Posts Tagged ‘wolf-dogs’

Chien gris de St. Louis. A type of large French griffon hound from the sixteenth century.

I came across this interesting account of a French noble using wolf blood to improve the hunting instinct of his wolf hounds.  The following text comes from Wolf-hunting and wild sport in lower Brittany (1875) by Edward William Lewis Davies :

I was fortunate enough that night to sit next to the Count de Kergoorlas at dinner; and hearing he was a master of wolfhounds in Upper Brittany, I gleaned from him some interesting information with respect to the style of hound he considered best adapted for his particular sport.

“A big, bold, broken-haired hound is what I keep for the work; and occasionally I invigorate the race,” said he, “with a strain of wolf-blood.”

“And how, pray,” I inquired, “do you manage that?”

“Nothing is more simple. The dog and the wolf being congeners they breed readily together; nor does the law affecting mules affect the hybrid race, as the offspring of the first cross reproduce their litters with the same facility. I keep a dog-wolf brought up by hand; and he, suckled in infancy by a hound dam, lives in perfect concord with any hounds I think fit to enclose with him in his kennel; while a day or two reconciles a strange hound to his company.”

“And do you find the first cross,” I asked, “as manageable in chase as your ordinary hounds?”

“Far from it,” he replied; “insomuch that I only keep that produce to breed from. They usually run mute or all but mute, and are so self-willed in chase and so fierce in kennel, that I merely use them as stud hounds, and enter the second cross. These, the grand-offspring of the wolf, become rare wolf-hounds, fierce, fine-nosed, desperate in chase, and never tiring during the longest day. But, to be candid, they have one great fault: they are too shy of their tongue; nor can this defect be bred out for several generations, although tonguey hounds are especially chosen for the purpose of every cross. The old nature of the wolf appears and reappears, and no device of human ingenuity can pitchfork it away.”

I have since learned in my own country, from that keen and experienced sportsman, Mr. Waldron Hill, who brought over several couples of these hybrid hounds from the Department of Eure, and whose object it was to enter them as otter-hounds, that they had at least one other fault, which he found utterly ineradicable, in fact, the old wolf coming out again in them. They would kill sheep; and, as he justly remarked, that to hunt the sheep was a far more expensive amusement than hunting the otter, he hanged the whole of them. In the Count’s country, however, this vice would not be observable, as there flocks of sheep are not found depastured abroad and roaming at will on a thousand hills, as in this more favoured land (pg. 25-26).

This is not the first time I’ve encountered stories of people crossing wolves and dogs to produce a superior hunting animal.  Henry Wharton Shoemaker described the exact same thing happening in Pennsylvania, and it has always been claimed that the various types of cur, particularly the Catahoula and Lacy dog, have a bit of wolf ancestry.  Several reindeer-herding and hunting spitz breeds from Finland and Scandinavia have also been found to have some wolf blood.

The hound described in the text is some sort of griffon, which is why someone tried to pass some of them off as otterhounds. Otterhounds do have some blood from the French griffon hounds, especially the Griffon Nivernais.

It’s not entirely clear if any modern hounds that derive from these French hybrid wolf hound packs.

It’s certainly possible, but one should not necessarily assume that all of these are wolf dogs in the same way as the Saarlooswolfhond.

However, this account is yet another example of humans using wolf blood to improve working dog stock.

And it’s also one of the reasons why I don’t use Canis familiaris as the scientific name for domestic dogs. That name assumes that it is a true species.

But the truth is it is nothing more than a very successful subspecies of Canis lupus.

And there have always been relatively significant amounts of gene flow between both wild and domestic Canis lupus populations.

Whether we want to admit it or not.






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All black wolves that have been examined in modern times have been found to be dominant blacks. The dominant black mutation first originated in domestic dogs and was transmitted through crossbreeding between wolves and dogs. However, there is at least one record of a wolf that was carrying recessive black.

Recessive black is most commonly found in German and Belgian shepherds. It can also be found in pulik, Samoyeds, schipperkes. Shetland sheepdogs, and the so-called “American Eskimo dog,” which is actually an American variant of the German spitz.

It’s one of two ways that a dog can be solid black, but it’s far less common than dominant black.

The mutation that causes dominant black originated either in dogs or the wolf population that became dogs, because the mutation is older in domestic dog populations than in wolves. This black coloration wasthen transmitted to Italian and New World wolves through cross-breeding with domestic dogs.  All wolves that have been examined in North America thus far have turned out to be dominant blacks, as have those in Italy.

However, there was at least one case of a wolf carrying recessive black in the literature.

