Book Review – Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs

Citizen Canine

I can honestly say this is one of the best books about dogs and cats I have ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them!) This book takes on a subject matter that is often touched on in books and articles, but rarely the main focus – pets in society.  More specifically, it analyzes how society’s view of pets has evolved as society itself has evolved.

The book is divided into three sections: “Family” – which outlines how dogs and cats came to be domesticated, “Person” – which explains how the animal welfare revolution brought about changes in animal cruely laws and created groups like the ASPCA, and “Citizen” – which tells of the ongoing legal issues that modern day dogs and cats (and their guardians) are fighting.

Now, most of us dog lovers are at least somewhat familiar with the theories of how dogs and cats went from being wild creatures to living in our homes…so that first section wasn’t really anything special.   The second section, “Person”, is where things really start to get interesting.  It is hard to believe that what we take as common sense respect of animals – the fact that you can’t abuse your pet, for instance – was once political debates.  It was fascinating to read about the legalities of something like this.  To me, these principles are obvious it seems ridiculous that at some point our legal system had to spell them out…yet, in a court of law, if a dog was considered your “property”, why couldn’t you do whatever the heck you wanted with/to it?   Also included in this section were detailed accounts of what happened to pets left behind when New Orleans was evacuated for Katrina and the ongoing efforts to care for them.

“Citizen” really dove into the current state of pets in our legal system – of course it touched on the whole pit bull issue, but also describes how the  field of veterinary medicine has transformed as pets become more like family and less like animals.  He shares court cases where dog mothers and fathers have sued their vets for far above what the animal is actually worth.  Well – in the word “actually”, we get to the heart of the matter.  Would you really say your dog is “actually” worth only what you paid for it?  (You wouldn’t, of course, but what would a court of law say??)  I found all of this incredibly interesting and something that I had never read about before.

I think one of the reasons this books stands out in its genre is the author.  David Grimm (check out his website here) obviously has an amazing analytical, scientific mind.  (And I’m not just saying that because I know he is the online news editor for Science!)  He takes on the topic of pets in our life with as much seriousness as he does when discussing biochemistry.  It is obvious he did extensive research when writing this book – I love how many personal stories of dog and cat lovers he tells.  Grimm writes with a scientific brain and a cat-loving heart.

Have I convinced you to read this book yet?   I said it before…and I’ll say it again – I loved this book!  It is a well written, fascinating read with interesting personal accounts as well as pet related historical facts.  It will help you understand more about our human society by examining the way we have and continue to view our pets.  It will make you think…and help you understand more about that furry creature that has found his way into your home and your heart.

A Presidential Hound – The American English Coonhound

The American English Coonhound might have only been formally recognized by the AKC last year, but their origins can be traced back to hounds brought to America by settlers as early as the 1600.  It’s seems fitting to be discussing this breed on Presidents’ day, as the American English Coonhound developed from “Virginia Hounds” imported to these United States by (among others) our first President, George Washington.  (Across the pond, they were known as English Foxhounds.) This breed can be described as loyal, athletic, loud, never shy, super smart, and energetic.

American English Coonhound - one good lookin' hound dog!

Sounds great!  So you want an American English Coonhound as a pet?  Well, you better be willing to provide high levels of exercise….and LOTS of attention.  And LOTS of exercise.  I found it amusing that a few sources warn against getting this breed as a pet if you are a person who does not want to have your pooch on your furniture or in your bed…as they are “incessant nesters.”  They are great pets, but might not be for you if you already have a small animal in your family.  They have a “strong instinct” to hunt.  In other words, don’t let them off leash if there are squirrels or kitties about!

An American English Coonhound "Treeing"

That strong instinct is what makes this breed (like most hounds) so popular with hunters.  That nose of theirs can track big and small animals alike.  I read about them hunting everything from raccoons to bears, foxes to deer, cougars to your neighbor’s cat.  Maybe the most interesting thing I learned when researching the American English Coonhound is that this breed is used for “treeing.”  Treeing is a method of hunting where a dog chases an animal up into a tree and does not stop barking until the hunter has shot the (poor!) animal down.  The American English Coonhound is tenacious (their main health problem they have is overheating due to the face they have a hard time pacing themselves.) Sometimes  they just won’t let up – even when they are mistaken and there is no prey….or the prey has jumped to another tree.  This is where the expression “barking up the wrong tree” comes from.  You learn something new every day!

