sagan focus

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

Brehm bulldog

Bulldogs of various types have been all the rage. In my immediate area, the most common dog for people to own is some sort of pit bull or American Staffordshire sort of dog, and it well-known that various offshoots of this basic type, called “bullies” are selling at very high prices. The French bulldog is currently the most registered dog in the United Kingdom’s Kennel Club, and the breed is wildly popular in the US as well.  The Sourmug bulldog, which is known as English bulldog or the bulldog, is also quite popular. Boxers, which are type of German bulldog, are also pretty common.

These dogs are popular as pets, but their origins are not well-understood.  Most people understand that bulldogs were used to fight bulls, but the origin of these dogs goes much deeper than late Medieval and early Modern British history.

The beginnings of the bulldog start with big game hunting.  Europe at the time of the Romans was far less densely populated than it is now. Lions roamed the Balkans and Greece.  Moose were found well into Central Europe, and brown bears were common throughout the continent.  Massive wild cattle called aurochs roamed freely, as did herds of European bison. Red deer were far more widespread than they are now.

Europeans used various sorts of dogs for hunting game. Dogs of the laika or elkhound were the aboriginal European hunting dog by the time of the Mesolithic, but the breeds began to diversify over time. Sighthounds became quite prized in much of Europe during the time of the Roman Empire, but it was the arrival of some dogs from the East that would revolutionize big game hunting.

The Alani or Alans were a Scythian people who wandered a vast region from Central Asia. They were skilled horsemen and hunters. They knew animal husbandry quite well, and they produced excellent horses and working dogs.

By the 1st Century AD, they were a major force in the Caspian Sea region. By the 2nd Century, they were in the Caucasus and were raiding the eastern parts of the Roman Empire. They also developed a complex relationship the Huns, a similar westward expanding nomadic pastoralist people from Central Asia.  In the 4th century, their relationship with Huns collapsed, and vast numbers of Alani migrated deep into the Roman Empire. Large numbers settled in Gaul, and with them, they brought their dogs.

The dogs they broad were relatively long-headed and powerful and very adept at gripping and holding dangerous game. The closest thing to these dogs that exists today that I can imagine is something like a Dogo Argentino, though some were more robust and more mastiff-like.  Some of these dogs might have been livestock guardians, while others were big game hunting catch dogs.

In the 5th century,  the Alani in Europe joined forces with a Germanic tribe called the Vandals, and the two peoples raided all over Europe. The Alani left behind some of their dogs, which were crossed with sighthounds, scenthounds, and perhaps livestock guardian dogs. The dogs became famous for their abilities in hunting boars and bears and for gripping aurochs and bison.

Over time, various regional European dogs with this Alaunt dog blood began to develop.  One of these was the Alaunt boucherie, which the English called the Alaunt butchers. It was this dog that became known for controlling half wild and fully feral cattle at butcher shops, and the skills with which these dogs worked the cattle eventually evolved into the wagering games of bull-baiting.

By the Medieval Period, the aurochs and bison had become rare, as had the brown bear.  In England, the boar was extirpated through much of the countryside, and the only real use for these dogs was in butcher shop working and holding recalcitrant cattle and swine.

It is here that we reach the beginning of what we call bulldogs. On the continent, the dogs were still used to hunt big game, while in England, they were used for a very particular purpose that had little to do with hunting. In some ways, the Alaunt dog working and holding the cattle must have reminded them of the days when the English hunted big game with these dogs.  This simple work then evolved into the spectacle of bullbaiting, which was almost certainly a re-enactment of the ancient aurochs hunt.

The Alaunt dog is probably not only the root-stock for the bulldogs. It is also a much more likely source for the mastiff breeds, and here, I’m sure that I’m going to sound quite controversial.

The classical history of the mastiff breeds is they derive from the dogs of the Molossians. This idea can be traced to Linnaeus, who classified the mastiff of England with the dog of the Molossian people.  Linnaeus was not a dog expert or historian by any means, but his classification became the accepted truth of the origins of mastiffs for centuries. Indeed, this idea is so pervasive, that the term “Molosser” is used to describe virtually every broad-headed mastiff-ish dog.

I do not use this term for two reasons. One is that it is based upon bad scholarship.  Col. David Hancock recounts that the Babylonians were hunting with large broad-mouthed dogs, as did the Persians. The Alani were of a people who spoke an Iranian language and were related to the Persians, which may have been where they obtained at least some of their dogs. Hancock contends that the Molossians had two dogs, a livestock guardian and a large boarhound. Hancock conjectures that this boarhound is the ancestor of the Great Dane, but most sources believe that the Great Dane came about through crossing mastiffs with the original Irish wolfhound. However, it is very possible that this sort of dog is the ancestor of the original large wolfhound that spread through Europe and may have indirectly led to the Great Dane. The livestock guardian of the Molossians did become celebrated in Roman times, but it seems that this breed is the ancestor of something more like the Maremma and other livestock guardians.

