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moobli

We have a tendency to romanticize nature writers. We think of Thoreau or Edward Abbey as sages on the land, revealing profound truths about the nature that was their true muse.

I just finished a book, a dog book that I’ve been meaning to read for several years.  It is called Moobli by Mike Tomkies. Tomkies was famous for his first hand studies of Scottish wildcats, red deer, and golden eagles on the vast Highland wilderness on which he roamed.  He set himself up in an ancient crofter’s cottage on the shore of Loch Sheil and spent years chronicling its wild creatures. For nearly 9 years, his main assistant in his wildlife studies was an “Alsatian” named Moobli.

Tomkies became a wildlife writer after leaving the Coldstream Guards and spending years wandering around North America. North America, of course, is a place with much more wilderness than the island of Great Britain. He became an expert tracker of grizzly bears and cougars, and when he returned to set up his mission in Scotland, he used these skills to find wildcats and badger setts.

When one reads Tomkies’s prose about wild creatures, a profound sensitivity and tenderness is revealed. His passion for them oozes through every description, and I thought we would get an even more intimate sensibility when the subject switches to a beloved dog.

I was strangely jarred by his inability to understand dogs. If you believe in positive only dog training, this book is very difficult to read. Moobli is hit often, and in many cases, Tomkies’s description of the why he gave the punishment would lead to me think that Moobli would have had no way to understand the correction.  For example, Moobli gets hit for defecating in the cottage, even if the offense happened some time before the correction,

Knowing this breed as I do, my guess is that poor Moobli spent much of his life in constant terror of offending his beloved human, who seemed to offer very little attempts to communicate with him.  These dogs are not stubborn or recalcitrant. I’ve never known dogs that worry so much at trying make sure they are doing your bidding. It distresses them to know you’re cross with them far more than it does with even golden retrievers.

And yes, they do have an edge to them, and they must understand rules and boundaries. They just must be communicated to the dog in a way that dog understands them, and for someone with such a deep sensitivity towards animals as Tomkies, it can be distressing to read how he is utterly tone-deaf in dealing with this dog.

From my reading of Tomkies’s biography, he owned only two dogs in his lifetime. The first was a free-roaming German shepherd-Labrador cross that he owned in Canada. This dog later accompanied him to Hollywood and made an appearance in a movie as an extra, and this dog was obedient and sagacious. Though he loved this animal very much, he left the dog in Canada on his return to the UK, but his partial German shepherd heritage inspired Tomkies to get one of his own for his Scottish missions.

Tomkies didn’t know dogs. He tried to, but as I read the book, I kept wondering if he would ever understand what Moobli actually was. I laughed quite hard at his description of “Alsatians” as independent dogs, for I will tell you in all honestly that “independent” is one word I would not ascribe to this breed. I can only image what would have happened had Tomkies taken in a Siberian husky or some form of scenthound.

However, despite my reservations with Tomkies’s understanding of dogs, his honesty in the prose is almost refreshing. He confesses to hitting Moobli, even after he decides it is immoral, and he also is open about his abuse of alcohol and how lonely he becomes as the one man sage of this wilderness.

Moobli, though, is such a compelling figure. Moobli has loads of tending and warding off instinct. He finds many injured red deer and sheep on their long hikes into the wild. He also becomes a proficient tracking dog, tracing foxes to their earths and badgers to their setts.  That Moobli is able to figure out what Tomkies wants, even though Tomkies obviously had no clue how to train a dog, is a testament towards his German shepherd biddability and intelligence.

Moobli is also a contradiction. Though he is gentle with most sheep and red deer hinds and calves, he could be quite aggressive towards rams and stags that came to raid Tomkies’s sprout and cabbage patch.  Tomkies describes the great battle between Moobli and a garden raiding stage, which stands to fight the barking dog.

Further, Tomkies caught Moobli chasing a brown hare while on a visit to Southern England, and although he was able to call Moobli off, his predatory instincts are stimulated. On the returning to Scotland, Moobli gets after a roebuck, which he pursues into the water and kills in a most lupine way.

So the same dog that would tend a starving lamb or an abandoned red deer calf could also kill a roe deer on the run.

Tomkies is more angry at Moobli for the attack. He does not take the time to marvel in this profound contradiction that exists in dogs and humans and in all species that are social hunters. We can be gentle and tender, even loving, but we can also be so savage at times.

Moobli’s relationship with the various wildcats that Tomkies raised is also worth noting. Tomkies lived with wildcats in much the same way that Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived with wolves in Idaho. He really got to understand what a European wildcat truly was in its essence, and Moobli was an expert in tracking down the cats once Tomkies gave them liberty to roam in the wild.  He also was the gentle caretaker of any kittens that Tomkies raised in the house.

