Sunday, 16 December 2018
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Above our camp the peaks of Montana’s Gravelly Range line the horizon is like the teeth of a bear trap. In early October it is warm in the day, ten degrees at night, but there’s snow on the 11,000-foot peaks, and John Helle is anxious to trail his last bands of sheep through the Notch while it’s still doable. Two weeks ago his other sheep crossed the 10,000 foot pass on their journey home.

The predators that prey on John’s sheep—black bears, grizzlies, mountain lions, coyotes, and reintroduced gray wolves—feel urgency too, for hard weather is coming, and creatures without a thick layer of fat won’t see spring.

Day or night, racing to investigate threats, John’s big white guard dogs warn predators off with sharp barks. To a sheepman, their incessant barking is comforting, and last night we fell asleep to the guard dog lullaby.

Twenty years ago, I bought Pip, my first sheepdog pup. What Pip taught me changed my life. Asking why dogs can affect men so profoundly has preoccupied me and brought me to remote and beautiful places.

Assisted by two guard dogs and two sheepdogs, each of John’s sheepherders tends 1,200 ewes and lambs. Tedeo’s band forded the Ruby River yesterday afternoon and at first light, started the steep climb toward the Notch. Victor’s band is crossing behind us as we mount our horses.

John’s sheepdogs, Dilly, Pirate, Spot, and Grizzly, are circling John’s horse, raring to go. Tired guard dogs yawn hugely as they lope past.

Every spring and fall John Helle trails his sheep between summer range and the home ranch. Marked with stone cairns to keep sheepmen on the route when snow or sleet is flying, this trail has been used for a hundred years. It winds through stunted forests, up steep scree slopes, and is impassable by jeep or all-terrain vehicle. Even cattle couldn’t manage it. “Without the dogs,” John Helle says, “it would be impossible.”

The common ancestors of wolf, coyote, sheepdog, and guard dog alike emerged 37 million years ago right here in North America. The earliest canid, Hesperocyon, was a long-tailed, fox-size, semi-arboreal carnivore with the distinctive shearing teeth (carnassials) our dogs have today. A scant 12 million years later some canids—the Leptocyons—had evolved masticating teeth too, adding seeds, nuts, and vegetation to their meat diet. But the dominant canids, the Borophagines, opted for a meatier diet and became large, powerful bone crushers. Open savannas favored larger ungulates (mammoths, bison), which are difficult prey for solitary carnivores, and some Borophagines became cooperative hunters. When the earth’s climate cooled, the large animals upon which the Borophagines depended died out, and two and a half million years ago they followed their food sources into evolutionary oblivion.

For many years, scientists thought the wolf-like Borophagine Tomarctus was the ancestor of modern canines, but from fossil dentition evidence, paleontologist Richard Tedford, of the Museum of Natural History, thinks the more adaptable Leptocyon was the true ancestor of modern dogs, wolves and foxes. Tedford believes the less specialized Leptocyons had a decisive evolutionary advantage.

Glaciation and sea-level changes during the Pleistocene allowed wolves to migrate from the New World to the Old. Modern man (perhaps only a single small band) managed to slip past the great Sahara barrier and out of Africa some 140,000 years ago. In the Near East for the first time, men met wolves.

Sheepman and sheepdog; descendants of that ancient evolutionary encounter push a bleating flood of sheep up a Montana trail, which gets steeper and rockier. John Helle’s sheepdogs course back and forth behind the sheep, while somewhere far ahead Tedeo’s dogs hold the leaders to the trail. John’s dogs obey his whistles, voice and hand commands to go left, go right, stop, lie down, and go back for sheep they’ve overlooked. On my Virginia farm, my sheepdogs aren’t taught hand commands. Otherwise, this work is familiar—though more arduous than any single day’s work my dogs are asked to do.

