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Archive for the ‘dog breeds’ Category

slope back

I have to say that much of what I wrote in the early days of this blog came from ignorance. I had never been exposed to serious hobbyist breeders of purebred dogs, and much of what I thought I knew came from reading some books and reading blogs.

Over the past year, I have developed really good friendships with several breeders, including a few I used to have rows with on social media.

I must say that much of what I used to believe is utter rubbish. If you see these blog posts and ask me about them, I will instantly apologize and laugh at my own stupidity.  I suppose that is what happens to all of us, especially if we are capable of being objective and are always striving to keep an open mind.

Recently, a Facebook page shared a graphic that compared purebred dog breeders to used car salesmen. In my past life, I would have shared such a graphic without hesitation, but now I know better.

This page encouraged people to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue, especially if the dog happened to be crossbred.

Having spent enough time dealing with dogs of various types, I’ve come to the controversial view that first time dog owners should avoid rescuing a dog from the shelter. First time dog owners are better off going to a show breeder.

Why?

Well, dog show people are breeding dogs, but they aren’t doing so haphazardly. No dog of any breed can do well as a show dog, even if it has stellar type and movement, if its temperament is terrible. I know breeders who place temperament above all when they make their breeding selections.

And although there are breeders of working strains, especially of the breeds I’m most familiar with (German shepherds and retrievers), who are thinking carefully about their dog breeding decisions,  these working strain dogs are often too much dog for the typical first time dog owner.

So my initial contention that people should always go for the working dog type was unbelievably stupid.

Now, ten years ago, I might have suggested rescuing a dog from the local shelter, but the shelters now don’t have that many dogs that would be great for novices.  The breed rescues and the shelters themselves have done a much better job finding homes for adoptable animals, and in 2017, it is estimated that only 780,000 dogs were euthanized in shelters. That same year, there were an estimated 89.7 million dogs in the entire country.

So the shelters now are filled with lots of dogs, usually pit bull type dogs, that might be great companions for the right owner. That right owner, though, is almost never a novice. Yeah, there are mild ones that easy as a typical Labrador, but there are also really hot ones that need careful management and skilled dog handling and training.

The reason these dogs are now so common in shelters is that virtually every other breed or type now either winds up in a breed rescue or is transported to another part of the country where the shelters can easily adopt them out.  Dog aggressive pit bull-type dogs are not among the desirables for these rescues.

So the pet overpopulation issue that tends to behind the nonsensical mantra of “adopt don’t shop” is now obsolete. You can buy whatever breed you want, guilt free.  A show bred GSD with health clearances and strong selection for a good temperament is not equivalent to a shelter bully breed mix.  The person who can handle the former might get lucky and be able to handle a mild specimen of the latter, but the same person will not be able to handle a particularly hot one.

A purebred dog from a serious hobbyist breeder offers you some consistency and knowledge that the breeding that produced your puppy came was one that was fully thought out. These dogs cost a lot of money, because it took a lot of money to prove these dogs worthy of breeding, through the shows, any working tests, and the health testing.

The people who shame those of us who buy purebred dogs because we’re killing shelter dogs are simply ignorant. They don’t know what is going on with shelters and dog populations right now. They know only what the world was like 20 years ago, when dogs were roaming the streets and mating all over the place. They don’t know that some people might want a dog that has more utility than being a pet, and they don’t know that breed actually does matter when it comes to proper dog management and husbandry.

So the purebred dog and its fanciers, though under attack by various lynch mobs, are ultimately the choice for better future for our species and theirs.

I don’t hate crossbreeds. I don’t hate mutts. I don’t even hate those who cross purebred dogs, and some of those breeders really do care about what they are producing. I don’t think dog people of any stripe should hate on other breeders, because dog breeders must stick together if we are to deal with the various lynch mobs and legislative fiats heading this way.

I only write these words in defense of the purebred dog and its fanciers and to offer encouragement for the public to support serious hobby breeders.

 

 

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xolo

The dog world is always an interesting place to observe human behavior.  A few days ago, someone posted a coated Xoloitzcuintli (“Mexican hairless dog”) on an FB group, and I happened to mention the new evidence about the genetics of this dog breed.