Now that you’ve read up on just what it takes to be accepted into the American Kennel Club, you might be interested to know that the American English Coonhound joined the Miscellaneous Class on January 1, 2010 and official became part of the AKC’s hound group on June 30, 2011 (as the 171st breed.)

2012 Westminster Dog Show's American English Coonhound Best of Breed - GCH Alexanders Color Me Bad Ginn

Possibly the PERFECT Pet – (The Story of the Vizsla)

Before working with dogs professionally, I was relatively unfamiliar with the Vizsla.  I did have one friend, older than the rest of our circle, who got a dog (a Vizsla) as a substitute for the family he wanted.  (He was a sweet guy, but he just couldn’t find it in him to commit to more than a dog.)  He took that dog with him EVERYWHERE (as you can only do in NYC) and dressed her in hats, shirts, coats, costumes…whatever he could find.  He made YouTube videos featuring her and posted endless pics on social media.  All I could think was “That is one sweet, patient dog.”

Not long after I met another Vizsla, Sadie.  She came to my dog daycare every day.  We all called her “Sweet Sadie” because she was just that.  Never barked, rarely played (she was an older pooch)…she was affectionate and well mannered.  A perfect dog.

So, Vizslas!  I don’t think they are as popular as the lab, and I don’t think they are as well known as the retriever.  They are a fascinating breed, though, and ideal pets for family life.

Vizslas originated in Hungary, and stone etchings confirm they have been kept as pets for over a thousand years.  As Hungarians at this time lived a nomadic life, these dogs were not just companions but herded and guarded livestock, tracked wild animals, and hunted (often alongside falcons.)  In other words, they were essential to human survival. Later, Vizlas would accompany lords and barons when they hunted for sport.  They were such a sign of aristocracy, it wasn’t until 1825 (when breed standards were established and Vizslas were named the Official Pointing Dogs of Hungary) that non-nobles were permitted to own them.

So you know that they are a competent noble  breed, but what makes them good pets?  Well, first of all, they are gentle mannered and extremely loyal.  They are quiet  and affectionate.  They are great with children.  Best of all (as if you didn’t already think they were the perfect dog!) they are incredibly easy to train – both in basic obedience and hunting.

If you are lazy and don’t want to spend any time with your dog, the Vizsla is not for you.  These dogs want to be outside hiking and biking.  They are intelligent, so they need to be stimulated.  They will not be content to sit inside and watch tv all day, and they will not be happy to be left alone much of the time.  (I am the same way myself!)

I have always been drawn to this breed.  I think they are amazingly beautiful creatures and (while I know it is a dangerous game to make assumptions about an entire breed off a handful of examples) I have never met a Viszla who wasn’t he absolute sweetest, most gentle and loving creature.

So, I’m curious.  What do you think of Vizslas….are they the perfect pet?

Book Review: Dogs by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger

Enter any book store or library, and you are sure to find no shortage of dog books. My problem with many of these books is that they are long, drawn out, and extremely oversimplified. They spend page after page spelling out information that you could have just as easily gotten from a 5 minute Google session. Look for something more in depth, though, and you might soon find yourself reading behavioral or biological studies on the present day dog…using vocabulary that has you frustrated, confused, and reaching for that Cutest Puppies picture book instead.

Dogs, by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, is the perfect middle ground. This book had me hooked by the time I finished the introduction. By using scientific terminology and referencing evolutionary theories, I felt like I was actually learning something. The authors’ casual writing style and simple explanations kept me from getting confused. Raymond and Lorna go into details about how a dog’s brain works – how it grows, how it learns, how it is wired. They also spend many pages analyzing exactly what kind of relationships we have with dogs. Who is benefiting who….and why we probably should not consider ourselves dog’s best friend.

