Prepare for the cuteness!
Prepare for the cuteness!
It was that time in winter when the sun seems to rise for no other reason but cast down a few pallid rays and then sink below the horizon. It was a time when the gray clouds would come barreling in with snow squalls, but today the sky was cloudless. The land was covered in the dormancy and death of gray drab winter.
A pothole encumbered country highway follows the course of river. It follows it not because the river provides bucolic and pastoral scenery, which it certain does in the more roseate seasons of the year, but because the hilly land of rural West Virginia demanded that the roads be laid out along the paths of least resistance..
The road is meant to be a smooth-skinned snake of asphalt winding its way along the river, but the years of salt trucks and overloaded hauls of timber have cut chunks in its hide. Some course are smoother than others, and a motorist can reach great speeds before bouncing a few tires in the tank trap that suddenly appears at the end of a straight stretch.
The river is wild. It flows down from the High Alleghenies on meandering tour of the hills, as it passes from the realm of the brook trout to the lair of the flathead catfish. Otters roam along its banks, their spraints marking their little highways into water where the suckers and the river redhorses are harried and killed. In summer, the belted kingfishers line the willow and birch trees, diving down like winged javelins to spear minnows and shad. During those same summer days, the long-nosed gars flit just below the surface of the water, slashing at any small fish that dares come near that jagged maw. Hidden in the murkiness, the Chautauqua muskellunge, the great river pike, lies in wait of mallard ducklings that might stupidly swim within striking range. Soft-shelled turtles and stinkpots and snappers fill the river on those summer afternoons . Sometimes, they climb onto logs that half submerged to sun themselves before another good bout of fish-hunting in the murk and muddy.
But on this winter day, none of those things was stirring. The otters were asleep in their holts, and all the river fishes and turtles were hibernating. Nothing was about. Only a few vehicles zipped along the highway that day. Hours passed between them.
At one bend in the road was a bit of bottom land, where the river never flooded, and here, were several dog houses. Tied on a twelve-foot chain to one of them was a long-eared bluetick coonhound. His home was a dog house, and the chain compelled him to stay. Behind him flowed the wild river and its various denizens, but he cared for them not at all.
His name was Banjo, and the only thing he cared about was following the trails of raccoons. He had learned from an early age that his neck would sting like a thousand static shocks if he tried to chase a deer or fox or opossum. The only quarry worth his time was the raccoon, which he’d run and run until it took refuge in a tree. And then he would let fly his baying at the tree trunks, the master would come with his fire stick, which would fire, and the raccoon would fall down where a hound could give its corpse a good mauling. In previous years, he’d run with three other hounds, who were also tied to houses in his dog lot. But the master was called away to work, and his time spent running hounds became shorter and shorter every year. He sold one hound, then another, and when left with only two, he’d sold the bitch and kept the dog. Banjo cold be used at stud and make a few dollars that way.
Banjo lived for the raccoon track. As soon as the fragrance of raccoon spoor would rise into his nostrils, he’d become so intoxicated with the fervor of chase that he’d bay out in excitement. All the best coonhounds do this. The Germans call a dog that bays on the track spurlaut, a feature that true houndsmen savor like the finest Champagne.
So driven was Banjo for the night quest after ‘coon that he had to be chained to a dog house. Virtually every fine scenthound is kept tethered in this part of the country. They are so driven to go off on a long trail that they soon find themselves miles and miles from where they started, or they might go trailing off so hard that they find themselves under the tires of a speeding pickup. His desire to hunt perhaps exceeded that of his lupine ancestors. He loved his master, but he loved the hunt more.
All Banjo could do on these short winter days was to lie out in front of his dog house and let the weak sun rays warm his dappled coat. He would close his eyes and dream and dream of long nights running along the crayfish-invested feeder creeks that trickled into the wild river, where the raccoons made their trails out of the laurel thickets to the repast of the bottom-dwelling pinchers and freshwater mussels.
