Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog flexibility strikes again
If you’re not amazed by the diversity of dog body type and the huge number of habitats in which they can live, then you’re in the minority. Scientists, dog lovers and scientists who are dog lovers consider the domestic dog a species of considerable interest for the great number of forms that have evolved over a relatively short time. Some of the variation is obvious because it involves shape, size and color, while some of the behavioral tendencies are subtle. Even less obvious are the physiological difference between different types of dogs, including the recent discovery of adaptations to high altitude by the Tibetan Mastiff.
This breed of dog is most closely related to the Chinese native dogs, but in recent history, has been selected to live high in the mountains of Tibet at elevations of nearly 15,000 feet. The biggest challenge to life at such heights is the low level of oxygen. Even individuals who are quite fit can become out of breath just from walking at a casual pace under the low oxygen (hypoxic) conditions at high altitude. So, how do Tibetan Mastiffs thrive in Tibet? They do it in much the same way that wild animals and humans do—with genetic changes that affect hemoglobin concentration, the formation of extra blood vessels and the use and production of energy.
In a new study called “Population variation revealed high altitude adaptation of Tibetan Mastiffs”, scientists found that this breed of dogs has at least a dozen areas in their genome that represent adaptations to the high life. One of the genes that helps them survive in their high-altitude/low oxygen environment is similar to a gene present in the Tibetan people, who are also adapted to the high life. The rest of them are different than those of the people as well as differing from animals such as the yak and the Tibetan antelope that are also adapted to this environment.
Though much selection on our companion dogs has changed their behavior and appearance, there are also examples of changes that are far harder to observe such as the Tibetan Mastiff ‘s adaptations to high altitude.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Infantile features have power
Those big puppy dog eyes may be powerful in addition to just being cute. According to a recent study, they may actually affect human choice about which dogs to adopt. The researchers who conducted the study “Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage” found that dogs whose facial expressions made them look more puppyish were adopted more quickly from shelters than dogs who did not show such facial expressions. (Paedomorphism is the retention of infantile or juvenile traits into adulthood.)
One of the most prominent paedomorphic features is large eyes relative to the size of the face. This trait can be enhanced by raising the eyebrows which makes the overall height and size of the eyes seem bigger. It was this action of eyebrow raising that was studied in the experiment.
A total of 27 dogs were a part of the study. To minimize variation in facial features, all of the dogs were of similar types: Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Mastiffs and mixed bull breeds. Dogs were filmed for 2 minutes and researchers recorded the number of eyebrow raises and tail wags that each dog performed as well as noting how much time the dog spent at the front of the kennel. Frequency of eyebrow raises was associated with shorter times until adoption. Specifically, dogs who raised their eyebrows 5 times during filming were adopted in an average of 50 days, those that performed 10 eyebrow raises were adopted in an average of 35 days, and dogs who did it 15 times had an average waiting time until adoption of only 28 days.
Interestingly, they found that amount of tail wagging and time at the front of the kennel were not strongly associated with time until being adopted even though such traits are typically considered favorable behavioral signs of friendliness. It would be interesting to know if the eyebrow raising behavior correlates with temperament and suitability as a pet or if it is a behavior that serves more strictly to encourage caregiving behavior in humans.
These results may shed light on the domestication of dogs. It has been proposed that the juvenile traits of dogs arose as a byproduct of selection against aggression. This line of reasoning claims that people chose to associate with the least aggressive canines, and that the evolution of puppyish features and behavior developed as an accidental consequence of those choices. Experiments support the idea that selecting against aggression does lead to the evolution of juvenile traits. However, this latest study suggests that the puppylike features themselves may have influenced which canines became closely associated with humans and that such features may have evolved earlier in the process of domestication than previously thought.
Do your buddy’s puppy dog eyes exert a powerful influence over you?
News: Guest Posts
As my Twitter bio says, I’m interested in your dog’s urine. I’m not kidding around here. For a recent Animal Behavior class, I buddied up with a doggie daycare and followed dogs on their afternoon walks. Yes. I was that person walking around NYC with a hand held camera, trailing dogs and video taping them as they peed.