In the book, dogs are broken into five different categories – modern household dogs, village dogs, livestock-guarding dogs, sled dogs, and herding dogs. The reader is then given a comprehensive look on the physical and mental aspects of each of these categories. As someone who deals exclusively with household dogs, I have somewhat limited knowledge of “working” dogs…and virtually no knowledge at all of sled dogs.  I was blown away at the details given – everything from how sled dogs are raised, to why certain breeds do (or don’t) make good sled dogs, to the physics of how dogs are harnessed to maximize their speed.  It was truly fascinating while not being so detailed that I lost interest.

Ray & Lorna Coppinger

The Coppingers also have strong feelings about purebred dogs – feelings that I completely agree with.  “I believe the modern household dog is bred to satisfy human psychological needs, with little or not consideration of the consequence for the dog.”  Some modern household dog breeds, they explain, have been bred for their aesthetic looks alone – and have become unhealthy, almost cartoonish versions of their ancestors.  (They – like many people today – cite the bulldog as the number one example of this.) I also agree with the authors in their opinion that working dogs should never be pets.  People love the way these dogs look…but have no idea how ingrained these dogs’ “working” behavior actually is.

The most fascinating part of this book, though, is the chapter devoted to the dogs of Pemba.  In a quest to discover just how wolves evolved into dogs…and the relationship humans and dogs had during this evolution, the authors studied the people and pups on this fairly primitive island.  The island’s residents live in villages and are hunters and gatherers.  The dogs are isolated enough so that there aren’t  new genes being introduced each generation.  This chapter was AMAZING.  Reading about how people benefit dogs (living with dogs in their midst, but not as pets) and how the dogs live as “wild” animals….it was just an incredibly captivating read.

So, if you couldn’t tell, I loved the book and highly recommend it to every dog lover – whether you are looking for something to help you better understand your own pooches origin and thought process or you have a more scientific brain and really want some detailed biological research.

And don’t worry….scattered amid the science mumbo-jumbo are the quite a few of those cute puppy pics!

So Ugly They’re Cute! (The story of the Bulldog)

So here is what you do know (especially if you took a gander at this week’s Wags & Whiskers Wednesday) – bulldogs are cute.  That’s where the education stops with most bulldog admirers.  This breed, though, has a surprisingly interesting history…one which if you know a bulldog personally, you might find hard to believe.

For the longest time I wondered “Where the HECK did the name ‘bull’dog come from?”  Obviously I realized it must have something to do with bulls, but I wasn’t sure what.  Then I heard of bull baiting.  It’s just as horrible as it sounds.  A bull was tethered, bulldogs released, and the dog that pinned the bull won.  (Don’t even think about what happened to the dogs that didn’t win.)  This is when the bulldog acquired his stout body and big head; people bred them for these qualities (along with an aggressive temperament) solely for the purpose of attacking bulls.

“Ok…ok…” you’re thinking.  “That does not sound like the happy-go-lucky bulldogs that I know!”  Well, over the years this English bulldog was cross bread with the pug.  This is how the bulldog got shorter and wider…and more importantly a lot nicer.

In the past five years, bulldogs have rapidly gained popularity, and are now in the top 10 most popular breeds (according to the AKC.)    They were recognized as a breed by the AKC way back in 1886 and until recently, peaked in popularity in 1915.

So why does everyone want a bulldog now?

It seems we have become enamored by that easily recognizable face and easy-going attitude towards just about everything.  They are great with kids.  They don’t need a lot of exercise.  They can easily adapt to every environment.  They are an all around great breed to have around!  Hollywood stars are even hopping on the bulldog bandwagon.  Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, John Legend, George Clooney, Charlize Theron, Adam Sandler – all proud bulldog parents!

As a sports fan, one of my favorite facts is the bulldog is literally THE most popular mascot.  I mean, I’m sure you can think of at least a dozen schools that use the bulldog to represent them in the sports arena.  (Wikipedia claims that 39 American universities alone use the bulldog as their mascot.)  It’s easy to see why – they look tough, they are (well…they WERE) aggressive and courageous (back in their bull baiting days), but despite all that they are darn cute!  (And a lot easier to transport to games than Bevo.)

