Archive for June, 2009

One fly turtle


I hadn’t heard of the Fly River turtle until today. I first thought it was a small sea turtle.

Well, it’s not. It’s a river turtle, and one that is highly evolved for the life aquatic.

They are native to Fly River in Papua New Guinea, but it also found in the Northern Territory of Australia, where it is called the pig-nosed turtle.

It was somewhat common in the pet trade, but it is best kept by experienced turtle keepers. It can be aggressive towards other turtles and is difficult to keep several of them in the same tank. Further, it is illegal to export them from their native countries, and very few have been bred in captivity. Smuggling the eggs has become a major threat the survival of the species.

I had never heard of this turtle until today, and I certainly am impressed with this species. I hope that its numbers increase in captivity and that it can be available to appropriate homes.

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Yes, those are baby Virginia opossums.This time of year, it is not unusual to see a mother opossum trotting along the side of the road with her joeys hanging all over her back.

They are truly a bizarre species. They are the only marsupial found north of the Rio Grande, and their range continues to spread northward. (To read more about them, see my post on Retrieverman).

Before kangaroos were introduced to parts of Europe, the Virginia opossum was the only marsupial located in the Holarctic biogeographical region. Unlike most other mammals in North America, Virginia opossums do not have an undercoat, and their toes, tail tips, and ears often get frostitten during the coldest winters. Their main adaptation to the cold is their very thick layer of fat that they have located just beneath their skins. It is like blubber for a marine mammal.

Most Americans are repulsed by the very idea of eating them. I certainly am. I also know of no one who eats them, and I live in West Virginia, where the sterotype is of a hillbilly eating road-killed opossums. However, they are eaten in some areas, and when they are consumed, they are not killed and eaten immediately. Instead, the hunters collect the opossum alive and keep it in cage for a few weeks, feeding it table scraps. The reason why this is done is because some opossums have a very strong taste for carrion, and carrion supposedly makes the flesh unpalatable.

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From LindsayandLumi

The dog’s name is “Laddie,” and to be honest with you, if I had the time to really give a true working strain retriever the life it deserves, I would be looking for one very similar to him. He’s lightly built and lightly feathered, and he’s biddable and full of drive. He’s got lots of style and is very eager to take direction. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s of my favorite shade of red gold.

Laddie is being trained somewhat unconventionally for a working retriver (at least in North America). His owner maintains a blog about Laddie’s progress as he trains him, as well as  that of another working golden named “Lumi.”

I still think the way we trial and test retrievers leads to an under-utilization of the breed’s talents. They are very good at finding marks that have fallen in heavy cover, and they naturally quarter in long casts like a setter or spaniel.  They are superior upland game dog, and probably wouldn’t do poorly at a British battue.  And while you can train one as a Labrador or a Chesapeake, their real talents lie elsewhere.

Of course, there is no other gun dog breed that has so consistently produced dogs that have competed at the highest levels of obedience and other dog sports as the golden.  That’s actually why I got started in them. Their reputation as being very intelligent and easily trained dogs got me interested in them as a boy, and the first one I got was no disappointment.

But as time has progressed, mass-production breeding, backyard breeding, and fad breeding have led to a great deal of degradation in golden retrievers. This degradation has been exacerbated with a narrowing of the breed’s gene pool through the extensive use of just a few sires. This narrowing gene pool has then been even more stratified as the breed has split into show and working strains.

Because of all of these factors, you now really have to hunt for a good one. It’s not as difficult as finding a working Sussex spaniel, but it’s much harder than finding a good Labrador or Chesapeake.

So my heart is with the working golden, and my hope is that it can be preserved with a sustainable gene pool. Otherwise, these dogs will follow the St. John’s water dog or the Tweed water spaniel into extinction.

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The oldest modern breed standard that I can find is the 1879 Dachshund standard.

Most breed standards are limit the “correct” conformation for their respective dog breeds. However, if you look at the Dachshund standard (FCI), you’ll notice that there are three coat types and three sizes ( The “rabbit” and miniature sizes are combined in the Anglo-Saxon registries.) Dachshunds cannot be piebald or solid white, black, liver, or gray, but other than that, they come in virtually every color.

So the dachshund standard really didn’t limit this breed’s conformation. It merely circumscribed it. And within that circle, some diversity was allowed.

And long-haired dachshunds are different from short-hairs and wire-hairs, which are different from each other.  A 25 pound long-hair is more of a spaniel, while an 8 pound wire-hair is going to be more of a terrier.

And yet these dogs are all one breed.