This wasn’t a hypothesis testing experiment, I was simply trying to gauge what parts of urination were easily measured in a naturalistic context. I checked out things like urination duration, urine placement, leg position, leg height, tail position and post-pee scratching. If another dog was present, I got to see whether there was any over-marking (peeing on another dog’s pee) or adjacent marking (peeing nearby). I was just measuring stuff as you often do when starting to investigate why animals do what they do.
I’m not the only researcher interested in your dog’s urine. Patricia Yang and colleagues at The Georgia Institute of Technology have a similar interest in measuring things that might seem odd to measure. They’ve submitted the abstract The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet to the Annual Fluid Dynamics Conference held by the American Physical Society in late November.
Using “high-speed videography” and “flow-rate measurement” they investigated independent urination styles, such as the dripping of small mammals and the “jetting” of large mammals. New Scientist interviewed Yang (and Discover has a piece out as well), and the coverage touches on urethra length, gravitational pull and the number of seconds it takes to empty bladders. I eagerly await how the published study links Newtonian physics to urine!
Truth be told, maybe I wanted to write this post so I could write “jetting” of large mammals, and show this video. Also, I want to go on vacation with these people*:
But as you’ve seen, urine does not begin and end with the jetting of large mammals. Dog urination is pretty awesome and a number of researchers are holding a figurative magnifying glass up to it (and you can too!). Some dogs let it all out at once — although, I’m pretty sure that’s not called “jetting”) — while others let a little out at a time. And then of course, there’s how they do it.
A recent study by Wirant and McGuire (2004) found that female Jack Russell Terriers assumed a number of urination positions, including the squat-raise (most common), squat, arch-raise, combination and handstand. They found that females“used the squat-raise and arch-raise postures more when off their home area then when on their home area.” If dog urination has a social function, it might make sense to present your urine in different ways depending on where you are and who you are encountering, don’t you think?
Here’s what you can do: When you’re out walking your dog, pay attention to their urine. Do they assume a different position if you take them to an area where they’ve never been or go infrequently? Or do they pull out the same tricks no matter where they are?
Leave your urine reports below, and share early and often. My business is urine, and it can be yours too.
Photo: Flickr Nature’s Fire Hydrant via Mike Finkelstein Creative Commons
Pham et al. 2013. The Hydrodynamics of Urination: to drip or jet. Bulletin of the American Physical Society. 66th Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted
News: Guest Posts
At her intake at a shelter in April 2012, Bean was a pup with a familiar profile: a Pit Bull whose family could no longer care for her. But it wasn’t long before someone at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley in Milpitas, California did notice something unusual about her.
It was her lack of “boing,” says staff member Finnegan Dowling. “No Pit Bull puppy should be that mellow.”
Bean also had a stiff walk. When she was excited, she hopped like a bunny. They took her for x-rays, but even sedation didn’t relax her joints enough to get pictures, Dowling says, and the vet referred her to UC Davis for an MRI scan.
There, Dr. Karen Vernau, chief of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, discovered that her hip joints were improperly formed. Bean’s determined spirit wasn’t lost on Vernau, but her chances of adoption seemed slim.
The five month old pup was suffering from muscular dystrophy, a progressive and currently incurable disease that would affect many parts of her body.
According to notes in Bean’s file at the Humane Society, she was scheduled for a procedure at Davis on May 25. By the 29th, she was diagnosed with myopathy, a neurological condition. But somewhere in between those dates, Dowling says, Dr. Vernau’s relationship with her patient “went from obligation to affection.”
Vernau and her family decided to adopt Bean. As the vet told a reporter, “We didn’t intend to go down this path with her, but she just sucked us in.”
This happy ending was only the beginning of Bean’s harrowing medical story.
Gradually, things got worse. Surgery to correct her hips was followed by relief—then new problems. A massive hernia called for another surgery. Her swallowing improved, but the muscles in her esophagus were failing and there were bouts of vomiting so intense she would sometimes choke and pass out. Bean grew thinner as she struggled with aspiration (food getting into her respiratory tract when eating), which caused pneumonia.
Her vets sought help from colleagues in human medicine, a multidisciplinary approach the university encourages through its “One Health Initiative.” They included Dr. Stan Marks, a gastrointestinal specialist, and Dr. Peter Belafsky, an expert in human swallowing and airway disorders, and others.
With help from the biomedical engineering department, Bean had been fitted with a feeding tube that allowed her to eat several times per day. It worked beautifully, according to Dr. Marks.