The second is that we have good DNA studies on dog breed phylogeny now. Bulldogs and European catch mastiff share a common ancestor, which means they form a clade.  The most recent one also disagrees with Hancock, placing the Great Dane as early offshoot of the bulldogs and catch mastiffs that is a sister breed with the Rhodesian ridgeback. So the Great Dane is also descended from the Alaunt dog, if we assume that the Alaunt dog is the ancestor of this bulldog and mastiff clade.

Further, all the various broad-headed dogs that are called “Molossers” are not related to each other. The Newfoundland dog is much more closely related to Labrador, golden, and flat-coated retrievers than to any catch mastiff or bulldog, and the Great Pyr, Kuvasz, and Komondor fit into another clade. The Great Pyr is not the sister breed to the Komondor and Kuvasz. Indeed, these dogs fit into a clade that includes the Pharaoh hound, the Afghan hound, and the saluki.

So if historical scholarship and genetics are pointing in the same direction, then the bulldogs and catch mastiffs derive from the dogs of the Alani.

I know that such an assumption needs more verification, but it seems pretty likely. All of these dogs clearly do derive from a common ancestor. Perhaps we will have better DNA studies soon that also include a molecular clock and samples from ancient and Medieval dogs that are of the mastiff or bulldog type, and this question can be fully answered.

However, for the purposes of this series, I will point to the Alaunt dog as the ancestor, and the dichotomy between the butcher dogs of England and catch dogs of the continent as the focal point for the next part of this series.

So this piece may not have reached the true bulldog yet, but we are almost there.




It has been a long time since I have writing a comprehensive breed history series, but I have decided that it is time for me to return to some subject matter that generated lot of readership and discussion in the past. This first part will be released free and published here on the blog, but Part 2 will be released as part of my Premium Membership program. Starting in August 2020, members will receive two exclusive blog posts that will not appear on the main page for at least six months. To get these exclusive blog posts, subscribe to the Premium Membership plan. It costs only $2 a month, and it helps produce quality content on this blog. All your information will be held in confidence through Stripe

Big Buck


The spark that ignites the fire is usually that chance encounter in the forest. A massive buck, 7 or 8 years old and so woods-wise as to be a sage in all things sylvan, winds up crossing paths with a human. The encounter is usually fleeting, but that’s all it takes.

The human goes home and dreams of deer.  It becomes an obsession, a quest of near epic proportions.

For the truth of the matter is that such deer are phantasmal entities.  A simple dictum governs them:  you don’t get to be old if you’re stupid or careless. And the corollary of this dictum is that all those old monster deer, unless they have lived their whole lives in parks or on very limited access private land, are way smarter and way more cautious than the typical whitetail.

A deer lives by its nose and by its ears. The simplest snapping of a twig or the slightest waft of human body odor on the wind will force these old veteran bucks into extreme caution mode. The young deer learn to read the sounds and scents from their mothers. The bucks that watch their comrades fall from arrows flying from trees or from hidden gunmen get a crash course in human detection and human evasion.

A few years of such harsh lessons, and they become the grayness against the tree trunks in November. They become the stillness of the crisp air. They become more silent than the acorns falling upon leaf litter.  They become beings that both exist and vanish, and no exactly when the vanish effort must be at its strongest.

So was the story of this old buck who had lived for 8 years of flying arrows and flinging lead. He knew every approach that man would make into his Allegheny Mountain redoubts. He knew the scent of man, including all the cheap cover scents that the hunter will slather upon his body in hopes of fooling neophyte deer. He knew the exact sound of a hunting boot cracking a beech twig in the heavy leaf litter.

He was a maestro of evasion, and most hunters are not maestros of deer. Most hunters are able to get the drop on the neophytes and cull them from the herds pretty easily. They also take the middle-aged bucks that get so cocky and horny that they forget that a human hunters are still a very real threat.

But some hunters are not content with the neophytes and the cocksters. The spark of a chance encounter has lit a flame that does not burn out easily. Indeed, it might not burn out at all.

The great buck had heard the guns go off for more than a week. It wouldn’t be long, and all the hunting camps would be cleared out. The ATVs would not longer be squalling up and down old tram roads. The forest would return to the more natural order of things, and he could get to work on trying mount a few yearling does before the long nights of snow came sweeping in.