Moobli is a good dog. He is active and fit, and because of his great tracking prowess, he is the ultimate naturalist’s dog.  He can get on the track of the different species on command, tearing off after wildcats and ignoring badger and fox spoor and then tracking those beasts when his master gives the appropriate command.

He is also a superb retriever. Fetching many objects just based upon their name, and when one reads Tomkies’s description of teaching the dog to do a retrieve, it is obvious that he never heard of any kind of formal retriever training. He just points at the object and gives it a name, and Moobli deduces the object by his master’s “Nahs” and haranguing.

That this dog performed so well with such inexpert handling is truly remarkable. At one point, the dog figures out how to push Tomkies’s small boat to shore when the engine gives out. After trying to look for objects to retrieve,  he begins to push boat with his paws as he swam strongly in the water.

This dog is on the move. He swims several miles a day in the loch during the warmer months, and he also spends hours traveling over the mountains with Tomkies.  The photos of Moobli in the book reveal a faded out black and tan. The dog is a sort of homely creature. His ears don’t really stand properly, even though they were posted.  Judging from the photos, he is a hair fat, even though he does get this exercise, and I wonder how much venison and sausage that Tomkies was feeding him every day.

Despite his physical defect, Moobli’s temperament and proclivities are so typical of what the best of this breed has to offer. If only he had experienced a more careful hand to mold him, Moobli would have become an even more special dog than what he became.

I suppose that my difference with Tomkies is that I am a nature writer whose dogs have always been my conduit for exploring the natural world.  Tomkies is a nature writer who happens to like the odd dog that he finds useful. Tomkies does not take much time to understand the canine condition. It is always projected through his own very human nature.

The hardest part of the book is what comes at the end. In animal biographies, we know what happens. The animal dies.

And Moobli died of degenerative myelopathy. When he was going through the disease in the early 80s, we had poor understanding of the disorder. Tomkies describes one veterinarian who calls it “the Alsatian disease,” even though other breeds get it, and in those parts of the book, he conflates it a bit with an unrelated arthritis issue that Moobli also developed.

We now know the disorder is conferred by a recessive allele. The spine degenerates when the dog is in late middle age, and in our popular understanding of the disorder, we often see a conflation between this disease and hip dysplasia.  Not all dogs that are homozygous for the recessive allele get the disorder, but it is a big problem in the breed.

Tomkies had a hard time letting Moobli go. Swimming was superb exercise for the dog, and after several months dragging his rear, the dog winds up with massive shoulders.

Tomkies writes veterinarians all over the UK, hoping that one might have a the cure. The offer only new treatments. There was no cure then. There is no cure now.

He hits Moobli for defecating in the house when the disorder hits. That was the hardest part of the book to read, but Tomkies realizes that this lack of bladder control is a symptom of the disease.  He then rearranges the cottage for ease of cleaning.

For nearly a year, Tomkies keeps Moobli alive. It is only when the dog’s dragging tail becomes infected with bottlefly maggots that he decides to alleviate his suffering through euthanasia.

In the end, Tomkies realizes what a profoundly good dog he had, and in the epilogue, he admits that he has not purchased another dog. He says that he is too full of sorrow to get another, and if he did, it would have to be a very different sort of dog. I detect a bit of remorse about how he treated the dog at times, which is why Tomkies included such horrible images in his prose.

It is just as well, for wild creatures are Tomkies’s true muse.  He had a great dog, but he lacked the expertise to understand this creature and its true potential.

The end of the book is Tomkies describing his loneliness. His father has just passed in Spain. Various commercial interests are pressing hard on invading his wilderness. The townspeople are no longer amused by his wilderness activism.  No publisher will buy his manuscript, and he is stuck living in the converted sheep shed on Loch Shiel.  Moobli’s grave lies just below the cottage, and he is forced to remember what once was and never will be.

This is the true tragedy of the nature writer.  He is alone. There is mystery and romance about such an ascetic existence, but it is not all the beauty and the glory of the wildness.  It is recognizing that one can put one’s self in exiled existence that is hard to rectify.

And then not even have a dog to care for you.

 

 

 

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dare black and tan

The tan markigns have expanded. We now have then going up the shoulder and the hip. The blanket markings are easier to see at night when you shine a flashlight on her. You can see where they will eventually be delineated.

Yes, she has some grizzling on her back. That is to be expected in females of this type.

For comparison. Here is her on October 26.

way more black

 

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Wanting me to throw the ball.

seven months old dare

Getting ripped.

dare muscles

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dare wolfdog

One of the great controversies in the dog world is whether the German shepherd is a wolf dog. I will admit that I am agnostic on the subject. It might be, and one of the component regional German sheepdogs from which they were derived was rumored to have been crossed with wolves.