From the Indian Knoll site along Kentucky’s Green River. This skeleton is more than 5,000 years old and was originally excavated during the late 1930s by archaeologists from the University of Kentucky; 23 dog burials were discovered during this dig. Courtesy William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, University of Kentucky, Lexington

Archaeological interest in nonhuman species is recent, and dog evidence may not have been cataloged or retained by earlier archaeologists. Emeritus canine archaeologist Stanley Olsen remembers begging his colleagues at Harvard’s Peabody Museum to “Save the bones!”

The oldest undisputed archaeological evidence of a human/dog connection is dogs buried in human graves in present-day Israel 12 to 14,000 years ago.

Fifty years ago Konrad Lorenz proposed the popular story of dog domestication. A child finds a wolf cub. “The soft, round, wooly bundle, no doubt elicited in that small daughter of the early Stone Age the desire to cuddle it and carry it around interminably …. The father, of course, wants to drown it straight-way, but the little daughter, weeping clasps her father’s knee so that he stumbles and drops the pup, and when he stoops to pick it up it is already in the arms of the child, who is standing in the farthest corner dissolved in tears. Not even a Stone Age father could be so stoneyhearted so the pup is allowed to stay.”

While wolf cubs certainly can be tamed by humans, as a domestication scenario taming is unconvincing. Tamed wolves do not instantly become domestic dogs. The desire of tamed adult wolves to cooperate with humans is weak, and they can be dangerous. I think it unlikely any Stone Age father would introduce a powerful, dangerous predator into his family circle. He would be crazy to do so.

Last year the Helle family fed three hundred bags of dog food to their twenty-eight dogs. That’s four herders with four dogs each, plus John’s four sheepdogs, which go with him everywhere, and there’s Tom Helle’s dogs, and their father Joe Helle’s dog, and the retired dogs, Ginger and Spike. John says, “Old Ginger gets real upset. She knows when I’ve been working sheep with the other dogs. When I come home, she’ll have hidden all the dog dishes.”

In 1995 post-doctoral geneticist Carles Vilà was puzzled by his own calculations. He’d been comparing wolf and dog mitochondrial DNA. The date coyotes evolved from wolves had been established from fossils, and comparing coyote MDNA with wolf MDNA had established a rate of canid mutation. By comparing dog MDNA with wolf MDNA, Vilà hoped to date dog origins but the figures weren’t coming out right. Archaeological evidence showed that dogs had evolved no more than 20,000 years ago. But Vilà’s genetic evidence kept showing a much older date. After some sleepless nights he took his calculations to his advisor, evolutionary geneticist Robert Wayne.

Vilà and Wayne were stunned to learn that, on the genetic evidence, the dog became a dog between 60,000 and 125,000 years ago.

They weren’t happy with their finding. Mutation in MDNA is erratic. What if the canid mutation rate had changed? If the dog’s genetic clock had sped up, the dog might have evolved when the archaeologists said it had. Perhaps the historically recent enthusiasm for dog show breeding had accelerated the rate of dog mutations.

So Wayne studied the Cholo (Mexican hairless), a dog population so isolated its genetic clock could not have been influenced by dog show breeding. Cholo DNA produced the same date as the earlier samples. He next took DNA samples from mummified Inca dogs and Inuit dogs entombed in Alaska permafrost for 10,000 years. Early results from these studies support Vilà/Wayne’s original dating. When archaeologists decry the absence of dog bones in 60,000-year-old human sites, Wayne suggests that perhaps early dogs—protodogs—weren’t morphologically distinct from wolves.

Robert Wayne’s domestication story is less sentimental than Konrad Lorenz’s. Wayne thinks wolves were attracted to the scraps in human middens and humans didn’t drive them away because these midden wolves warned humans of other, deadlier predators. Over thousands of years some of these wolves/protodogs/dogs became useful guardians and hunters. Others were eaten.

Some scientists were struck by the evidence that modern man and wolves arrived in the near east at approximately the same time. Cal Tech Professor John Allman has speculated that humans and dogs may have co-evolved; that perhaps we thin-skinned humans survived during the last ice age rather than more cold-tolerant Neanderthals because we had dogs and Neanderthals did not.

