Archive for June, 2013

This is Peter Cottontail.


The cottontails in this area are somewhat strange in that many of them will squeak before running away.

I don’t think it’s an alarm call.

Unlike European rabbits, cottontails are not particularly social.

It is probably nothing more than a genetic fluke.


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Born free!

The ducks have been released on the pond! And they took to it like a duck to water!





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This painting is callled “The Shooting Party– Ranton Abbey” by Sir Francis Grant.   It dates to about 1840, and it depicts Whig Party elites, including the then prime minister, William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne. Ranton Abbey was a shooting estate in Staffordshire owned by Earl of Lichfield. These preserves were playgrounds for the nobility, where they pretended that they are somehow the great hunting people like their Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman ancestors.

The painting of interest because it shows the division of labor among canines at the shoot.

The spaniels are obvious, and the very closely resemble modern cocker spaniels.

At a shoot, their job is to push out the game to the guns. They might occasionally retrieve, but their main job is to “spring” the birds. (Origin of the term “springer” spaniel.)

The retrievers, though, are very different from what we might expect. The dog on the left is a black and tan and is something like a proto-wavy-coated retriever or a collie cross. Both of these dogs were used as retrievers. The dog on the left, with the Caucasus-type common pheasant in its mouth, is pretty well-known to golden retriever historians because it shows a yellow retriever in the act of retrieving. It looks somewhat golden retriever, though maybe a bit houndish compared to any modern breed of retrievers.

The retriever’s job at a shoot was to stay next to the shooters, and when game is shot, the dog is sent to fetch it.

In America, we largely disregard these two distinctions. We use spaniels as retrievers, and we flush birds with retrievers.

Spaniels were easy to breed as strains., which is why they have existed as breeds for far longer than retrievers.

Retrievers, however, are very hard to breed. To breed a strain that consistently exhibits the behavior is really quite difficult, something that those desiring retrieving strains of West Siberian laikas are currently experiencing.

So it was very common for shooting sportsmen to cross different types of dogs and call them “retrievers.”

Each gentlemen would have his own recipe to create a perfect retriever.

But then things changed. The modern dog fancy rose in England, and the founding president of the Kennel Club, Sewallis E. Shirley, a Conservative MP and sportsman, began to promote the large  black retriever derived from the St. John’s water dog as the gentleman’s retriever, and it wasn’t long before everyone had to have a black retriever of this type.

By the 1870’s,  every shooting gentleman had a black retriever of this type and many were being actively shown, but this change was not met without protest.

A Scottish sportsman wrote into The Field magazine denouncing both dog shows and the desire for people to keep their retrievers black and “pure.”

Sir–, Your correspondent “Retriever” “seeks information through your columns to enable him some day to be a successful exhibitor” of retrievers at dog shows. I know of only one way to accomplish his object with much chance of success. To succeed at dog shows you must purchase a dog from some dog dealer at an enormous price, and, entering the dog in your name, you may not unlikely get in a measure reimbursed for the extravagant sum you have given for a useless brute, or at least stand a good chance to see your name figure in The Field as the owner of an admired animal. Dog shows are the greatest humbug in the world, and are ruining our breeds of dogs. But if your correspondent wishes to know how to insure a first-class retriever, I can tell him how to set about that; but it takes both time and judgment to accomplish it. It took me about three years. In a retriever you require nose, docility, a disposition to fetch and carry, little disposition to hunt, and great perseverance on a track. How are these requisites to be combined? Only by careful crossing. For nose and perseverance there is no dog better than the foxhound. Begin with him. Select a really good setter bitch of some size, and put her to an approved foxhound. By means of money you may always command the services of one of the leading hounds in any pack for such a purpose if you go properly to work; but take care to select a dog with a good temper as well as nose. The progeny of this cross will of course not be retrievers. Keep one of the most likely-looking of the bitch puppies, and, when old enough, put her to a really good St. John’s Newfoundland. This may probably bring the breed up to the mark; but if there should be anything to correct, another judicious cross (not necessarily Newfoundland) will without fail give you an A-1 retriever. Grede experto. But you must give up all the nonsense about black dogs without a white hair, and, I may add, the ambition of being “a successful exhibitor.”