This breed has a strong connection to the Mexica/Aztec identity in Mexico. The dog has a Nahuatl name, and when we discuss the Americas pre-Conquest, the civilization that existed in Mexico  was certainly the equivalent of anything in the Old World.

The mutation that causes hairlessness in these dogs has been traced to Mexico around 4,000 years ago. It is conferred by an incomplete dominant allele, and thus, it was able to spread from Mexico into South America, where hairless village dogs still exist in some areas.  Later, these hairless dogs were crossed with various toy breeds to found what has (laughably) been called “the Chinese crested dog.”

Further, we have really good evidence that shows that the indigenous dogs of the Americas were replaced with a genetic swarm of European dogs. This means that the xoloitzcuintli, though it has this mutation that originated in the Americas, is mostly European dog in its ancestry.

What is even more shocking is that a genome-wide analysis that traced the origins of many dog breeds found that the xolo fits in a clade that includes the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Chinook. When a prick-eared regional Italian sheepdog called a Cane Paratore is added to the analysis, the xolo and the Peruvian hairless dog fit closer to that breed than the GSD and Picardy shepherd.

If one thinks about the history of Mexico, the Spanish became deeply involved in turning Mexico into a great place for herding cattle, sheep, and goats, and it would make sense that the typical dog that would have been brought over would have been an Iberian herding dog that is probably quite closely related to the Cane Paratore.

So more analysis was performed with an emphasis on Italian dog breeds. Some of the clades changed position, but xolos and Peruvian Inca orchid dogs remained in this clade closely related to the German shepherd, the various Italian herding dogs, the Berger Picard, and the Chinook.  The Catahoula leopard dog, a celebrated cur dog from Louisiana that is said to have derived from French and Spanish herding dogs brought over by colonists, were found to be closely related to the xolos.

This means that the dog called the xoloitzcuintli is mostly rough pastoral dog from the Iberian Peninsula, and it is not an ancient American breed.

I mentioned all this information on that Facebook group, and it was as if I blasphemed against the Almighty.

Sadly, we have almost lost an entire lineage of domestic dogs. The Conquest of the Americas and the resulting Columbian Exchange changed the genetic fortunes of humans and animals on these continents.

And though people would love for the xolo to be this untouched pure strain of dog. It simply is not.  In fact, it is very heavily admixed with southern European herding dog to the point that the dog is almost entirely that in ancestry. If that hairless trait were not dominant, it likely would have disappeared in the Mexican village dog population, and there would not have been any suggestion that these dogs were anything special.

So by a fluke of the allele, a mostly European herding dog-derived village dog from Mexico became the ancient dog of the Aztecs.

Yep. I ruined that one, too.

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muzzled pit bull

For years, I’ve had a long-standing policy of never writing about pit bulls or bull breed mixes.  I oppose BSL, and I think if any breed or type of dog requires compassionate advocates, it is these dogs.

But just because I oppose BSL does not mean that I think that selective breeding is without importance when it comes to dog behavior.

I am also fully aware that there are millions of these dogs that haven’t had fighting ancestors for many, many generations. Lots of these dogs are pretty mild, even more toned-down the typical boxer.

However, I am aware that there are many of these dogs that still retain instincts to fight other dogs, and some of these dogs are particularly dangerous to people. I used to have strong beliefs that shelters and rescues base their decisions upon individuals and not the breed, and I still largely have this opinion.

But in recent years, pit bull advocacy has turned into a sort of base denial that selective breeding has any effect on the behavior of these dogs. We also are living in a time when people are encouraged to rescue dogs, rather than buy them from breeders.

We live in an era in which people are being encouraged to give up meat, reduce their carbon footprint, and generally do things that are compassionate and responsible. People are told that the best thing you do is rescue a dog. However, what we have seen in the past decade or so, we have seen really wonderful reforms in community shelters across the nation.  Purebred rescues have done a remarkable job in keeping their dogs out of shelters, as have truly responsible breeders. High intake shelters in the South have good relationships with shelters in other parts of the country, so dogs wind up in areas where there are good homes.

These developments are all good things for dogs in the United States. But a new problem has arisen.

Go to virtually any county pound or public shelter, and the vast majority of the dogs there will be pit bulls and pit bull mixes. The best shelters do evaluate these dogs and are careful at screening which homes get them, but not all shelters have the expertise to do the due diligence.

