Posts Tagged ‘dog history’

Mullock, James Flewitt, 1818-1892; Charles Randell with Greyhounds at Stonehenge

One common trope that exists in old breed histories is an attempt to connect extant dog breeds with ancient ones.  These stories were fanciful, and with the advent of the molecular revolution in biology, almost none of these stories can be taken seriously.

Among these stories are those that connect “greyhounds” with the Middle East. Often cited are the texts in the Bible, which you may have noticed, were not originally written in English.  English Bible translations were done long before we had established breed or a firm understanding of dogs in other countries, so when one reads about greyhounds in the Middle East in the Bible, it is important to understand that “greyhound” was a translated term. The dogs in the original source are not the same as the greyhound known in England and Northern Europe at the time. They are most likely referring to salukis.

Salukis and greyhounds are often thought of as being similar dogs, but having lived with both, I can tell you they are quite different dogs. Salukis are distance dogs. They don’t have lots of round muscle over their body. Greyhounds are sprinters.

Further, if I were going to pick one to train as a pet, I would go with the greyhound. They are far more biddable. Indeed, I find myself losing my temper far less with the greyhounds than I ever did with the salukis.

The reason for this difference is that the two breeds are out of entirely different stock. We know this from study of their genomes. We know that greyhounds–and whippets, Italian greyhounds, and borzoi– are from a root-stock that is most closely related to herding dogs of the general collie-type. This discovery came about through study of genetic markers.

This same study found that salukis and Afghan hounds are in a whole other clade with several livestock guardian breeds. The prick-eared sighthounds of the Mediterranean– the so-called Pharaoh hound of Malta, the Ibizan hound, and Cirneco dell’Etna– are in a different part of this same clade. They, too, are related to livestock guardians. Their closest relative is the Great Pyrenees.

In Edmund Russell’s work on the history of the greyhound in England, there is careful attention paid to the real history of these animals.

Russell contends that there is no real history of the greyhound in England until 1200, when they become common place in Medieval hunting art and literature.  The archaeology of British dogs shows that there was not much morphological variation in them until the Romans arrived. Indeed, the only main morphological variation observed in dogs in Britain before the Romans is that one specimen from the Iron Age had a shortened muzzle.

So Russell spends more time on the “greyhound” as a term that means the ancestors of these various British sighthounds, which we know from genetic data are most closely related to various herding dogs that originated in Britain.

He follows the evolution of these hounds from Medieval hunts, where there were many regional and quarry-specific strains, to the beginnings of club coursing to the modern racing and coursing greyhound. He clearly understands that some of these regional dogs become distinct breeds through political and cultural memes. The dog we call “the greyhound” today is a very specific animal that evolved through club coursing into modern racing and dog showing. The whippet is a subset that evolved from working class racing and rabbit coursing. The Scottish deerhound is a subset the was used to hunt red deer in Scotland on those large estates.

These three breeds have intertwined histories, and their evolution as breeds need to be understood within the cultural and political ideas of the societies that produced them.

Russell’s work is an environmental history, which means that he attempts to understand dog breeds and human tasks within the concept of a niche. “Niche” in this case means exactly what it does in ecology– a particular place or task within an ecosystem.

Hunting cultures will create niches. The gun dog breeds of Britain are all divided into three niches:  pointer/setter, flushing spaniel, or retriever.  We could try to understand their evolution in much the same way as Russell attempted with “the greyhound.”  The spaniel started out as the original dog, but some were good at stopping before the flush. These dogs became the setters and pointers. Later, with the advent of firearms, there was a desire to produce dogs from spaniel and setter stock that were good at picking up shot game. Having large numbers of dogs on a shoot that did different tasks was a symbol of patrician largess, and because British hunting cultures were patrician-based, these breeds evolved in this way.

This basic dog became something different in Germany, where hunting became much more egalitarian following the failed revolutions of 1848.  Commoners were given access to the forests in the various German states, as a way of alleviating class antagonisms. Because commoners could not keep vast hordes of specialized dogs, German hunters bred all-rounders. Even dachshunds have been used to pick up shot game and flush birds and rabbits. The various Vorstehhund of Germany not only did the gun dog’s task, but they were bred to flush and bay wild boar, dispatch badgers and foxes, and to retrieve any manner of game.

Russell might have made his work stronger if he had looked at other Northern European sighthounds. Dogs of this type were widespread across the North European Plain into Russia and Ukraine. Some societies lost their traditional sighthound. France, Germany, and the Benelux are without their traditional sighthounds, but Hungary and Poland have their hounds. Russia has several breeds of these type, including the widespread borzoi.  Of course, Russell’s main area of focus is the British Isles, specifically England, where the coursing greyhound was developed.

So the real histories of breeds are often a lot less fanciful than what we read in old dog books. The truth of the matter is that it is complex, and we should try to avoid putting the cart before the horse when trying to figure out the truth.

Assuming that we can piece together a breed history based upon folklore or what was written in one of those all-breed books from fifty years ago is an act of folly. We need to understand that the molecular revolution is changing how we understand how dogs evolved, and right now, it is tearing away much of our understanding of how dog breeds themselves came to be.