–W. C. (pg. 93-94).

These debates about dog shows are not that old.

But it was at this moment in history that retrievers ceased to be dogs that were bred in much the same way lurchers are today and became a defined sort of breed.

If we were today declare a lurcher breed, it is very likely that we’d get very similar discussions.

The Scottish sportsman did what all working dog breeders have always done:  breed for function and ignore bloodlines.

But the modern dog fancy creates a system in which blood purity or– at the very least– consistency in type are more important than function.

It’s the exact opposite of how people have bred dogs for thousands of years, and it’s also the exact opposite of how retrievers were bred for the past two hundred years.

No concept in the dog world has done the species more harm than this Victorian concept of “breed.”

It’s based upon very dodgy science, most of which was rejected by the 1920’s in most other fields.

But the dog fancy is largely an authoritarian organization, and if we think of it is a high church, it is a high church with only one real commandment: blood purity for blood purity’s sake.

It’s not served the dogs well.

We do not have a handle on genetic diseases at all, and we won’t so long as we adhere to this blood purity commandment.

And is blood purity producing better working dogs?

It’s difficult to say, but in the old days, when they could select for work only, they were producing capable gun dogs.

They didn’t need a system telling them which dogs could be bred together.

Yet we commonly hear that we have to have this concept of breed in order to produce better dogs.

But when you are breeding for working dogs within these confines, it’s very likely that abilities are suffering.

Wouldn’t it be nice to add a bit of border collie biddability into retrievers?

Wouldn’t it be nice to strengthen undercoat in golden retrievers by crossing them with Labradors with very thick undercoats?

These options have all been taken from breeders.

But it was not always the case.

It’s a very, very recent development.

And its validity should be questioned.

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A spotted hyena pseudo-penis. Source for image.

A spotted hyena pseudo-penis. Source for image.

I woke up this morning to check the comments on the blog. I normally do not close comments for older posts, and I often forget about the posts I wrote several years ago.

Some of them have never generated particularly good comments, and this particular one, which is not particularly profound or well-writen, is simply entitled Hyenas are not dogs. They are actually more closely related to cats.

The comments on there are pretty picayune and banal. The post was pretty picayune and banal, so what else would I expect?

Well, when I woke up this morning, I came across this gem, which I have to say is the worst creationist argument I’ve ever seen!

Here it is in all its glory:

Sorry, Hyenas are dogs. I do not care what you say. Evolution is a theory and has never been proven. Hyenas are not cats, and are not related to ferrets, weasels, civets, are any other animal. They are dogs plain and simple. If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck its a duck. Weasels, ferrets, civets, mongoose etc., do not look like dogs. Rest my case. Hyenas are dogs.

I hope this person is just acting a Poe.

It’s hard to tell with these creationists though. It really is.

I am having a hard time reading it without having blood vessels pop out.

First of all a ferret or a weasel is a Caniform Carnivoran. Caniforms are all closely related to dogs, though they are much closer in resemblance to primitive Caniformia than Canids (“the dog family”) are. The fact that they look like mongooses is really quite irrelevant.

Secondly, spotted hyenas look nothing like dogs, and only a really superficial examination of striped and brown hyenas would lead one to believe that they are anything like a dog. I know that the German and Afrikaans-speaking settlers to southern Africa called the brown hyena a “strandwolf.” The term means “beach wolf,” which is in reference to the ubiquity of brown hyenas along the Skeleton Coast, where they scavenge flotsam and jetsam and sometimes hunt fur seal pups. They were called wolves for the same reason that the same people called a giant antelope a moose. The eland antelope species of Africa are actually named after the Dutch/Afrikaans word for moose, which is eland. And it wasn’t just the eland antelope. Gemsbok, a type of oryx, share the same name with the chamois of Europe. Steenbok is the Dutch name for the Alpine Ibex. Rhebok are named for the Dutch/Afrikaans name for the European roe deer.  All of these animals antelope, but none of their European namesakes are.

They also called the spotted hyena the “tiger wolf.”

But people giving animals inappropriate common names is pretty common in just about every language. What we call a moose, the Europeans call an elk. What I call a robin is more closely relate to a European blackbird than to the European robin.