Allman told me that the wolf/protodog/dog provided humans, “a superior sense of smell, superior hearing and superior vision at night.”

When humans began to farm and build settlements, dogs started resembling modern dogs. The ancient Egyptians bred 70 varieties as hunters, guard dogs, war dogs, pets, healing dogs, and dogs bred for sacrifice.

The prehistoric canids’ ability to fill numerous ecological niches was inherited by the dog, which exhibits a greater morphological variety than any other mammal. The two-pound Chihuahua and one hundred eighty-pound Bull Mastiff are equally Canis familiarus. If we humans exhibited similar variety, some adults would weigh 20 pounds, others nearly a ton. Dogs’ uses have been as various as their shapes: Canis familiarus hunts bears, birds, deer, foxes, coyotes, rats, gazelles, and lions. He guards against predators—human and other. He herds sheep, cows, hogs, geese, turkeys, goats, and reindeer. He has pulled travois, sleds, carts, and in the First World War, Maxim machine guns. In some protein-poor Asian and Polynesian cultures (and at times in modern Europe), dogs have been eaten. Dog skins have become human garments. Seizure detection dogs predict epileptic seizures so the victim can reach safety before being incapacitated. Dogs sniff out drugs. The dog hears for humans and sees for humans; he has always smelled for humans. After careful training and several weeks on the outskirts of a minefield to learn what belongs in that place and what does not, dogs detect land mines.

A faded red star surmounts a battered concrete pylon beside the Albanian border station. We’re a few hundred yards above the morning fog and the scorched hillside where NATO planes had bombed Serb positions a year before. The partially cleared minefield looks like a survey crew had been laying stakes and string for an unusually precise, unusually complicated building project. Deminers call these mines “toe tappers”: five or six ounces of explosive, pressure detonator, plastic case. If you’re lucky, they’ll break your foot. If you’re unlucky, they’ll blow your foot off.

For the deminers it’s just a job, and they pause at the tin coffee shack across from the border station for a cup of thick Turkish coffee and shot of slivowitz before they don flak jackets and helmets with protective face shields and start up the ridge, walking inside a previously cleared safe zone perhaps ten feet wide. From either side of that zone, each man–dog demining team works a marked square.

Stipo Mijatović and Kim have been partners for four years. Stipo Mijatović is a big, tough Croatian; Kim is the smallest German Shepherd bitch I’ve ever seen. As we speak, Stipo’s hand strokes Kim continuously.

Kim is trained to search, stop and observe, sit and wait for the next command. When Kim alerts on a mine, she promptly sits and looks back to Stipo, who is right behind her. Stipo takes Kim to safety before he crawls forward to locate and disarm the mine.

Were Kim to bypass a mine without alerting, consequences to Stipo could be serious. And though infrequent, accidents do happen. Last spring the dog Ellis was distracted by a stray dog, stepped out of his marked square, and detonated a mine. The deminers evacuated Ellis to Pristina, and then medevaced the dog to Sarajevo. His foot was saved and Ellis is getting physical therapy to return him to his job. These dogs were bought in Holland, trained in the US, and are worth $20,000 each.

Stipo doesn’t work Kim in wind or rain or if Kim is out of sorts. After 30 minutes of intense searching Kim and Stipo take a break in the safe zone and play a little ball.

When I ask Stipo if he trusts Kim, Stipo says, simply, “She has never failed to alert.”

When I ask Stipo what Kim thinks of him, the deminer stares at me like I’m a complete dunce before giving Kim’s leash to a another who walks away with her. For a few yards Kim trots along calmly until she realizes she’s being separated from the man who follows her into deadly peril every day of her life. Kim spins and lunges against the leash until she is back at Stipo’s side, where Stipo resumes his incessant stroking. Kim looks up, as if to ask Stipo: “What on Earth did you do a crazy thing like that for?”