Now, interbreeding coat types isn’t done. If you cross a long-hair and wire-hair, you won’t get a coat type that breeds true. You’ll get an interesting coat, but not one that can be classified very easily.

Sizes are interbred, but because breeders want to be able to predict size in their litters, this is almost never done.

And while it’s true that the fancy has produced bizarrely short-legged and long-backed dachshunds, the original standard allowed for diversity. The current standard does allow for more diversity– much more than you’d get in a golden retriever or a Bedlington terrier standard.

So maybe if we really want to improve breed standards, we take look at the first one and consider how important diversity in type really is. After all, the reason why dachshunds come in three sizes is because of their expected quarry. A bigger dog will go after badgers. A mid-size one will go after foxes. And a little one will take on a rabbit.

And maybe allowing for a little more diversity will allow for a little healthier gene pool in all of our breeds.

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We’ve had a coup at this year’s World’s Ugliest Dog Competition.

This is the first year in a very long time that the winning dog was not a Chinese crested or a Chinese crested cross.

This year’s winner was a boxer cross named Pabst.

Pabst has a distinctly undershot bite, which I’m sure got him points with the judges.

But undershot jaws aren’t merely the realm of bulldog types.

My first golden had a slightly undershot bite, which isn’t that uncommon in working lines of golden retriever. It didn’t really affect her ability to carry things in her mouth, so I never worried about it. In the show ring, having a bite like this is considered a terrible fault.

Of course, that’s in the Sir Bufton and Sir Tufton world of conformation shows.

At the Sonoma-Marin Fair, an undershot bite seals the deal.

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golden retriever bear

I have never understood certain fads in purebred dogs, especially in dogs with which I have a great deal of familiarity.

I’ve never understood why breeders think it’s cool to breed retrievers that don’t retrieve. I also never understood why you would have a breed called a golden retriever and then do everything in your power to breed the golden color out of it.  Hey, I’m not a dog show person.

I’m also not into fad pet dogs.

So I’ve never understood why I see golden retriever and Labrador dogs offered for stud in the local paper described as possessing the following assets:

1. Big dog (100 plus pounds)

2. Blocky head

3. Heavy bone

Not a single one of those is functional to a working retriever. Very blocky headed dogs often lack muzzle depth to hold a bird properly (That’s one reason why the Newfoundland dog is no longer used as a retriever.) A big dog can overheat far faster than a smaller one, and dogs with lots of excessive bone aren’t agile or efficient movers.

I’m coming to the conclusion that the average pet retriever owner would like to have a dog that looks like a bear, rather than a functional working dog.

Of course, that’s okay.

However, it means that I have to sort through lots of dogs with this type in order to find a decent working dog. It also means that the lines that have a more natural head and body are going to be little less genetically diverse.

So while the “bear goldens” are cute (and they certainly are as puppies), they really aren’t exactly what is needed in a working dog.

Now, my ideal dog isn’t cute. It’s rustic and functional. It looks a bit like it belongs on in Edwardian shooting scene or on a ranch in Montana or the Dakotas. It’s a good natured dog, but it’s entirely without exaggeration.

If you want a dog that really looks like this, it exists. It’s a very trainable and good natured breed– in fact, it’s from that same root stock. It’s called the Newfoundland. You can also go for Leonberger, if you want one with tawny coat. (Of course, Leonbergers and FCI Landseers are closer to retrievers in their builds).

But in a working retriever, you really don’t need a dog with a bear’s conformation. All you have to do is watch a Newfoundland dog swim, and you’ll see why.

I have nothing against Newfoundland dogs. It’s just that, as a retriever person, I find that they lack speed and style in the water. They remind me of a big heavy draft dog that incidentally has water dog ancestry.  And that’s probably what they are. A good retriever can swim circles around a Newfoundland, but in a weight pull, I’d definitely put the Newfoundland on top.

Because Newfoundlands are in a different breed group than retrievers, comparisons between the two aren’t given enough attention. The truth is I find them really interesting. They descend from almost exactly the same stock, but they have evolved in such different ways. The bear-like conformation probably works for the Newfoundland, although I suspect that water dog trial purists prefer FCI Landseers or Leonbergers. That conformation definitely doesn’t work for the retrievers, for you want more style and speed in the water.

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What the hell!

In case you didn’t know, you can get one for free.

However, if you’re training a working retriever, I don’t recommend using sticks.

Sticks are hard for a dog to grip properly, so many dogs grip the sticks rather hard.

That’s a very good way to get the habit of hard mouth started.

Now, if you’re training your cat to fetch, sticks aren’t so bad.