Meanwhile, because these dogs really do need homes, lots of pit bull advocates are encouraging socially conscious people to go to the shelter and adopt a pit bull. In many cases, it’s a match made in heaven, but in too many other cases, a really super hot pit bull winds up in the hands of someone who cannot control, manage, or contain the animal properly.

And this creates a dangerous situation.

Let’s take an absurd analogy to see why this is a problem. I love Belgian Malinois, but I know the most serious people in that breed do all they can to ensure their dogs wind up in the right homes.  These dogs have a lot in common with pit bulls, and because they are generally bred by only serious enthusiasts, they are more consistently a lot of dog than we see in the various pit bull types.

But no one says that Malinois are nanny dogs or that having one is just like having a Labrador.  If anyone were to say such absurdities, they would likely be driven out of the entire Malinois culture.

But in pit bulls, we hear all sorts of things about how docile they are. And yes, a lot of them are quite mild dogs, but the ones that are really aggressive certainly do exist.

So when these advocates are promoting that pit bulls are just like any other dog they are not doing the dogs any favors. Yes, you can get a mild and gentle pit bull, but if you’re getting the dog from the pound, there is a good chance that you could be getting something that is a bit much.

Newby dog owners and potentially aggressive dogs are not a good mix.  Add to this melange a new belief system that says that dogs must be trained and managed without any form of punishment or discomfort, and we’re talking a really dangerous situation.

I know that what I have written is controversial. It is controversial only because of context. No one would jump my case for saying that border collies go into stalking position when they herd sheep because of selective breeding. It is without controversy to say that pointers will hold their points when the see or smell quarry.

The level of dog aggression that some pit bulls have came about because of selective breeding. It is not all in how you raise them.  Most people are ill-equipped to deal with a dog that has that sort of behavior, and if you’re not, you should not just get a shelter pit bull. You might get a mild, gentle one.  Or you could get something that really isn’t a good dog for the typical family.

That’s a hard thing to say, because yes, there is a chance that you could get a gentle pit bull. Further, dogs in shelters may behave entirely differently at the shelter than they will after being at someone’s home for a few months.  When a dog becomes comfortable in its new home, then you can see what the temperament actually is, and it may not be something that is easy to handle.

I am not saying that anyone who gets a pit bull or rescues one is an idiot or that these dogs are universally dangerous. I am saying that there is a good chance that you can get a dog that is too much. And you’d better be prepared to manage and control this animal.

If you don’t know how or are unwilling to get one of these dogs off another dog, then you should look for another breed.

I mean this as no insult to the nice, well-managed pit bulls and bull breed mixes, but I am saying that there really are dogs out there in this general type of dog that will do a lot of damage to another dog. Some are so bad that they are dangerous to people.

Further, we, as dog people, should stop shaming people who get their dogs from responsible breeders. We are unintentionally driving people to get dogs they might not be able to handle properly, and this is not good for any dog anywhere.

Please note that I am not saying that this same problem exists only in pit bulls.  You can get German shepherds are totally dangerous.  Pretty much any large dog can be dangerous in the right circumstances.

But the issue I’m criticizing is the rescue culture that is pushing these dogs, which can potentially have these problems, onto a well-meaning but largely unskilled public. And with this type of dog, this is exactly what is going on.

And these dogs certainly deserve better advocacy. I don’t write these words because I hate the dogs or their owners. I love dogs, but I want dogs to be in homes that can full appreciate and manage what the dog really is.

I don’t think anyone can construe my position with hatred. Just disappointment.

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baby quest

Photo by Casey Biederman of baby Quest. 

When I started down this path of being a dog writer, I bought into this basic framework:

Purebred dogs were okay, but the only legitimate ones were performance-bred ones. Breeding a purebred dog for aesthetics was ultimately going to lead to their downfall as a species. If you didn’t accept that framework, then the dog you should absolutely get is one from a shelter, whether it’s purebred or not.

If you read my early posts, that was the basic ideology. I pretty much disavow those ideas.

I’ve lived with several dogs of true working strain, and I must say the average person has no business owning one. You have to put in your time and effort into exercising that dog.  It doesn’t matter what kind of working dog it is. Dogs that are bred for a purpose will have really strong behaviors that might not make them easy to keep as house pets.

