Archive for October, 2009

Willie and the squirrels

Willie and his squirrels.

Willie is a young Jack Russell from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who recently spent a weekend at my grandpa’s house in very rural West Virginia. Willie lives with my aunt and uncle, and he’s very smart. He is dead serious about retrieving things, which is more than I can say about Miley.

Like many of his breed, he is likes to chase small furry things.  At home, Willie and Madeleine, the other Jack Russell who lives at that household, can be launched with the mere mention of the word squirrel.  They take squirrel hunting very seriously. It is as if it is their main duty to keep the bushy-tailed rats off the lawn.

However, they are contained in a fenced yard, allowing the squirrels  an easy escape from the jaws of these small brown and white wolves. In all the years they have been chasing squirrels in North Carolina, they have caught only one squirrel.  (Of course, dogs have a hard time catching squirrels, whether they are fenced in or not.)

As I have mentioned earlier, West Virginia’s trees have not produced enough mast this year to feed the large numbers of squirrels, turkeys, and white-tailed deer.

My grandpa has taken pity upon the squirrels, in part because he actually wants to keep their numbers high for next year.  He hunts squirrels, and he knows that if they squirrels go into winter without a bounty of nuts from the fall, there will be fewer squirrels next year.

So he has set up a massive squirrel feeding operation. One of his feeders is on the deck in full view of his sliding glass door.  Here, the vast hordes of  fox squirrels and normal and melanistic grays fight over the corn in the feeder all day long. It is quite entertaining to watch.

And when Willie and Maddy were at his house a few weekends ago, they very much agreed. They would stand by the sliding glass door like wolves staring down a herd of caribou. Maddy would quiver all the way down to the tip of her docked tail, and Willie would stand like a pointer with one foot raised. When the sliding glass door was opened the first time, Maddy ran right off the deck after the squirrels, and Willy chased them out of the yard and across the old pasture into the woods.  This was Jack Russell heaven.

Getting to watch and chase so many squirrels really had an effect on Willie.

When they returned home, Willie went to his toy box and took out three of his stuffed toys.

Now, Willie has a collection of toys.  He has more stuffed toys than many children do. He had a wide selection to choose from.

So it was very interesting that Willie picked out the three stuffed squirrels that were in his box.

Willie was expressing himself with his toys. I don’t think it takes a genius to recognize this.

He was showing his people that he really liked watching and chasing those large numbers of squirrels all weekend.

And it is really quite remarkable. He was using objects that represented the animals that he saw. It is obvious that he knows those stuffed squirrels aren’t the same as the real ones, but he does know that they somehow represent the real ones.


Willie is not the only dog to use toys to represent things.

I saw this program on the National Geographic Channel a few years ago. This doberman had been abandoned and had trouble trusting people. He eventually came out of his shell, but what was really interesting is that he also used toys to express himself:


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Tool use is not very common in non-human animals, snd in many cases, it is unclear whether the animals are using tools as the result of inherited motor patterns or are actually using learning too use through observation or reasoning.

Chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans have been seen using tools as a result of their novel intelligence. They clearly learn tool  use through observation.

Now, I think that is the latter type of tool use that we’re seeing here. This dog probably watched children use that raft and then decided to use it to fetch without getting too wet.

This is actually a more sophisitcated and unusual behavior than you might suspect.

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It’s not a bad B-Movie:


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It’s not a bad B-Movie:



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Trip the Chesapeake

The answer to the question I asked last night is that it this dog was a Chesapeake Bay retriever. The illustration comes from John Henry Walsh’s The Dogs of Great Britain, and Other Countries (p. 121).

The dog’s name was Trip.  He was owned by C. H. Tilghman of Easton Maryland.  This particular dog won “first premium” at a dog show in New York in 1877.

Walsh often got things wrong, but his description of the three types of Chesapeake that existed in the 1870’s is very interesting:

As there now appears to be three types of this dog, the members of the Maryland Poultry and Fancier’s Association, at their first show, held at Baltimore, January, 1877, appointed a committee to draw up a standard of points for judging. On the evening of January 8, 1877, they met the members of the club, and made their report, which was adopted. The committee consisted of the following gentlemen (each representing their respective type): Mr. John Stewart, representing the Otter breed, in color a tawny sedge, with very short hair; Mr. O. D. Foulks, the long-haired, or Red Winchester, and Mr. J. J. Turner, Jr., the curly-coated, in color a red-brown – the bitches showing the color and approximating to the points of the class to which they belong, a white spot on the breast in either class not being unusual. The measurements were as follows: from fore toe to top of back, 25 inches; from tip of nose to base of head, 10 inches; girth of body back of fore leg, 33 inches; breast, 9 inches; around fore feet, 6 inches; around fore arm below shoulder, 7 inches; between eyes, 2 1/4 inches; length of ears, 5 inches; from base of head to root of tail, 35 inches; tail, 16 inches in length; around muzzle below the eyes, 10 inches.