As the darkness fell, he ambled cautiously down from his favorite remote stand of rhododendron and eased his way down to the creek.  He drank of the cold November water. He allowed his brain to relax and passed a little gas.

Why he had chosen that second to relax, we will won’t know, but it was at that very second that a gun raised from the opposed bank. A shot was fired. The bullet shattered the buck’s lungs. He leaped in surprise, and he fell down in death. The cold creek water ran red with his blood.

The hunter emerged from his hiding spot.  For three months, he’d been tracking this buck. He’d put out trail cameras, and he’d read all the sign.  He knew that he’d never be able to get such a buck during the hard gunning early part of the season.

So he waited until that particular night, and he positioned himself up against the wind underneath a white pine tree. He sat stoically through the waning hours of the day. He felt not a tinge of impatience. He knew that the big buck would come. It might be almost dark, but he knew that the buck was still there and that he would be coming.

For years, this man had allowed himself to become ensconced in all things deer. He had settled with the neophytes and cocksters, but he had always yearned for a big buck.

And now one lay before him, dead from a bullet chambered in a rifle that he had carried that he had fired with expertise and efficiency, and it was so oddly satisfying. Yet it was also quite disconcerting.

The challenge been met, and all of us who seek goals know the feeling of reaching them. There is a certain feeling of sadness that the challenge no longer avails itself in the same way.

Every hunter, though, comes to love his prey. And there is always a remorse in killing.

And to kill a creature such as this one is to kill out of a whole history, a whole set  knowledge that we will never know.

It is like felling an ancient oak and wondering about all those who sat under its shade.

The hunter was a trophy hunter, but he paid no more than the usual hunting license fee.  He had never even left the state or even the county in which he resides.

He had let the fire burn and burn and burn until he could only go forth into the big woods and follow that quest for the big rack.

And no he had done so.  He was connected once again to those Pleistocene hunters whose blood coursed through his veins, and who hunted, not for big racks, but for their very existence.

In France, some of those ancient hunters painted the likeness of their quarry on cave walls. In modern America, the buck’s head would be preserved in a taxidermy. It would hang on the wall, a tribute to both the buck’s cunning and sagacity and the man’s skill in hunting.

And the gamy buck venison would fill more than a few dinners as the dark days of winter approached.

And the buck would nourish the man. His flesh would feed him with the nutrition of biochemistry. The knowledge of having hunted this creature would nourish the man’s spirit.

And in the summer, there would be many bucklings among the fawns. Some of them would be the sons of the old maestro, and maybe one or two of those would have their father’s cunning and wisdom to live out long lives in the oak and beech woods.

And maybe in 7 or 8 years, they too will fall as their father did, and they will nourish the hunter as he did.

For that is the story of deer and deer hunting. It is not about the murder of the beasts. It is about passing it on,  so that both deer and men can live out their dramas of hunter and hunted.

It is a relic of a time when man was a beast of prey and all meat that he consumed was either hard-hunted or hard-scavenged.  It is a relic that pays tribute to that heritage, though few hunters will ever contemplate what that heritage actual does mean.

For it is ultimately about humans expressing our animality as much as it is about deer expressing theirs.

But it is almost never understood in those terms.

But it most certainly is.







Baby Sagan

This is Sagan as a baby back in West Virginia.

sagan baby ii

sagan baby



Universal Sound

I just discovered this song, a meditation in the cranberry bogs of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

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It is unusual to find professional historians who have published research on dog breed histories.  I have written about Edmund Russell’s Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200–1900, which is an environmental history of the greyhound and the British sighthound cultures. But I have found very few other researchers who have looked carefully at other breeds.

I did discover that a very good scholarly article has been published about German shepherds. Edward Tenner has published his remarkable piece in Raritan. It is entitled “Constructing the German Shepherd Dog,” and it follows the story of how the breed was developed and then promoted internationally.

Tenner posits his work on this thesis: 

Dog breeding has been largely the province of enthusiasts rather than geneticists or animal behaviorists, and therefore motivated less by animal health and fitness. Dogs are often unwitting bearers of cultural meaning; they can serve democratic, aristocratic, and fascistic purposes. The values of breeders, the ambitions of organizational entrepreneurs, the strategies of military and police officials, the whims of socialites, and even the genres of media producers play a part. One of the most striking results of these interactions is the German Shepherd Dog, whose early career as a breed was entangled with German nationalism and biological racism but who has since become, both as a working and a household dog, one of the world’s most popular and ironically cosmopolitan companion animals.