So ignore the names.

Let’s talk phylogeny.

Dogs and hyenas really don’t look that much like each other. All living species of hyenas, except the aardwolf (another misnamed “wolf”), have evolved a bone crushing capability in their jaws that no living dog has. However, in North America, there were once dogs that had this bone crushing capability. These dogs, called the Borophaginae (“bone crushers” or “bone eaters”) live between 36—2.5 million years ago in North America. Some of them were giants, and many were quite well-adapted eating the bones of megafauna.

No living dog is a true bone-eater. They will eat bones, but they will never crush them with efficiency of any species of hyena or one of those Borophagine dogs. (If you want to find out more about the evolution of bone crushing in Borophaginae and hyenas, check out this lecture at the Royal Tyrell Museum. It’s very fascinating.)

Then there is the DNA. We’ve been able to construct phylogenetic trees based upon genetic material. Every study that has examine Carnivoran DNA has placed hyenas with the Feliformia. They are most closely related to the true civets, which is the family Viverridae. They did evolve into something like a dog, and if you watch that lecture at the Royal Tyrell Museum, you’ll see that more primitive forms of hyena actually looked a lot more like dogs than modern ones do.

When phylogenetic trees are drawn from DNA samples, dogs fit with bears and seals (and the walrus and “eared seals”).

Hyenas and dogs are out of two entirely different lineages that split about 42 million years ago.

The fact that they superficially look alike is not evidence of a common designer at all.

The big difference between dogs and spotted hyenas in particular is their social structure. All dog societies, save domestic dogs and some red foxes, are base upon a mated pair in which there are no great size or phenotypical differences between males and females. In spotted hyena societies, the females are larger and have dominance over the males. Status is inherited from mother to daughter, which does not happen in any species of dog.

And one way the females maintain their dominance is through a fluke in their anatomy. Female spotted hyenas have genitalia that strongly resembles a male’s penis, but it’s actually the clitoris. And it’s through this tube that female spotted hyenas urinate, copulate, and give birth through this pseudo-penis. Female hyenas have absolute control over mating because they can move this “device” to prevent copulation. All a female dog can do is sit down with her tail between her legs and growl.

No dog species has this feature.

The only other mammal that has anything like this is the fossa of Madagascar. It is sort of a mongoose that became a cat. The females of this species are born with a pseudo-penis that becomes a “normal” clitoris as the animal mature.

Fossas were once thought to be civets, but like all Malagasy carnivorans, they are now believed to be more closely related to mongooses.

But it really doesn’t matter. Both mongooses and civets are Feliformia, as is the hyena.

And it does point to common ancestry, even if the rest of their relatives do not have this feature.

A spotted hyena is not a dog with a pseudo-penis.

This same argument if taken even further would lead one to believe that a thylacine was nothing more than a wolf with a pouch on it.

Thylacines looked a lot like wolves. (See this page at the Thylacine Museum to see how similar they were). Even trained anatomists have mistaken thylacine remains for those of wolves.

They actually looked much more like dogs than hyenas do.

And they are absolutely not related to dogs at all!

They are most closely related to either the quolls, which look like miniature arboreal thylacines, or to the numbat, which looks like a thylacine that evolved into an anteater. (It eats nothing but termites, but it has the anteater’s long tongue!)

These animals are all marsupials. They share no close ancestors with dogs or anteaters or cat or any placental mamals at all.

The split between placental and marsupial mammals is even more distant– at least 125 million years ago.

Why do they look the same?

Because natural selection required that these animals evolve similar bodies to fill somewhat similar niches. (Though it should be noted that thylacines actually did behave more like big cats than wolves.)

Believe it or not, this dog-like form has evolved several times in the past. Not only do we have the aforementioned dog-like hyenas and the thylacine, but there was once a crocodilian that looked very much like a hairless coyote.

By this creationists’ logic, all these animals would be called dogs.

And they aren’t at all!

Yes, I do know I used scientific terms for female genitalia, which I know creationists like are icky.

But seriously, how dumb can you be!




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Most sources list the Tweed water spaniel or Tweed water dog as a breed strongly resembling a small liver or yellow curly-coated retriever.

