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Posts Tagged ‘A Dog’s History of America’

Several years ago, I was looking for reading material at the beach. When you go on a week long family vacation to the subtropics of North Carolina, you need something to read. It was the summer before I went to grad school, so I was reading several social histories that probably would be too boring for me  to recommend as casual reading.

But as you know, I am a dog person, and I was quite excited to come across this book. It was called A Dog’s History of America by Mark Derr. I was expecting something like the anecdotes about historical figures that I found in Stanley Coren’s Why We Love the Dogs We Do. I was actually pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t that sort of book at all. It was a social history– a structural analysis of dogs and their place in the American story.

Now, I should let my biases out there. I am a structuralist. Yep. I’ve always been. It’s just the way my brain works. I am very good at seeing the big picture. I’m very much the Hedgehog. (One of my professors in undergrad thought I was a Fox, but I am not. I might have some aspects of the fox, but I have always been a Hedgehog.)

The book takes us from arrival of the first dogs into this continent from Asia through the conquest by Europeans, the Revolution, the Civil War,  Reconstruction, and the events of the twentieth century, including things that have happened as a result of the War on Terror paradigm of the past few years.

The main thesis is this: We’ve treated dogs like hell. It doesn’t matter what era we’re in.  Someone has an insane idea about how to use dogs. Run them on turnspit wheels. Hot coals are a great motivator if they get too slow! That’s fine. Fight ’em.  Capital idea! Round up all the strays and drown them. Great idea. Best way to keep the rabies down– rabies happens whenever dogs pant in the summer time, don’t you know? Vivisection. Where’s my knife?

And yet, in every era, there are people who have taken compassion on these animals, like Montague Stevens, the great bear hunter from New Mexico, who trained his motley pack of bear hounds (which included a borzoi, a Great Dane, and an Old English sheepdog) to hunt grizzly bears using only pieces of bread as food rewards.

But the book is not a defense of animal rights movement entirely. Indeed it has a rather harsh critique of the class biases that exist within the founding of that movement. The poor use dogs to do things of economic necessity. It’s not pretty. It makes our cities look bad. So let’s blame all animal cruelty on the poor! Rich and well-bred men don’t abuse dogs. You know that.

The book is very good at tearing into these sorts of arguments as they have appeared throughout history. They have not disappeared in the least. The institutions that claim to stand up for the welfare and “integrity” of our dogs are now mostly morally bankrupt, but that bankruptcy is hardly new. Most of these institutions– be they animal rights behemoths or multi-breed registries–have always been without any sort of common decency. Class biases, racial integrity eugenics, and outright greed have always dominated dog institutions, dog culture, and dog politics in this country.

If you want an idea of how depraved man has behaved towards Canis lupus familiaris, A Dog’s History of America is a great resource. Of course, my bias towards this sort of “bottom-up” social history may have played a role in my enjoyment of the book, but it is really well-researched and well-documented. I can’t find a better social history of dogs, but of course, I don’t think there are any others.

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working border collie

“Reconstruction of ancient breeds fed on the same atmosphere that spawned the Arts and Crafts movement that swept much of Europe and the United States. In the face of the socioeconomic disruptions of industrialization and the destruction of individual craftsmanship inherent in mass production, reformers sought to resuscitate local artisanal traditions.  They found local craftsmen and paid them to make objects– furniture, pots, jewelry– that resembled idealized past forms. In reconstructing types of dogs, breeders took a similar approach, combing through old paintings and written descriptions, then scouring the countryside to find animals that most resembled their conception of what had existed. They then bred litter after litter, first trying to mach that look, and then taking  the dogs that came closest and breeding them to fix those characteristics.”

Mark Derr, A Dog’s History of America, p. 236-237

Now what Derr describes as a passion of the late nineteenth centur  fancy sounds a lot like people who like to maintain the working forms of dogs. However, there is a crucial difference between the hopeless romantics of the 1880’s and modern working dog enthusiasts.

The difference is rather obvious. Working dog people are concerned with functional conformation, but they are generally well-disposed to some diversity in type. Temperament and behavioral conformation are just as important working dog people as functional conformation.

To these nineteenth century Sir Tuftons and Sir Buftons, appearance was all that mattered. If a text described a specific working dog, they roamed the countryside in search of dogs that resembled the dog in the text. It mattered not whether the dog behaved anything like the dog in the text. Indeed, I highly suspect that a few small farmers pawned off culls from their litters whenever the city slickers came calling.

Instead of preserving working dogs, this movement in the fancy actually totally wrecked certain forms.  The Newfoundland dog as it exists today is much larger and much more coarsley built than any working dog of that island. The show collies have long, narrow muzzles, which are totally unlike any dog used by a Scottish crofters. The bulldogs are nothing like the dogs currently used as catch dogs today, which actually rather closely resemble the bulldogs of yore.

Now, today, this movement still exists. There are people who want to turn border collies into show dogs. If one peruses the AKC Miscellaneous Class, you will see many rustic working dogs that are up for consideration for full AKC recognition. Note that you see redbones, blueticks,treeing Walkers, and Boykins on that list. All of those are rustic working dogs native to the United States. Also not that there are dog breeds that have previously been ruined in their home countries that are now being offered in this country as show dogs, like the Sicilian farmer’s mastiff (Cane Corso) and the Norwegian Lundehund (which can develop a host of digestive disorders called “Lundehund Syndrome”).

This tendency is very strong within the fancy, and while it proports to save working dogs, it actually does the opposite. It degrades thems.

The only way to breed working dogs is to actually work them to see which actually do have functional conformation and have the right behavior and temperament for the job. You cannot do this in the show ring, and you also cannot do it by reading books of yore– especially if that book was written by Stonehenge or Dalziel.

Derr explains the problems of the fancy rather clearly:

“The original stock, the rustic dogs, worked beautifully. which was why they were sought out and were already celebrated for their sagacity and ability in Europe, as in England and America. But they were variable in looks and size, and so those that did not fit the program became expendable, denounced as degenerates of the pure form” (237).

The fancy’s breeding program and evaluation criteria were the diametric opposite of the working dog breeder’s program. Working dog people bred what worked with what worked, regardless of whether that produced dogs that varied in appearance or not.

The Arts and Crafts fancy thought of dogs like  finely crafted spoons or pots. They wanted them to look as if they were the same animals they read in the treatises and histories that were so popular during that era.

Now, I must admit that I do have a bit of this tendency. I like very dark goldens, like the ones you would see in and Edwardian shooting scene.

However, I wouldn’t want a dog that merely looked like the dogs in those scenes. Further, I understand that these dogs had functional conformation as well as retrieving instinct, drive, and biddablity. I have to have all of those things. It’s a bit like have an old-fashioned, hand-made pot that leaks or an old-fashioned, finely crafted spoon that can’t hold any liquid.

But looks, as the cliche goes, are only skin deep.

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