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Attack Dog Training

German shepherds are one of the most common breeds in the world. I am not opposed to people keeping them and breeding them. Some of these dogs are wonderful family pets. Others are superior law enforcement dogs.

But what I do oppose is total hypocrisy in providing analysis about different breeds of dog.

I have not mentioned on this space before, but I am deeply skeptical of the research put out by Merritt Clifton of Animals 24-7. Not only does he get a lot of breed history wrong– his sloppy use of the term “molosser” is enough for me to question anyone’s expertise about dogs– but he actually engages in pseudoscientific claims about the behavior of breeds he happens to like.

Most people know Clifton for his tireless campaign to prove to the world that “pit bulls” are walking time bombs that are just about to explode at any moment.  Anyone who questions him has been targeted as a “pit bull apologist” or a “pit bull nutter.”

But Clifton himself is one hell of an apologist. Just not with pit bulls.

In his analysis of dog bites from 1982-2014,* Clifton makes some interesting claims about German shepherd bites:

German shepherds are herding dogs, bred for generations to guide and protect sheep. In modern society, they are among the dogs of choice for families with small children, because of their extremely strong protective instinct. They have three distinctively different bites: the guiding nip, which usually does not break the skin; the grab-and-drag, to pull a puppy or lamb or child away from danger, which is as gentle as emergency circumstances allow; and the reactive bite, usually in defense of territory, a child, or someone else the dog is inclined to guard. The reactive bite usually comes only after many warning barks, growls, and other exhibitions intended to avert a conflict. When it does come, it is typically accompanied by a frontal leap for the wrist or throat.

Because German shepherds often use the guiding nip and the grab-and-drag with children, who sometimes misread the dogs’ intentions and pull away in panic, they are involved in biting incidents at almost twice the rate that their numbers alone would predict: approximately 28% of all bite cases, according to a recent five-year compilation of Minneapolis animal control data. Yet none of the Minneapolis bites by German shepherds involved a serious injury: hurting someone is almost never the dogs’ intent.

There are several Clifton’s claims. The first is he conflates herding dogs with livestock guardian dogs. Herding dogs really don’t guard sheep, and the German shepherd’s ancestors were herding dogs. Instead, they engage in predatory behavior that is modified through selective breeding and training. Everyone who lives in a rural area knows that untrained collie-types are a major problem for people keeping sheep and goats. With no training to modify their behavior, they often surplus kill stock. Livestock guardian dogs, by contrast, bond with the stock and protect them. They are selected against exhibiting predatory behavior, and although these dogs sometimes do become predators of livestock, it is not something that anyone would breed for or tolerate within those strains. With herding dogs, though, it is often a tricky balance between herding and hunting.

Note that I said the German shepherd’s ancestors were bred for herding. The modern GSD has not been bred exclusively for this behavior for over a century. If you want an idea of what the original GSD was like, you will have to go to eastern Germany’s Harz Mountains and look for a mid-sized herding dog called Harzer fuchs, which means “Harz fox.”  GSD were partially developed from the Thuringian sheepdog, and the Harz Mountains extend into Thurginia. This dog is actually an active herding breed, but Germany itself has many regional variants of sheepdog. This one just happens to look a lot like the standard German shepherd and is probably similar to the Thuringian type of dog that was crossed into the GSD.

The dog we call a German shepherd dog today, though, has undergone a radical transformation from the sheepdog. One cannot ignore that the dog we call the GSD today was largely the brainchild of a German cavalry officer named Max von Stephanitz. Stephanitz used prick-eared sheepdogs from southern and Eastern Germany, and very quickly began to standardize them and develop them as generalist working dogs. He founded the  Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde in 1899, and his club began developing the breed as the ultimate working dog. There was a heavy emphasis on breeding the dogs for personal protection and military purposes, and a strong selection away from bite inhibition behavior.

German shepherds bite people. His decision to arbitrarily create three categories of German shepherd bite is just weaseling. No credible ethologist or animal behaviorist would recognize these distinctions. GSD have been bred for personal protection and law enforcement. When they bite, it has nothing to do with herding.  I bet there aren’t 200 GSD in all of North America that are used for herding stock, but there are thousands that are bred for protection work and sport and for law enforcement purposes.