If you want a true working line dog, then you must be willing to commit to it, and if you cannot, please consider getting a different kind of dog.

When I initially started writing about dogs, the No Kill Revolution was in its infancy, and shelters were killing scores upon scores of adoptable dogs. Now, we have connected shelter systems. Different municipalities have agreements with shelters where the demand for dogs is still very high, and as a result, popular purebreds and mixes of those breed generally tend to wind up in loving homes once they are surrendered.

What this has done to animal shelters is that it has created a real problem. The least desirable dogs are a pit bull types or BBMs (bull breed mixes).  I have nothing against these dogs at all, and I always been against BSL. I know there are great dogs of these breeds and mixes that make wonderful pets.

However, the modern world has made it so that these dogs aren’t particularly in demand.  Municipalities have BSL. Homeowners policies say you can’t have one, and yes there are some of these dogs that require lots of dog acumen to manage and keep safely. If you have the dog skills, you can easily find one of these dogs to be exactly what you want, and there certainly are dogs of this type that are superb pets.

But unless you know what lines you’re dealing with (and in the shelter system, you won’t), it can be a dicey choice. This is not to denigrate anyone with a pit bull.  Lots of these dogs are fine as a pets. I just fostered a dog of this type that is wonderful with other dogs and not aggressive in the slightest.

But not every dog of this type is for the typical family, which you can say about a lot of breeds. For example, the Malinois breeders do a pretty good job unselling their breed to the general public, but because pit bulls and pit bull types are deemed undesirable, the opposite has been true with their advocates. Part of it is because the dogs vary so much in what they can be like, and part of it is because of the need to find these dogs good homes is certainly

So yes, you can go to a shelter and rescue a dog, but rescuing a dog is not the only choice people have.

And that’s where I think we should be easier on dog breeders. These are legitimate sources to get an animal that may have some consistency in behavioral and morphological conformation, and they don’t have to be hardcore working bred.  Most people can handle a show-bred dog that has been selected through generations for dogs that are tolerant of strangers and strange dogs and to be a good traveler. That’s why all those old dog books said to get your pet dogs from show breeders. After spending as much time with show dogs as I have in the past year, I think the process is good for selecting for good pet traits, just by accident. It is not universal in all breeds or lines of course, but it clearly is something that should be understood.

Finally, I was a follower. I was a dumb young kid with lots of idealism and lots of demons and general stroppiness that needed to be worked out. I followed what was essentially an authoritarian movement in dogs, led by someone I think who generally lost the whole story. Following his work now, I can see that his ideas don’t help dogs at all now. He says that we should own only true working dogs if they are purebred, which is the only legitimate reason for owning a purebred dog, even if we live in a high rise apartment and cannot handle anything with real drive. Then he tells us to go and rescue a dog, but the shelters have mostly pit bulls and BBMs. Then he tells us that we shouldn’t get one of those because they are all dog aggressive and nasty (which isn’t exactly true). So if you’re the typical family, you are given no real place to get a dog. It’s simply a one-upping cul de sac that ultimately puts people in impossible positions when it comes to getting a dog they can handle and live with.

So it’s funny but I’ve become so much less judgmental. I’ve developed an open mind, and I reject the authoritarianism of the movement I was once part of. And I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

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Egyptians saluki

A big part of what a dog breed is can be defined culturally.  A breed is often defined by what its fanciers believe its defining characteristics, and they set what the essential traits and bloodlines of that breed can be. We currently have breeds with rather open registries, like Carolina dogs, a breed of which I’m sure includes a few dogs that are just Down South chow mixes. And we have all those closed registry breeds in the various established kennel clubs and societies throughout the world.

I currently live with two dog breeds that have quite divergent cultural definitions of their breed.

The saluki-tazi or “salukimorph” type of dog has been in existence since at least the Bronze Age.  These dogs appear on lots of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy from the 18th Dynasty.  Lots of debate exists on what is a true saluki here in the West, and because we do not have a true breed foundation date or complete pedigrees going back thousands of years, this debate can be quite subjective.