But it didn’t stop the vomiting.
Since the vomiting put her life at risk, Belafsky concluded that they would have to stop it by removing her larynx.
Belafsky, who performed the second documented human larynx transplant, knew how profoundly such problems affect a person’s quality of life. And it was clearly true for Bean.
Her surgery, which lasted more than three hours, was the first ever canine laryngectomy. The procedure is typically used to treat human cancer. According to Belafsky, the separation of her breathing and swallowing tubes will prevent food from getting into her lungs when she eats or vomits.
The lessons learned in Bean’s treatment will impact human care, and vice versa, Belafsky said in a press conference after the surgery. Belafsky hopes she will inspire human patients who have also lost their voice and now breathe through a hole in their neck. She may just get a guest membership in the “Lost Cords Club” for people who have had a laryngectomy.
After all, Bean is only two years old, but has slept out more than 100 rounds of anesthesia and undergone eight surgeries and countless other procedures. Her “can’t do list” is long. Can’t bark, breathe or swallow normally. Forget gobbling down a treat, and she can’t swim without drowning due to the tracheostomy tube.
But the list of things she once endured, the choking and pneumonia, has been tossed.
Now when she accompanies Vernau to the hospital, she serves as ambassador and teacher, allowing students to experience canine tube feeding.
At home, Bean is learning new ways to enjoy life, which still holds plenty of the good old stuff – balls to chew, cushy beds, and a loving family that includes two other dogs.
Watch this video about Bean's surgery and recovery.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Vet Experts Tell Us How
Did you know that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has fewer than 50 members? To obtain board certification in this specialty, each has gone beyond a DVM to earn various degrees in applied animal behavior, and has completed a rigorous training program as well.
Decoding Your Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2014), with sections on canine behavior written by 20 ACVB diplomates, thus represents the expertise of some of the leading experts in the field. Their goal is two-fold: to make sure dog people have scientifically correct information about dog behavior problems and “to correct widespread misinformation.” The volume is well edited by Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi and pet journalist Steve Dale; Victoria Stilwell contributed the foreword.
A concerted effort to debunk the many fallacious, pseudoscientif ic notions all too prevalent in the dog world is really long overdue. This book repudiates, in each and every one of its 14 chapters, the theory of dominance— i.e., dogs want to be pack leaders—that has been promulgated for much too long. In “Creating a Mensa Dog,” Dr. Katherine Houpt outlines that theory: “It goes like this: since dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and wolves have a rigid dominance hierarchy within their pack, the same must be true for dogs. Simple, right? But the thinking turns out to be wrong.” She then goes on to tell us why it is wrong. Similarly, when this concept appears in other chapters, it’s firmly dismissed as a myth with no scientific basis that harms dogs and our relationships with them.
Another adroitly debunked myth is that dogs feel guilty about infractions people find upsetting, such as house soiling. Dogs must know they’ve done something wrong, right? In “Can’t We Just Talk?” Dr. Jacqueline Neilson explains that while to us, cringing may look like guilt, what is actually happening is that dogs see us acting aggressively and do what they wisely do when faced by an angry bully: offer a submissive response. In the fascinating chapter on aggression, Drs. Ilana Reisner and Stefanie Schwartz remind us that dogs are not mean: “There is no revenge or malice in dogs; they are merely using canine tools to respond to social situations.” Also, that aggression is a response to many different triggers, some of which might not be apparent to us. Consequently, it’s imperative that we learn how to read canine body language and methods of communication. Punishment, they say, “is not necessary when you’re managing your dog’s behavior, and at worst is likely to increase anxiety and aggression.” That means no leash pops, alpha rolls or other “in your face” confrontational techniques (as used by a popular TV personality). It is up to us to defuse the situation, and then work on a strategy to fix the problem.
On less dire subjects, it’s good to know Book Reviews that there is no association between “spoiling,” such as allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, and behavior problems. And that dogs rely on “visual and olfactory cues for communication,” which means it’s best to train them with hand signals first, then supplement with verbal cues.