What Clifton has done is really good example of legitimizing violence. German shepherds are generally thought of as dogs belonging to the police or a good conservative family, while pit bulls are the dogs of the nonwhite underclass. When a pit bull bites, it is a thug dog. When a German shepherd bites, it is the good shepherd.

In essence, the German shepherd is the equivalent of ” the good guy with a gun” we often hear right wing extremists talk about.

Clifton is treated as an expert on dog bite issues. I don’t know why. I will leave it to more qualified people to make analysis about pit bulls, but I can tell you that German shepherds should not be given a free pass when it comes to dog bite issues.

I am not an expert, but I do know enough about dogs to know when someone is just making stuff up.

Clifton is not giving an intellectually honest answer when he gives his German shepherd apologetics.

I write this not as someone who wants laws against German shepherds, but I can tell you that everything Clifton does is about making law on pit bulls and other “molossers,” which, I’ve pointed out, is actually bogus term.

All I am saying is consult the ethology literature on herding behavior, and read the actual history of German shepherd dogs. They are derived from herders, which is true, but they haven’t been bred exclusively for that behavior in well over a century. A German shepherd is a dog that has been bred to bite people, preferably under control and training. But an untrained, reactive GSD can do a lot of damage to person, just as any big dog could.

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*Clifton, Merrit. “Dog bites and maimings, US and Canada: September 1982 to December 31, 2014.” Animals 24-7.

 

pekin duck

One of the more bizarre fights that happens in the world of dogs is how to classify them. Within these debate is always a background of what it actually means to care for a dog “naturally” and what their “natural” life should be.

It actually shouldn’t be this way. Whether one considers a dog to be its own species or a subspecies of Canis lupus, there is no natural way to care for them or natural life for them. That’s because a dog is a domestic animal, the oldest of domestic animals, and there is very little that is natural about them. Over the thousands of years that have been part of human societies, they have adapted very nicely to our needs. Dogs have even developed cognitive short-cuts that have made them better readers of human body language than virtually any other animal, wild or domestic.

The natural way of keeping a dog is that a dog lives with people. It’s an oddball among domestic animals in that is derived from a very old domestication, and it is also the only large carnivoran that has ever been domesticated. Almost all other domestic animals are herbivores, and the other domestic carnivorans–the Near Eastern wildcat, the European ferret, and the red fox– are all small species. Most large carnivorans consider humans to be prey, so there is something very unusual about domestic dogs.

I get that.

But I am not among those who thinks that there is a species called Canis familiaris. I think dogs are most correctly classified as a subspecies of Canis lupus. 

As soon as I say this, people just lose it. That’s because when you say this, it is almost like justifying abusive dog training methods that are based upon dominance. It also might be justifying raw feeding, which is also contentious issue in the world of dogs.

Those are implications that I soundly reject. There is nothing inherent in a classification of an organism that tells you how to feed it or train it, especially when you’re dealing with the real oddball among domestic animals.

Note that it is never controversial to say that a pekin duck is a mallard. In the photo at the top of the page, you can see the old pekin drake that used to rule the pond. His mate was that Rouen-cross hen, which was sold at a feed store as a mallard. They were both of the same species. Her ancestors were some kind of Western Europe mallard, while his were wild mallards living around Nanjing that were later transplanted to the area around Beijing, where they were selected for larger size and white plumage.

Both of these animals were quite different from the true wild mallard that I see swimming in rivers here in West Virginia. She was twice the size of a wild mallard hen and much darker in color, and he was three times the size of wild drake. Neither of them could fly very well. The Khaki Campbell crosses in the photo were actually much better fliers than either of them.

Performance-strain Rouens are not far removed from the wild mallard. Although they are larger and cannot fly, they still produce the large amounts of oil in their plumage that keep them warm and dry even when they swim the coldest water. Female Rouens also retain the brooding instinct and can hatch out their offspring.

Pekins don’t produce as much oil and aren’t as cold tolerant, and if incubators didn’t exist, there would be far fewer pekin ducks in this world. Most pekin hens have no broody instinct. Further, they also grow so much more rapidly the either Rouens or wild mallards that they are prone to growth disorders.

