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Sagan German shepherd

If you were to ask the average person how to classify a German shepherd in terms of dog breed taxonomy, most would say it’s guard dog, putting it somewhere with the Rottweiler and the boxer. Others might think it’s a primitive breed and might classify it with the Siberian husky and the malamute.

Those with a bit more dog knowledge would p lace it with the Belgian and Dutch shepherds.

Indeed, if you were going to ask me where I’d classify German shepherds ten years ago, I would have placed them as the German variant of what became distilled from a German-Belgian-Dutch prick-eared, black-masked herding dog landrace.

DNA studies have changed quite a bit of our understanding of dog breeds and their origins. In the initial attempts to classify dog breeds using only mitochondrial DNA found that German shepherds clustered with the mastiff breeds.

However, more recent genome-wide analyses have revealed something rather unusual. German shepherds are not directly related to the Belgian herding dogs at all. Instead,  one study found that they they are most closely related to the Berger Picard, the Chinook, and the Peruvian and Mexican hairless dogs.

Initial studies of regional Italian herding dogs using microsatellites suggested a close relationship between those dogs and border collies.  However, more recent genome-wide analyses have placed the Italian herders much closer to the German shepherd dog. Indeed, the German shepherd is very closely related to Italian prick-eared herding types, such as the Lupo Italiano and the Cane Paratore. These Italian herders and the Berger Picard all fit in a single clade with the German shepherd.

These findings upturn our assumption that the Belgian and Dutch shepherds are that closely related to German shepherds– at least in the bulk of their DNA.

However, the initial genome-wide study that found a relationship between the Berger Picard and the GSD also found that there was some GSD in the various Belgian herders, including the Bouvier des Flandres.

That means that at some point in the development of those breeds, German shepherds or proto-German shepherds were crossed into them. Crossing German shepherds with the Malinois isn’t an uncommon practice in some working dog circles even now. Apparently, this practice was done more frequently when the breeds were not so defined as they are now.

And it should be noted that only tiny ancestry blocks from German shepherds into the Belgian breeds. The bulk of their DNA derives from very distinct dog stocks. The Belgian herding breeds are more closely related to British herders and Western sighthounds than they are to German shepherds.

These genome-wide studies have lots of interesting findings, including that xoloitzcuintli and Peruvian hairless dogs are almost entirely derived from European herding dogs and that their sister breed is the Catahoula. Because of this relationship to these Latin American dogs, the Catahoula is probably more derived from Iberian herding breeds than from French ones. It is likely that the hairless dogs of the New World are the originators of their hairless trait, but because it is conferred via a semi-dominant allele it was easily transferred onto a population that consists of dog of European origin.

The relationship between German shepherds and Italian herders is easily understood. German shepherds are heavily derived from Bavarian and Swabian sheepdogs, and Bavarian shepherds were often grazing their sheep in the Alps during the summer, as were the Italian shepherds. The dogs exchanged genes in those high country meadows, and their pups went onto found populations on both sides of the mountains.

This story fits the genomic data, but it make the Berger Picard a bit of an anomaly. Picardy is in the northeastern France, a long distance from the Alps. It would make more sense for this breed to be more closely related to the Belgian shepherds and the Bouvier, but it is not. The North European Plain is easier for dogs and their genes to flow across, but the Berger Picard is very close the German shepherd breeds and its Italian cousins.

I do not have a good answer for why this anomaly exists. I don’t know much about the Berger Picard or its history. Maybe it became a very rare breed and was interbred heavily with German shepherds, or maybe the region is very connected through markets to the Alps or Bavaria or Northern Italy.

Maybe someone can answer these questions for me.  It seems weird that the Berger Picard is so closely related to dogs that have origins in Southern and Central Europe rather than adjacent Belgium.

The evolution of herding breeds is complex. Apparently, having a dog with a wolf-like phenotype is useful for herding flocks. The Belgian shepherds apparently evolved their type independently of the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Italian prick-eared herders. Perhaps sheep just respect that look more, and it has some advantage in their management.

As we have seen, dogs can evolve very similar physical traits in parallel with each other, which is why we must always be careful when creating an umbrella classification for different breeds.

Just because they look alike and have similar functions does not mean they are that closely related.