The most recent phase of dog evolution began in the 19th century. In 1866 Charles Dickens described how early dog shows were judged: “The beauty of one dog, the ugliness of another, and of all the utmost development of the individual peculiarities of the species to which they belonged, would seem to be the causes operating with the judges. Prizes are to be won by size, by depth of chest, by clean finish of limb, and symmetry of points as in the case of the setter, the retriever, the greyhound, the pointer. Meanwhile to be bandy, blear eyed, pink-nosed, blotchy, underhung, and utterly disreputable is the bulldog’s proudest boast. The bloodhound’s skin should hang in ghastly folds about his throat and jaws with a dewlap like a bull. The King Charles spaniel wears a fringe upon his legs like a sailor’s trousers, and has a nose turned up so abruptly that you could hang your hat upon it if it were not so desperately short.… Truly the qualifications of dogs are numerous, and very various their claims on our admiration.”

Early dog shows were part pet show, part business, part curiosity; one enterprising American dentist exhibited a dog whose teeth he’d replaced with gold inlays. Crowded dog shows were terribly unhealthy for dogs and promoters lost money on them. Cheating was so prevalent that the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom and later the American Kennel Club (AKC) were organized to regulate the shows.

People soon began to think that purebred dogs registered by the kennel clubs were rather special. As one commentator put it: “I hope and trust that the time is not very far distant when either ladies or gentlemen will be ashamed to walk in the street in the somewhat vulgar company of mongrels.”

The English dog food salesman, Charles Cruft, may never have owned a dog himself (his wife said not), but Cruft was a brilliant promoter who knew how to bring in crowds and run a profitable dog show. One hundred eight years after Charles Cruft organized it, Crufts is the biggest dog show in the world. The Kennel Club has run Crufts since 1948 and won’t say how much money it makes.

In four days Crufts attracts 150,000 visitors. There are SAR (search and rescue) dogs, dog training demonstrations, agility and obedience competitions. Here a sheepdog is herding ducks; there’s the agility team made up entirely of shelter dogs—big and little dogs, mutts and purebreds. How the crowd cheers when the 12-year-old Greyhound clambers up, up, and over the steep incline!

By noon of the second day my feet hurt. You can buy postcards, souvenir mugs, original paintings of your dog. Doghouses, dog crates, and dog trailers are available. Dog food companies offer free samples and hospitality booths where the footsore spectator can sit and drink a cup of tea. I visited four booksellers specializing in antiquarian dog books.

And there are 26,000 dogs at Crufts, all the dogs anyone could ever want to see. At the breed club booths you can get information and greet dogs that somehow put up with a zillion visitors, all those kids who want to pet or tickle or rub them on the belly.

One hundred twenty-five years after Charles Cruft (an English dog food salesman) organized it, Crufts is the biggest dog show in the world. The Kennel Club Archives (left), U.S. Library of Congress (right).

But Crufts’ main event is the dog show. First all the breeds are judged, then the Best in one breed is judged against winners of similar breeds to become a “Group Winner.” On the final evening of the show, in the center ring, the Kerry Blue Terrier and the other group winners (a Bearded Collie, a Toy Poodle, a Saluki, a Bichon Frise, a Boxer and a Cocker Spaniel) stood for the judge’s inspection, trotted briskly around the ring, turned this way and that, until the judge awarded Best in Show to Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Torums Scarf Michael. Truly the qualifications of dogs are numerous, and very various their claims on our admiration.

Dog shows standardized breed morphologies and preserved breeds that otherwise might have gone extinct, like the Bulldog, originally bred for bullfighting, and the Dalmatian, originally a coachman’s dog. But there was a price. Many show dogs have evolved into highly stylized, exaggerated beasts that don’t look like or work like their ancestors. Herding dogs that can’t herd, hunting dogs that can’t hunt, and water dogs that can’t swim well are commonplace.

Unfortunately for purebred dogs, genetic diseases became commonplace too.