Even though it is so far removed from the wild mallard, the pekin duck is still a mallard. It is as much a modification on a mallard as a St. Bernard is on a wolf.

The only difference is that no one is going to launch into a culture war tirade over the classification of a pekin duck, but if you say a St. Bernard is a wolf, then you will be asking for it.

It is certainly true that dog domestication happened a lot longer than mallard duck domestication. I cannot find any good literature on dates for mallard domestication, but it’s pretty clear that ducks have been kept in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.  Dog domestication dates and locations are still quite contentious, but the best evidence I’ve seen suggests that they were domesticated from an extinct wolf population between 15,000 and 32,000 years ago.

Some will argue that this extinct wolf population actually is a different species from modern Canis lupus, but I’m quite skeptical. Wolves themselves are among the most varied species in the wild. If we were to go back in time  see that ancestral wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs, I think it would be hard to say that they weren’t within the diversity of phenotype that we see in current Canis lupus populations.

I think the big difference is that these wolves had far fewer reasons to fear people and were actually quite curious about our kind and were actually fairly easy to habituate to living near us. Over time, these wolves became incorporated into our society.

Much has been made that dogs and wolves have different reproductive strategies, but the truth is wolves actually have two reproductive strategies. One of these is the pair bond, where a male and female become partners and their grown offspring help care for the puppies. This is the most successful strategy for wolf reproduction because all the resources and attention of the pack can be devoted to a single litter. Another strategy goes on in parallel. Young male wolves leave their natal packs, but they often cannot find a mate or suitable territory. So they often try to mate with the grown daughters that are part of an established pack. These daughters cannot mate with their father, who is pair-bonded to their mother, who will attack them if she catches them in the act. So these females do often mate with these roaming male wolves. They often become pregnant and even have puppies, but in the wild, they almost never get a chance to raise those pups.  In the early years of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, prey was so abundant that many packs raised multiple litters every year. One would be born to the mated pair, while others would be born to these unpaired daughters and the roaming males. The way dog genes get into wolf populations is almost always when one of these non-paired females in a pack hooks up with a roaming male dog, which is why dog hybridization in European wolves went unnoticed. Most studies on wolf DNA looked at mitochondrial DNA alone, and if a wolf had dog ancestry coming from a male dog, it simply never would have been noticed.

The pair bond strategy exists because it about the only way to raise wolf pups. It is very common in all other dog species. In fact, a study of Chicago coyotes revealed that they are almost 100 percent monogamous, and similar findings have been discovered in golden jackals. However, in a wolf pack, preference toward the bonded pair during the mating season means lots of stress. They mated pair has to spend lots of time making sure no one mates with the wrong wolf, and they also will try to kill any of the roaming males that come near the unpaired females, which is also why the roaming male strategy isn’t as successful with wolves.  Natural selection would favor pair-bonding over roaming male mating strategies.

Domestication changed this equation. When wolves began to hook up with people, people began to provide food.  These wolves may have pair-bonded and mated in that fashion, but the chances of these secondary females to raise litters to maturity were much greater. Over time, pups born to roamers and unpaired females would start to outnumber those that were born to the pair-bonded wolves, and thus, a relaxation of selection pressures for pair bonding would become ubiquitous in these wolves. When pair-bonding became broken, then it became easier to selectively breed them. One could have a stud that mates with many females, and this promiscuous behavior could have been heavily selected for. Dogs are able to reproduce at much faster rates than wolves do, and one of the weird effects of domestication has been that female dogs are no longer monestrus and become sexually mature at younger ages than wolves or virtually any other wild dog.

Dogs and wolves have continued to exchange genes since the initial split. Black wolves in North America derive from domestic dogs that mated with wolves, as do black Italian wolves.  Wolves in Italy also can have dewclaws on their hind legs, which also originated from dog and wolf matings. Historians ranging form Pliny the Elder to the Plott hound historian Bob Plott have documented cases of hunters breeding their dogs with wolves, a practice that still goes in parts of Russia. It was just recently revealed that the livestock guardian dogs of Georgia have a rather significant amount of gene flow with the wolves of the same region.