And on this day, Banjo slept lost in his hunting dreams. At times, his legs kicked as if he running some old trail, and occasionally, his lips would let loose a few moaning whimpers.
Thus was the life of working man’s hound dog. His breed has been typecast as running with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and later, Jerry Clower and Jimmy Martin. But now his lot is cast with the working-class, native-born white prole, the people now so despised for their Trump votes and the fact that they see their noble existence in toiling with callused hands and hard shoulders and not in class struggle.
But through his veins coursed far nobler blood. His ancestors were the hounds that tracked the red deer and fallow through the king’s forests in Medieval England. He also had ancestors who ran the boar and the murderous wolves in the South of France. These are the wolves that attacked peasant shepherds and cattle-herders in the forest and lifted children from firesides. His kind were never kept by anyone of low birth. They were the dogs of the king and stately duke or lord. Their “blue mottle hounds” and Grand bleus de Gascogne were transported to the wild country across the Atlantic and became the common bayer of the fierce monkey-badgers that roamed the cornfields and river bottoms.
However, when Banjo stood at the end of his chain in the winter sun, his noble bearing was hard to conceal. It was as if he belonged in a baying pack of wolfhounds, reading to go catch the murderous howlers that plagued the land. That hard hunter’s stare in his eyes made him look so eternally different from the sloppy bloodhound of cartoons. His muscles rippled under his looser skin. He was more than a simple hound. He was a beast.
As the sun began to sink in the western hills beyond the river, the hound rose from his slumber and moseyed over to the water bucket. He drank in slushy laps that splashed hollow against the buckets sides. Soon, the lady of the house would be coming with dinner. The master and his wife lived across the pothole road from the dog lot, and every evening she would come with a bucket of food. She would look both ways and scurry across the asphalt and dump out feed and run back home. She was not into hounds, but she loved her husband and so did her daily drudgery of feeding Banjo and checking his water bucket.
Banjo knew that if dinner came, there would be no hunt tonight, but if it came, the pungent taste of dog food and table scraps would break up the horrid monotony of the day– a win either way. So best to lap some water now and prepare for something.
As Banjo lifted his head from the water bucket, another smell wafted into his nose. It was the sent of a skunk dog, the little red fox that he’d learned that he should never chase. Up the river about 100 yards, a young red fox came loping. He was born the previous spring in the great expanse of hayfields that lay south of the river, and he’d spent much of the winter fighting with big dog foxes and running from wiry Walker hounds.
His kind were no more native to the land of the wild river than the blueticks were. They were long-believed to be an English import, but we now know they came wandering south of out the boreal when they discovered that European man had created a bounty of mousing meadows when the forests were cleared.
And at this moment, the young red fox had come looking for some mousing meadows to call his own. Beyond the master’s house was an expanse of grassland that once contained a herd of stately polled Herefords, but now that pasture land was kept solely for the growth of hay. Twice a year, mowing machines and balers would come calling. The roars and clanging din of the machinery would fill the whole river valley, and then they be gone and the grass left to grow again.
It was a paradise for voles and mice and a small number of cottontail rabbits, and as a paradise for those creatures, it should have been a smorgasbord for a red fox on the hunt.
But for whatever reason, no fox had claimed it. It was perhaps too isolated from the pasture and cornfield kingdoms that the red foxes rule, and it took a particularly brave one to venture this far into the river country. Now, the young fox had only to cross the road and he would have his own estate. And the mice and the voles and the rabbits would soon have something else to worry about.
Banjo stared hard down the river bottom and when his eyes finally registered the movement of the approaching fox, he let loose a deep primal growl at the intruder.
The fox, approaching downwind, froze in his tracks. A dog was nearby. That couldn’t be good. He sat on his haunches and tried to scent the dog. He then rose, trying to cast himself out of the wind’s current and in a direction where he could figure out where that dog growl was coming from. After five minutes of casting, his eyes finally locked onto the canine form of Banjo, and he froze in terror.