The German shepherd dog, by contrast, developed in its current form after the foundation of the SV on April 22, 1899. The breed is based off a breeding program that inbred quite tightly off a single Thuringian sheepdog that was bred to dogs with a similar “wolfy” phenotype from southern Germany. This organization was the second one founded in Germany to standardize a sheepdog breed from the various landrace herders that could be found throughout the nation. In 1891, an organization called the Phylax Society was created with that purpose in mind, but this organization was prone to infighting about whether working characteristics or conformation were most important in breeding a standardized German pastoral dog.  This organization was gone by 1894, and Max von Stephanitz and Artur Meyer revived the idea based upon breeding a standardized form of wolf-like shepherd dog.

German shepherds, unlike salukis, have a defined date for their formation, and although Stephanitz speculated about the ancient origins of these dogs, the dogs that we call German shepherd dogs today are clearly defined by phenotype and bloodline. Yes, a debate exists about their conformation, particularly the amount of angulation in the rear, but there is also a debate about whether white ones should be a distinct breed (and there are actually now two white German shepherd breeds in existence now). There are Shiloh shepherds, king shepherds, American Alsatians, Saarloos wolfhonden, Czechoslovakian vlcak, and the volkosoby. The first three are based upon breeding an oversized, less rear-angulated GSD, and the American Alsatian is supposed to resemble a dire wolf (somehow).  The final three are GSD crosses with wolf. An assumption exists that there is bit of wolf in GSD, and adding a bit more wolf will somehow improve them. The vlcak and volkosoby are mostly GSD in ancestry and have successfully been used as working dogs, while the Saarloos wolfhond remains a bit of novelty.

And then we have the Blue Bay shepherds, which have a little wolf in them, but they are based upon dilute GSDs, which are considered faulty by the breed standard.

But these breed exist only because there is a clearly defined breed with a culture and fancy that have clearly defined its traits and characteristics. The spin-off breeds exist because people want dogs with those traits, which will never be recognized as acceptable by the mainstream of the breed.

German shepherds do not have a lot of genetic diversity as a breed.  Even dogs that don’t really look like each other or share common ancestors all derived from Horand von Grafrath and three of his grandsons out of Hektor von Schwben.  The GSDs we have tested on Embark have had relatively high genetic COIs. The breed average is around 30 percent, while golden retriever breed averages are close to 20 percent.

This is not to say that German shepherds are a genetic mess. The breed founders must have purged a lot of weakness and genetic anomalies out of the foundation stock, which can be a way of establishing a relatively inbred strain that strong and viable.

Our saluki’s parents have come out as purebred salukis, but their genetic inbreeding coefficients have been less than 3 percent. I have seen crosses between Western breeds that have higher genetic COIs than purebred salukis.

The saluki breed must have developed over the millennia with selection for coursing traits out of a diverse set of dogs. My guess is that gene flow existed between what became salukis and the local pariah dog populations. Then they just selected which puppies could run, and then they bred back into the general saluki bloodline.

So we have one breed founded by late nineteenth and early twentieth century “scientific breeding” methods, and another breed that just developed over a vast territory over the long annals of history.

I’ve had people tell me that Streamer is not a saluki because he is brindle and because his father is a Central Asian tazi.  That’s because Western saluki fanciers have decided that salukis can be only from Middle Eastern countries, and brindle salukis in the UK, usually from caravan people, were often crossed with brindle greyhounds but still registered as salukis.

Most people are unaware that Iran borders on Turkmenistan, a place where tazis exist. The border between Turkmenistan and Iran was clearly defined during the Great Game period of competition between the Russian and British Empires in the nineteenth century.

But those dogs have been traded through Persia and Central Asia for thousands of years. The political demarcation by two European great powers in the past 150ish years is but a blip on a map. However, that political demarcation is seen as a breed barrier in much of the saluki fancy, and thus, my dog cannot be a saluki. He’s a cross between a desert-bred saluki and Central Asian tazi.

What I have found interesting, though, is that I have developed a certain cognitive dissonance about these two different types of dog. I am totally fine with the German shepherd dog as defined by the established breed clubs, but I do think the saluki people are being just a bit short-sighted.