So yes, I do recognize there are differences between wolves and dogs, but dog is a modification on the original wolf template.

The final important reason why I classify dogs as being part of the wolf species is that evolution has within it a nested law. This is the law of common descent. One can never evolve out of one’s ancestry. Humans are always going to be great apes, and humans are always going to be primates, not matter how different we become from our ancestors. A whale will always be a mammal, even if it somehow evolved gills.

A dog is always going to be a wolf. We change them through selective breeding, as we have with all our other domestic animals, but we are never going to change their fundamental ancestry.

All that I’m doing when I use Canis lupus familiaris is that I’m putting dogs where they fit on the tree of life. I’m showing my respect to their evolutionary heritage. I am paying homage to their phylogeny.

I’m not making excuses for Cesar Millan or anyone else.

Many people who promote science in our understanding of dogs are actually engaging in what I call “phylogeny denial.”  Many people bend over backwards to show how dogs aren’t like wolves, which I supposed is harmless, but I think it gives people a false impression of what a dog actually is in terms of its evolutionary history. It’s not a domesticated golden jackal or coyote or African wild dog. It is a domesticated ancient wolf, but that wolf was just an older form of the modern Canis lupus.

When you classify an animal according to its phylogeny, you aren’t doing anything else but classifying it. If a whale is a mammal, it does not automatically follow that it is a land mammal, does it? And classifying a dog a subspecies of wolf doesn’t mean that it evolved to hunt moose in Alaska.

I really wish people were taught to think about natural history in this fashion more often. It clarifies a lot of misconceptions people have about evolution. If I had a nickel for every time I get asked about humans evolving from modern chimpanzees, then I’d be a pretty wealthy individual. The last common ancestor between humans and chimps was not a chimpanzee. It may have looked more like a chimpanzee, because chimpanzees retain a lot more of the original African ape’s features than humans do, but it was not a chimpanzee like we have today.

By contrast, the wolves that gave rise to domestic dogs were probably indistinguishable from Eurasian wolves living today. Further, dogs and wolves continue to affect each other’s evolution through a rather significant gene flow. Humans affect chimpanzee evolution only through hunting them for bushmeat, destroying their forest habitats, and spreading disease. There is no gene flow between the two species, and because we have a different chromosome number, any “humanzees” would likely be sterile.

Finally, Canis familiaris creates a stumbling block in understanding the natural history of dogs, which is why you still run into people who think dogs derive from any number of different species of wild dog. Canis lupus familiaris neatens up that confusion very nicely.

Classifying a dog as a wolf shouldn’t be any more controversial than classifying a pekin as a mallard, but dog people just have a much harder time thinking in this way. I have never seen an internet flame war erupt between pekin duck owners over the classification of their ducks. In fact, I don’t think many pekin duck owners actually know that their ducks are mallards and do not actually occur anywhere in the wild.

But with dogs, charlatans have used the dog as wolf idea to justify all sorts of bad human behavior towards dog, but scientific facts remain scientific facts, whether charlatans misuse them or not. In terms of their ancestry, as has been revealed through copious analyses of their DNA, dogs are in the Canis lupus lineage.

They simply aren’t anywhere else in the tree of life. This is where they belong. Accept it, and move on.

 

 

 

 

Graduated to a pen

The ducklings are now too big for the tub brooder, so they are now in a pen. They still have a heat lamp, but they have more room to run around and eat and make messes.

003

Blue-eyed duck

This photo gives you a good look at the blue eyes of a pekin duckling.

blue eyed duck

And close up:

blue eyed duck close up

blue eyes

All five ducklings get a bath! You can tell the Rouen duckling and Rouenoid ducklings have a lot more oil on their down than the pekins do.

Source.

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027

026 033

036

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Pretty good montage for Easter!

I hope you’re having a wonderful holiday weekend.

 

Source.

miley

I grew up in a forest. It was not “the Forest Primeval” of legend, but it was forest that grew up in the old ridge-top pastures that once comprised the bulk of West Virginia’s agrarian economy. I was born into the post-agrarian world, where the forest and thicket loomed over me and shielded me like protective cocoon.

