Archive for the ‘history’ Category

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My favorite dog painting

“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1565). It’s pretty appropriate for today.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder hunters in the snow

If you look closely the hunters and their motley assortment of hounds managed to bag a fox.

I initially thought it was a hare, but if you look closely, it has a long fox’s tail.

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persian greyhounds james ward

In the world of dogs, there is an obsession with claiming that one’s favored breed is of ancient ancestry.

It’s an obsession that gets somewhat silly whenever one tries to look at the claims using the historical record or genetic evidence.

For example, it is well-known that the drop-eared sighthounds that are found from North Africa through the Middle East to India and China are representative of a fairly old type.

However, they are not necessarily old breeds. That’s because these dogs never existed as a “breed” in the first place until Westerners got their hands on them, and the only reason why these breeds appear to be so ancient is because they remained outside Western dog population, which were notoriously mixed until the Victorians began turning them into breeds.

But you’ll often see claims that someone is preserving salukis or Afghan hounds by keeping them pure or keeping out “foreign’ colors.

They think they are preserving animals from an ancient bloodline that some less scientific people have claimed that Afghan hounds were the dogs that Noah put on his ark. The implication is that if one is breeding Afghan hounds, then you must be breeding the original “dog kind.”

But even those who don’t follow myths in the bible still think they are preserving an ancient breed, and they must follow the traditions, which means they think that these breeds have been pure for thousands of years.

They take the fact that this type of dog is really old and then superimpose upon it the Victorian “breed” concept, and in this bizarre syncretism, they create a fiction that by keeping these breeds pure and free of foreign of foreign color, they are preserving the strains.

It’s a bizarre fiction, but at least one can claim that this type of sighthound is pretty old.

But it’s not just with these breeds.

Take the Irish water spaniel. As far as I can tell, the dog we call the Irish water spaniel probably didn’t exist in its current form until the 1840’s, when a shooting sportsman from Dublin named Justin McCarthy began to select from the local water spaniel population. I think it’s very likely that the local strain of water spaniel had a lot the old rough water dog’s ancestry. The rough water dog was sort of the English variant of the French barbet and the German poodle, though it was a stockier dog, not unlike a Labradoodle.

Water spaniels certainly are an older type. They appear right through the late Medieval and Early Modern period in the British Isles, but to claim that the Irish water spaniel is the same thing as this dogs is a real stretch.

But that’s not where Irish water spaniel fanciers leave it. No, they go even further back. Using archaeological evidence of several skulls found in the 7 and 8th centuries in Ireland and during the late Stone Age and early Bronze Age in Central Europe, Irish water spaniel people have claimed that the old dog skulls represent Irish water spaniels!

Never mind that dog skull shape is one of the most variable features that the species possesses. One can see historical evidence of dog breeds developing entirely different skull through selective breeding. Almost anyone who has any knowledge of dogs knows that we have monkeyed with their skull shapes quite a bit. For example, the dogs Americans call Jack Rusell terriers and the AKC recognizes as Parson Russell terriers are actually the older form of fox terrier, which had mesocephalic skull. The wire and smooth fox terriers one sees in the ring have elongated muzzles, but their ancestors all looked like the dogs we call Jack Russells.

For this reason. claims about skull shape and ancestry in domestic dogs really don’t impress me much.

But that doesn’t stop people from making the claim.

Even if it is absurd.

But there is actually a reason for the claims of ancient origin.  This reason has two basic features:

One is that humans will follow tradition. There must be something innate in human nature that causes us to follow tradition. It certainly would have an evolutionary advantage for younger members of a family group to follow the guidance of their elders.

And if your elders know how to find food or make some useful tool, that’s a very advantageous behavioral adaptation.

But if your elders belief absolute nonsense, it’s not such a good adaptation.

Which is where the dog fancy gets mixed in.

People involved in dogs are intensely political, and there is a lot of jockeying for power within each breed club.

One way to get power in dog clubs is to have some claim that the way you’re doing things has something to do with the “original intent” of the breed. If you can bring up some historical facts or something like facts to back your case, people will listen to you. And if you question it, why should we listen to you?

So if you can claim that your dog is ancient and you’re doing something to preserve the it in its original form, you will become a sort of hero.

Most of these breed origin stories don’t hold up under careful scrutiny.

That’s because they really aren’t meant to be histories.

They are meant to be creation myths that orient the faithful into thinking a certain way and accepting certain strictures and values.

This is the real reason why so many people are so caught up on the story that their chosen breed is of ancient origin.

It’s not about the facts. It’s about the society surrounding that breed in modern times.






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dog art

As most of your correctly figured out from the signature, this is an Adolf Hitler work.

Hitler was a decent dog artist, as this page clearly shows.

He wasn’t a Rembrandt, but surely the world could have withstood another mediocre artist much more easily than the genocidal monster that came out of that art school rejection.

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One of the most bizarre breed origin stories claims that dachshunds came from Ancient Egypt.

I know this is an old theme on this blog, but I think I need to say it again:

Many  official breed histories are absolute bullshit.

Official breed histories are actually creation myths.

They orient the entire culture around the breed in question, for virtually all breeders use a sort “original intent” argument to justify what breed standards say and how they are interpreted.

Of course, this actually gives official breed historians an unbelievable amount of power over the breed.

