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This book is about dog shows, how they work, what they mean, and how they reflect an incredibly complex relationship, one that has grown to embrace two very different species of mammals. That relationship has taken thousands of years to develop and a veritable eternity of evolution.
But before there can be a dog show, the players have to exist and be in place: the dogs and us and, of course, underlying it all, our wonderful relationship. No question, though, there have to be dogs. All breeds of domestic dogs we know from around the world belong to just one species: Canis familiaris. But their diversity is incredible. A touch of the history of that species, then, but just a touch, will do.
Conventional wisdom, for whatever it might be worth, has caveman (more likely cavewoman, say I) extracting the first or at least the earliest known dogs from the loins of wolves somewhere between fifteen and twenty thousand years ago. Think of them as "dawn dogs" intent upon changing our world for us (and they did). Think of them as well as future works of art and important factors in our health and well-being. The place where the linkup first began to appear has never been identified with certainty, although it has been pondered and discussed endlessly. There are more experts on this subject than there are on how to play golf or how to make chili. One of the places that has been suggested is the Middle East, between what are now Israel and India. In this scenario, the ancestral beast is said to have been a small subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus pallipes, a form that is still found in many parts ofthat mostly arid region. They are rather small coyote size and, as I can attest, noisy at night. When the moon slides across the blue-gray early-night sky of the desert, as the sky itself turns into black velvet flecked with a billion times a billion stars, out beyond the palm trees that stand now in silhouette, the little wolf, accused ancestor of all the dogs we know, sings mournfully in a language we can't understand but in a mood we do understand all too well, as do the sheep and goats that the wolves covet and stalk. Modern domestic dogs, sleeping outside the tents in the oasis, lift their heads and answer in their modified voices. Do they understand each other, these dogs and their ancestors? In some ways they must. They come from the same limb of the same tree in the same corner of the garden.
It is at least possible (not certain, surely, but possible) that the cave dwellers who made this first connection with our dog ancestors were not even of our species or at least of our exact kind. Perhaps they were Cro-Magnon people, probably, in part, exterminators of earlier Neanderthal man and the precursors of Homo sapiens us, in other words, or modern man. If some of the extraordinary ages that have been suggested for the emergence of domestic dogs are even half true, the first dog trainers would have to have been other than our kind. (Man, or he, as used in this book, does not imply gender but entire species. All of the he/she, him/her constructions I have ever tried to use ultimately seemed flat, silly, and self-conscious. They would serve no useful purpose here. Let it be said that in many areas of cultural progress [agriculture, for example, at least in some cultures] women were the leading lights. An interesting idea: "Old Lady McDonald had a farm..." Since we can't be sure in most cases of the relative participation of the genders in the inventiveness of our species, we will let it rest. Man, as we use it here, is man and woman, with no prejudice intended.)
Our relationship with our dogs today is probably far different from the form it took in the cave. Such things as style and aesthetics would not have been very important considerations back then. Little or no energy was spent on cosmetic touches until quite recently. We can surmise that the cuddle factor was less apparent, but the difference was more on the human's part than on the dog's. It seems fairly certain that cave or dawn dogs, fresh out of their ancestral wolves' genes, liked being scratched and petted just as dogs do today. Wolves raised as supposed pets today and intensely socialized do their best to encourage comfort giving; they are as hedonistic as dogs are. (Wolves, however, are not dogs and they can be bad for your health. They are not recommended as family pets under any circumstances. Part wolves, wolf-dog hybrids, whatever the wolf content of their genes, are, if anything, worse. The dog in them has taken away their natural fear of man. That is not good. It can be lethal or at least disfiguring.)
It has been known for a long time that pet owners who scratch, stroke, or in any way pat their companions have lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate while they are so engaged. That tends toward longer life and the appearance of children who are likely to be pet lovers, too. Our pets are good for us. In a sense, they have selectively bred us. I think our collective ego should be able to handle that.
Very recent studies involved putting heart monitors on dogs. As might be expected, the offer of either food or play cause a marked increase in heartbeats per minute. When the dogs were petted in any of the usual ways, however, their heart rate dropped and the animals "cooled out." We are good for our pets. There has been at the very least fifteen to twenty thousand years of reciprocity. Neither man nor dog should be alone. We are both pack animals, and, it seems, we were made for each other.
