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Archive for the ‘dogs’ Category

gordon buchanan wolf

Gordon Buchanan with a wild arctic wolf on Ellsmere. Photo by the BBC.

For really long time, the mystery of human bipedalism vexed us. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, are all knuckle-walking apes, and there was an assumption that the common ancestor of all three species was a knuckle-walker. At some point, the lineage that led to our species rose up on its hind legs, perhaps to make it easier to gaze over tall grass, and we became bipedal.

The current thinking, though, is that humans never derived from any knuckle-walking ape. Instead, the common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos was likely a brachiator.  The modern brachiators are the gibbons and siamangs, the so-called “lesser apes.” These animals are highly arboreal, and because they lack tails, they rely upon their long limbs to move swiftly through the trees. When on the ground, brachiators walk bipedally, swinging their long arms to the side for balance.

Humans evolved bipedalism from these brachiators, while the chimps and bonobos became knuckle-walkers. In this scenario, humans never were knuckle-walkers, and it is misleading to think that humans rose up on our hind-legs from creatures that moved like chimpanzees.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Well, there have been quite a few studies that have compared dogs and wolves that have been imprinted on humans from an early age in hopes that we might figure out the domestication process from studying how tamed wolves behave when compared to domestic dogs.

These are interesting studies, but I think they oversell what they can answer.

It should be of no secret that I am very much a skeptic of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication. His model contends that dogs necessarily evolved from scavenging wolves that gradually evolved not to fear people and then became village dogs. Our specialized breeds are thus derived from village dogs that were later selectively bred.

Coppinger thought that wolves were just too hard to domestic without this scavenger-to-village dog step that lies between truly wild wolves and their evolution to domestic dogs.

Modern wolves are hard to tame. They must be bottle-raised from an insanely early age.  Coppinger thought that it would be impossible for people living during the Pleistocene to provide that kind of care for young wolf pups.

Like the people who assumed that humans evolved from knuckle-walkers, Coppinger assumed that wolves that exist today are good models for what wolves were like during the Pleistocene. These wolves are reactive and nervous to the point of being paranoid. It is well-known that many wolves won’t even attempt to den near human settlements, and if they catch wind of humans, they soon leave.

These animals would not be easily tamed by anyone, much less people living with Stone Age hunter-gatherer technology.

I generally accepted his arguments, and in the early days of this site, I largely parroted them.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the tigers of the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest that straddles the border between India and Bangladesh. These tigers are notorious for their man-eating behavior, and there have been many theories posited about why these tigers so readily hunt man. Among these is the argument that the Sundarbans tigers drink so much salt in their water intake that it destroys their kidneys, which disables them and makes them more likely to hunt man.

But the documentary contended that the real reason these tigers are more likely to hunt man is that all other tigers descend from populations where humans have hunted them heavily. In British India, tiger hunting was a popular activity among the colonial administrators, and this intensive hunting cause tiger populations to drop.  This hunting left behind only tigers that had some genetic basis to fear man more, and thus, man-eating tigers are exceedinlg rare now.

The Sundarbans never received this hunting pressure, so the tigers left behind had the same innate tendencies to hunt humans that the ancestral tiger population possessed.

I found this argument utterly intriguing, and I began to weigh it against what I knew about wolves. Wolves across their range have experienced even more persecution than tigers have.  In North America, we have four hundred years of humans coming up with more and more creative ways to kill them. In Eurasia, this persecution has gone on for thousands of years.

The persecution of wolves surely has had some effect in how wolves behave, including their innate tendency to accept humans and other novel stimuli in their environment.

Wolves are often so fearful that they won’t cross roads.  They just avoid people at all costs, and it just seems that this is an animal that we couldn’t possibly domesticate or even habituate to our presence.

This has led some people to suggest that dogs aren’t derived from wolves, but some Canis x creature that is related to dogs and wolves, but it is ancestral to the former but not the latter.

Genome comparisons have shown that such claims really don’t work. Dogs are derived from an archaic wolf population, and in this way, they are sort of genetic living fossils, holding the genomes of a Pleistocene wolves that no longer exist. But these wolves that became dogs were still part of Canis lupus, and thus, we have to maintain dogs as part of Canis lupus as well in order to retain the monophyly of the species.

Except for dogs that have modern wolf ancestry, no dog is actually derived from a wolf population that exists today.