I haven’t asked sheepman John Helle if his dogs are registered with any kennel club; I assume not. Most of his sheepdogs are Border Collies, one aged Australian Shepherd pants by me on the trail. John’s guard dogs are big white fluffy dogs I can’t tell apart: Maremmas, Anatolian Shepherds, and the Akbash Muggsy, who is in the dog house. After John’s first sheep left summer pasture, Muggsy decided to walk 70 miles home too. En route he paused to check out Shaggy’s flock, and the two got into a fight. Afterward the two dogs made up and decided to trail out with John’s brother’s band. “It’s hard to keep the guard dogs in place,” John says, “when the sheep are moving around.”

*

In that 1866 report Dickens contrasted the fashionable dog show with a decidedly unfashionable show: “As soon as you come within sight … some twenty or thirty dogs of every conceivable and inconceivable breed, rush towards the bars, and, flattening their poor snouts against the wires, ask in their own peculiar and forcible language whether you are their master come at last to claim them?

“For this second dog show is nothing more nor less than the show of the Lost Dogs of the metropolis—the poor vagrant homeless curs that one sees looking out for a dinner in the gutter, or curled up in a doorway taking refuge from their troubles in sleep. To rescue these miserable animals from slow starvation, to provide an asylum where, if it is of the slightest use, they can be restored with food, and kept till a situation can be found for them; or where the utterly useless and diseased cur can be in an instant put out of his misery … to effect these objects, and also to provide a means of restoring lost dogs to their owners, a society has actually been formed.”

Dog Crouching by a Cap and Crook, Sir Edwin Landseer, etching on paper. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

That society, that unfashionable dog show, persists today as London’s Battersea Dog’s Home. Although Battersea is justifiably proud of its spanking new state-of-the-art facility (it has ramps instead of stairs because dogs don’t like stairs), some original Victorian kennels are still in use.

A handsome young Rottweiler had been abandoned outside the Dog’s Home. In its expensive crate the dog was drooling, urinating and whining in fear. The security guard who brought the dog inside had tattoos, body piercings, and very gentle eyes.

“Security?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Sometimes people come drunk. Sometimes they drop a dog and come back a couple hours later and want it back.”

Battersea takes in dogs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and rehomes almost all of them. Groomers, trainers, and vets make the dogs presentable, amenable, and healthy. (Later that morning I saw that terrified Rottweiler a second time: cleaned up, vet checked, and trotting contentedly behind a Battersea staffer.) Four Battersea vans visit London’s police stations, collecting the city’s strays.

Dog’s Home staffers interview prospective owners to make a proper match and make home visits to ensure the match will last for a lifetime.

In September the Dog’s Home holds its annual reunion, and last year 3,000 rehomed dogs and 7,000 people came to nearby Battersea Park to try their dogs in races and agility games, costume them as Queen Elizabeth the First or Sherlock Holmes or something equally, wonderfully ridiculous. (I particularly admired Gus, the tiny Papillon done up as a bee.) People come from all over Britain just to spend a pleasant fall day with others as dotty as they are about their dogs.

Since I am certifiably dog dotty and had been away from my own dogs for too long, I was dog bereft and arrived too early while the staff was still setting up the tents. The only dog in sight was a huge, beautiful German Shepherd so I struck up a conversation with the dog’s young owner.

Lucas, the beautiful Shepherd, was just ten months old but severely dysplastic. Dysplasia (the dog’s femur can’t stay in its pelvic socket) is genetic and not uncommon in big German Shepherds.

“He’ll get his second x-rays next week,” the young man said. The young man wasn’t dressed like someone who could easily afford diagnostic x-rays.

“Lucas can’t play with other dogs. If he starts running and jumping, he’s in awful pain. It breaks my heart, really. He’d so like to play with the others.”

“Well,” I said stupidly, “I hope you enjoy the day.”

“Oh, we can’t stay. It’d get him too excited like. I just thought I’d bring him over early, before the other dogs came, so Lucas could be part of the reunion.” After a pause he added, “They say he won’t live past six.” He touched Lucas’ beautiful head, softly. “Still …”

At 10,000 feet the sheep trail crosses steep, unstable scree, and I scramble along, leading my horse. A couple years ago a sheep got lost up here, and next day, when John Helle returned for it, the sheep was trying to join a band of mountain goats. I asked John if the trail wasn’t dangerous in bad weather, and he said he’d lost a couple packhorses but never a dog or human.

