November 2011

The Nation Reviewed

A small breed

By Sonya Hartnett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Portuguese podengo

Among the canine entrants on the third day of competition at this year’s Royal Melbourne Show – the ethereal salukis and monolithic St Bernards, the dandyish whippets and the gentlemanly schnauzers – one small and comparatively unremarkable animal is attracting more than its fair share of attention. Competition name ‘Sleykh Cacao Chuao’, street name ‘Cino’, the little dog is a Portuguese podengo, one of only six in the country and here on display for the first time.

The podengo is largely unknown outside its native Portugal, although in recent years it has gained a small following in the US and UK, where it is commonly called the Warren Hound, and most particularly in Finland, a nation that likes its dogs neat and rare. Like the dingo, the basenji, the Canaan and the New Guinea Singing Dog, the podengo is a primitive breed, a dog whose evolution has had scant human influence and that retains many of the physical and behavioural attributes of its wild cousins.

Common among primitive dogs is a short dense coat, often in a shade of ginger dashed with white; a compact body, erect ears and almond-shaped eyes; and a tendency to howl or yodel rather than bark. The Portuguese podengo comes in three sizes, each of which shows traces of its ancestry. The largest, the Podengo Grande, is used to catch and kill deer and boar; more hunter than companion, it’s a scarce breed even in its homeland. The Medio is used for guarding and for pursuing smaller game. The Pequeno, the smallest of all, is used to flush out rabbits from warrens, but is of a size and temperament that lends itself to being a household pet.

The podengo is bred in a variety of coat colours, although honey-and-white, the ancient colouring, is the most popular. All three sizes come in wire-coated and smooth-coated varieties, and many carry a flare of white on the tips of their long tails – the hunting dog’s beacon that shines over the top of long grass.

Cino, a smooth-coated Pequeno, is 17 months old, but already he’s an old hand on the competition circuit. He’s bored into whimpering in his cage, and frantic with excitement when his owner, Jenni McKernan, lets him out. Cino was born in Brisbane as part of the first (and, so far, only) litter of podengos whelped in Australia. His mother was brought over from Finland in April last year after long and delicate negotiations with an overseas breeder and with the Australian National Kennel Council, the regulatory body that monitors the introduction of new dog breeds to the country. It’s a matter of establishing trust, spending money and calling on reserves of patience, a winding process that, if anything, certainly proves seriousness of intent – one thing the purebred-dog world can hardly be accused of lacking.

 Sleykh Cacao Chuao and Jenni have flown down from Brisbane. He has come not just to exhibit, but to compete. Ribbons to his name will raise his value as a future stud dog, making the travel expense and the arduous day on the bench well worth the trouble. As the only podengo in attendance, Cino will go into the ring alone, competing against the international breed standard. Not all countries allow a dog to compete only against the standard, but Australia’s isolation, along with the difficulties of importation and our relatively limited variety of shown breeds, has led to a tweaking of the rules.

Cino goes out looking his absolute best, his pink nails clean, his yellow coat spotless, his coppery eyes alert. The noise and crowds at the showground don’t faze him: he bolts onto the bright fake grass of the ring, a tiny powerhouse of charisma and self-satisfaction, dancing on the end of a fine leash. In the open space he looks even tinier – much smaller than a cat – but he keeps his head up, ears pricked and handsome tail upright, its white tip waggling in time with his fast trot. The audience chuckles with pleasure at the sight.

He’s a clever, curious, exuberant fellow, eager to do what’s required of him, stopping and starting and changing direction with alacrity. Once on the table he lets the judge run his hands over his sleek body, then jumps up to Jenni’s face excitedly. He wins a clutch of three pretty rosettes, including a golden one for Best of Breed. It’s all over in minutes.

Returned to his bench, Cino dozes on his back, legs splayed to show off his stud attributes. Jenni is importing a mate for him with the intention of furthering the breed in Australia, but this newcomer will eventually be bred using semen imported from overseas. With so few podengos in the country, and most of them related, foreign semen is a means of deepening the gene pool, but it’s not the easiest or most reliable way to go about things, nor is it cheap – by the time the bitch arrives she will have already cost around $7000. Cino himself cost Jenni $3000 to buy as a pup.

It’s a lot of money and effort for a dog who, I hazard to suggest, looks like nothing so much as a bitzer you’d find in a cage at the local RSPCA, a terrier-cross with a penchant for roaming the streets in search of biffo. Jenni isn’t insulted; she smiles in agreement. No one would ever guess how exclusive her little animal is. As a mongrel RSPCA orphan, she tells me, he’d quickly find a home. As a prize-winning show dog, his unobtrusive looks mean he’s unlikely to be stolen from her backyard.

Sonya Hartnett
Sonya Hartnett is the acclaimed author of Thursday's Child, Sleeping Dogs, Of a Boy and The Midnight Zoo. She won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's literature in 2008.

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