And the wolf populations that exist today just seem so hard to tame and work with that it makes sense then to consider the need for Coppinger’s scavenging wolf-to-village dog stage between wild wolves and modern dogs.

The thing is, these studies using modern wolves are only using wolves that are derived from these heavily persecuted populations, and it is very unlikely that these animals are representative of the wolves that lived during the Pleistocene.

We know that when wild dogs have never experienced human hunting, they are intensely curious about us. Timothy Treadwell had a pack of tame red foxes that followed him around like dogs while he was off communing with the brown bears. Darwin killed the fox that was named after him by sneaking up on one and hitting it with a geological hammer.

Lewis and Clark came onto the American prairies where there were vast hordes of wolves lying about.  The wolves had no fear of people, and one wolf was actually killed when it was enticed in with meat and speared in the head with a spontoon.

After these wolves experienced the persecution of Western man, the only wolves left in the populations were those that were extremely wary and nervous.

In fact, the only wolves that exist now that have never experienced widespread persecution by man are the white wolves that live in the Canadian High Arctic.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching two documentaries about these wolves. The first was by Jim Brandenburg.  Brandenburg and L. David Mech spent a summer living with and filming wolves on Ellesmere.  These wolves showed no fear of them, and they allowed them to observe their natural behavior in the wild, including allowing them near their den sites.

Virtually the same documentary was recently made by Gordon Buchanan of the BBC. Buchanan came to Ellesmere and became accepted by a wolf pack, which eventually trusted him enough to allow him to babysit their pups while the adults hunted.

These wolves hunt arctic hare and muskox. They live hard lives, but because they have no real history with man, they are oddly curious and trusting of people.

It seems to me that these wolves are much more like those described by Lewis and Clark, and they are likely to have behaved much like the ancient Pleistocene wolves did. They had never undergone extensive persecution by man, and thus, they were probably quite curious about man.

If these ancient wolves were more like the Ellesmere wolves, then it seems domestication would have been a pretty easy process. In fact, it appears to me that it is so easy to have happened that the struggle would have been preventing it from happening in the first place.

So if these High Arctic wolves are a better model for the ancient wolves that led to dogs, why aren’t they included in the studies?

Well, these wolves are hard to access, and what is more, because they represent such a special population, it might not be wise to remove any of these wolves from the wild.

So the socialized and imprinted wolf pup studies really can’t be performed on them.

But we could still get DNA samples from them and compare their behavior-linked genes to those of dogs and wolves from persecuted populations.

All these other studies are ever going to do is tell you the difference between dogs and certain wolves from persecuted populations. They aren’t really going to tell you the full story of why dogs came to behave differently from wolves.

So for the sake of science, we need to understand that evolution through artificial selection has affected wolves as well as dogs. Dogs have been bred to be close to man. Wolves have been selected through our persecution to be extremely fearful and reactive.

So as interesting as these studies are, they have a big limitation, and the assumption that these wolves represent what ancient wolves were like is major methodological problem.

 

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Not a snow dog

Cammie is not a snow dog.

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pug show dog

I am often amazed at what people think they are doing with dogs.

No one has demonstrated to me what is essentially an article of faith or at least a current mantra of the AKC-apologist set:

That breeding to a breed standard means that the dog is healthy.

And from what I’ve seen in the actual scientific literature, it’s actually something that is probably not true.

At least not always true:

Now, if you’re breeding a vizsla to its breed standard, you’re really not producing any exaggerations that might cause the dog to be unhealthy.

But the same logic that produces the athletic and svelte vizsla– that is healthy because it is bred to a written standard– simply cannot apply to a dog like a pug.

A vizsla is a gundog.  It was developed in Hungary as an HPR, and it actually prospered quite well during the communist years as it was the Hungarian equivalent of the German forester’s drahthaar.

Vizslas, like many continental gundog breeds, were only recently allowed to be sold to people who were not hunters. Thus, through most of the history of this breed, it was always a performance dog that was bred to a performance standard that also was as much about the dog’s behavior and aptitude as its conformation.

You cannot say that about pugs.

Or a lot of other breeds.

What use does a pug have?

Well, it’s a pet dog. A pet dog doesn’t have to bred to any sort of performance standard like a vizsla would be.

And this is precisely where things start to go off the rails.

In the case of a vizsla, a written standard has to have some basis in the real world.