The Otter-type is the one that wound up taking over the Chesapeake breed. Long-haired (“Red Winchester”) and curly-coated varieties have since disappeared in the standardized form. (However, long-haired Chessies do pop up every once in a while.)

I found it interesting that there were some different guesses on the identity of this dog.

The best diagnostic feature of the Chessie is that its topline is usually not level– “hindquarters as high or a trifle higher than the shoulders,” says the AKC standard.

The long hair may have come from the way-coated retriever, which was evident in the US at this time, or it may have inherited some long-haired genes from the odd long-haired St. John’s water dog. Collie-types and setter-types could have also played a role in producing some long-haired dogs. The Irish water spaniel is also a possibility.

Yes, this is yet another breed that had a bit more diversity before it became fully standardized.

Update: Does anyone know of any good books or websites on the history of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever?

In case you didn’t know, this is what they look like today: show chessie


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The RSPCA’s stance on this one is very, very wrong.

See my earlier post on the topic.

And yes, I’ve eaten squirrel meat.

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Wolf in the snow

The Beothuks were the indigenous people of Newfoundland who were living there in the early colonial period.

Contrary to what you may read, the Beothuk probably did not own dogs. There are no archeological records of dog remains near Beothuk settlement, and most of the earliest accounts of the Beothuk make no mention of canines.

But they did have a relationship with the Newfoundland wolf that might be called semi-domestication. (I disagree very strongly that these accounts are of a feral or a semi-domesticated Native American pariah dog. There apparently were none of these animals on Newfoundland when Europeans arrived! There probably were dogs associated with European and Míkmaq settlements on the island, but none with the Beothuk.)

This account, published in 1620, comes from Richard Whitebourne, an early colonist and cod fisherman who had originally served on his own ship against the Spanish Armada.  Whitbourne set up a cod fishing colony at Renews, Newfoundland, sometime after the Armada was defeated. This is his account of the relationship between the Beothuk and the wolf of Newfoundland:

For it is well known that they are a very ongenious and subtile kind of people (as it hath often appeared in divers things), so likewise are they tractable, as hath been well approved, when they have been gently and politically dealt withall; also they are a people who will seek to revenge any wrongs done unto them, or their wolves, as hath often appeared. For they mark their wolves in the ears, with several marks, as is used here in England on sheep, and other beasts, which hath been likewise well approved; for the wolves in these parts are not so violent and devouring as those in other countries, for no man that I ever heard of, could say that any wolf. . . did set upon any man or boy.

Richard Whitbourne Discovery and Discourse of the Newfoundland (1622 printing)

(The Beothuck were called “Red Indians” because they painted themselves with ochre.)

The relationship here is rather weird. There is no evidence that the Beothuk were feeding their semi-domesticated wolves, nor were they using them for anything, such as hauling loads or guarding. They were hunting and fishing people, who relied upon the sea’s bounty, as well as the herds of caribou to feed them.  They were known for setting up elaborate deer fences, which they used to drive the caribou into a central arena where they could be easily dispatch with the use of bows and arrows.

Whitbourne’s mastiff dog eventually goes wandering in the wilderness. Today, if such a thing happened in wolf country, the dog would be at risk.

Whitbourne’s mastiff was greeted by the wolves, who then decided to play with the dog. In fact, the mastiff would disappear for days to play with its lupine brethren.

The Beothuk had no reason to hate the wolf. They were a hunting people, who may have seen the wolf as a comrade that kept the herds healthy. Very little was ever written about Beothuk mythology; most contemporary accounts claim that they had no religion, which is a very common (and probably inaccurate) statement by many early European colonizers. Because of this lack of a good account of their religious beliefs, we are left with no understanding of how the wolf fit into their cultural and religious worldview.

However, this is one of the best accounts of the relationship between a hunter-gatherer people and a population of wolves that had not suffered wide-spread persecution. There are accounts of the Beothuk trapping wolves for their fur, but whether this habit was part of their original culture or something they adapted to fit into the European market economy is a good question. In fact, because the Beothuk began to see the wolf pelt as something valuable to trade with the Europeans, it may have ultimately led to the break down of the relationship between hunter-gatherer man and wolf.

It is accounts of relationships like this one that possibly tell us what early man’s relationship with the wolf was like. Wolves were curious about people, and people were fascinated by wolves. The fact that they hunted the same prey forged an unusual relationship that lasted until man began to raise livestock. When that happened, all bets were off, and the wolves that could live with man and his stock became dogs. Those that could not became wolves, and man then decided to make the wolf become extinct. This push to near extinction put a selective pressure on all wolf populations that made them nearly impossible to domesticate and far more reactive than they once were. That is why virtually all wolves today are very difficult to keep in captivity, and why most experts very urge people not to keep wolves as if they were dogs.


On a somewhat unrelated note, here is a photo of Adolph Murie with his family and the pet wolf named Wags.

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