I found the chapter on separation anxiety by Drs. E’Lise Christensen and Karen Overall to be invaluable, particularly their reminder that “only when dogs are calm can they learn new things, including how to be home alone.” With information ranging from the best ways to start out with dogs to helping dogs as they age, this book is appropriate for both novice and seasoned dog people. The editors have done a good job in making the text readable and approachable; each chapter incorporates case studies, and there is a clear organizational format. Recurring sections (“Facts, Not Fiction,” “Is That Really True?”) and review summaries (“What Did We Say?”) neatly encapsulate the various messages. I have a little quibble with the use of the latter phrase, which sounds like a scolding parent’s “What did I tell you!” But that doesn’t detract from my overall admiration for this book. Decoding Your Dog is an important addition to the canine canon, one that will go a long way toward increasing your understanding of your best friend.
In a recent New York Times, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and the author of the excellent new book, How Dogs Love Us, writes an intriguing and engrossing editorial, “Dogs Are People, Too” (which was the top “emailed” article in the NYT the day it came out!). Berns and his team at Emory University have been testing dogs, the first of which was Berns’ own rescue dog, Callie, using functional MRIs to measure their brain activity, hoping to decode the canine brain. Unlike other researchers at other universities, the Emory Dog Project was the first to do this and the only ones who perform their research with not only volunteer dogs, but also by following a humane protocol that included “only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.” Other researchers also use “purpose-bred” Beagles, an abhorrent practice.
What they discovered was rather amazing. As I noted in the book review in Bark’s Winter issue, “Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and by extension, that the idea that you must be a dog’s pack leader is a mistake.”
In his commentary Berns notes, “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
In making his case for the “personhood” of dogs Berns explains that, “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” And that we can’t hide from the evidence shown in the MRIs, dogs, and other animals (like primates) do have emotional lives, just like us. In his book he describes that the defining traits of dogs is their interspecies social intelligence, “an ability to intuit what humans and other animal are thinking,” and furthermore that, “ Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they probably also have a high capacity for empathy. More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel.”
It is then perfectly understandable that he makes the case for granting dogs personhood, as he wrote in the Times piece, “ If we … granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”
Read the whole article here, and watch this video and we would love to know your thoughts too. Gregory Berns’ post on Psychology Today, is also of interest.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Those little pests are nothing new!
Mummified dogs are not a new archaeological discovery, but finding bloodsucking parasites on them is. Over 400 dog mummies unearthed from the El Deir excavation site in Egypt have been found, and one young dog among them was infested with a number of parasites that have been preserved.
There were over 60 ticks found on this poor dog and there was one louse, too. The scientists who found this dog suspect that a tick-born disease that kills red blood cells was probably responsible for the death of this dog at such a young age. Besides the ticks and the louse, remains of two types of fly larvae were found on it, suggesting that the dog’s body had time to attract carrion flies prior to being mummified.
Mummifying animals was common in ancient Egypt. It was done to provide food and companionship for people in the afterlife and to make sacrifices to the gods, yet nobody is sure of the reasons for the dog mummies at El Deir. It is unclear if they had specific human guardians or how they died. Perhaps they were purposely bred to be sacrificed as cats commonly were, but we just don’t know.
Scientists involved with this excavating project are exploring questions about the source of the dogs. They are also hoping to find more parasites on the dog mummies in order to investigate the origin and spread of diseases and to deepen our understanding of the role of parasites in the history of the species.
Evidence that ancient dogs suffered from ticks, lice and other ectoparasites is prevalent in ancient writings such as those of Aristotle, Homer and Pliny the Elder, but this is the first archaeological evidence that corroborates those texts. It’s certainly no surprise that dogs living a couple of thousand years ago faced the danger and nuisance of ticks and lice. It would be astounding if it were a recent development in the lives of canids, but it’s still interesting to have such concrete evidence.
Culture: Science & History
Breeders, judges and historians talk about breed standards—why they work and when they don’t
In the world of mammals, the domestic dog— Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of the gray wolf— reigns as the most morphologically diverse. Consider, for example, the extremes represented by the 155- pound South Russian Ovcharka and the seven-pound Silky Terrier. This incredible variety can be attributed in part to the dog’s basic template, which can be customized by the manipulation of a very small number of genes.