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Dalmatian from 1840.

(Source for image)

Check out Pietoro’s “Dog Breed Historical Pictures” album on Photobucket.

I’ve borrowed a few of the images for this weekend’s posts.

One can really see evolution through artificial selection in this album.  Dogs are like fashion accessories. They change with the times.

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Warning: Totally fictitious dog breed history in this post!

Mississippi swamp hounds do not make good foxhounds. Here, we see them allowing a fox to infiltrate their pack. However, a fox hunter might be able to use a pack like this. All he has to do is take the pack to a gatorhole, and all the hounds will go in, leaving the fox exposed and easily dispatched with use of a firearm.

Mississippi swamp hounds do not make good foxhounds. Here, we see them allowing a fox to infiltrate their pack. However, a fox hunter might be able to use a pack like this. All he has to do is take the pack to a gatorhole, and all the hounds will go in, leaving the fox exposed and easily dispatched with use of a firearm.

Derived from dogs brought to Mississipi by de Soto’s men, the Mississippi swamp hound was bred to hunt alligators. It is believed to be part Spanish war mastiff, Cuban bloodhound, turnspit, Belgian Trekhon, and red wolf . It is also believed to have a touch of very stupid retriever in its background, although some people claim that it’s actually very stupid poodle-type breed called a “Portuguese water hound.”

Now  to hunt an alligator, a dog needs a good nose, but to hunt them effectively, the dog must entice the ‘gator to the hunter’s rifle. The best way to do this for the dog to jump into the body of water to toll in the big ‘gators. Of course, most normal hounds and curs have sense enough to stay out of gatorholes. That’s where an unusual selective breeding program was attempted.

So ‘gator hunters in Mississippi developed a plan– breed for dogs that have no sense whatsoever. They bred dogs that licked themselves in intersections to other dogs that thought chasing trains on the railroad was just like chasing cats.

After several generations, they developed a dog with such superior stupidity that it could easily bring in the ‘gators. In fact, it was the alligator hunter’s breed of choice, and it is widely believed that this hound is credited with nearly making the American alligator extinct.

Today the breed is widely praised for its stupidity. You can leave one in a backyard with the gate open all day, and the dog will stay right there. And you can also take your Mississippi swamp hound shark fishing or cougar hunting.

However, this breed has been banned from importation into Australia, India, and Cameroon, for it is belied to be so effective at attracting species of endangered crocodilians to the hunters’ guns that it could be very detrimental to fragile crocodile populations.

The Mississippi swamp hound has just been moved to the AKC’s Miscellaneous Class, where a standard is being drawn up. However, it is feared that forcing this breed into the AKC registry will harm its unique working abilitiess

Dissident Swamp hound owner Jimbo “‘Possum Face” Magoo complains that “The AKC won’t let me breed any stupid mutts into my breeding program, and once they start competing in competitive obedience, they’ll make them smart.  Then they won’t want to jump in the water with the ‘gators no more. I guess I’ll just have to do it myself!”

Magoo and his ‘gator hunters comrades have formed their own registry,  The Working Mississippi Swamp Hound Association. Their standard is based upon behavioral and functional comformation. “A swamp hound must be dumber than a rock, but he must swim better than one,” says their breed standard.

Average life expectancy for a Mississippi swamp hound is 12-14 years for a nonworking dog. The life expectancy of a working swamp hound is dependent upon the temperature of the water in which he swims. If the water is below 68 degrees, the alligators lose their appetite and don’t want to eat the dog. If the water is warmer, then live expectancy is largely determined on how fast the dog can swim.

Don’t expect one to be good at competitive obedience or watch dog work. However, a Mississippi swamp hound is a good dog to have if you work long hours. When you leave the house, they don’t know you’re even gone at first, and when they do figure out you’re gone, they’ll spend the rest of the day looking for you. Now that’s piece of mind.

Who says you need a smart dog? Sometimes stupidity is just what you need.
And in this case, it is functional behavioral conformation.

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Dachshunds come from Ancient Egypt. Yes, there are people who believe this!

Dachshunds come from Ancient Egypt. Yes, there are people who believe this!

Have you ever gone through one of those compendium dog books that lists or tries to list every breed? Have you ever read the de rigueur “Origins” or “History” section that accompanies every breed’s entry?

Well, most of what you are reading in those histories is unsubstantiated lore, and sometimes outright falsehood.

The golden retriever once had in its official history that it descended from Russian circus dogs that were crossed with bloodhounds. This story is so nonsensical that it is amazing that anyone would believe it. However, with that story lay the ability of the golden retriever fanciers to deny any relationship with the flat-coat. Its whole existence as a separate breed required an adherence to a story that was absolute malarkey. I’m sure it was easier to get the KC to recognize the breed as distinct if they believe it was some exotic form of canine and not just a color-selected strain of the flat-coated retriever.