The Soviet zoologist and dog expert N.A. Iljin carried out several experiments crossing various dogs with wolves. In 1941, he reported on the progeny of a male wolf that was bred to a female mongrel sheepdog.  In the first litter, there were black and “zonar gray” (wild wolf gray puppies). If the dog in question were a dominant black, then the entire litter would have been black, but getting gray puppies suggested a very different conclusion.

After breeding from the offspring for several generations, Iljin discovered that the black was being inherited as a recessive allele, which means the dog in question was a recessive black– and the wolf was a carrier!

Now, results of Iljin’s study have been used to show that wolves carried recessive black from the beginning.

However, since the time of Iljin’s work, no one has found a recessive black wolf.  The team of geneticists at UCLA have found only dominant black in wolves.

So it’s possible that this wolf was not actually “pure,” and at some point, one of its ancestors was a recessive black dog. I would not be surprised if someone had crossed a recessive black German shepherd into captive Russian wolves at some point. Iljin himself was very much into breeding German shepherds to wolves, and his studies on wolf and German shepherd morphology are pretty much classic literature for those interested in wolves and dogs.

So maybe recessive black did exist in certain Old World wolves from the beginning, but it’s just not been confirmed in the genetic literature in the same way that dominant black has.

I don’t know of another species besides Canis lupus that has two separate genetic variants for melanism. Coyotes have inherited dominant black from breeding with either dogs or wolves, and golden jackals and Ethiopian wolves could also inherit both types of melanism through similar hybridization.

So it’s very interesting that we have this one case of a wolf carrying recessive black, but we need more information to see where this color came from.

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A study suggests that some Norwegian elkhounds and other Scandinavian and Finnish spitz-type dogs have recent wolf ancestry.

A reader named Margaret sent me a link to this study.

The study came out in May 2010, but I missed it.

This is an mtDNA study, which found that a particular haplogroup called d1 was most common in a certain group of dogs– the reindeer herding spitzes and the hunting spitz breeds of Scandinavia and Finland.

It can be found in all Scandinavian and Finnish spitz breeds, but in the elkhounds and the reindeer herding spitzes, it is very common. In the breeds sampled, 60 to 100 percent of these dogs had this haplogroup.

The origin of that haplogroup was traced to wolf and dog hybridization that happened 480 to 3,000 years ago.

Peter Savolainen was involved in the study, and Savolainen is best known for his findings that suggest all dogs were derived from southern Chinese wolves that were domesticated 16,000 years ago. (This finding has been challenged recently. I have a short piece in The Bark about it.)

The original purpose of the study was to see whether Scandinavia could be a potential area of wolf domestication.  Of course, one must be willing to accept Savolainen’s methodolgy and general acceptance that domestication happened only once.

But it is an interesting find, for it suggests that there always was a gene flow between domestic and wild C. lupus. We are finding more and more evidence of this as time goes on. The fact that there isn’t much of one right now doesn’t mean that this has always been the case.

What is also of interest that hybridization between wolves and dog gave these particular animals some selective advantage over other dogs in the population. One wonders what that advantage might have been. Perhaps it was simply heterosis. Maybe it made it easier for them to survive harsh weather conditions. Perhaps it made it easier for these hybrids to compete with other dogs for mates.

Now, one must be careful reading too much into this study, for one of the reasons why our understanding of the exact time and place of dog domestication is that it happened a very long time ago. It is further complicated with the influx of wild wolf genes.

And that is further complicated with the influx of dog genes into the wolf population. (See the recent finding on black wolves for the most notorious example. Also see the sudden appearance of dewclaws on the hind legs of some Italian wolves for another.).

It is because of findings like this one about Scandinavian and Finnish spitzes that I am very cautious about thinking of dogs and wolves as separate species.

I think it is far wiser to think of them as part of an unusually diverse species.

This diversity has allowed C. lupus to survive and even thrive with the success of our species. I know of no other large carnivore that has so benefited from this thing we call civilization.

Think of all the other large carnivores, and every single one of them exists at only a small fraction of their former glory.

Domestic C. lupus has been successful where others have vanished.

And that is something remarkable.


The best analysis of how this process may have happened is found in this essay by Mark Derr.

I have always had skepticism about the view that dogs are nothing more than degenerate wolves that evolved to live off of our waste.

It’s a popular view. It is easy to explain, and it even makes for a compelling narrative for a television documentary.

However, the real process that happened is far more complex than can be explained in a forty-five minute documentary.


So are we now going to call Norwegian elkhounds wolf hybrids?

I doubt it.

But it something to keep in mind.

I’m never going to look at a Norsk elghund in the same way again.

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