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The answer is yes.

After all, most dogs are brachycephalic when compared to the wolf and other wild dogs. Short muzzles are a diagnostic of a domestic dog.

However, when we breed for healthy conformation, brachycephalic dog breeds are going to have to have some muzzle– enough for the all the teeth, tongue, and soft palate. One of the reasons why these dogs have so much trouble breathing and cooling themselves is they don’t have enough room for their tongues and soft-palate. The tissue in the soft palate winds up obscuring the trachea, and that prevents air from flowing. In a dog, that also prevents the animal from effectively cooling itself.

So when we evnetually get around to correcting breed standards, we are still going to have bulldogs, pekes, bostons, and Frenchies. It’s just that they are going to have a bit more muzzle.

And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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I believe I can identify the mystery “deer” that was mentioned on the Fortean Zoology blog. It’s not a deer at all.  Instead, I think it is the creature featured below.


I think it’s a female steenbok. (Compare with this close-up. And this one.)

Female steenbok.

Female steenbok.

Steenbok are a common game species that are often taken by big game hunters. They are native to areas that were easily accessed by Europeans during colonialism, and even today, sport hunters take them.

If it’s not a steenbok, then it is an oribi, which is a somewhat larger antelope. It has a larger distribution in Africa, but I think the typical oribi has more white on its face than the typical steenbok. That’s why I’m wagering that it’s a steenbok.

However, old taxidermied specimens don’t often have all of the identifying marks of the living animal. My guess is that this animal had larger ears when it was alive. Some of the less arid races of steenbok have smaller ears.

I don’t think it’s a gray or common duiker, because the head shape is all wrong. The female common duikers have black marks on their heads, which demarcate scent glands. The red forest duiker lacks the lighter marks around the eyes, and it also has the wrong head shape. All the other red or reddish duikers have rather longer faces than this specimen does. I don’t think any have those lighter marks around the eyes.

So the “deer” is actually some species of small antelope from Africa– most likely a steenbok (which is not to be confused with what the Dutch call a “Steenbok”– that’s an ibex.)

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The black and tan coonhound descends from crossing the old black and tan foxhound with a bloodhound.

The black and tan coonhound descends from crossing the old black and tan foxhound with a bloodhound.

As a boy, I often heard stories about a black and tan foxhound that belonged to my grandfather. My grandfather said there was an actual strain of foxhound that was black and tan. It was distinct from the Walker and Trigg strains of American foxhound, and it was not the same thing as the black and tan coonhound, although he always thought they were relatives.

Well, I decided to peruse the lore of the local hounds, and it turns out that there was a distinct strain of black and tan foxhound that was common from the colonial period into the middle part of the twentieth century. The black and tan coonhound is derived from this black and tan foxhound, which was crossed with bloohounds to make a heavier dog with a better scenting ability.

Now, I did not seen a “show-type” black and tan coonhound until I was much older. The working strain and trial coonhounds I saw where I grew up were very foxhound-like. They were only slightly heavier in the ear and body than the best working foxhounds. It didn’t take much imagination to see the relationship between the coonhounds and foxhounds.

As far as I know, the black and tan foxhounds have disappeared or have been absorbed into other strains of working foxhound. I sometimes see the odd tricolored foxhound with the tan “kissmarks” of the black and tan, and I wonder if maybe that dog might have a touch of the old black and tan ancestry.

My grandpa crossed his black and tan foxhound with a farm collie, and that cross produced a superior varmint dog.  It was well-known in both Britain and this country that an excellent multipurpose hunting dog could be produced by crossing a foxhound with a collie. And this dog certainly was. He flushed grouse and squirrels, treed raccoons and gray foxes, and ran deer and red foxes toward his gun.

In my part of the world, people didn’t waste time with blood purity very much (at least in dogs), unless someone bought a foxhound or “bird dog” from a magazine. The typical hunting dog of the small farmer was a generalist that could work several different game species. If the dog could also bring in the sheep and milch cows, then he was certainly of even greater utility.

The demand for purebred dogs in this part of the world was far behind the rest of the country, but when that demand arose, the local multipurpose dogs soon found themselves out of favor. People wanted collies like lassie and thoroughbred coonhounds and foxhounds. Nobody wanted the old cur, feist, “rabbit biggle,” or farm collie.

Or so it seemed, but even today, I can see dogs that are of these strains lounging near remote farmhouses. Not everyone gave up on these dogs. There are a stubborn few who keep them. Sadly, I’ve yet to see a single dog of that  black and tan foxhound strain.

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