Here was a dog much larger than the running Walkers who’d harried him all winter. This was a fell creature that could make short work of him, but then he noticed the big dog wasn’t lunging toward him at all. It was as if it were somehow bound to that bit of earth on which it stood.
And his youthful curiosity suddenly kicked in. This was the first time he’d really had a good look at a dog. A fox rarely gets a chance to examine that which might kill it. Its life is paranoia. It must always be ready to bolt at the slightest twig snap.
The great hound sniffed the air again. He breathed in the skunky smell of a red fox. He’d never really had a chance to smell one for so long. He began to detect familiar odors emanating from the fox. The fox had a canine base to its smell, but it was not of the true dog kind. He’d smelled a fox a before, but never had he been able to catch these canine nuances before.
After a few minutes of study, the red fox knew his time was up and skip-loped across the asphalt and climbed the opposite embankment into a hedgerow of autumn olives. When he crossed the hedgerow, he soon found himself in the big meadow– and there was not another dog fox to be seen or smelled!
The red fox is bound by the territories of other foxes. Coyotes might run him off or kill him, and humans do so on occasion. But his life, though short and paranoid, is relatively free.
Banjo, the great bluetick, might wish for such an existence, but he must live the bulk of his life on the chain. But he truly lives when he’s let loose on a cool autumn night and the scent of boar ‘coon is rising along the creek bank.
The noble hound now lives the ignoble existence on a chain, yearning for his chance to go night questing again for the old monkey-badger with the ringtail.
But in those moments when he runs the quarry and bay it treed, he experiences the profound ecstasy a hunting being in pursuit of prey. It is a joy that surpasses all the other joys in his life. He is a beast, and all his bestial energies are let loose in one great orgasm of chase.
The chained hound becomes the fell wolf dog once again.
Dog breed origins are often shrouded in a “creation myth.” If you ever read an all-breed dog book, the official breed origins come across as awfully fanciful. Virtually every breed is regarded as ancient or derived from some private stock belonging to some notable: Afghan hounds were the dogs Noah took on the Ark. Beagles appear on the Bayeux Tapestry. Pharaoh hounds were the hunting dogs of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties.
These stories posit the breed as being part of something deep in the past and maintaining the breeds is magnified as a way of paying homage to the past.
Some breeds are, however, pretty old, or at least genetically distinct from the rest of dogdom to be seen as something unique. Chow chows are a good example. They retain a lot of unique, primitive characters, and as East Asian primitive dogs, they may be among the oldest of strains still in existence.
Konrad Lorenz deeply admired the breed’s wolf-like attributes, believing they represented the best of the so-called “Lupus dogs.” Lorenz believed that most dogs were actually the descendants of golden jackals, and the dogs were friendly to most people and easily broken to fit the will of man. These were the “Aureus dogs.” But the dogs that were more aloof and more independent of the wishes of their masters were seen as the direct descendants of wolves. Lorenz preferred this type of dog, and he kept many chows and chow crosses in crosses as his own personal dogs and “study subjects.”
Lorenz later rejected the dichotomy between the jackal and wolf dogs, but the idea is still worth exploring. What Lorenz actually discovered was a profound division that exists in domestic dogs: the primitive versus the derived.
In terms of evolution, an organism is considered primitive if it retains characters and behavior that are very like the ancestral form. For example, lemurs are considered more primitive than other primates because they have the long muzzles and wet noses of the ancestral primates.
Primitive dogs are those that retain many features in common with the wolf. These features include erect ears, pointed muzzles, howling rather than barking, bitches having only one heat cycle per year, pair-bonding behavior, and general tendency not to be obedient. Many primitive dogs bond with only a single person, and in the most extreme cases, allow only that person to touch them.
Lots of “Nordic” breeds fall into this category, but this list also includes many of the drop-eared sighthounds from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. It also includes many of the village dogs from undeveloped countries, as well as the semi-domesticated pariah dogs and dingoes.
