Friday, January 1, 2010

Double-Suspension of Disbelief

The six of us drove from the Bay Area to the only motel near a Central Valley town where there are more coursing hounds than anywhere else on the continent. Hell, there may be more hounds than humans, amid the glass-flat, engineer-squared, desert cotton fields forced green by water wrung from the Sierras.

View Larger Map

Three humans and three search and rescue dogs rolled out of bed at o-dark-thirty and met our long-time correspondent,* Dr. John Burchard, and his colleagues George Bell and Vicky Clarke at the blinking stoplight in "town," before driving out to the unplanted -- therefore unwatered -- fields near the irrigation ditch.

With them were an assortment of the fastest quadruped predators on the continent outside of the cheetah pen at the zoo.

It was already summer, and for the sake of both hounds and hares, all coursing needed to be done before the sun could begin its relentless scorching.

The SAR dogs presented a conundrum. It was too dangerous to leave them in the car. Would it work to bring them along? Vicky briefly fretted about our GSD partner, Mel. Her hounds had never met another dog who was not a sighthound. Would they make Mel to be a coyote and try to hunt her down?

Not to worry. Mel and the two English shepherds, Pip and Rikki, had one thing in common with the salukis -- courtly dog manners.

Vicky asked for this picture, as proof that Joey and Mojo had met a pointy-ear and not served her as a giant 'yote. The SAR dogs walked as part of the human "gallery" when we slip-coursed with George's greyhounds; when the salukis were released to free-course, the SAR dogs moved out a bit more. Rikki even flushed a hare and futilely chased it until the salukis took over.

In slip-coursing, the humans walk a line through the grass and light brush, hold hounds by the most ingeniously-constructed leash-collar contraption. When someone spots a hare, he shrieks RABBBIIIITT, the hounds surge forward, the handlers let go of the T-handle of the lead, and the wrist loop engages the deadman release -- it all takes less than a second, and the chase is on.

George handed me the lead of a massive greyhound named Lionheart. I felt as if a total stranger had just trustingly handed me the keys to a Bugatti with his baby inside.**

As we walked and scanned for hares, I asked him about the breeding of these real coursing greyhounds -- what characterized the bloodlines of dogs who still hunt the way their ancestors did before the invention of the alphabet?

We cross track-bred dogs with AKC greyhounds.

Coulda knocked me over with a saluki's ear feather.

Why do you do that?

Because it works.

My brain raced with more questions, but I dropped them, because George had just given the final answer to any sensible inquiry about why an expert might do something a certain way. And because someone screamed RABBBIIITTT, and the chase was on.

It was over in less than a minute. The hare escaped through a fence that was so far away I had failed to perceive it. The hounds were colored dots in the distance.

When they returned at a more reasonable lope, they were done. The first order of business was to thoroughly cool them.

George took the greys home, and it was time to free-course the salukis. Contrary to the armchair fancier folklore I'd been fed, they hunted by scent like any other dog until they (or Rikki) flushed a hare.

When Joey and Dark Lady were in pursuit, Mojo was most ingenious as he tried to get a look at its trajectory.

The salukis were not as fast, and did not run as far (edit: as far away -- they ran for longer over a more crazed course), as the greyhounds, but they turned and strategized and provided an exciting chase at least twice. My blood surged with adrenaline shared by hunters in wide desert places since the Bronze Age.

I would not have been in better company if I'd been invited to hunt from the Pharaoh's chariot.

No jackrabbits were harmed in the making of this morning of hunting.

We did do considerable damage to some chorizo and huevos at an excellent Mexican greasy spoon.

Then to George's house, to spend the late morning studying astonishing videos and high-speed photographs of sighthounds running, turning, spinning -- hyperextending their joints in ways that humans never imagined before Muybridge.

It was John who had, years before, presented such definitive evidence for the functional necessity of front dewclaws that I was compelled to discard every bit of lore I had been fed for decades about the practice of amputating them. (And just in time for our first litter of puppies to keep their God-given thumbs.)

As we viewed another amazing image, one of our hosts mentioned that the double suspension gallop was unique, among dogs, to the sighthounds.

All galloping animals have a moment in the collected phase of the gait when the beast is airborne.

A dog or cheetah capable of double-suspension is also airborne at full extension.