My companions in the woods were the dogs belonging to my parents and grandparents. They were hardy ridge-running dogs, elkhounds, collies,  and beagles.  They were barely formally trained at all.  Life running the woods had provided their education, and they knew were the coolest mudholes were on those sweltering days in July and where they could best cut off a running rabbit before it hit the briers.  They were as sagacious as any dog, but they wouldn’t last an hour in the civilized world. One of my grandfather’s elkhounds had to be taken in the back door at the vet’s because he would lose all composure as soon as he smelled a cat. Such an animal would now be listed a vicious in the modern world and would soon bring about a canceled homeowner’s policy or worse.

These were truly lucky dogs.  They were cared for by people, yet they had so much freedom to be dogs.

And similarly, I was a lucky child to have been given the chance to grow up with so much of the natural world around me. I could see nature as it was. My curiosity was piqued by robin nests full of blue eggs, which were soon replaced by naked chicks with gaping yellow maws. Many times I nearly stepped upon newborn white-tailed deer that were hidden in the thickets while their mothers grazed or chewed cud some distance away. I watched the black American toad tadpoles emerge from ropy egg strands laid shallow roadside ditches and then observed them as they lost their tails and grew legs and then turned into tiny little toads that hopped away.

I also saw what happens to tadpoles when the rain doesn’t come often enough to keep the ditch beds full of water. The sun dries up the water, and the tadpoles scurry into increasingly more sparse little puddles until the water finally goes, and then all we are left with are the rotting black dots of tadpole carcasses.

I have watched maggots devour a dead opossum, including the little joeys in her pouch that never once saw light or climbed a persimmon tree for a midnight feast.

I knew that nature was about savagery, and it was also about luck.  A deer spends its entire life as if it is about to be shot at any moment and from any direction. Its entire existence is about scouting and recon and constant vigilance. Even when they bed down in the late afternoon to chew their cud, they are never fully relaxed. The ears are always twisting, and the nose is always smelling.

I never once lived with that sort of fear, but all around me were the high drama of existence. When creatures live without man to care for them, their lives are about struggle and chaos and mayhem, but because they have lived for so many generations in this fashion, they give us the semblance of being pristine and beautiful.

In a weird way, it became my refuge. I was an oddball kid, and growing up in rural West Virginia, where conformity was enforced rather strictly in the schoolyard hierarchy, I often found that I turned to the woods and the dogs to escape whatever pain I felt that day.

When I feel sad now, I go to the woods in search of refuge, and I often find it. However, it is not the same security I once felt. It is as if those childhood days are fading into the undergrowth, yet I can still see them and hear them. They move as shadows just beyond my gaze. I reach for them, but I cannot grasp them. They remain just beyond my finger tips, tantalizing me.

Maybe they will disappear entirely. I certainly hope not.

I just know that so few children will ever get to grow up the way I did.  The natural world for millions of people living in the West is what is on TV.

But for me it is something else.

It is the world that is not consumed by our megalomaniac species and its various dramas. It is the world that exists without us, but it is the world that spawned us. It is also the world we now deny. We wall ourselves away from it. We live in the concrete and steel world and never give this world more than a passing thought.

At some point, we will become aliens on our planet, and we might not be far from that now.

But in those lost days of dogs and children, I knew what it was like to be an earthling in its fullest essence.

A big part of who am was made in those times, and I don’t think it is easy for me to explain this someone who didn’t experience something similar.

People keep dogs now in fenced yards, where they spend most the day barking at cars and passersby. Maybe someone will walk the dog, but that’s not very likely.  Most of these dogs will never know what it’s like to run unleashed in a woodland full of wild turkey, grouse, rabbit, and deer scent.  Most will never know the joy of lying down hard in a deep mudhole during good hot summer walk. Most won’t know the absolute euphoria of a dog running full blast for miles and miles over a heavy snowfall.

Like tigers that pace in the zoo cage, they let loose their wild barks in hopes that this will break the monotony of existence, just as I will plug away on this keyboard in hopes that it might bring back to the woods and the ridge-running dogs and the green forest and the summer sun.

Earthlings won’t have an easy time in the decades and centuries to come, but I wish that I could cast my lot with them.

But the alien world calls and keeps pulling me further and further away.

But it hasn’t broken me yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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