For instance, 95 percent of all five canine fur textures and lengths (the Afghan Hound and Curly-Coated Retriever curiously excepted) is orchestrated by three genes. Further, just six or seven locations in the canine genome account for nearly 80 percent of dogs’ vast size and weight differences. (In humans, these genes number in the hundreds, if not thousands). A single mutation, shared by 14 diminutive breeds, determines that a dog will be small, and another is responsible for the long-bodied, short-legged nature of numerous dwarf breeds.
Clearly, the dog’s random morphology isn’t quite as arbitrary as we thought, and breeds aren’t quite as unique. Furthermore, canine traits come in packages. Flip a switch to make the legs more slender, and the skull will narrow as well. Turn down the volume on pigment and the chance of deafness increases.
Those who bred dogs had long known that traits were related, but there was little understanding of how those relationships worked; nor was there much concern. Dogs were bred for skills useful in a practical world. Once breed exhibition became a fashionable pastime and working dogs were awarded championships based strictly on appearance, however, all this changed.
In 1866, John Henry Walsh (writing under the pseudonym “Stonehenge”), editor of The Field, the most influential hunting and kennel journal in England, was the first to describe a breed’s physical characteristics with phrases that he believed were equivalent to its field ability. A bird dog judged perfect to a well-written breed standard would, by the logic of the day, perform perfectly in the field.
At the time, horsemen and sportsmen were the dog-fancy glitterati (women became active later), and many of the arcane descriptions in breed standards are borrowed from those arenas. For example, the Poodle’s “straight-forward springy trot” describes the dog’s ability to retrieve and carry a bird. The phrase “stand like a cleverly made hunter” references ideal anatomical construction and proportion in the German Shorthaired Pointer.
Today, breed standards serve three purposes: assessment in competition; delineation of unique qualities in different breeds, some very much alike; and maintenance of breed similarity throughout the world.
The question is, what happens to purebred dogs when language, intrinsically fluid and inexact, is used to suspend change in morphology and behavior? In the late 1990s, as a doctoral student in linguistics at Claremont Graduate University, I conducted a study to find out. Part of the research included interviews with experienced American Kennel Club (AKC) breeders, specialty judges and breed historians. What I heard from them provides some insight into specific ways that a standardized lexicon can influence change in pedigreed dogs far beyond what is intended.
Dogs in Translation For some breeds, international politics played a role. At the first Canine Congress in 1886, the Germans were opposed to the Swiss-type Saint Bernard, favoring the bulkier English type. Nothing was resolved until 1887, when the Swiss dog was finally approved as the international type. The United States club, with its strong ties to England, adopted the international standard in words, but in practice, bred to the English type.
During an interview, as three Saints gnawed on bones nearby, an experienced breeder and specialty judge offered his opinion: “This changed the morphology of the American Saint, most noticeably in the head. The Saint Bernard standard was translated, with some errors, from German to English in 1888. For instance, ‘when in action’ should have read ‘when excited or alert.’ The phrase, ‘the horizontal axis of the head’ should have read ‘the long axis of the head.’” More than a century later, the club had still not made corrections, perhaps because, as linguists argue, translation of a lexicon from one language to another can never be exact.
Translations are more like corrections or clarifications. When standards are clarified, they usually get longer and, consequently, more exclusive. A standard that calls for feet to be “round, compact, catlike, standing well upon the toe pads,” is more restrictive than one that says feet must be “close, round and firm.” Revisionists tread cautiously because an imprecisely rephrased standard can have an impact on a breed’s genetic diversity.
Amending a standard for any reason is controversial for those entrenched in a time-honored tradition devoted to blueblood history (albeit a fanciful history, since geneticists tell us that very few breeds are as old as they were once touted). As one Greyhound breeder observed, “The torch handed to us was the perfect coursing dog. Our standard is taken word for word from what Stonehenge wrote in the 1860s. If we added more words to make it more explicit, it may end up being a Greyhound different than the one each one of us has in our head.”
But progress necessitates change. A handful of words differentiate an apple, an orange or a pear, but 13 varieties of apples require a larger lexicon. In his 1576 treatise, Of Englishe Dogges: The Diversities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties, cynologist John Caius described the generic land Spaniel in 58 words: “The most part of their skins are white and if they be marked with any spots, they are commonly red, and somewhat great therewithal, the hairs not growing in such thickness but that the mixture of them may easily be perceived. Other some of them be reddish and blackish, but of that sort there be but a few.” Today, Caius’s dog has morphed into 13 f lushing Spaniel breeds. The Field Spaniel standard uses 973 words, short in comparison to the English Springer Spaniel standard, a 2,040 word descriptor.