The chow chow sort of fit between both Nordic breed type and the village dog type. It has many of the features of the Nordic breeds– curled tail and prick ears– but it also has had a long history as a village dog in China, where it had periods in which it freely bred.
One would think that chow chow fanciers would be into celebrating their dogs as primitives, like owning something between wild and domestic.
But dog people being dog people are more than willing to add embellishments.
Westerners have done a lot to add to the bear-like features of the chow chow, which Konrad Lorenz actually castigated.
However, dog breeders will often go to great lengths to justify breeding decisions, including putting out absolute science fiction as scientific fact.
A few years ago, I heard an acquaintance mention that a well-educated chow owner she knew firmly believed that chow chow were derived from bears.
I laughed at it. I did not think there was a serious discussion that chow chows were derived from bears.
And then I received notice of this website, which purports to have the full history of the chow chow. The history begins as follows:
It´s assumed that during the Miocene period (between 28 to 12 million years back), the evolution of the Hemicyon, an intermediary between the Cynoelesmus [sic], “father” of all the canine ones, and the Daphoneus [sic] – from which the bears descend as we know them today, – originated the Simocyon, an animal that varied between a fox and a small bear that inhabited in the sub-Arctic regions Siberia and the Northwest of Mongolia and of which it is known had 44 teeth.
I don’t know where this actually comes from, but it is entirely in ignorance of what we now know about the evolution of bears and dogs. Dogs and bears are indeed closely related, but the division between the two is much deeper than the dates proposed here. Their most recent common ancestor was the ancestral stem-caniform miacid, which lived about 40 million years ago. Most of the “ancestors” mention here are actually evolutionary dead ends that have little to do with modern bears or dogs.
First of all Hemicyon was not an intermediary between dogs and bears. The Hemicyon family was actually a branch of the bear lineage. Unlike the true bears, it was digitigrade and was probably a cursorial predator like wolves are today. The Hemicyon family lived between 11 and 17 million years ago, and it has left no living descendants. That is, it is in no way an intermediary form between dogs and bears.
The author mentions “Cynoelesmus,” probably meaning Cynodesmus. My guess is this discrepancy comes from a poor cut-and-paste job, but although Cynodesmus was a primitive dog. It is not the ancestor of all living dogs. The ancestor of all living dogs was Leptocyon. Leptocyon was once considered part of Cynodesmus, but it is no longer.
The other two ancient creatures mentioned in the opening have nothing to do with bears or dogs.
“Daphoneus,” which refers to Daphoenus, a type of Amphicyonid. Amphicyonids were are really spectacular sister family to the canids, which had traits in common with both bears and dogs but really behaved more like big cats. This family has nothing to do with evolution of dogs, except that this is a sister lineage that went extinct.
Simocyon was actually something even a little bit cooler. It was not a dog. It was not a bear. It wasn’t even in the lineage of either family. Instead, it was a genus of leopard-sized animals much more closely related to the red panda. In case you were wondering, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas. Giant pandas are actually a primitive form of bear. Red pandas are their own thing. Modern red pandas are the only species in their family known as Ailuridae. Millions of years ago, there were several species of red panda, and Simocyon was actually a large predatory red panda. Like the modern red panda, Simocyon had a thumb formed out of its sesamoid bone. Giant pandas have this thumb, and it was thought to connect both modern species of panda. Now, we know that the giant panda, which is a true bear, actually evolved its sesamoid thumb in parallel to the red panda. The red panda lineage evolved this trait so they could more easily climb in trees, while the giant panda evolved it to hold bamboo.
So that entire introduction to chow chow history is simply wrong. It may have been correct carnivoran paleontology at one point, but it also seems that the originators of this theory just went around looking for creatures that sounded like they might be fossil dogs that could be found in Asia. “Cyon” does mean dog, but it doesn’t always refer to dogs in scientific names. Remember that there is a primitive whale the unfortunate name of “Basilosaurus,” which is in no way related to any lizard or dinosaur, and the raccoon family is called “Procyonids,” even though they aren’t that closely related to dogs.