The story begins with the German Empire in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.  The German nation is new, constructed from ancient regions that had maintained a certain amount of autonomy for centuries. Germany was at the cusp of becoming a major player on the world stage.  At the time, the British Empire was the main power, but the Germans were interested in taking British ideas and making them work in Germany.

The new German nationalism adopted the memes of breed improvement the British, but then turned them onto the native breeds of Germany. The collie had been renowned for  its service as a sheepdog and then utilitarian working animal and family pet.

Sheep husbandry in Germany had a very different history from the British Isles.  In German culture, shepherds had been seen as the itinerant vagabonds of agriculture. They were landless and mobile, always moving their flocks to better grazing. This status changed a bit, when various German prince imported merinos to improve their wool-stock, and for much of the nineteenth century, shepherds achieved higher status in the society. 

However, the newly unified German Empire saw a great decline in wool production in the final decades of the nineteenth century.  Germany had produced many good sheepdogs, but if they were to be preserved in the way the collie had been, drastic measures were going to be taken.

Tenner posits that the German dog fancy had three basic contingents:  one that was focused on promoting Great Danes and hunting dogs, another that was interested in promoting English style urban show dogs, and one that was a “socially mixed experiment” that was about improving working breeds for the police and for the pet market. German shepherds obviously derive from the final faction.

Great Danes were considered the first dogs of new German Empire. Bismarck kept at least one with him at all times, and virtually all aristocrats were either keeping them or breeding them.  The breed had its origins in the hunting boar and brown bear, but by that late date, they were mostly being promoted as estate guardians in much the same way mastiffs were in England. In the early days of the German dog fancy, the native sheepdogs were an after thought.  Eyes were strongly drawn to the Doggen.

However, by those final decades of the nineteenth century, the German nation had gone crazy with collies, and it had also found itself in a naval cold war-style competition with the British Empire.  Airedales started to become seen as useful police and military working dogs, and the nation began to feel that it could best the British with its native dogs.  And these nationalist fanciers looked towards the sheepdogs for that answer.

The beginnings of the standardization of German sheepdogs focused heavily upon those that possessed a wolf-like phenotype.  The various regional German sheepdogs have traits that point to some ancestry with poodles, schnauzers, and even Australian shepherds. However, prick-eared dogs were found in several areas of the country, and because the ancient German culture had historically held wolves as totemic animals, there was a desire to focus on this type of dog.

Initially, two basic strains came to the fore. 

One was the Thuringian sheepdog. Thuringia, in east-central Germany, had a declining wool industry, and out of work sheepdogs were easily procured.  These dogs were most often sable, but occasionally, they came in white.  These dogs were mostly bred for their looks, and it was not unusual for these dogs to be bred with wolves.

Tenner writes of one dog named Phylax that was a wolfdog:

In an 1895 contest, a judge described the society’s prize animal, Phylax von Eulau, as a ‘seductively beautiful, purely wolf-colored, high-stepping, short-backed, very large wolf mix (Wolfsbastard), which would do ten times more credit to a menagerie with its wild facial expression, hard movement, and wild behavior, than it could ever perform working behind a herd of sheep.’

The fact that many Thuringian sheepdog breeders were crossing these dogs with wolves suggests that a large portion were not really all that interested in producing a sheepdog. They were into producing a late nineteenth century version of the German wolf totem.

Phylax the wolfdog had been exhibited as part of an organization called the Phylax Society. It was founded to turn the German sheepdogs into a useful working dog. This society, founded in 1891, was full of internecine conflicts that it eventually dissipated by 1897.   

In 1898, a German cavalry captain named Max von Stephanitz retired his post and devoted the rest of his life to dog breeding.  He had seen what happened to the Phylax society, and he decided to create another organization that would eventually go on to standardize the German shepherd dog. His organization, the Verein für Deutsche Schäferhunde (SV), still exists today.

Stephanitz was a German nationalist. He was an anti-Semite. He was a scientific racist.  He was all the things you would imagine a former German military officer from the nineteenth century to be like. 

He also knew a lot about scientific animal breeding. He had been stationed at the Veterinary College in Berlin, and because horses were such a vital part of military operations, it would make sense that units of cavalry would be stationed at veterinary schools.  Veterinary medicine was mostly concerned with horses in those days, because horses were the main form of transport for a huge part of society. 

So when Stephanitz retired and bought an estate near Grafrath in Bavaria, he had ideas about what selective breeding could produce.

He also settled in area with active sheep production, and there were still plenty of working sheepdogs in Bavaria and Württemberg. It was here that another variety of wolf-like sheepdog could be found. It was larger and longer-haired. It possessed a more docile nature, and it came in the black-and-tan variants and recessive black. 