Occasionally, words are added to explain what something is not. As one breed standard committee member noted, “There were lots of questions from judges about the preferred shape of the eye opening. So we said it’s acceptable as long as it’s not this, that or the other thing.” And at a California dog show, pointing to Mastiffs benched only a few feet from his St. Bernards, an exhibitor told me, “Sometimes breed clubs have to lengthen standards to differentiate their breeds from others so similar that, if marked differently, could be shown as Saints.”
When Words Fail Dressed in formal attire appropriate for the straitlaced Madison Avenue cocktail party that precedes every Westminster dog show, AKC VIPs sipped their drinks and talked candidly about breed standards.
A Doberman breeder, specialty and all-breed judge opined, “I’m not sure that the standard hasn’t been what’s wrong with some of the breeds, in that by naming and describing the criteria with which the animal is to be judged, the words lack exactness. When people bred to the standard, the animal changed and became what the words described. Also, some groups wrote the standard and have not been able to breed to that ideal, so now, they change the nuance of the words to fit the breed ideal. Making the dogs fit the words, and not vice-versa, is wrong.”
For instance, a standard that establishes criteria to develop the best muzzle shouldn’t include terms that are subjective or indefinite. Or as one judge said, “If the standard calls for a short muzzle, judges select dogs based on the shortest muzzles in the ring. The breed’s muzzle gets shorter and shorter. So you have to ask, ‘Shorter than what?’”
Another said, “Our standard calls for the ear, when pulled forward, to reach the eye. You see so many dogs in the ring now with longer ears. We always say, well, which eye is it supposed to reach, and is it pulled under the muzzle or over it? I have never seen a Golden Retriever with ears too short.”
Some breeders get so fixated on one attribute of the traditional standard that they are willing to sacrifice something more important. “For example, they may create a broad head but are willing to accept shorter legs and a longer back in order to do so,” another judge observed.
Breed standards, like all nomenclature, are subject to the rules of language. Like the dog it describes, vocabulary is deceptively capricious and unexpectedly fluid. A good example is size. Big breeds are getting bigger. As I was told by a breed historian in reference to St. Bernards, “What was bred to be powerful and strong in 1900 would not be considered powerful and strong today. Like an automobile in 1915, it was powerful then but not compared to now.” If a standard describes a breed as strong and powerful, the ideal dog gets bigger.
Rather than hack away at standards, some breed clubs hold seminars for judges in which contemporary nuances of an indefinite vocabulary are refined. Others reluctantly reword phrases to accommodate inexperienced newcomers (currently, the average length of interest and activity in the dog fancy is five years or less). A Golden Retriever breeder told me, “People who wrote the original standard were horse people, and this is where the phrase, ‘deep through the heart’ came from. It had two meanings, deep through the chest and courageous. The original meaning and nuance of the old words is often lost on today’s breeders, or is interpreted to mean something else.” After years of debate, the phrase was reluctantly changed to “deep through the chest.” Some clubs don’t revise words, but instead, reinterpret their meanings. Take English Bulldogs, for example. As an owner of one of these stocky dogs remarked, “The interpretation of words has changed. The Victorian [Bull]dog was a transition dog, less bulky, less massive, taller, leaner, and is now thicker and more compact.” Another handler observed that “one of the issues in the standard is weight. It calls for 45 to 50 pounds. But it has no height restriction, so a higher-station dog might be thinner.” The 1910 dog was a much taller and leaner dog compared to today’s stout fireplug variety, but both are considered to have been bred correctly to the standard.
A German Shepherd breeder and specialty judge who chairs the club’s standard committee told me that “you can have the same words in several standards, but they don’t mean the same thing. We use the word ‘almondshaped’ in our standard. But if you look at other breed standards, both the Collie and American Cocker call for almond-shaped eyes. The Collie has a small triangular eye and the Cocker’s is a goggle-eye [the eye protrudes from the skull].”
Judges Play a Role A specialty judge is an experienced breeder and expert on a particular breed. An all-breed judge is a generalist qualified to judge several breeds. The specialty judge brings meaning to the words in the standard, and the allbreed judge makes sure the words mean what they say.