Again, I don’t know why this theory is so popular, except that it can be used as a defense for breeding more and more bear-like features into chow chows than they had when they first came into the West. It’s also a way of making chows so much more super-special than the were before.
But it really makes chow fanciers look silly to anyone who has ever looked closely at carnivoran evolution.
It’s a fun story, but it’s not based in reality.
And when you get the paleontology this wrong, then virtually nothing of value can be trusted until the error is corrected.
Chows are cool as primitive dogs. They don’t need all the malarkey.
I got to see these family photos for the first time today. This is a dog that featured heavily in my dad’s dog stories that he used to tell us when we were kids.
This is Cam, the first AKC dog that my family ever owned. She was a rough collie “like Lassie,” as they say. My dad is standing to her right. The date is April 1962.
And like Lassie, she had to have a litter. This one included some tricolors. My uncle Doug is sitting behind the mother collie in May of ’63– twenty years before I was born.
I had not seen these photos before, though I had seen some rather poor photos of Cam.
The bottom photo really reveals what she was: She was a collie from a time when they were still very close to the intelligent farm dogs from Scotland from which their kind descend.
She looks gorgeous but more rugged than the collies of one might see today. She was still very much the “Scotch shepherd” of the American farm and dog fancier magazines.
It’s that time of year.
The United States is having its big dog show Monday and Tuesday, and it will be watched.
And the laity will whine about why the Labrador isn’t Best in Show, because, um, aren’t they the best dog ever?
Then we’ll have a few of the dog blogs writing a screed or two about how awful dog shows are.
This breed hasn’t been worked in a thousand years!
Dog show rings wreck our breeds!
And so on.
At one time, I would write these very same blog posts, but to be honest with you, I don’t see the point in them anymore.
In the grand scheme of North American dogdom, it really doesn’t matter what goes on with the major all-breed registries or the dog shows. Compared to what happens with the NFL, most Americans don’t care, and they have never followed what the dog fanciers say.
You can make arguments all you want, but it isn’t going to change what the hardcore fancier wants to believe.
And the public is moving on. The AKC is a moribund institution that never really had that much support from American dog lovers.
So I’m to the point now of detente, but only because the horse is dead and continued flagellation isn’t going to get him moving any time soon.
I have more interesting things to think about than why people want to own a bulldog or participate in conformation shows.
When one is young, one can expend so much energy being angry that one forgets to think, and I think I can finally say I’m done being angry.
The dogs are going to be fine. If you think something is wrong, there will always be an alternative.
And there are more people who either bucking the system or operating outside of it than who are operating within it.
So I’m just going to chill the f*ck out.
Over the years, I’ve made mention of the fact that English shepherds are a very common breed in West Virginia. Indeed, I knew what an English shepherd was long before I’d ever heard the words “border collie.” English shepherds are pretty common in the Eastern and Midwestern US.
But only in the rural areas. In most towns around here, many people adopt “collie mixes” without ever knowing what they actually have.
They are derived from the farm dogs of the British Isles, with maybe a little bit of German, Swiss, or Native dog crossed in. They very strongly resemble the “shepherd’s dogs” that were commonly published in eighteenth and nineteenth century texts about dogs in the British Isles. He has the same broad head and curled tail, as well as the common black and white color. In America, they were used for livestock herding, but they were also used to guard properties and hunt game.
This dog came into area, probably because the gut pile from my deer isn’t 100 yards away in the woods behind the camera.
So Ol’ Shep was enjoying him a taste of raw green tripe, and no one had to spend a fortune on it.
Yes, these old dogs are pretty common, but I never thought I’d catch one on the trail camera!
I’ve been thinking about the future a lot. This blog has helped me reach a sense of closure following the deaths of two beloved dogs. I knew a working type golden retriever intimately well. She could retrieve anything, for she lived for the retrieve. She was one of those dogs who sought kinship with our species to the point where she began to take on some of our traits. The other was a half golden retriever/half boxer that was a truly fell beast. She was the menace of skunks and feral cats, and the coyotes hit the brush when they saw her approach.