In the case of the pug, it can be as convoluted as the human imagination will take it.

And that’s the big problem with saying that breeding to a breed standard makes a dog healthy.

To breed a dog with as many health problems as pugs have that call all be traced to its various exaggerations in morphology is perhaps the most stupid thing we’ve ever done to dogs.

It’s also unusually counterproductive.

The claim is that modern show dog breeders are selecting for the healthiest dogs ever, but this claim doesn’t even pass the giggle test when you start looking at dogs like pugs.

There are lots of claims that pugs have ancient Chinese origins, and although I will admit they do have some ancestry from dogs imported from China, most of their development actually happened in the West, first in the Dutch Republic and then in the UK.

And it’s in those countries that breed took on its current form.

In the early nineteenth centur, this is what an English pug looked like:

chalon pug 1802

 

It’s still a brachycephalic dog. And yes, it has cropped ears.

But it still has a relatively normal dog body.

And in 200 years of “breed improvement,” we’ve produced a dog like the modern pug, which has too many health problems to elucidate in a single blog post. Almost every single one of these problems can be traced to its phenotype, which has been the result of human ignorance mixing in with human caprice and vanity.

The story of the pug is the story of everything that is wrong with dogs in the West.

It’s a tragedy masquerading as virtue.

Breeding to the standard has done nothing good for the pug.

And these people ought to be ashamed of themselves.

But they aren’t.

They twist it all around to blaming it on puppy mills and the mass production industry.

But that’s nothing more than an obfuscation.

If the public were fully informed of the problems that come from breeding a dog with a muzzle like a pug’s, I don’t think the breed would have one tenth of the popularity it now has.

At the very least, there would be demands to change the standard or maybe bring in new blood to make a more healthily conformed dogs.

Of course, the bastards lambaste the puggles, which are not terrible idea. However, the entire puggle concept has been based upon a puppy mill economic model, so at least right now, it’s a bit doomed to failure.

But that doesn’t mean the concept is wrong. It just means that puggle  and pug cross-breeding for health would have to take more human approach.

Because that’s one thing the modern pug fancy doesn’t have going for it– they really don’t care about how much suffering they cause the dogs.

They delude themselves into thinking that if they just win ribbons, they are being ethical

Instead, they are breeding dogs that have obvious problems. These problems are obvious to anyone but a pug breeder, of course.

They’ve bought into the cult.

And there is no reasoning with them.

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Maddie and Timmy

All photos courtesy of Laura Westfall Atkinson.

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  Timmy was a nice little dog. I spent many, many hours walking him on the beach between Atlantic Beach, North Carolina and Fort Macon.

Maddie was his mate. Both very nice dogs. Maddie and Timmy had several litters together.

Maddie was his mate. Both very nice dogs. Maddie and Timmy had several litters together. 

Maddie with Catie. Catie is now a chemical engineer in Baton Rouge.

Maddie with Catie. Catie is now a chemical engineer in Baton Rouge. 

Good ol’ dogs.

Just memories now.

 

 

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Intruders

I got these photos of the neighbors’ Old English sheepdog cross pups. They are terribly socialized and hate Miley very much.

That’s probably because Miley is by far the scariest monster they have ever seen. If she shows up, they run off in terror! Never mind, that she is not a dog that starts fights. They think she might eat them or something.

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If you wanted proof that Old English sheepdogs are nothing more than very modified collie-type dogs, all you have to do is look at these two crosses. Their father is a very shaggy OES, and their mother a 35-pound yellow Labrador mix (with something smaller than a Labrador).

I call these dogs Smithfields, for this is the old bearded-up droving “collie” of southern England. A similar sort of dog is also found in Australia, which was crossed into the various strains of Australian cattle dog or heeler.

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Sniffing out the woods

Rhodie and Spike sniffing out the woods.

This was about how far they will go.

They were too afraid to go much deeper.

These two dogs have the same (wire-haired and dwarf) father. Rhodie is a broken-coated, cheetah-legged dog. Spike has shorter, Queen Anne legs and a true wire coat.

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The first JRT I’m watching this weekend is Spike.

No one told me that he would attack the water hose if you use it.

I turned it on. He yapped.

And charged into it.

He’s wanting me to turn it on again.

BAAAAAAADLY!

He’s Cammie and Rhodie’s half brother. It was not known that he was of this particular coat. It  just sort of developed.

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