, Badger darted round the side of a run, took a bearing on the long grass growing around the distant willow trees, and raced for it like a saluki streaking after a gazelle making for cover.
This had the effect of turning off Tess's current. With a yelp of excitement that was a blend of shock reaction and the war whoop of a blood-crazed Comanche warrior hell-bent in revenge for Wounded Knee, Tess hurtled across the lawn like a greyhound slipped after the only possible meal of the day. In her wake, I dodged divots of carefully nibbled grass that flew from under her pads as her claws accelerated in hot pursuit. We were almost on Badger when he dived headlong into the tall grass and promptly vanished.
Now if you think guineas are cute little animals found in pet stores, you are unaware of their true talents. They may have been created on the slopes of the Andes mountains, but they are at home in grass anywhere. Like jungle fighters in a private Amazon they create hidden trails that criss-cross under the taller growth above. The creators of the Ho Chi Min trail were probably trained by guinea pigs.
Tess dashed about the long grass, darting this way, diving that, but fortunately, found nothing. Meanwhile, I was having nightmares about explaining to my daughter how it had to be possible for her to forgive my dog for killing her guinea pig, because ... well ... it is instinctive for our pet terrier to behave that way. Fortunately, in this situation, evolution has shortened the odds in favour of guinea survival. That carefully sculpted piggy nose comes into its own in long grass. Propelled by frantic legs, the guinea cleaves tall stems apart just above soil level. Seemingly impenetrable growth slips effortlessly over shining hair, to close ranks behind the fugitive. Any blunt-nosed pursuer is fooled into thinking they have mistaken the trail, because there isn't a trail to see. No broken stems, no bent blades of grass. This is a horse that not only bolts from the stable, but closes the stable door very efficiently, behind it. Meanwhile, fired by adrenaline rush, Badger cruised onward through the tall grass with all the efficiency of a transcontinental express worming its way under a mountain range. A visualisation of a hairy torpedo on speed is probably about right.
None of this fooled Tess. Her Badger was in that grass somewhere and she meant to find him. She had an edge on me in searching, because she had the power of scent. She worked her way around the thickest of the grass, sniffing carefully. Then she would dive into some really thick cover, flattening it with her front paws and the weight of her body. The tall grass began to collapse under Tess's onslaught. Thickets of tall grass were left standing here and there, whilst Tess systematically searched and wrecked the remaining growth, as efficiently as agent orange defoliated the jungles of Vietnam. Badger, in true guerrilla fashion, fought a running war, sprinting from one thicket to another, leaping like a hurdler over a fallen log here, diving for cover behind an old empty watering can there.
Then it suddenly struck me what Tess was doing. This was no all-out, do-or-die offensive on her part. This was a containment action. She had ample opportunity to capture Badger if she wanted to, just by leaping on whatever remaining grass thicket he was hiding in. But no, she was stealing up to each refuge in turn, silent, bristling with threats of dire action, and panicking the frantic Badger into running to the next refuge. This was always in the direction of his run. If he diverted to cover on one side, Tess would reposition herself so Badger was always between her and the run, between danger and safety. She was impelling him to go home. Badger suddenly realised where he was, where his nice safe run was. He chose safety. He sprinted for his run, dashed round its perimeter till he found the depression, squeezed himself back under the rail and panted safely again. Tess had followed close, nose a couple of inches behind his rear, her tail switching the clouds from the sky. She could have had him easily, but just let him run. She watched him struggle to get beneath the chickenwire frame, took a quick circuit of the run to satisfy herself that he was back where he belonged and looked at me as if to say "Didn't we do well there? Do you think he might make a run for it again?"
That was when I realised Westies have another skill to add to general working credentials as a hunter and a vermin killer. In the right circumstance, they have noticeable herding instincts too. True to form, when my pack of three terriers are walking Shetland's hills or beaches, Tess takes the lead like a drover's dog leading cattle on the trail. She keeps a careful eye over her shoulder on the other two Westies. If one of them should divert too far left or right, Tess will "head them off at the pass" and get them to pursue her, back to the original trail. She still finds time to act like any other terrier while doing this. All interesting holes are checked out, dead things sniffed at carefully and prominent land marks are scented with urine drops just to show we have passed by. Yet Tess never loses her grasp of where all her charges are. She simply divides her attention between them and doggy diversions. This type of behaviour is not seen with the other two Westies, but then Tess is the alpha female and leader of the pack. Also, her subordinates never had the early exposure to guinea pigs that Tess had, towards which she developed almost maternal feelings.
I am inclined to the view that this droving behaviour is innate in the breed, but normally has few opportunities to develop, since dogs are usually in a one-to-one situation with a human companion. But it can be seen in other circumstances which encourage it to develop. It has to be remembered that the Scottish Highlands, now grazed mostly by sheep, were once grazed exclusively by cattle. Part of a croft dog's daily duties would certainly involve helping to move these cattle from one place to another. However, unlike Tess, few if any of these dogs, could credit having been trained as drovers by a Badger.