This story was debunked when Lord Ilchester, the 1st Baron Tweedmouth’s nephew, discovered and perused carefully the kennel records. They were meticulous, and they were unequivocal. The golden retriever was a color selected strain of the wavy or flat-coated retriever.  Not only that, it was bred very closely to the top strains of the wavy or flat-coat of its day, which meant the golden shared a close common ancestry with the flat-coat.

However, the Tweedmouth strain started in the 1860’s, when the principles of scientific selective breeding were well-established. We can trace every golden back to the foundation dogs “Nous” and “Belle,” just as we can trace every GSD back to “Horand von Grafrath” and every boxer to “Flora” and “Boxer” and the other Munich bullenbeiser types.

Those breeds all have a recent heritage. The documentation of their bloodlines is well-known, and any bullshit stories made up about them can easily be debunked.

But how can you debunk more ancient  and more poorly-documentedcanine lore?

How likely is it that the Ancient Romans had dogs exactly like Rottweilers?

How likely is it that Dachshunds are from Ancient Egypt?

How likely is it that Dalmatians even come from Croatia?

How likely are Catahoula curs to descend from de Soto’s war mastiffs? (I think they are descended from the Beauceron-type dogs but not Spanish war mastiffs.)

And who can forget the Chinese crested dog people who think their dog is actually from China and that it once killed rats on Chinese junks during the golden age of Chinese navigation.  (Here’s the truth!) That’s a good case of people simply making it up, and even today, when confronted with the truth, they still don’t accept it.

The truth is we often get dogs because of what they say about us. I know this is silly, but we are humans. We select things, both consciously and unconsciously, to reflect our image.

We also long to reconnect with our past. The way we live now is vastly different from the way our forebears did. We use dogs as a way of reconnecting with the past.

Both of these tendencies lead dog people into thinking about dogs in terms that are fanciful and romantic and, at the same time, horribly unsubstantiated or horribly unfalsifiable.

We use these romantic histories as way of saying that I own a part of the past,and this part of the past says something about my character.

I am guilty of this human foible. I am not denying this.

However, I like to think I’m not as extreme as some people are.

I’m wating for someone to write a fanciful history of the Mississippi leg hound.

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This brace of red spaniels comes from Pisanello’s Vision of St. Eustace.  This painting comes from the early Renaissance and the Quattrocento.  As you can see, the spaniels are not large dogs at all, but small spaniels have always had a function. They can charge through the undergrowth far better than larger dogs. These spaniels were certainly appealing dogs, and it did not take long for them to become pampered house pets in various parts of Europe.

However, in the Northern Renaissance, one can find a depiction of a larger spaniel type. The Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving is Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), which features a large spaniel. The spaniel represents faith and loyalty as the Christian knight rides into a land of tribulations. (When I first saw this engraving in college, I stared it for a long time. It made me feel Medieval.)


It is from these old spaniels that land and water spaniels eventually evolved, as did the setters and the toy spaniels. Some HPR’s have ancestry with these dogs, too. The retrievers, carrying the blood of the water spaniels and setters, also descended from these dogs.

There is some speculation about where spaniels come from. The most common theory is the one articulated by Virginia Woolf in Flush: A Biography:

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest antiquity. Therefore it is not strange that the origin of the name itself is lost in obscurity. Many million years ago the country which is now called Spain seethed uneasily in the ferment of creation. Ages passed; vegetation appeared; where there is vegetation the law of Nature has decreed that there shall be rabbits; where there are rabbits, Providence has ordained there shall be dogs. There is nothing in this that calls for question, or comment. But when we ask why the dog that caught the rabbit was called a Spaniel, then doubts and difficulties begin. Some historians say that when the Carthaginians landed in Spain the common soldiers shouted with one accord “Span! Span!”—for rabbits darted from every scrub, from every bush. The land was alive with rabbits. And Span in the Carthaginian tongue signifies Rabbit. Thus the land was called Hispania, or Rabbit-land, and the dogs, which were almost instantly perceived in full pursuit of the rabbits, were called Spaniels or rabbit dogs.

I actually am not so bold as to say that spaniels came from Spain. I think they were originally used for rabbit hunting, and because European rabbits populated that continent from Spain, the dogs got associated witha that word “Span.”  I really don’t think the evidence that says they came from Spain is all that good. However, I do believe that the pointer breeds got their start in the Iberian Peninsula.

Where do spaniels came from?

The Celts of France and Belgium had lots of different dogs. They had herding dogs and the first modern scenthounds. In fact, all scenthounds derive from Celtic dogs that were bred to follow trailes in those European forests of yore. They also were known for having red and white dogs that had feathering that were used for hunting birds and rabbits.

These dogs eventually became the oysel dogs that were used in the Middle Ages for flushing birds and rabbits for the falconer’s birds to swoop down upon.

Spaniels are the ancestors of most dogs we called gundogs, sporting dogs, or “bird dogs.”  We have very good representations of dogs of this type from the early Middle Ages onward. The dogs themselves may have dated back to the time of Julius Caesar, but it is difficult to say whether these dogs were spaniels as we would understand them or even ancestors of modern gundogs.

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