And apparently, everyone knows that only sighthounds can do this. Ken and Laura and I were conversing with two of the world's experts on animal locomotion, and they were quite clear on this point.

Except ... I fired up my laptop and starting looking for this:

Pip had just spent the morning being emphatically not a sighthound in the company of both of them. She is not structured anything like a sighthound, doesn't do a sighthound's job, and isn't remotely as fast as a sighthound.

There is undeniably air under each of her feet in this photograph.

QED. Sighthounds do not have a monopoly on the canine double-suspension gallop.

What was striking was how delighted both men were to see the photo. How happy they were to surrender what they knew in favor of the new information. A lovely demonstration of the scientific worldview, and beyond that the generosity and confidence of temperament that prefers a novel and messy truth to a tidy and coherent conviction.


Pupdate. I'm putting together a photo gallery of non-sighthounds airborne at full extension, here.

Reviewing the excellent photos people have been sending me, I need to specify that what we need is sequential photos of the animal airborne at both collection and extension.

Like this fabulous coyote.

Otherwise, there's no way to know that the dog wasn't leaping out of a different gait.

You can send submissions to the surname of this blog's author spelled correctly AT zoominternet DOT net


* I don't think the dogs had been writing to him, though he'd be one to read and answer graciously if they did.

** Begging the question, who puts a car seat into a Bugatti?


  1. Would you like some examples of a flatcoat airborne at full extension? I've got dozens.

  2. Last winter in fresh snow, about 4” deep, Tia (one of Pip’s puppies) took off running straight ahead, on a flat stretch of dirt road. She was going as fast as she could. She seems to do this just because she can – for the sheer joy of the speed. I measured 6’ between where her front feet left the ground and her back feet next hit. There were no marks in between - so she had to be airborne. Throw in the 4’ of her body in full extension … - I was astounded.

  3. Raymond Coppinger claimed that only sighthounds had this gallop, but I've seen my golden retrievers do it. The show bred dog couldn't do it at all; she just sort of galumphed along.

  4. Terrie, I once measured Pip's prints at nearly 8' under similar circumstances, except she was on a moderate downhill in deeper snow. The slope obviously gave her an assist, and I think the deeper snow encouraged her to fly. And yes, she was stretching it out just for the sheer joy of doing so. I didn't know enough that wasn't so to appreciate what this meant about the nature of her stride, I was just impressed with its length.

    Retrieverman, unless you have photos (or as Terrie points out, definitive tracks) you can't really prove a double-suspension, since at normal full extension there will briefly be on hind leg in ground contact. It happens too fast for the human eye to see.

    People vigorously disputed whether a horse was ever airborne at the gallop before Leland Stanford hired Muybridge to settle the question. Now I can capture Rafik with a regular consumer-model digital camera using the sports/burst auto setting.

  5. I'm putting together a picasa album of dogs airborne at full extension, so a photo or two would be great.

    I thought I could set it so anyone could add photos, but it's not that easy. You can either mail me (reduced size, please) photos, or give me your email address and I can add it to those who can upload.

  6. Great post!!
    My dogo pit mix is one of the fastest dogs (outside of true coursing hounds) I have seen and is airborne quite often!! I am now curious about the length of his stride - I am going to go measure it in the snow!!! Unfortunately, my camera is not good enough to catch him as he flies by me- it is always a blur!!!

  7. I'm liking winter. You are stuck inside and so you write more. I'm selfish: I like that!

  8. "People vigorously disputed whether a horse was ever airborne at the gallop before Leland Stanford hired Muybridge to settle the question."

    I can actually point to the stretch of ground where this happened, here in Sacramento.

    Along 21st Street, which used to be part of a horse-racing track.,-121.47595&z=19&t=h&hl=en

    The street is still wide at this point because of this history. :)

  9. Heather, if you'll supply an email address, I'll provide some photos.

    Also since you were out in the Central Valley, near Lost Hills, I'll send you a bit about Valley Fever. One of my friend's two year old retriever was just diagnosed with the condition three weeks after competing in a hunt test in that area. It's becoming known as the "Valley Fever Capitol of the world."

  10. Ah, beautiful Alpaugh. Charles Manson is just up the road in Corcoran, IIRC. Well-lit at night, Corcoran. I snark a bit because I am insanely jealous you got to go coursing.