So to summarize this post – if you are in the market for a dog, I would check out the bulldog.  No, he won’t be able to go on long hikes.  No, he won’t ever be able to herd sheep or go hunting.  He will be loyal, though.  He will love your kids.  He will be adorable.  And he DEFIFINITELY will snore!

The Biography of your Best Friend (Survival of the cutest) – Part 3

“Survival of the fittest.”

Good ol’ Darwin.  We all know what this statement means: the weakest of a species die out while the strongest survive and propagate their kind.  Every animal has to be stronger, faster, smarter…but wait.  Did dogs find a loophole?

“Survival of the cutest” is more like it!  This too is a Darwinian statement…although Darwin surly used more scientific terminology than “cute”.  He pointed out that there are some qualities in young animals (humans included) that makes adults want to care and nurture them; this is what ensures the species survives.  Humanity, though, is unique in the fact that our need to nurture crosses species lines.  We think baby hippos, lions, and elephants are down right adorable…and out in the wild these creatures (even in cuteness-overload baby form) could and would kill us in an instant.

Wolves fit into this category (the category of “things that would kill us without a second thought”) thousands of years ago, but as discussed in The Evolution of your Best Friend Part 1, they decided they needed us.  A partnership was born.  A working relationship.  Yeah, yeah…they barked when something came to threaten us, they helped us hunt and see at night…but that doesn’t explain why the heck we love them so damn much!  Maybe Darwin can.

You might think I’m crazy for saying this – but dogs look a lot like people.  (And no, I’m not talking about your ex-boyfriend.)  I believe

Tell me it doesn't look like she's smiling!

that wolves evolved into dogs which then evolved into super-cute-dogs-that-humans-will-always-want-to-take-care-of.  Look at your dog’s face.  What other animal (I’m going to ask you to exclude monkeys and apes for the time being…we’ve all seen a few that look eerily like our own species) has those eyes.  And those eyebrows!  At the risk of being completely anthropomorphic – tell me you can’t tell the difference between your dog’s “happy eyes” and “confused eyes.”  I know it sounds unprofessional for someone who studies and works with dogs, but I swear my pup Buffy has “cute eyes” that she gives me if she wants something or if she knows she is about to get in trouble. (P.S. They TOTALLY work)  I don’t think it’s coincidence that when dogs are playfully panting they look like they are smiling.  Tell me the  last time a squirrel smiled at you…how about a cow? Raccoon??

Now, of course humans themselves had a role in this.  We inevitably invited the cutest pups into our homes and lives, while the meaner, rougher looking dogs were left out to fend for themselves.  As a species, though….before we went a bit nuts with breeding hundreds of different variations…I think dogs got cute instead of strong to survive.  Wolves have bigger brains; they are better problem solvers. Dogs are loyal and kind and sweet and wonderful (ok, I might be a bit bias here) and down right the cutest things ever!  Modern day dogs, behaviorally , are extremely like young wolves who never grow up.  So not only are the absolutely precious, they have this childlike quality that taps into our biological need to nurture.  Brilliant!

So, maybe survival of the fittest doesn’t apply to man’s best friend.  Maybe the reason why we love dogs so inexplicably much is that they were literally made for us.  They evolved into creatures that our species simply couldn’t resist…and I couldn’t be happier!

The Biography of your Best Friend (The Creating of dog breeds) – Part 2

In, The Biography of your Best Friend (The Evolution of the Dog) – Part 1, we learned all about how wolves became dogs…and just how long those dogs have been a part of human life.  All wolves pretty much look the same, though, and everyone knows that dogs come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments, and energy levels.  So how the heck did that happen?

A modern day Siberian Husky - a close relative to the wolf (as if you couldn't tell by this picture!)

Evolution is an amazing thing.  Once the partnership between humans and dogs formed, some of the wolf-y qualities began to fade.  For the first time, dogs as a species began to take on their own characteristics.  Barking is probably the first to come to mind.  Wolves howl to communicate with each other.  Dogs would have developed barking as a way to warn their human counterparts at the sight or sound of something unfamiliar.