It may be that I see the German shepherd as something recently created. The characteristics and bloodline are clearly defined in the breed. I don’t see salukis the same way. I see salukis as a more natural, more organic sort of breed, one that exists almost as a distinct subspecies of dog, one that even has its own ecomorphs that have been adapted for colder and hotter climates.

This dissonance and my acceptance of cultural norms are issues that I will continue to wrestle with in my head. We all have some level of cognitive dissonance as we learn to live in a complex world, but it is still worth exploring and ferreting out our contradictions to understand what we truly believe.

And belief is a big part of what a dog breed essentially is.  It is not an act of faith necessarily, but it is the acceptance of the society and strictures that allow that essentialism to accept what a particular dog is.

When we start thinking about dog breeds, we need to explore the cultures that define them as such, as well as how that culture developed over the years. This can lead to some uncomfortable conversations and some uncomfortable self-realization, but it can help our understanding of why we think the way we do.

And that self-awareness is useful if we wish to continue breeding and working with dogs.

 

 

 

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dingo

Most readers of this blog know that I tend to be a lumper when it comes to the gray wolf species complex. I generally think we have one phenotypically and behavioral plastic species that has been able to adapt to many different ecosystems, and this plasticity is even more exaggerated in the domestic form.

When it comes to the dingo, the New Guinea singing dog, the New Guinea Highland dog, or the various mid-sized primitive dogs of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, I think the best way to understand what they are is just regional forms of a dog that has existed at varying levels of domestication.  Every major genetic study that includes “pure” Australian dingoes places them within a clade that includes chow chows and other East Asian breeds, and it seems me that the best way to classify dingoes is as primitive domestic dogs. Yes, I call into question the current thinking that there is a Canis lupus dingo, and I feel they would better be classified as as a feral Canis lupus familiaris.

In the past week, I’ve seen a few posts situating a “dingo” species. This one is not based upon the faulty “unique morphology” paper that came out a few years ago. When I first read that study, I instantly thought  of Edward Drinker Cope declaring the Japanese chin a distinct species because it tended to lack the number of teeth of normal domestic dogs.

This new “dingo is a species” comes from a paper that says they are geographically isolated from other dog species and have lived in the wild for many generations.  Well, they aren’t genetically isolated from domestic dogs now, and they didn’t read the paper that said they were a new species and should only mate with other dingoes. That’s why Australia is full of mixed dingoes now.

I do think a case can be made that dingoes should now be regarded as native fauna. They have been in Australia for 3,500-4,000 years, and whatever ecological problems they may have caused, they pretty much already done it.

We know that native Australian animals have an innate fear of dogs, probably because they have spent the past 4,000 years as prey for dingoes.  And there is evidence that dingoes hold back feral cat and red fox populations to allow various small native fauna species to survive.  But everyone agrees, of course, this complex issue requires quite a bit more study.

So although I think this grasping at straws to make the dingo a species is pretty silly, I do think a good case can be made that dingoes are native.

I think Australia’s wildlife culture needs to have its own unique predator at the top of its ecosystem. The problem is all they have now is this feral dog, which certainly does do a good job as a top predator. But it’s not a Thylacoleo carnifex or even a Thylacine.  This same general type of feral dog can be found throughout Indonesia and Southeast Asia, which means it is not exactly an Australian endemic.

Australians also don’t have any other canids other than red foxes with which to deal on a a regular basis.  In the US, we see coyotes that are clearly admixed with domestic dogs, and in Eurasia, dogs and gray wolves exchange genes at a much higher rate than we once thought.

When all you have are dingoes, it’s hard to think of the big picture of Canis taxonomy. The genetic difference between a regular domestic dog and a dingo is smaller than the genetic difference between a regular domestic dog and a coyote. And that difference is apparently much smaller than we initially thought, too.

So if you read that dingoes are a species, no new evidence has been revealed to call for their species status. It’s just simply a rearranging of species definition that honestly don’t hold up to much scrutiny from a cladistic approach.

Saying that dingoes are a species is sure to get headlines. But it’s on the level of the “Birds are not dinosaurs” school of cranks, which I find has direct parallels in the “Dogs are not wolves school” of similar cranks.

I’ve discovered in all my years of trying to educate people about evolution that people have a very hard time thinking cladistically. Engaging in this sort of nonsense makes the reasoning behind cladistic classification as both an explanation for evolution and something that would be expected in light of evolution that much more difficult.

