Dogs and birds! They go together like lions and zebras. In fact the leonberger dog was originally a designer dog, bred to look like a lion. That was because the lion was the emblem on the coat of arms of the town of Leonberg (adjacent to Stuttgart, Germany), where the breed originated in the early 1800’s.
My leonberger dog, Arnold (pictured at right) performed an amazing rescue a couple of years ago, completely of his own accord, which I will recount here eventually. But first a bit of background to introduce Arnold to you.
Birds are almost irresistible to Arnold, and his favourite hobby is to chase them. Despite being a German breed and himself having a long Norwegian ancestry, Arnold has a vocabulary of about 200 English words. He is so good at understanding English that he can follow most conversations around him. Arnold is also an expert in the art of dog language, which is mostly a silent language. He has no time for barking dogs—barking, in his opinion, is a meaningless noise, and one that he only resorts to if he is very angry.
But I digress. I was trying to say that Arnold’s word for birds is “duck”. Arnold thinks that humans think that all birds are ducks. He himself can differentiate. For example actual ducks are far more fun to chase than, say, seagulls. Seagulls just fly away when he chases them, which is fun for a moment, but not as fun as the chase that a group of ducks will lead him on. Besides which, ducks have a fabulous quack, which drives Arnold nutty.
In the beginning I worried about Arnold around birds. I would hate for him to hurt one. But, my worries were baseless. He might eat an egg that he found on the beach (not that he ever has, nor would I ever knowingly take him near nesting birds) but I now know that he would never harm another animal, even one that was attacking him. He was attacked and wounded by a pitbull, and his reaction was to lick it’s muzzle. In dog language that means, “It’s OK, I’m submissive, you’re the boss.” His best animal buddy is our cat…
Getting Back to Ducks
Arnold will swim non-stop for up to half an hour at a time if the ducks are willing to play that long. Ducks have a way of working together to lead a potential predator away from their nests or their vulnerable members. They will paddle just fast enough to keep out of Arnold’s reach and if he does get too close, they simply lift off and put another few metres space between them. When they are sick of the game, they simply fly away.
A special duck trick is to split up, forcing Arnold to choose which group to follow. If he chooses the wrong bunch, the other group will start quacking to get him to chase them instead.
Only once has Arnold ever actually caught up to the ducks in all his six years. It was in the open sea and one adolescent duckling was too slow. I watched in horror as he came closer and I screamed at him to leave it alone, but he was too far off shore to hear me. This was in the days when he was a naughty puppy and I didn’t have absolute control over him—dogs become reliably well behaved as they mature, but only if they are trained right and given off-leash opportunities to learn. To my astonishment, Arnold merely prodded the duckling with his nose and then left it to chase another group. Truly, chasing ducks (of any species) is a game of “tag” for Arnold.
This is a giant breed of dog which descends from both herd dogs, that would sit amongst the sheep to protect them from wolves, and from Newfoundland dogs, who are strong swimmers. Leonbergers truly do protect small animals and value their lives, provided they are socialised properly from puppy-hood.
Leonberger Rescues A Pukeko
So the amazing bird rescue happened on a day when he was bushwhacking along a farm river with me. The undergrowth was quite thick in one spot and we couldn’t, at that moment, see the river, but could hear it running just a few feet away. The terrain was up and down, so that at times we were at river level and at other times several metres above the river. We stopped for a minute to catch our breath and enjoy the peace and quiet where the only sounds were bush birds high in the canopy, and the tinkling of the many short waterfalls along the river. Suddenly our reverie was broken by a terrible squawking and splashing up ahead. Before I could react, Arnold rushed from my side. Realising he was after the distressed “duck”, I yelled at Arnold to return.
Now I should mention here that the leonberger is a breed which has independent thoughts. They are not like some breeds (border collies, etc) that like to be told what to do and respond immediately. This is a breed that thinks about every order it gets and decides to obey only if they agree that it makes sense: “You want me to sit? What on earth for?”
At this time, Arnold knew better than me, so he ignored my calls. I hurriedly followed in his wake, but before I caught up to him, the squawking had stopped and I feared the worst. A few seconds later, I heard an almighty splash. I pushed around a prickly toi-toi bush and found myself on the precipice of a bank above the river.
There was Arnold swimming towards the fast flowing section in the centre of the river. Judging by his tracks leading to the precipice, he had leapt over three metres down into the water. There was no sign of any species of bird. Even the enveloping bush had gone silent. I called him again, and I knew he could jolly well hear me, but again he ignored me. He slowed and started turning circles, this way and that. Then he dove down. I watched with morbid fascination, as he surfaced, spun another circle and dove down again. Once more he surfaced and swum further towards the approaching waterfall and dove under again. This time, when he surfaced, he had a pukeko (native swamp hen) in his mouth.
With swift strokes, he swam against the current back to a small clay beach. Gently, he placed the bird at his feet and prodded it with his nose several times. Slipping and sliding, I clambered back down the hillock until I could find a place to reach the beach. Arnold shook the water out of his fur and stood over the life-less bird watching it and prodding it occasionally. As the realisation came to me that his intention was to rescue the bird, not eat it, I was so proud of him. I decided I really should learn to trust his judgement more.
I could see that it was an adolescent pukeko, because it’s legs were black and I knew that they turn red once they reach adulthood. But it was not a chick, because it was nearly full size and it had a red beak. It’s dark plumage was drenched and it showed only the vaguest sign of life. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around the pathetic creature. Then Arnold and I walked back up to our house, just a five minute walk going in a direct line.
I wrapped a towel around a rubber hot-water bottle and laid the pukeko onto that. Then I set up Arnold’s giant wire cage (that he refuses to use), and put the bird in there with a bowl of water. I covered the cage with blankets to keep it dark and set about the Internet trying to find a bird rescue centre who could possibly assist me.
Being a Sunday, the closest open bird rescue was 100km away in the nearest city, and as much as I like pukekos, I wasn’t prepared to drive that distance for one. Afterall, they are a common bird and are not endangered in any way. Arnold sat watch outside the cage and wouldn’t leave it, while I went about my day. About an hour later, there was a tremendous crashing sound coming from the cage and to my horror I returned to find the bird frantically trying to escape. It seemed to have completely recovered and even its plumage seemed much dryer. There was sticky green bird poo everywhere and its flightless wings were flapping madly. At the ends of its black legs, the large talons were clinging to any and all parts of the cage. I realised I had to get it out of there before it damaged itself.
Warily opening the cage door, I threw a blanket over the bird, and then avoiding those scary looking toes, I rolled the bird into the blanket. I clearly instructed Arnold to stay at the house while I walked back to where we’d found the ungrateful thing to release it. I was half way there, when Arnold caught up to me. No way, was he staying behind. This was his duck. His business.
We got near the river and I gently set it down. The stupid bird ran back towards the house. I restrained Arnold and we watched it go, eventually disappearing from our sight back into the undergrowth.
That was Arnold’s amazing rescue. He’s just the best dog ever.
I hope you enjoyed reading about it.
Incidentally, leonbergers are used as water rescue dogs in Italy and train in water rescue at clubs around the world.