A specialty judge who also works as an all-breed judge explained that the interpretation of complex descriptions, such as the angle of the hock, is more difficult for a generalist all-breed judge to measure. “Because it’s easier to see a proper bite than a proper angulation, the bite may be given more significance than something more important, such as angulation of the hindquarters.” On the other hand, the all-breed judge tests the words. “If the breed club thinks the all-breed judge is misinterpreting the standard, then they need to rewrite it. The judge shouldn’t choose the dog that he thinks they mean.”
War of Words The AKC considers itself a club of clubs. Owners intent on breed registration must first demonstrate that a majority of breeders are interested in establishing a national breed club. Who gets to be in that club is at the heart of a mounting number of controversies.
In 1994, the AKC Labrador Retriever standard was revised to exclude dogs less than 22 inches at the withers (or 21 inches for bitches). Some breeders whose dogs no longer met the standard were part of an $11 million class-action suit against the AKC Labrador Retriever Parent Club (the national organization designated by AKC to represent the breed), claiming that height restrictions excluding shorter dogs no longer described the Labrador Retriever: if you make a bigger dog, you make a different dog. A litigant told me, “It’s perfectly reasonable to change a breed, but the dog should have a different name.” They tried and failed to trademark the name Labrador Retriever; the judge sided with the AKC parent club. The Border Collie war began in 1988, when the American Border Collie Association and others heard rumblings that some wanted to register the breed for conformation showing, which requires a breed standard. This idea didn’t go over well with herding trial enthusiasts; a Border Collie is what it does, not what it looks like. Any dog can enter an open sheepdog trial. There are no age, size, color, shape or breed restrictions, and registration is not required. Unlike registered purebreds, whose lineage must be proven in ancient studbooks, many Border Collie champions are registered on merit (ROM). In theory, a Pomeranian who could prove its worth at a sheepdog trial could, by performance, be called a Border Collie.
In the minds of many, AKC conformation specifications threatened 200 years of breeding for performance, not looks. Led by Donald McCaig, who retold the tale in his book The Dog Wars (2007, Outrun Press), the group prepared for battle: “Hands off the Border Collie! We own Border Collies. Our dogs are companion dogs, obedience dogs and livestock-herding dogs. For hundreds of years, Border Collies have been bred to strict performance standards and today they’re the soundest, most trainable dogs in the world. The AKC wants to push them out of the Miscellaneous Class and into the show ring. They seek a conformation standard [appearance standard] for the breed. We, the officers of every single legitimate national, regional and state Border Collie association, reject conformation breeding. Too often, the show ring fattens the puppy mills and creates unsound dogs. We will not permit the AKC to ruin our dogs.”
They filed to legally trademark the name but, like the Lab litigants, lost in court. In 1997, the first Border Collie was shown in conformation at Westminster. I was there that year and interviewed a handler/owner who had been instrumental in getting the breed registered and in writing the standard. I asked her how she did her research. “This dog is shown in Australia, the British Isles and New Zealand. So I read their standards and asked them what they would do differently if they could. I tried to emphasize movement and gait. The standard shouldn’t describe a still dog. The Border Collie is almost a vision of movement even when it is standing still … always poised on the brink of action. The head drops for a reason. It is common knowledge among Border Collie people. That’s why I didn’t include a description of the head in the standard. I thought everybody would know that.”
In the benching area, surrounded by panting dogs crowded into crates and standing patiently while being primped on grooming tables, the woman sat in a folding chair, visibly distraught. Tearyeyed, she continued: “Right before you got here, a prominent breeder came by and said he will breed a dog with the head held higher. The head has to do with movement in the field, in making eye contact with the sheep, the pattern of behavior that has evolved from two centuries of work. Now I regret having fought so hard for this. The standard should not threaten the dog as a working animal, but I believe it now will.” About the same time the Border Collie war was raging, AKC enthusiasts saw an opportunity to register the Jack Russell Terrier (JRT), an irascible, independent dog with an intense work ethic, extremely diverse genome and phenotype as dissimilar as that of the Border Collie. Many Jack Russell Terrier breeders vehemently opposed the action, claiming that the breed’s physical and working characteristics would be jeopardized by this move. Nevertheless, the splinter group formed the requisite national breed club, named itself the Jack Russell Terrier Breeders Association (JRTBA) and gained AKC recognition in 2001.