So stick to clades. And stop playing games by trying to turn an interesting local dog into a species.

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erika on the run

Many techniques of the study of history exist. One of the most innovative is what is called “environmental history” in which human castes, classes, and professions are given ecological/economic niches that allow their behavior to operate as if species in an ecosystem.

It is this history that Edmund Russell lays out in his Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900.  This is a book that anyone interested in dog history should read, for it is an odd comprehensive history of the redefinition of a particular type of dog through the social, economic, and political changes of a nation shifting from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Russell’s book is not the history of “the greyhound,’ the breed we know today. That breed is included in this work, but it is also the history of the proto-whippets that worked the rabbit warrens and larger forms of greyhound that were used to hunt deer and wolves. It is also the story of eventual breed standardization within the context of the rise of the kennel club and the closed racing greyhound registries.

Russll begins with the earliest mentions of greyhounds in England, which is around the year 1200. The dogs belonged solely to the patrician class in the feudal system, and different forms of greyhound were used to on different quarry.  Large greyhounds coursed the deer and the wolf.  Mid-sized ones worked hares and foxes. Smaller ones were used to catch rabbits in enclosed warrens. And commoners were never allowed to own a any of these dogs, except under very explicit circumstances.

For over five centuries, various forms of greyhound were used in this way, but then in the late eighteenth century, the forces of democracy and early capitalism began to change the way the English related to their land. The Enclosure of the commons meant that vast tracts of territory could be set aside of the protection and promotion of hares for what was called “club coursing.”

In this coursing clubs, patricians ran their dogs on these hare estates. They were clubs that were quite exclusive, and the commoners could not own these dogs. Russell includes the account of a commoner convicted for owning greyhound, which the commoner tries to pass off as an Italian greyhound.  But he is still convicted of the crime.

At this time, greyhounds are bred to lurchers and bulldogs to improve their runs on hares, and we learn about the various eccentricities of Lord Orford, a founder of the Swaffham Coursing Society.  He was an extreme spendthrift, infamously selling countless priceless family paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off debts that he had accrued. He also died while running one of his hounds, Czarina, at a Swaffham meet. He had been ill but left his bed to run the hound. He is said to have either died in the saddle or fell from the saddle then died.

As the eighteenth century progresses into the nineteenth, big coursing events, called public coursing, became a popular rural activity. The famous Waterloo Cup began in 1836, and as the sport became popular for spectators, a National Coursing Club was founded to standardize coursing rules. Commoners were eventually allowed to own these dogs, and coursing became more democratic and meritocratic endeavor. The working classes begin to have leisure time and money, which they put toward gambling on coursing events and speculation on various hounds.

This democratic shift in coursing coincided with the rise of the Kennel Club and the purebred dog fancy. Here, Russell introduces us to Sewallis Shirley, the same founder of the Kennel Club and retriever fancier who has been mentioned on this blog many times. Russell portrays Shirley as purely patrician. He is anti-democratic and opposed to tenant rights on his estate in Ireland, and his anti-democratic leanings lead to his promotion of the show greyhound over the coursing one.

As the nineteenth century draws to a close, we see the closing of the greyhound registry with both the Kennel Club and the National Coursing Society. No longer would anyone consider crossing to lurchers or bulldogs to make a better greyhound. The goal was to produce a superior greyhound within the population already ascribed as greyhounds.

Russell leaves us at this juncture but alludes to the rise of greyhound racing in the twentieth century in which the dogs are reborn as objects on which to wager in a new event.

This type of history could, in theory, be written about any type of dog in virtually any European country. However, this particular breed in this particular country is documented well back in the Medieval period, and because it was owned solely by the wealthy originally, the documentation can be followed fairly easily into the modern era.

If one is interested in an academic history of dogs, this book is a great read.  Russell uses the primary sources in his work so clearly, and the prose is posited so logically that one can easily follow the winding history of running dogs in England.

These dogs were made to run, but we now live in a world where they are slowly losing their purpose. Nation after nation, state after state, coursing is losing its legality.  Professional greyhound racing is likely on the way out in much of the world, but we will keep them alive. We will run them, even if it is just after plastic bags raced along on pulleys.

 

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