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Dead Blue Crayfish

One of the mysteries of the day is why there was a dead blue crayfish on top of my garbage bin this morning. I don’t know the species or how it got there.  Still vexed.


crayfish 1

DSC00203 edit

The German shepherd staple is the ball on the rope.



When Germany unified in 1871 under the Prussians,  the new nation began a period of modernization and industrialization. For lack of a better word, it aped much of what the British did. Britain was the world super power at the time, and it made sense to do many of the things that made it successful.

Agricultural improvement was a subject for which the British had a great understanding, and Germans were deeply involved in their own selective breeding projects in a wide variety of species.  Dogs were no exception. Indeed, the Germans largely adopted the British dog fancy system as a way of improving canine stock.

In Edward Tenner’s remarkable piece called “Constructing the German Shepherd Dog,” the author points out that German dog fancy was largely derived from the British one, and by the 1880s, there were three main factions that were operating in the field of dog breed improvement:  a faction that was working breeding good urban pets, a faction that was interested in experiment with various working breeds to improve them for greater utility, and a faction that was concerned with dogs of the rural gentry, especially Great Danes.

It is in the latter that it most resembled that of the British dog fancy. The dog fancy had come from learned nobility or those very near to reaching peerage, and the main interests were dogs used for hunting or dogs that were used for guarding large estates.  The first dog shows in England were about setters and pointers. They later came to encompass virtually every hunting dog, as well as the noble mastiffs.

This part of the German dog fancy was particularly concerned with Great Danes. Bismarck, the Prussian statesman whose Realpolitik had made unification possible, was a much-esteemed leader of the new nation. He was very much a fan of the large boarhounds, and the dogs that surrounded his court and those of his associates came to be known as Reichshund or “dogs of the Empire.”

In this way, the Germans aped the British. The British heavily promoted the improvement of very large mastiffs in the early days of their fancy, and the German did much the same with their own indigenous mastiff.

One of the great ironies is that English speakers call this breed a “Great Dane.” Buffon called the dog “Le Grand Danois,” and such a misattribution has continued in the English-speaking world almost without challenge.  Some English-language authors called the breed the “German boarhound” or just “boarhound,” which are far better names.

But if one knew of the popularity of Great Danes among the elite in Germany in the early decades of the Empire,  it would be hard to see them as anything other than German.

Indeed, the foundation of breed as we know it today started in Berlin in 1878, just a few years after unification. Various boarhound fanciers–almost all of them nobles who either used them as catch dogs or as estate guardians– got together and began combining their strains.

The breed had a terrible reputation in England. Rawdon Lee saw the breed as a menace and recounts a story in which a Great Dane nearly killed a Newfoundland dog.  He also lamented that dogs exhibited at the Crystal Palace shows spent most of their time growling and snarling at other dogs and exhibitors.

This breed did have a reputation very much like we see about pit bulls today, and they are three times the size of a pit bull.

When the Germans began the pioneering of the modern concept of a police dog, the Great Dane was the breed that was used.  In the late 1890s, Franz Laufer became a the police commission in Schwelm in Westphalia, where he became instrumental in developing a modern police force.

One thing that Laufer thought was necessary was to have dogs that worked for the police. Initially, he thought the dogs’ main utility would be in protecting the police from hostile subjects, and the breed he chose to work as a police dog was the Great Dane. Indeed, the first modern police dog was a Great Dane named Caesar, who was enlisted for service in 1897.

Great Danes were the first police dogs, but of course the breed isn’t that well-suited the task. They lack the biddablity of the shepherd dogs, and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this breed had much of a fighting spark than could ever be made safe for the public. They are also very large and aren’t as easy to transport. They also take years and years before they mature mentally.

The Great Dane, the boarhound, the Deustche Dogge, or German mastiff was really the first attempt by the German Empire to create a unified national breed. But they were mostly the dogs of the elite, because of the limitation in turning them into truly versatile working dogs, they were eventually replaced by the German shepherd, a dog from more rustic and working class roots.

The reputation of this breed has changed quite a bit. Americans grew up on The Ugly Dachshund, Scooby Doo, and Marmaduke formulation of the breed. One cannot do a search for the Great Dane and not see the words “gentle giant” mentioned in the majority of your results.