What this means is that for 150 centuries or more (how much more we may be slow in learning), men and dogs have mutually enjoyed the sense of touch. It has been good for both of us, and in terms of life span, dog-loving people and people-focused dogs tend to live longer and create more of their own kind. This hasn't been by accident; it has been part of the evolution of both species. It is an integral part of our bond.
Dogs, almost from the beginning, began splitting off into new breeds, none of which from those earliest years are known now. Just as with so many wild species, dog breeds have become extinct and been replaced by the natural forces of evolution at work. We think we know some basic breeds from seven to nine thousand years ago the Ibizan Hound, Saluki, and Samoyed are possible examples but we can't speak with confidence of anything much earlier than that.
A word on the science of it all. When animals are held in captivity and isolated from the wild population of their species, they will continue to mate, becoming more inbred with each generation. They become, as a group, what is known as a deme. A phenomenon known as genetic drift comes into play as the captive animals evolve through the same process of natural selection as any population of their species. But in this case it responds to the opportunities and challenges of the new environment provided by human beings. Whether we're aware of it or not at the time, we play a vital role. That is generally true of all of our domestic animals, about forty-five of them. We create the habitat and provide them with nutrition (or neglect), as well as frequently creating rigidly controlled mating opportunities. In the case of purebred dogs, we guard that charge jealously. We are the ultimate matchmakers.
How did early man or preman Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon, or modern know the secret of selective breeding? It is unlikely that cave dwellers 150 centuries ago understood the calendar, the sociology, the chemistry, and the mechanics of their own sexuality. Sex then was surely essentially opportunistic, often involving migrants who might never come that way again. Today we would think of much of what happened in and around the cave as rape. Sometimes, three-quarters of a year later, there would be a baby. Most of the time there would not, for a whole host of reasons. In that kind of hit-and-miss, touch-and-go world, an understandable connection between act and result was hard to make.
With no knowledge of genetics then, how did cave-living dog fanciers plan selective breeding? They couldn't it had to have come from influences far beyond their imagination or capacity to wonder. Serendipity played a major role. There were a lot of oops and wows in procreation eons before genes and the elusive DNA were unmasked.
No animal we know of was domesticated by early man unless that animal was already locked into a relationship with man. There had to be a link, and it took the form of hunting. Man hunted many species for meat and pelts almost everything around him, in fact, and the wolf was on the hit list. If a band of hunters whooping, hollering, and brandishing flaming torches and throwing rocks neutralized a pair of adult wolves, they frequently ended up with a litter of cubs to show for their efforts. Without refrigeration they learned soon enough not to kill more cubs than they could eat right away, or the surplus would become rancid and make them ill. Dead and rotting meat could make even a cave dwelling far worse than it had to be. A better idea was to keep the cubs alive in a corner of the cave until they were needed for the pot. (Actually, Paleolithic man and his precursors didn't have pottery. Sad to contemplate, but those first evolving dog fanciers probably roasted wolf cubs the way we do marshmallows.)
Since humans are born quite thoroughly helpless, we have a years-long tutorial period. To accommodate this species characteristic, our mothers fulfill the nurturing role. Given a nurturing mother with or without her own baby in hand, add a litter of squirming and squealing wolf babies, all of which display endearing characteristics, and we were on our way to dogdom. That route, given the human capacity for pride and competitiveness, led inexorably to formalized dog shows in England in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was slow in coming but it was foreordained.
The first endearing characteristic that caveman serendipitously selected for was gentleness. The roughnecks, the biters in the crowd, were undoubtedly the first onto the barbecue. It was perfectly natural to opt for easy keepers, and early man almost surely did exactly that, although ignorant of the significance of what he was doing. If a dweller in cave A had a male easy keeper and the folks in cave B had a female with the same kind of disposition, the stage was set. The cubs grew, they interacted as juveniles, they mated, and a breed characteristic relative gentleness was intensified dog generation by dog generation. With gestation a brief sixty-three days and sexual maturity under a year, things would have moved along smartly. It is interesting that we still look for that in our dogs today, a certain softness.
It is a fair assumption that cave people had totems in the fabric of their beliefs. Perhaps it was a white wolf, a black one, or a yellow one, but it is likely that one form or another was considered sacred in some primitive way. They couldn't be killed without taking great risks with the powerful ones who lived in the mists on the mountain or in the face of the storm. If cave families A and B both had gentler-than-usual maturing wolves of the same color, those wolves would eventually have the opportunity to mate, and breed differentiation would be unavoidable within the deme over time. Time was one thing there was plenty of, time and the incredible elasticity of the wolf-dog gene.