In the late nineteenth century, the flat-coated retriever expert Stanley O’Neil encountered some of the Tweeds helping salmon fishermen with their nets on the Northumberland coast:

Further up the coast, probably Alnmouth, I saw men netting for salmon. With them was a dog with a wavy or curly coat. It was a tawny colour but, wet and spumy, it was difficult to see the exact colour, or how much was due to bleach and salt. Whilst my elders discussed the fishing I asked these Northumberland salmon net men whether their dog was a Water-Dog or a Curly, airing my knowledge. They told me he was a Tweed Water Spaniel. This was a new one on me. I had a nasty suspicion my leg was being pulled. This dog looked like a brown Water Dog to me, certainly retrieverish, and not at all spanielly. I asked if he came from a trawler, and was told it came from Berwick.

The dogs were water spaniel/Newfoundland (“St. John’s water dog) crosses, which were essentially a regional variant of the curly-coated retriever.


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I often get requests for posts.

I usually do my best to meet the request, and when I had more time on my hands, it was usually done within a week of the request.

I don’t mind doing posts that readers request.

You are the readers, and I’m not writing a diary.

However, over the years I have noticed that I do get a lot of requests for posts on the history of retrievers.

I’ve noticed that those posts tend to be popular, but they generally are only transitory.

Not only that, I have often found where I have been wrong about some of the things I’ve written, but because the post was written so long ago, I don’t have time to go back and fix it.

There are also posts I no longer stand by. Ignore all my posts that talk about the “original appearance” of golden retrievers. At the time, I was under the delusion of “original intent,” which I now believe is simply a fallacy.  The original wavy-coated retriever from which golden retrievers descend varied from heavily-built and beefy to lithe and settery.  The lighter built dogs did eventually win favor because they were more agile on land and faster swimmers.

Also, ignore this post on the history of water dogs. It was based solely upon various historical research that was later largely debunked through genomic studies.

I am willing to admit that I’m wrong.  However, there are so many posts that it would take me several months or perhaps a year to fix all of them.

Such is the hazard of producing nonfiction at volume.

But I still do get requests about these history posts, and I’ve occasionally been asked when I was going to write a book on the history of these dogs.

The answer was always, “I don’t know.”

But I am wondering if maybe there is a market for such a book, and if there is, I think I’d like to write it.

I don’t want it to be as breed blind as Richard Wolters’s amazing (though somewhat flawed) history of the Labrador retriever.

It obviously must contain the history of Newfoundland water dogs, but I don’t want people to have a narrowly construed understanding of what this sort of dog was (or is).  Wolters focused heavily on smooth-coated St. John’s water dogs in the literature, assuming that they were the only type available. They were the only that could be found in Newfoundland during most of the twentieth century.

What I found interesting is that all these Labrador retriever historians quote Lambert De Boilieu, who famous wrote:

The Labrador dog, let me remark, is a bold fellow, and, when well taught, understands, almost as well as any Christian biped, what you say to him.

Never mind the religious bigotry in the statement, but virtually every Labrador retriever history quotes it.

They seem to ignore the rest of De Boilieu’s discussion of the dog in which he talks about the long-haired ones that the British were turning into the wavy-coated retrievers:

 The dogs sent to England, with rough shaggy coats, are useless on the coast; the true-bred and serviceable dog having smooth, short hair, very close and compact to the body. I sent to England a fine specimen of these, but unfortunately the vessel which bore it had the misfortune to be wrecked on the north coast of Ireland, and all hands were lost.

This is why when you read of Dr. Bond Moore’s “Labradors,” which were registered as wavy-coated retrievers, they were long-coated dogs. The golden retriever is also derived from that “bold fellow,” as are all the other large retrievers.

I call this dog a St. John’s water dog.

It is this dog that had the greatest impact on the development of retrievers, for before it became widespread, retrieving dogs were almost always either water spaniels, poodle-types, or various types of purpose-bred mongrel.

In Russia and Scandinavia, laikas and their relatives retrieved shot ducks. And still do today.

But this rugged water dog from Newfoundland had the greatest impact on the development of retrievers today.