By the time humans began to increase their population and therefore spread to different areas of the world, dogs were already members of “society” – so they came along for the ride.  Just as our own species did, dogs had to adapt to the new environments while simultaneously adapting to fulfill our own changing needs.  Technically, though, this created new dog landraces not new dog breeds.  By definition, a landrace is a domesticated animal that develops because of its adaptation to a new natural or cultural environment.  In other words, humans were not forcing two dogs to mate to create new, more helpful creatures.  It was an organic process.

Of course, though, we humans couldn’t sit by and let nature take its course.  Over time, we began to create breeds (NOT landraces) to help accommodate our own needs.  Modern dog breeds were not recognized until the creation of the English Kennel Club in 1873.  The American Kennel Club was founded shortly after in 1884 and is now the largest purebred dog registry in the world.  (Now recognizing 173 breeds!  Woof!)

Even now…after all this time… some of our breeds are very closely genetically related to wolves.  Some of the most similar breeds?  The Siberian Husky, the Afghan Hound, the African Basenji, the Chinese Chow Chow, the Japanese Akita, and the Egyptian Saluki.  It’s really not surprising seeing as where these dogs hail from…surely the sites of some of our earliest civilizations.

Saluki - these dogs look like they jumped out of an ancient Egyptian relief!

But just what part did humans play in creating the “modern dog”?  Hmmmm….good question!  You will just have to check back in with the Wags & Whiskers blog for the third instalment of “The Biography of your Best Friend.”

The Biography of your Best Friend (The evolution of the dog) – Part 1

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Buffy – just the two of us.  I often marvel at how well we communicate and live.  She is, after all, a “wild” animal…living in my apartment…sleeping in my bed…performing tricks on command.  How did we humans ever get so lucky to have such a wonderful and loyal “best friend”?

This sunk relief shows a man and his dog (around 600 B.C.)

Much like the evolution of our own species, the history of how the modern day dog came to be is a mystery that we surely will never be able to completely solve.  We do know they originated from wolves – your own pup is almost identical to a wolf.  (Well, their DNA is anyway.)  About 95% of all dogs today can be traced back to three female wolves living in China 15,000 years ago.  (Please do not ask me how it is possible to trace such a thing…my brain cannot begin to comprehend!)  Did you know that archeologists found the remains of a man (in what is now Israel) buried with his hand cradling a dog?  Dogs show up in hunting sketches for the first time in about 6,000 B.C., but these drawings show all dogs looking alike.  Egyptian art around 2,000 B.C. is the first time dogs of different shapes and sizes show up, so we know that different breeds were beginning to evolve then.

But how did wolves become dogs?  I would love to believe that early humans captures wolves and slowly began training and domesticating them.  Luring them with food and shelter; gaining their trust slowly but surely.  A lonely little cave-boy with no playmates befriending an orphaned wolf pup.  The two forming a bond and overcoming all obstacles to become lifelong companions.  The wolf saving the boy from other predatory animals….or better yet running to get help after the boy fell and was unable to make it back to his cave home before nightfall.  Ah, how romantic!

Anyone who knows anything about wolves though knows this would never happen.  Wolves were (and still are) dangerous, violent creatures.  Not that I have anything against wolves!  They are wild animals and care only for their own survival.

It is no coincidence that the human race stopped roaming and began to settle in villages at the same time dogs began the process of domestication.  Wolves began to live off of the discarded scraps of humans.  Those that were braver and ventured closer to people surely got the tastier treats.  Their “flight distance” (the distance before an animal runs from something threatening) slowly decreased as the wolves realized they we receiving food and not harm.  “Flight distance”, a behavioral trait passed down through offspring, would have continued to decrease throughout the species until the wolves eventually were living right alongside humans.  This was a rough period for us Homo sapiens, we wouldn’t have had time to waste domesticating these wild creatures.  (Assuming you could make a wolf do anything he didn’t want to!)  The wolves came to us when it benefited them.

And so, the bond between your pampered pooch and you began to form….a mere 15,000 years ago.  It doesn’t take an archeologist to understand how both species benefited from their new alliance.  As people began to migrate all over the world, the wolves/dogs followed.  And as people began to adapt to these new obstacles and climates, these wolves/dogs adapted too…and new breeds were created.

Want to know more about the origin of different breeds?  Check back for the next instalment of “The Biography of your Best Friend.”