The breed has been toned down greatly from that über that frightened people all over the English-speaking world. Indeed, the breed is almost never used to catch wild boar and feral swine, which was its original purpose.

The breed still has some capacity for aggression, especially toward other dogs, and some can be absolutely dangerous creatures.

But the passing 123 years since time of Caesar in Schwelm, the breed has become a companion animal and a novelty. Virtually no one breeds a real working Great Dane. Americans prefer their own strains of catch dogs, as do the Australians and New Zealanders, and such methods of hunting are illegal in Germany and most of Europe.

It failed as a national dog. It made a short career as a police dog.  It no longer makes the swine squeal.

It fits in now because of its novelty and its rebranding. But in its blood still courses the boarhound of yore. Its blood courses in the Dogo Argentino and maybe a few other feller mastiff strains as well.

But the dog itself go on into the twenty-first century, in hopes to find a space in a world no longer needing such a creatures as true German boarhounds of the old strain.


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Dead Polyphemus

One of the weird things about living in this part of North America is that we have big moths. This is a dead Polyphemus moth. It is named for the cyclopes in Odyssey. Those big eye spots sort of remind one of a cyclopes, but they also scare off predatory birds that don’t want to attack something that is looking at them.




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On Redwolves

red wolf

I don’t know a damned thing about football. I have hated it my whole life.  I cannot carry on a halfway decent conversation about it. Taking me to a football game for me to enjoy it is about like taking a dog to the Louvre and expecting him to appreciate the art*, and I will remain happily ignorant about the subject until my dying day.

Currently, the US is going through some great historical reckonings about racism, which I must admit that I do fully support.  There is a lot of controversy about taking down statues and renaming streets, and it’s all horrendously gut-wrenching and difficult.

Among the changes that is happening is that the professional football team in Washington, D.C. is getting its name changed. For decades, various groups affiliated with various Native American organizations have been trying to get the name changed. It has been called the Redskins, and as someone who doesn’t care about football, I think it’s kind of silly that we have a name like this for anything.

But all the recent events have finally led to decision to change the football team’s name.

And although we don’t know the new name. The current favorite is “Redwolves.”

Well, that’s a different controversy!

And no, I’m not saying the systematic racism and oppression of Native Americans is an any way comparable to a big taxonomy kerfuffle, but it is controversial.

As long time readers of this blog know, I generally reject the “red wolf” paradigm. I base this rejection upon really good genome-wide analysis. I also reject the ancient North America-only origins for the coyote, and I believe that both the red wolf and coyote are offshoots of the Eurasian gray wolf.  Indeed, I have proposed that the coyote is a form of gray wolf in the same way the domestic dog is , and that it should be recognized as Canis lupus latrans.  The red wolf is a hybrid between relict gray wolves that lived in Louisiana and Texas and the coyote.

One unusual discovery about gray wolves, coyotes, and “red wolves” is that all three populations are about as genetically distinct from each other as humans from different continents are.

And this discovery might tell us thing or two about racism in our own species. At one time, the various races of humanity were often classified into different species. Some people resisted this notion, which popular in the nineteenth century.

However, among them was the Rev.  John Bachman, a Southern Lutheran pastor, who also ministered to the slaves. He defended the institution of slavery, of course, but he did not think that African Americans were a different species from Europeans.

Bachman also believed the wolves of North America represented one species, and this idea was very much expounded in Aubudon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Bachman and Audubon worked closely on the text, and although Bachman and Audubon are credited with documenting the red wolf as a species, they were very clear that were the same species:

“The Wolves present so many shades of colour that we have not ventured to regard this [the red wolf] as a distinct species;  more especially because it breeds with those of other colours, gangs of wolves being seen in which this variety is mixed up both the grey and the black” (243).

Bachman and Audubon’s initial idea that the “red wolf” was just a color phase has since been revealed in the genome-wide analysis of wolves, coyotes, and red wolves are so closely related to each other that it would almost make sense to classify them as one really diverse species. Bachman and Audubon were certain that the coyote was a very distinct species, but it likely diverged from the gray wolf within the past 50,000 years. And a gene flow still exists between coyotes and gray wolves across the continent.

Humanity is so caught up in labeling, and now, we’re trying to undo some of the damages that were done through our pseudoscientific labeling in the past.