    Twenty-five years or so ago I took my first border collie to Alpaugh to work with a fine trainer there, and the trainer's property was next to a large fenced yard filled with salukis. Be a kick if those dogs belonged to people your correspondents knew back in the day.

    I want to film my whippety landshark at top speed now.

  11. Heather, thank you for this wonderful blog on OFC, sighthounds and dogs in general. As a borzoi person who only gets to dream about running live jacks I'm very jealous and wish that more sighthounds had that opportunity.

  12. Jesus X. Christ on a pogo stick, I was just out with Libby and Romeo playing exhaust-a-dog, and I think I got at least one shot of one them with all four in the air. How hard are these guys trying?

  13. I might have an airborne photo of my rough collie. If I do, I'll send it to you.

  14. Heather - check out the latest picture of Skeeter on the montana es list - it is late, but to my tired eyes it looks like a huge double suspension!

    Rachael Roper

  15. I like this series by Xan Latta, of her puppy Boy Wonder in action:

  16. That is a very cool photo series Gina -- and a great documentation of the "conventional" single suspension gallop.

    I suspect that the non-sighthounds that we have photographed airborne will usually use the regular gait at a gallop, while the sighthounds will almost always double-suspend.

    Pip was coming off of five days of concentrated body work (we were enrolled in a workshop). She's probably never felt so good. In addition, during that week, and because of the body work, she was able to let go of her state of deep mourning for Lilly, who had left us about six weeks before.

    That extended gallop is an expression of pure physical and emotional joy and well-being.

    Look at the beautiful flexing arch of her back. Look at her reach and extension -- not just her legs, but her neck. She's as supple as a ballerina and as powerful as a linebacker.

    We should all get a chance to feel that good.

  17. Rachel, re: Skeeter -- hard to tell, because he's not on flat ground -- is that a gallop, or a leap up onto the rocks?

  18. Yeah, probably a leap - but cool to see him so happy!

    Rachael Roper

  19. I've got a few photos of corgis at full all-feet-off the ground gallop, but I'll have to find the box they're in- they're archaic film. :P

  20. Also, I'm not sure if this qualifies, but it certainly does raise the bar for artistic merit.

  21. Heather, great post! I'll be looking for this in our dogs now. :) I was wondering if you'd post a link (or something) to the information on dewclaws briefly mentioned. Sounds quite interesting.

  22. Dobermans very commonly gallop using the DSG gait. The gait is slightly different for a DSG than a regular gallop (or so I am told by various books). I find taking video of moving dogs then pulling out the frames for extension & collection airborne frames is easier.

    Vivienne - ozdobe on lj

  23. 18-month-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, suspended at extension:

    and collection:

    Making it work for her a couple years later:


  24. Aside from the previous pics, I recalled another series of that same bitch running up the dogwalk. It's an interesting series, as she appears to move from double suspension to single as she gets up the ramp. In the first photo, while in collection, she isn't suspended, but I think that's because of when the photographer snapped. You can see the photos on my LJ account, I just posted them.

  25. Glad you enjoyed Alpaugh, great coursing. Good to see George and Doc John are still walking the fields. They both have had adventures abroad that include stories of Arabia and Africa.

  26. Several examples here. Does it count when you're the size of a dust mote?

  27. These are cool pics and comments, but double suspension means the dog is airborne twice in it's gait: once at contraction and once at extension. A picture of your dog airborne during extension does not indicate a double suspension gait by itself, you have to capture them in the air with all four feet together, coiled up for the next leap, too.

  28. Thanks for lesson, anonymous.

    There is no galloping gait in which the animal is fully suspended at extension and not at collection.

    The conventional single-suspension gallop always involves full suspension at collection, as does the double-suspension.

  29. there's a second element to double suspension gallop besides airborne with front paws to the front and back paws to the back. it's called DOUBLE suspension because the animal must also be airborne at TWICE during their gallop. this happens when the front paws are pointed back and the back paws are pointed forward, basically crossing midair. check if your dog does that. i believe it's only cheetahs and sighthounds that do that, possibly horses (not sure).

    1. Well, anon, way to NOT READ THE POST.

      What you "believe" is immaterial.

      Thank you for playing, try again.


I've enabled the comments for all users; if you are posting as "anonymous" you MUST sign your comment. Anonymous unsigned comments will be deleted. Trolls, spammers, and litigants will be shot.