As noted, all dogs belong to the same species (Canis familiaris) no matter what their breed. The wolf-dog gene package has proven to be remarkably flexible, capable of startling diversity and adjustment. Consider this logical comparison: All domestic cat breeds, descendants of the North African wildcat, also belong to a single species, Felis catus. Excepting the occasional obese individual, our domestic cats generally weigh between eight and twenty pounds, that is, the largest normal cat weighs two and one-half times as much as the smallest normal cat. Among dogs the case is amazingly different. A Saint Bernard or a Newfoundland can weigh some thirty-three times as much as a fully mature Chihuahua. That is flexibility! In fact, it is awesome. If we had a two-hundred-pound Siamese cat we would need a backhoe to handle the litter box and Valium for ourselves. Such cats would make nervous wrecks of our canaries, not to mention the local mice. Only at battalion strength could our dogs worry such cats. Which cushion in the sun could such a cat claim? Every one in the house.
What do we know of the first breeds? There were Greyhound-like dogs in the Middle East and Mastiff-like dogs in Tibet. We speak of both the Greyhound and the Mastiff today as foundation breeds. Indeed, they are. There were also lap dogs and what were apparently herding dogs. The very early dates we hear postulated wouldn't apply to herding dogs. There was nothing for them to herd until roughly fifteen thousand years ago, where most students still date dog emergence, close to the domestication of goats, sheep, and reindeer. And so the mystery goes on. How did dogs get to Tibet to become Mastiff-like, from whence they came back to fight as gladiators in Rome and then helped the legions invade central Europe and the British Isles as war dogs? (When the Romans got to the British Isles with their Mastiffs, they found the inhabitants there already had a Mastiff of their own. That latter dog is the ancestor of our Mastiffs today. The Roman dogs we refer to as Neopolitan Mastiffs, or Neos, and they are not recognized by the American Kennel Club.)
The early distinguishable breeds were essentially utilitarian except for the lap dogs which were that as well, but in a special way. Dogs were tools. In time of famine, evolving dogs (unlike totemic or preferentially colored wolves) could be eaten. They were also noisy and territorial when gigantic cave bears, lions, or strange people from another valley approached the stronghold. They could assist in hunting because wolves are natural herders and pack workers just as human beings are. If you question whether the wolf's herding instinct came down through time to reside in our dogs today, watch Border Collies at work. You are seeing controlled aggression coupled with amazing intelligence perform near-miracles of cooperation.
So there we have the pattern and the path. By ten thousand years ago true dogs had evolved that could assume any utilitarian role we can imagine, although, presumably, aesthetics was not yet a factor. Of course, none of us has lived a caveman's life, with its ancient imperatives, and there could be elements to the dog-man equation we simply haven't guessed at. What we do know is that in the nineteenth century a beauty contest was launched in many breeds, without any diminution of utilitarian concerns.
Some dogs were singled out for one job only, companionship. The Toy Group (we will be getting to the groups in the chapters ahead) is made up of what are essentially miniaturized dogs whose task is both emotional and aesthetic. They are joy givers as companions. Dogs like the Miniature Pinscher, the Yorkshire Terrier, the Pug, and the Maltese have few other assignments now besides getting and giving love. It is interesting that despite the fact that we know so little about very early men and women as individuals, we do know that way back at some phase of the Stone Age they had lap dogs. Without this one clue we would be loath to think of a hairy-shouldered, club-swinging caveman as a sentimental snuggler. Some lap dogs, we can suppose, were snacks, but somehow I think not all, except in that, as today, they fed their owners' souls.
In the seemingly hodgepodge miscellany called the Nonsporting Group, breeds like the Standard and Miniature Poodles, French Bulldog, Dalmatian, Chow Chow, and Boston Terrier are short on anything other than emotional and aesthetic assignments. That is not true of Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, Australian Cattle Dogs, and many other guard, farm, and field dogs. In a good many places they work for a living, but still, in our time they are also expected to attain a high level of beauty in their conformation. Just when beauty became important and why it began to matter is probably a whole aspect of our own evolution that we cannot readily decipher. The dogs were our canvases with their incredibly malleable genes, but we were and still are the artists.
Today man's concern with dogs is very different from what it was long ago. We are, after all, not talking about the Neolithic, the New Stone Age or even the Mesolithic, the Middle Stone Age but the Paleolithic, the Old Stone Age. From then till now many facets of our relationship with dogs have changed.
But, then, what hasn't?