And Confronting past and present racial discrimination is the current zeitgeist.

I reject racism very clearly and definitely. I don’t want to have teams with racist names or have statues of Confederate generals on public property.

I am what some people would call “left wing scum.” I wear the badge with pride.

But I wonder if much of my rejection of Canis rufus is also my rejection of racism. I think the evidence is strong that the species should not be considered valid, but I wonder if my strong aversion to the classification of this species is part of my deep anti-racist ideology.

Maybe it clouds how I view data.  Ideology does drive a lot of scientific understanding. Philosophy underpins so much more than we’re ever willing to accept.

I know that I have intellectually made the case to myself.  It makes me look like I hate endangered species to some poor readers out there.  Or that I want some sort of whole-scale blood letting among the red wolves.

But I don’t think that this species was defined correctly. It wasn’t even defined when wolves were commonplace in Texas and Louisiana, and the genetic data that was used to identify them as a species in the 1970s was rather primitive. Indeed, much of their defining characteristics were based upon what they looked like, and as Peter Steinhart pointed out in The Company of Wolves, it was not unusual for 75-pound “red wolves” and 25-pound “coyotes” to appear in the same litter. The founding population of red wolves consisted of only 14 individuals, and when they were released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, it was assumed they would keep coyotes out and not interbreed with them.

Indeed, what happened was they started interbreeding with Eastern coyotes as those smaller canids began colonizing the red wolf release area.

Believing that coyote blood contaminates red wolf blood has resulted in several litters of pups being euthanized. The coyote cannot sully the blood purity of the red wolf, even when the genome-wide analysis shows that the red wolves are themselves admixtures of of coyote and extinct Southern gray wolf.

We have defined these animals so rigidly before the law that the wolves cannot choose their own mates.  If they pair with a coyote, they have created a mongrel.

It is this level of stupidity that I reject when it comes to nature and simple ethics. These animals cannot be thought of as truly wild and natural if they must be maintained only by keeping the coyotes from mating with them.

It reminds me so much of the racial purity nonsense that was once so prevalent in the United States and still exists, though often is never explained or articulated in this fashion.

And when wildlife management apes this sort of buffoonery, I have to reject it. I am not saying that red wolf advocates are racist, but the way they describe them and the crosses between coyotes and red wolves truly sounds so eerily similar to our antiquated ideas about blood purity that I am instantly repulsed by it.

So yes, let’s rename the football team.  Lets oppose racism in all its forms.

But renaming the team by this name is not without its own controversies. Indeed, it echoes and rhymes so much with the ones facing the human world that one cannot stop and marvel at the folly.


*Stolen from Julie Zickefoose.



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The Alien World

I went on a long hike yesterday in the back country at Beaver Creek State Park.  I had many encounters with aliens.

The most amazing encounter I had was with a leafhopper and an inchworm that both landed on my wrist. They seemed to be confused about the substance on which they landed, and they were equally vexed about each other.

leafhopper and inchworm

The leafhopper soon grew tired of the scene and hopped onto more satisfying greenery, but the inchworm stayed for a bit longer.


I let the inchworm loose a leaf of green foliage, and I continued on my way.

As I marched along, I came across several iridescent green damselflies.

green damselfly

green damselfy 2

They were quite hard to photograph. It was as if they saw my camera as a predator staring hard at them with one unblinking hard-staring eye.

Later on, I came across a scene of predation. Some ants had caught a hapless inchworm and were carrying it to their lair.

ants kill inchworm

This is a world that is not mine. I am profoundly ignorant about entomology. I was into insects as a boy, but I grew out of that fascination.

My essential mammalness means that I feel a stronger comradeship with other vertebrates. Indeed, I feel that I can glimpse some knowledge the tetrapod world, but the insect and spider and crab world is beyond me– profoundly so.

No being on earth has a society as tightly organized as ants do. Not even our own species has a society that is so well-checked, but maybe someday we well will.

Their worlds are not ours, but theirs is more holistic, more complete. It exists without our profound intellect. It exists with their violence, their dramas, their instincts and drives.

It is beyond the reason of my supposedly reasoning species. It shall remain so, forever untouched.


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sagan all serious

Sagan being all serious in a sit-stay.

A lot of controversies exist about German shepherds. Opinions about them are often fixed and diametrically opposed to each other. I used to be of the camp that the dog had seen its better days.