If I were going to write about the history of the retrievers, I would have to include big section on that breed.

I have loads of material, most of which I’m not able to use even on the blog.

I could organize all of this material into a manuscript, but I don’t have a clue what to do next.

I’ll just say I’m not interested in self-publishing.

Retrievers are popular dogs. People want to read about them.

I don’t want my efforts to wind up like some poorly thought-out treatise on groundhog baiting with Jack Russells.

I want people to read this stuff.

These dogs are important to us.

I just don’t know where to start.

A book that should be written and a book that I eventually do write are two different things.

So if anyone has any ideas, please leave me comments. If you’d like to email me, please feel free to use the Contact page.


Bonus points if you can name the dog at the top of this post. However, if you can name him, you’ve been wasting too much time reading this blog!




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But what is she smelling?

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Nature overwhelms


This morning I woke up early and went outside.

I went without the dog.  I wanted to get the drop on the local deer herd, and because these deer worry constantly about the threat of coyote predation, I knew that going out with a big blond wolf probably wouldn’t help my chances.

But while I was out stalking the deer this morning, I was overwhelmed.

The sun, now approaching its period of greatest strength in this hemisphere, cast down beams through the canopy. The dew on the leaves of the undergrowth glistened.

For the time being, I was no longer a modern human. I was essentially a being of the forest. Perhaps a hunter-gather of yore, maybe a wild beast.

I felt savage.

I hadn’t experienced this feeling in so many months. Most of the time I am domesticated, civilized, and utterly removed from the life forces that make our existence possible.

I am not a believer in a creator. I’ve come to reconcile myself as nothing more  (or less) than a philosophical naturalist.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m devoid of my spirituality.

I was overwhelmed again, just as I was so many times before.

I remember a warm June night in the summer before my sophomore year in high school. The day had been punctuated with several midsummer thunderstorms. There were several downpours that day, and when the clouds finally cleared, it was late evening.

And I set out for a long walk in the woods.

As I walked on the barred owls started to hoot. Each breeding pair called from distant ridges. These were territorial calls, but they were hauntingly beautiful. As the sun set, the mist rose from the ground with the owls calling all around.

Another day, I was out with the dogs on one of those teacher work Fridays in which the students were given the day off.  I do not recall my exact age at the time, but I was in high school.

It was early March and the land was just waking up from winter. It was overcast, as March days can be, but it was so eerily calm and sweet.

The dogs had a blast running around the woods. They became like wolves that somehow charged out of the Stone Age to run along side me and make me feel again.

These were the same dogs I took out for a long walk on that Fall Break Friday during my sophomore year in college. It was that October Friday that followed the vote on the Iraq War Resolution.

It was a war that upset me. I was disgusted with politics, and though I had been studying political science and international relations in school, I knew that I needed the golden red leaves, the soft autumn sunshine, and the gentle lick of a golden retriever to help me escape.

Man’s inhumanity abounded before me, yet for a time, I was detached from the evils of my species.

It took being overwhelmed by the natural word to soothe me and give me some succor.

I don’t drink, mainly because I don’t like the taste of ethanol, but sometimes I must imbibe on the liquors of the sun, the trees, and the forest.

I become intoxicated by it.

And it frees me.

Maybe for just a moment.

But in that freedom, I’m in ecstasy.

So the sunlight filtered through the canopy, I felt overwhelming joy. I breathed in the sweet air and tried to wonder why every day couldn’t be just like this one.

For as soon as I begin to wonder, I know that I’ll start thinking of the mundane things once again.

These are things that a best keep me from self-actualization and at worst keep me imprisoned.

I can let them go when I’m overwhelmed.

I can be.

And not really be.


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A walk in the sunshine


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I must make a little confession here.

Remember that  “black leopard” I wrote about several weeks ago?

I was pulling your leg.

It was actually the neighbors’ Rottweiler.


I don’t know her name, but she’s old arthritic.

I should note that big black cat sightings are actually large black domestic dogs.

In the US, the most popular breed is the Labrador retriever, which very often solid black in color.

Unlike a Rottweiler, it usually has a tail, so it’s much easier to confuse with a leopard with melanism.


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