A lawsuit ensued. After an expensive court battle, the name Jack Russell Terrier was awarded to the working phenotype and the AKC changed the conformation dog’s name to Parson Russell Terrier. The AKC parent club is now the Parson Russell Terrier Association of America.
Writer Alston Chase, who includes the story of the breakup of the breed in his book We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear (2008, Transaction Publishers), told me, “The Jack Russell Terrier is a feisty, very aggressive, very tough dog. But middle-class urbanites don’t really want that kind of dog. They want a dog that will be a good pet.” Chase, who lives in rural Montana, has bred the working terrier since the 1970s.
The public took notice of the rather obscure breed when it became a media darling in the 1980s. Chase said, “The overbreeding followed the popularity driven by the media, not by the dog itself.” Aggressive and difficult in a pet environment, the breed was misrepresented as a mischievous lap dog on shows like the NBC sitcom Frasier. Surprised and disappointed by their dogs’ ornery personalities and exercise requirements, urban pet owners abandoned JRTs at shelters in record numbers.
According to Chase, one of only a handful of people in the U.S. continuing to breed the old-fashioned dog, “We’re doing what we can to prevent extinction of the original breed, but people aren’t in love with the value of diversity in the dog. They want dogs that look alike.”
Geneticist Jasper Rine, in a letter to the AKC supporting the Border Collie anti-conformation campaign (included in the appendix of McCaig’s 2007 book), predicted what was to come. “It may be nearly impossible to breed for a particular behavior based on heterozygous advantage and still achieve a homogenous conformation.” Breeding dogs for fixed conformation means breeding for homozygosis (the formation of genetically identical gametes) of the genes that contribute to appearance. In doing so, genetic linkage (the tendency of genes located in proximity to each other on a chromosome to be inherited together during meiosis, or cell division) may result in genes near those controlling conformation becoming homozygous as well. Unfortunately, chance determines which genes are swept up. By breeding for conformation, breeders may be breeding away from desirable behavior, even putting alleles (forms of a gene) at risk for extinction.
So, what has happened to the Labrador Retriever, Border Collie and Jack Russell Terrier over the last 15 years?
The shorter-legged, more compact field-bred Lab continues to be shown in Canada, the UK and other countries that don’t disqualify individuals based on size. In the U.S., conformation and companion Labs are getting increasingly larger. Will diseases linked to large size compromise the American line? Time will tell.
As a consequence of the acrimonious Border Collie war, few working dog breeders had a desire to become specialty judges, so the fate of the conformation dog was left in the hands of generalist judges who lacked sheepdogtrial experience. As predicted, the standard created a split type: working dogs continue to be a rag-tag group, dissimilar in shape, size and color, but the same in their relentless determination to move sheep from one place to another. In contrast, AKC dogs look very similar, but their ability to herd sheep is open to question. Are both types called Border Collies? Formally, yes, but the AKC dog is widely, popularly and even affectionately known as the “Barbie Collie” by some: pretty as a picture, but, according to the member-owned American Border Collie Association and others, as blandly attractive and vacuous as the doll from which the name derives.
The working Border Collie is safe for now, but the old-fashioned Jack Russell Terrier can hardly be found. Like the Old English Bulldog who faded away with the passage of the 1835 Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wolfhound who died out with the demise of the wolf in the British Isles, the pre-AKC JRT will likely disappear as well. Eventually, sentimental breeders may attempt to recreate the breed when they realize what they’ve lost, and they may perhaps have some success in replicating the way the dog appeared. But the breed’s signature obstreperous temperament is something people will only read about in books.
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It would seem, then, that words are indeed powerful. To say that the lexicon used to describe a purebred dog, or even name one, will not affect the way we engineer the animal contradicts the language-relativity hypothesis, which holds that the vernacular we use to frame our perceptions influences the way we regard, understand, interpret and reinvent them. As a tool, language plays an important role by which innovation—in this case, of a sentient human-made domestic animal—is further developed. Or, as the AKC says, refined.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? If you’re talking about dog breeds, that’s not a rhetorical question. The answer is no.
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