Since I’ve gotten into the breed, I’ve discovered there are lots of good ones being bred, but the community is so divided about what a “good one” is.

When a breed has as many applications as this one, it’s going to diverge a bit in its talents, and the strains are going to vary. I’d argue there are 6.5 different strains of German shepherd, and if you like the traits of one strain, you might not like the types of another

6.5 strains are:

  1. West German working line
  2. West German showline
  3. East German working line
  4. Czech/Slovak working lines (from the former Czechoslovakia), which are usually just called Czech lines. However, a lot of these also come from Slovakia, and let’s not erase the Slovak people and their dogs from our discussion.
  5. American showline
  6. 5 Pet lines, including white, blue, and liver color-bred lines, which I think of as a subset of pet lines but are kind of a line of their own.

The first one of these I ever had was a Czech monster that could never be trusted around other dogs. For me, that’s the deal-breaker. You want to fight other dogs for no good reason, you get your walking papers. I don’t have time for a dog that does that. I live in a house with whippets, which are thin-skinned, short-haired, and have almost no body fat.  A German shepherd can put some nice holes in one of those, and not only that, we use whippets to condition our dogs.  The whippet gets a toy, and the German shepherds try to herd the whippet. If you use your teeth on a whippet, the whippet has permission to correct you, and the German shepherd that I want won’t use that correction as an excuse to off the long-legged speedster.

So this means that most of the bite-sport and protection lines of this dog I simply have no time for. Dog aggression in some of these lines are a feature and not a bug. For those of you who remember Anka, that’s why she left.

All the other dogs I have are American showlines or American showlines crossed with West German showlines, except for Sagan, who is a 100 percent SV conformation dog.

Sagan’s sire can do the full IPO 3 routine:

I like this type of West German showline.  It’s like you’ve taken the things I like about working lines and American show lines and sort of combined them. Sagan is as focused as the best West German working lines, but he’s got a nice off switch.

We are going to breed these dogs, and we’re doing what our mentors have been doing.  We are going to breed American showlines to West German showlines.  The really stable German dogs complement the temperaments of the really stable American ones. Our goals are not to breed dogs that necessarily have that “speed skater” body that does well at specialties. Our goals are to produce dogs with good bone, good minds, beautiful coats, and superb temperaments.

I like the movement on well-gaited and balanced American show lines. I like it more than the West German gait, which isn’t as ostentatious.  The American gait can lead to a hypertype, which is often called a “hockwalker,” and you can produce them if you breed for too much hypertype. The German dogs help correct this tendency, while also giving you good bone and coat and improving the tan pigment, which is really red in those lines. It is also a bit easier to avoid DM with the West German lines than American showlines, because the American lines I like are full of DM, but conscientious breeders are using dogs like Sagan to breed away from it.

Last night, I watched a video from Butch Cappel’s dog training channel on Youtube.  Cappel is breeding a working German shepherd that has no undercoat called the Western shepherd, which fits in better with the hot climate of Texas. I really enjoy his insights in dog training and the breed.

His main focus is on producing not a bite sport dog but a true protection dog that can be used to guard properties and personnel.  He and I have entirely different goats for a German shepherd, and that’s okay.  It’s a free country, and it’s a breed with lots of applications.

In this video, he has a discussion with a gentleman who has been breeding working line dogs, and I don’t know what it is, but every working line person wants to crap on American dogs. He also says that show people only care about the conformation of the dog, which is not at all been my experience with the show dogs in the breed. Yes, there is a lot of money in showing these dogs, but everyone wants to produce a dog that is a sound mover with a sound temperament. It’s just not that easy.

What he says about the sloping back causing hip dysplasia is wrong.  What causes hip dysplasia is the formation of the hip joint, not the turn of stifle, which produces the rear angulation that causes the back to slope. A well-bred and balanced American show dog has a lot of power in its read. Quest can jump way over my head from a sitting position. He has the rear angulation, and his hips have been OFA prelimmed as good. 

He also seems to have missed that a lot of East German dogs, at least when they were first brought over here, were hip dysplasia city. They bred these dogs to be really large and intimidating, but they weren’t paying attention to how the joints were forming.