I have never been able to track down the exact truth of the wolf in the German shepherd, but I should note that lots of breeds have wolf in them and not all of them are as lupine in phenotype.  Several French griffon hounds, one of which was crossed into the otterhound, were mixed with wolf, because the French houndsmen believed such crosses were better hunters of wolves. The Plott hound is said to have at least one wolf crossed in at some point in its history, and various livestock guardian breeds, including those in Georgia and Turkey, are known to have wolf blood. And we know that Norwegian elkhounds and related Scandinavian spitzes have wolf ancestry, and some Russians have crossed their laikas with wolves, too.

In the annals of this blog, I have documented wolves being used in much the same way dogs have. I have documented wolf and dog crosses that proved useful as working and hunting animals.

So I am not at all unwilling to accept that German shepherds are wolfdogs. I just need proof. The GSDs that I have had tested with Embark have all come back with “low wolfiness” scores. “Wolfiness” is just the amount of ancient wolf DNA that a dog might possess, but it can also be indicative of some wolf crossed into the dog’s ancestry.

I have hear rumors that the original SV (Schäferhund Verein) studbooks do list wolves in foundational pedigrees of German shepherds, but I have not seen them.

I have come across this dog on Pedigree Database. The name “Wolf Rüde” translate as “Wolf Male Dog.”  Its pedigree is mysterious. The sire line is the typical tightly-bred sheepdog strains that are the basis of the breed. But the dam line is a mysterious creature called “Gerta Hündin.” The terms Hündin and Rüde mean “bitch” and “dog” in English. I cannot figure out who these dogs were, but the name of one of them is tantalizing in that it might be the name of an actual wolf in the foundational pedigree.

People have been breeding wolves to German shepherd ever since German shepherds became a breed. We have several off-shoot breeds that are wolf-German shepherd crosses. Only the Czechoslovakian wolfdog and the modern Russian Volksoby have shown any promise as being able to do the German shepherd’s job as a military dog. And they aren’t nearly as good at it.

I do know of a story of a first cross between a German shepherd and a wolf in Czechoslovakia that turned out to be a superior working animal. This dog apparently passed all requirements for breeding a German shepherd in that former country, and it even made it as a guide dog.  I have been unable to track down the full story of this dog, but it has always interested me in that this creature might be the hopeful monster that could have led to greater crossings between wolves and German shepherds in some working dog programs.

Also, we must tease apart some of the eighteenth and nineteenth century zoological ideas about sheepdogs and wolves. Buffon believed that sheepdogs of France were the closest to the wolf. I have even come across accounts of collies and what became border collies in which the author mentions how wolf-like the dogs are. In that sort of intellectual milieu, it is possible that someone might mis-translate or even get lost on a flight of fancy that these German herding dogs were wolves.

Further, it is one thing to have independent working dogs like scenthounds, hunting spitz, and livestock guardian dogs with wolf blood. It is quite another to breed a wolf to a herding dog, and it is even more to expect that herding dog with wolf ancestry to become an extremely biddable utilitarian working dog.

I will just say I want the evidence. I actually do want to believe that these dogs do have wolf in them, but the evidence is lacking– at least in English.

I am also fully aware that when the breed was introduced to the English-speaking world, there would have been a definite reason to downplay wolf ancestry in the dogs. Most of the English-speaking countries were major sheep producers, and in Australia and North America, wild canids were heavily hunted to make way for sheep husbandry.

So if anyone has the goods. Please let me know. I am certain that German shepherd blood has entered the wild wolf population in Europe. German shepherd makes up a large part of the street dog population in Eastern Europe, where there are still lots of packs of wolves.  We now know that the majority of Eurasian wolves have recent dog ancestry, and German shepherd blood course through the veins of some of these wolves.

It just isn’t clear to me that the introgression went the other way.

 

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Alsatian wolf dog

Australia is a place that has good reason to worry about invasive species. Invasive species have run amok across that continent and have done so even before European colonization.

It always makes me cringe when I hear a German shepherd dog referred to as an “Alsatian” or an “Alsatian wolfdog.”.   Yes, there is debate as to how much wolf is in this breed or if there is any wolf blood in them at all.  The only people who call them by this name live in parts of the former British Empire, which once shed blood by the millions against the German Empire in a truly senseless war.  However, the Germans did create this breed, but the jingoism of the times has led to that Alsatian name becoming fully fixed in some sectors of the English-speaking world.

And this led to a particular problem in Australia. Australia lived by sheep grazing. Anything that got in the way of sheep grazing.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Australia was quite concerned about the importation of the German shepherd into that country under the assumption that it was a high content wolf dog that would go feral and breed with dingoes. Adding that blood to the dingo would make them even more murderous on sheep, and major livestock interests pushed the Australian government into banning the importation of the breed. The state of Western Australia went even further with its Alsatian Dog Act of 1929, which require all dogs of the breed that had already been imported to be sterilized.