So if an official historian wants a particular type of dog rewarded in the ring, the historian will promote that type of dog as the “original.”

I’ve done a bit of this on the blog, especially in the early days. I’ve since become a bit more nuanced, and I am open to greater diversity in type as being historically correct.

That’s actually a much healthier way of looking at all dogs, but as virtually everyone knows, dog shows and the dog fancy are not about diversity.

They are about conformity. They don’t call them diversity shows. They call them conformation shows. Conformation. Conformity.

So within official breed histories we have the corrupting forces of the origin myth and the power breed historians have to shape how dogs are bred.

And both of those forces have a tendency to Pravda-ize the way this histories are written.

Even the really good histories are like this. I really appreciate Richard Wolters’s historiography on the Labrador retriever, but I found it very breed blind and often dismissive of well-established historical facts– such as the close diplomatic relationship between Portugal and England/UK– for my taste. My biggest complaint is that he fails to realize that St. John’s water dogs were not Labrador retrievers as we know them today and that all the retrievers that were developed in Britain were derived from this stock– not just the Labrador retriever.

But if well-researched history can have these problems, sloppily researched ones are far worse.

And they are even for so if the sloppiness comes from some sort of conscious or subconscious agenda on behalf of the breed historian.

Chinese crested dogs probably have the worst example of this problem.

The official story says these dogs were carried on the Chinese junks. They were used for rodent control, and when the sailors were too far from land to get provisions, they ate these dogs.

Never mind that there virtually no evidence for this claim.

However, there is plenty of evidence that these dogs originated in the United States in the twentieth century.

But the official breed historians and virtually all fanciers of this breed still adhere– almost like barnacles– to the Chinese junk story.

It is a junk story. I will give them that.

The only one of these bogus breed origin stories that has been debunked and has also been accepted by the vast majority of the breed’s fanciers is the old story that golden retrievers are derived from Russian circus dogs.

Lord Ilchester, a nephew of Dudley Marjoribanks, 1st Baron Tweedmouth, discussed part of the family retriever studbook in an article in 1952 issue of Country Life. This story was picked up a golden retriever historian named Elma Stonex, and she published the results of her research in a book. In 1959, the Kennel Club accepted Lord Ilchester and Elma Stonex’s work as the official history for the breed. The dogs are derived almost entirely from yellow or reddish wavy-coated retrievers, which were then heavily outcrossed to black wavy and flat-coated retrievers.

And the bogus creation myth was put to rest.

One still runs into people who still think that golden retrievers are Russian or derived from Russian circus dogs. It’s still a much more romantic than the real one.

To make things more complicated, a large percentage of dog breeds are said to be of ancient origin, when they probably are not.

It would be cool to think that the pharaohs hunted with dachshunds or Great Danes, but it’s not likely.

And it’s not what the genetic evidence suggests.

Dog people should be more concerned with what the facts actually are.

Once we get grounded in objective reality in this area, we can have a discussion about objective reality in others.

But we can’t if everyone wants to believe things for no other reason than they sound cool.

So if you’re going to tell me the origins of a dog breed, please provide evidence that is backed up with some sort of scientific evidence.

Gleaning breed origins from historical accounts– especially those from ancient history– is a very dubious undertaking, and dog historians would be wise to be careful in assuming any ancient origin for any breed from a passage in some ancient parchment or inscription.

But if people can’t figure out the origins of Chinese crested dogs, what hope is there for breeds that are at least several hundred years old?

Not much.

People want to belief the folktale.

They want to worship their breed through the creation myth.

And in doing so they train their minds away from objective reality and trying to figure what is actually true.

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New Rule

If you’ve been asked to be removed from the e-mail list from this blog, it’s usually bad form to keep leaving comments.

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“Byrd Dogs”

From  National Geographic (January 2012):

Puppies pull a play sledge for the amusement of supply officer George Black during Richard E. Byrd’s first Antarctic expedition. They were the offspring of the 94 dogs originally brought along for transport on the journey—and would soon be the youngest residents of a part of the camp called Dog Town. “Oh Lord, all the perfumes in France couldn’t have rid Dog Town of its gamy aroma,” wrote Byrd in a book about his travels, Exploring With Byrd. (This photograph ran in his August 1930 account of the 1928-30 Antarctic trip for National Geographic.) “The air in the tunnels was thick enough not only to be cut with a knife; spiced with a dash of garlic from the bulbs that hung over Noville’s door, it could have been served as pemmican.”

—Margaret G. Zackowitz

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This photo was taken at some point in the late 1880’s.

Princess Alice,  Countess of Athlone, was Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.

Todya, we would call this particular dog a Jack Russell terrier, but if you called it by that name in the 1880’s, you’d be looked at as if you were some sort of moron.

The dogs that we call Jack Rusells that look like this dog are actually the old-type of fox terrier.

Smooth fox terrier did not always have the wedge-shaped heads, which is one of the best ways to tell a smooth fox terrier from a Jack Rusell.


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The topic is Derr’s new bookHow the Dog Became the Dog.

Lapham has carefully read this book, because he doesn’t just focus on the dog origin information that is the main focus of the text.

He gets Derr to discuss other parts of the book, which are just as interesting. They discuss (among other things) the origins of dog breeds– the “water curs of Newfoundland” caught my ears– and how the ancients used dogs in war.

Lots of good stuff.

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