Further, my dogs fit my criteria for temperament. Quest has a good, solid temperament. You can turn him out with other males. If you tell him to leave a bitch season alone, he won’t even look at her.

However, if he feels that we’re in danger, he does have the protective side.  A few weeks ago, I was walking him on-leash in the neighborhood, and a Labrador with a bad attitude started staring me down from her lawn. I have known this dog for years. She has a screw loose, but she’s a wuss.

Quest didn’t do a damned thing but stare back at her. When she approached with aggressive intent, Quest roared, broke his heel position, and got between me and the Labrador. I was honestly not expecting that. The Labrador wasn’t expecting it either, and he went back to her house.

If some criminal wanted to do something to one of us, I’m sure he’d do much the same thing, and honestly, that’s all I need for deterrent.

If you need a dog for actual protection work, don’t get an American dog. I won’t argue with you on that. If want a family dog and a stock dog, they are pretty good at both, though. They are not harder to train than the working lines, though they can be a little harder to housebreak.  An American dog often isn’t fully housebroken until its 8 or 9 months old, but the other lines tend to get it way faster.

However, there are working line dogs and there are “working line” dogs. Because there is so much hysteria about “sloping backs” over here, there is a bit of a marketing con going on in the US. People will buy working lines because they are true to Stephanitz’s vision and are straight-backed, and there are plenty of unscrupulous people breeding them, often with no testing for ability or health.

And that’s where you get your dogs with nightmare temperaments.  Not all of these dogs are super aggressive, but a lot of them have to be almost abused to have any kind of impulse control. They can’t stop screaming when they are excited, and the level of dog aggression they have rival that of an Akita or pit bull.

Yes, there are dog aggressive showlines, and I know of lots of working line GSD that are good with other dogs.  But the showlines are easier to teach impulse control.

Plus, I’ll be dead honest with you. I don’t care about protection sports or breeding police, military, or protection sports. I might consider doing some lower level stuff, but it’s not that interesting to me.

I am more interested in stockdog stuff and AKC obedience. So wouldn’t I be better off with a border collie?

No. I tried those, and I cannot form a good working relationship with one.  They are smart, but they way more into their work than they are into you. A German shepherd says, “What can I do for you today, beloved master?” A border collie says “Let me work, bald monkey! Can’t stop working! Can’t stop working! Don’t make me quit!”

I am also interested in producing a dog that fits into modern society and can be a great pet with the kids. The dog snobs of the world don’t much like this concept, which is why in some dog circles, you’re not a real dog person until you get your first KNPV Malinois.

I think there is a place for a German shepherd as an active pet. It’s one you can do things with. It will like your kids. It will roar bark when someone come sneaking around your property. It will play with your other dogs.

If you want a dog that is good for personal defense or want to do bite sports, absolutely get the dog that fits your needs. But make sure you get it from someone who knows what they are doing and not someone who is selling you dark sables with level backs.

And the same goes for any of these lines. Don’t get any showline dog unless you see the health testing on the parents or have an idea of what their temperaments are like. A lot of these American dogs are really afraid of things, and it’s one reason to do the outcross to the German showlines.  I’d rather not breed to a dog that is afraid of its own shadow, just because it’s a showline.

Anya, Quest’s late breeder and our dearest friend in the breed, once said, “Good dogs exist in all lines of this breed.”

I think we need to have this attitude rather than this attitude that give you permission to crap on other strains because they aren’t what you are looking for. I am impressed by really well-trained protection and bite sport dogs. I am also impressed by dogs that can do the full tending HGH test with a massive flock of sheep. And I am also impressed by the American dog that seems to float as it trots around the ring.

People need to relax a bit. Drop your insecurities. These dogs are awesome because they can bred and trained to fit what you need.

I don’t feel threatened by the existence of working line GSD. I don’t know why they feel so threatened by the existence of the show dogs. Indeed, much of our misunderstandings come from not asking and not listening, and it seems that so much of the subcultures around this breed is about not wanting to know anything about what the other people do or why they do it.

I suppose I liked eventually learning that the show dogs were not crippled freaks, and I have since come to embrace them.

It means that I had to eat a lot of crow.

It tastes better than you think.


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sagan focus

That puppy coat is gone, and we now have tarantula legs and what looks like a saddle marking on the back.