Neither of these dogs would have fit into modern American suburban life very well. The intelligent retriever with such a desire to retrieve would probably drive her owners batty in the subdivision. And no insurance company would ever take on a household that included dog that could rather quickly dispatch a feral cat with a simple crushing bite to the skull.
These two dogs taught me a lot about their kind. For their tutelage I will be forever grateful.
But I don’t think it’s fair for me to quest after dogs in hopes that they can replace what once was. It was great when it was, but because it’s based upon the very finite existence of a dog, it cannot be replaced.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I really want in a dog. I suppose that deep down, I want a dog that is pretty unspoiled but also domesticated and useful.
On my trips into the woods, I’ve been coming across a ruffed grouse. I’m sure it’s the same one, but it is hard to tell for sure. I remember eating the ones my grandpa killed, along with the copious dishes of pressure-cooked squirrel. I remember it as the finest poultry I’ve ever tasted.
Grouse have had a rough time in West Virginia outside of the High Alleghenies. When timber industry fell apart in the early part of this century, the woods stopped being logged. The forests started to mature, and the grouse, which prefer younger timber, began to disappear. I’m also sure, though it has never been tested empirically, that decline of the fur industry meant a rise in the number of raccoons and opossums, which love nothing more than to eat grouse eggs, and and a rise in number of red and gray foxes, which love to eat the grouse themselves.
I’ve thought about getting a working golden retriever to hunt grouse, which they certainly can do. They were actually bred to pick up red grouse in the Scottish Highlands. Red grouse are British subspecies of a Holarctic species that we North Americans call a “willow ptarmigan.” Unlike the North American variant, the British red grouse does not turn white in the winter.
Ruffed grouse are more like the forest grouse of Scandinavia. Probably their nearest equivalent in the Old World would be the hazel grouse, which is quite a bit smaller.
These birds can be hunted with retrievers, but it’s more of a flushing dog situation. This sort of raises the question if maybe I’d be better off with a spaniel of some sort.
But the truth is most people who hunt ruffed grouse with dogs don’t use flushing dogs. That’s because ruffed grouse are notoriously good at lying low until the last moment. The one I encounter on a regular basis usually flies off as soon as I walk by where it’s been hiding. Most people use pointing dogs.
The problem is that I don’t like English pointers or Llewellin setters. Nice dogs. But the American version of the English pointer is not the kind of dog I like. It’s more like a pointing white foxhound. To my mind, it’s a dog of the bobwhite plantation of the Deep South.
And it may seem picayune and petty, but I don’t much like the looks of a Llewellin setter. They look unrefined and unkempt, and when they point with their tails sticking up, it reminds me of a joke about all dogs having Ohio license plates. That’s a dog that shows it off!
But then I’m reminded that the pointing dog world doesn’t end with all the plantation stock. On the European continent, there are plenty of different breeds developed. Many of these are multipurpose dogs.
I know the German breeds of these dogs better than the others. The most easy one of these to find is the German short-haired pointer, which is split into several different lines right now. I’ve known one of these dogs from 4-H camp many years ago, and she was a very intelligent and docile animal.
The dogs that are closer to the German version of this breed are also quite capable of retrieving waterfowl, even though it would be unwise to use them during the dead of winter portion of the duck season that West Virginia has.
This breed is a sort of compromise between the Central European big game hound, the pointing gun dog and the retrieving gun dog. It’s not the only breed that Germany has produced that is like this. It just happens to be the most common one in the US.
But again, I’m thinking out loud here. I’m a long way off from being in the place to choose a dog.
But I know I want something unspoiled and something that is useful. I’m not seeking the most obedient dog on the planet. I like a dog with good sense and “sagacity.”
So here is where my mind is moving at the moment.
Idle thoughts about the future.