Robert Kaleski, Polish-Australian who wrote at length about dogs in that country in his Australian Barkers and Biters, had a definite bias against the breed. He believed the dogs were derived from German zoo wolves that were crossed with dogs. Kaleski’s parents were both from Poland, and they probably possessed a strong anti-German bias that was passed onto their son, which obviously may have tainted his views on them.  In his text, Kaleski was adamant that these dogs were wolfdogs, and they would be dangerous if allowed to mate with dingoes in the Australian bush.

We can debate about how much wolf is in a German shepherd, but one thing we cannot debate is what a German shepherd is primarily.  The German shepherd is a sheepdog, a sheepdog that was later re-fashioned into a military and police dog. But the dogs still possess strong herding instincts, and many are capable of managing stock.

Kaleski was a major chronicle of the Australian herding dog, including what became the kelpie and the Australian cattle dog. His knowledge of the practical uses of dogs was formidable.

But his erudition on dog origins left a lot to be desire. He was certain that dogs and red foxes could hybridize. He even devoted a whole section of his book to such nonsense, including a photo of a supposed dog-fox cross that looks a lot more like a border collie crossed with a terrier than anything else.  He was certain that dingoes and foxes were crossing in the wild in Australia, and that the dingo-fox was going to be a major agricultural threat as well.

Australia has since allowed the German shepherd in, and I’m absolutely certain that German shepherds have bred with dingoes in the wild. Dingoes are not unicorn creatures that maintain blood purity in the wild. They are feral primitive dogs that will cross with less feral and less primitive dogs whenever they meet them. “Pure” dingoes are almost nonexistent. I don’t think we can say that the scare-mongering lived up to reality. Dingoes and dingo-cross dogs do kill sheep, but nature has a way of selecting out those that would approach the German shepherd in size. Larger dogs require more red meat to survive in the wild, so it would be harder for them to thrive in a land mostly devoid of large prey.

And yes, classifying the dingo and how to handle dingo-domestic dog introgression are controversial topics, but even with our more nuanced understanding of taxonomy, it is difficult to see that importing the German shepherd into Australia led to massive pressures on the sheep industry.

Also, notice that the main concern of Kaleski and the various government entities of Australia was agricultural. They were not at all bothered by what such creatures might do to kangaroos or to other native animals. After all, he was writing at a time when settlers of Tasmania were wiping out the thylacine, an animal that was truly unique to the continent. I guarantee you that the idea of possibly setting up a conservation population of wild thylacines on Australia’s mainland would have as much an anathema to these people as the importation of the German shepherd.

Kaleski was living in a society that was running sheep in the British way. Once the Enclosure had cleared the land of most human inhabitants and the last wolves were finally killed off, sheep were left to graze in nearly wild conditions in parts of the British Isles. Some sheep became “hefted” to the land. The migrated over the mountains and moorland, possessing ancestral knowledge of where to go through the grazing year in much the same way wild sheep roam their mountain territories.

Australian sheep grazers did the same thing. It’s just when they did it, they had to deal with dingoes and thylacines.  They massacred the predators and built huge fences to hold them back.

However, if Kaleski had more knowledge of how Germans used sheepdogs, he would not have been as biased against the breed. German sheep grazers grazed on concessions that often lacked fences. The dogs moved the sheep and kept them in these grazing concessions. The sheep were tame, and the dogs used their large size and wolfy physiques to control the stock.

He may not have seen a use for such a dog in Australia, but he could have seen that it was a very useful herding dog in Europe and would not have joined in the fury that led to the German shepherd ban.

That Alsatian wolf-dog name has not served the breed well, and in the case of Australia, it almost led to its very extirpation from that country.

 

 

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We got our first real snow of the year today.  The German shepherds loved it. dare snow nose

Dare does the border collie stalk when playing firt pole.

dare does the border collie thing.jpg

creeper

Fetching her kong wubba in the driving snow.

dare fetching the snow

fetching quest and tuna

fetching quest.jpg

quest on the run

tuna in the snow ii.jpg

tuna in the snow

quest snow fun

Tuna is half American/half West German show lines that we have co-own with Quest’s breeder. Pending health testing, she will be bred to Quest, a breeding that could produce puppies that could definitely be shown in the AKC ring.

If you see her posted on here, she might be hard to tell apart from Dare because they are both roughly the same coloration and have similar pedigrees. But dare is significantly larger is built in that way that triggers so many keyboard warriors, while Tuna is much more moderate. The genes that make the type are different in American showlines vs German showlines, so when you cross them, you get pretty moderate puppies. The genes are still there, though, so when you breed them back, you can get the type again.

These dogs really love the snow, more so than the other breeds with which I am familiar. They aren’t even from a particularly cold country in Europe, but they have nice, thick coats that are quite functional for harsh conditions. They aren’t arctic breeds, but they are good cold country dogs.

 

 

 

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autumn dog

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