The origin of the German shepherd dog as we know it today came from breeding a few Thuringian sheepdogs, most notably Hektor Linksrhein/Horand von Grafrath, to the Württemberg dogs. There was extensive inbreeding to refine the type. However, the SV was open to people of all economic stations, and the registry would take in any dog that was useful.  So unlike other breed societies, which generally included only the most wealthy in society,  the development of the German shepherd dog as a bred became a popular activity rather than an elite one.

Stephanitz was of the view that this sheepdog should be promoted as a working dog, but with sheepdog work declining all over Germany, he began to promote it to police departments as working police dog. His constant promotion eventually succeeded, but he had a very hard time getting the German army to forsake its Airedales, which they eventually did. 

By 1914, the Kriminalpolizei line had been established in Wiesbaden, and the dog began to be thought of as a police dog. Though some experts thought the Doberman pinscher was going to be the police dog of the future, the SV just had more people that were dedicated to the task. 

And when World War I began, the Germans saw how useful military dogs were for the British that they began to use German shepherds as their sentry and patrol dogs.  So they went from being a type of dog that was only known in a few German regions 1899 to becoming celebrated war dogs by 1915.

During the war, Americans and the British came to know these dogs, as did the Russians. The advent of silent film created the American film stars known as Strongheart and Rin-Tin-Tin.

Demand for these dogs became feverish in America in the 1920s, and the poverty-stricken Germans sold thousands of these dogs to willing American buyers. Geraldine Dodge became a major promoter of the breed, and she even had Stephanitz come to judge the breed at her Morris and Essex show in 1930.

Stephanitz believed Jews had an inherent aversion to dogs, unlike the Germanic man, who has an inherited affinity for them. He didn’t forbid Jews from owning his dogs, but he thought the only reason a Jew would ever be in purebred dogs is to make money. The Nazi didn’t much care for his leadership of the SV, and they drove him from the organization. They merged it with a National Socialist animal breeding organization, and the SV itself was given over to a chicken breeder.

He had done so much to promote his dogs, though, that when the Second World War came, they fought on all sides of the conflict. The British Empire, the Americans, and the Soviets all fought with German shepherds against the Axis Powers and their dogs.

The irony of all this entire story is that this breed was created with nationalist aims, but it wound up becoming the most important working breed of dog for the twentieth century. 

Tenner writes:

The Shepherd’s success is paradoxical. It was, as the wildlife biologist Glenn Radde has pointed out, the embodiment of modernity vis-à-vis the Great Danes of the landed nobility, yet it soon became a hallowed tradition. Originally bred for working qualities, it attracted some enthusiasts more concerned about appearance than health and soundness. Inspired in part by ethnocentrism and racism, it appealed across borders and ethnic lines as few other breeds have. Volunteered by their owners for German victory, Shepherds were spread by the stunning defeat of the Treaty of Versailles. Most of all, the triumph of the German Shepherd Dog shows how much of our everyday world depends on unpredictable interactions between the unforeseen and the unintentional. We can only speculate about what genetic modifications, if adopted widely, will bring.

This is the story of a plowshare being turned into a sword, but Tenner points out that the sword is being refashioned into a plowshare:

In an age of mass customization, the attraction of standards has faded, or, rather, there are many more to choose from. For example, law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States prefer Belgian Malinois to Shepherds for their allegedly keener sense of smell and sharper temperament. Some Shepherd owners and trainers pay premiums for dogs bred to the more traditional standards of the former German Democratic Republic and pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. Yet friendliness toward strangers and other dogs, a taboo for von Stephanitz and the Nazi regime, is now seen more positively by many owners with families. And this trend in turn has encouraged so-called designer dogs with parents from what the buyers hope are two complementary purebred lines — the Golden Shepherd, the Shepadoodle, the Shug, and the Shollie.

So yes, law enforcement and the military still use the German shepherd, but it is now being brought more and more into civilian life as a family dog. This will still be a working breed, but it will be more adaptable, as it always has been, to the various new tasks that lie before it.

The Malinois and the Dutch shepherd might be the more impressive police and military dog, but the German shepherd will have the edge when it comes to adaptability for new tasks. The task of family guard dog and general homestead dog are ones that it will serve with the highest distinction.

Soulful eyes

sagan soulful

This is the most amazing dog I’ve ever worked with.

sagan down stayHe’s seven months old and already takes direction like an adult.

I’d like him to live to be 25. Is that possible?


Look of Nobility

Sagan and Quest

“The ideal dog is stamped with a look of quality and nobility –
difficult to define, but unmistakable when present.”

–AKC breed standard for the German shepherd dog.


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