The Notch is a broad alpine meadow between Stonehouse and Springcrest Mountains, and the sheep snatch grass as they hurry across. Dilly pauses to roll and rub herself in a patch of snow. One of the guard dogs ambles past.

I can’t see a house or road or electric line. The distant mountains, the Teton range, are insubstantial as ghosts: 200 miles away. Long-dead sheepherders built a stone cairn on the Notch and built the faint sheep trails that traverse the sheer mountainsides.

On my farm back in Virginia, I’ve six sheepdogs and a guard dog. One day I will be buried on the hill where my dogs Pip and Silk and Mack and Gael are buried.

I eat lunch while John and his dogs go back to hurry Victor’s band along.

Every known genetic disease can be found in mongrel dogs but occurrences of any one disease are rare. Studies show that mixed breeds live longer and are healthier than registered purebred dogs.

Believing they could breed for the good and cull the bad, dog show breeders bred closely related dogs from closed, sometimes tiny populations (the foundation stock of some breeds is fewer than a dozen animals). What purebred breeders unwittingly did by closing registries and inbreeding was to concentrate genetic diseases. Dwarfism, blindness, deafness, lameness, aggression, bleeding, autoimmune disorders, and early death are caused by the four to five hundred different genetic diseases affecting purebred dogs.

Over time, the cumulative effect of purebred breeders’ practices began to be felt by ordinary pet owners, many of whom trusted that kennel club registration and a championship or two in the dog’s pedigree ensured a superior dog that would be, if nothing else, healthy. In Time magazine’s November 1994 cover story, “The Shame of Overbreeding,” the magazine estimated that one in four purebred dogs was afflicted by genetic disease. Not long afterward the American Kennel Club established its Canine Health Foundation.

In 1991 Jasper Rine, director of the Human Genome Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and his associate, Elaine Ostrander, began mapping the dog genome. Since 90 percent of human DNA is identical to dog DNA and 60 percent of dog genetic diseases correspond to human diseases, geneticists hoped that locating the gene for a dog disease would make it easier to locate its human counterpart. Rine and Ostrander also thought the genetic map would help locate dog genetic diseases.

The AKC’s Canine Health Foundation became a major funder of dog genome mapping and has funded research into specific diseases as well. This year it will spend more a million dollars.

Though the dog genome map is incomplete, two-thirds of the dog’s chromosomes have been identified, and two dozen dog diseases have already been located, including genes for the bleeding disorder Von Willibrand’s disease and the progressive retinal atrophy that blinded Irish Setters. Those who hoped dog genome information would provide clues to human ailments were vindicated when finding the gene that causes narcolepsy in Doberman Pinschers helped locate the human narcolepsy gene.

Cornell geneticist Gregory Acland estimates that most single-gene dog diseases will be located within the next 20 years.

And as Deborah Lynch, Director of the Canine Health Foundation, told me, purebred dog breeders who once whispered about genetic problems (if they talked about them at all) have embraced this new research enthusiastically. Indeed, some breed clubs have hired scientists to determine which genetic diseases most afflict their breed. Lynch told me, “It’s almost like coming out of the darkness into the light.”

Climbing down from the Notch is no easier than climbing up, and we lead the horses. At the head of his 1,200 sheep Tedeo can’t see or command his dogs bringing up the rear, so the dogs must work on their own. Tedeo trusts his dogs to keep the sheep moving, to bring every single sheep, to find and fetch that errant ewe and her lamb that have refuged in an alder thicket.

The dogs pause for a drink at a spring in a glade some early romantic settler named Honeymoon Park.

Identifying the mutant gene(s) that causes a particular genetic disease may be time consuming and expensive. There is no guarantee that a particular genetic disease will be caused by a single gene nor that undesirable genes won’t be linked to desirable ones. Many population geneticists and a few European kennel clubs think genetic disease can be reduced quicker and more simply by discouraging close inbreeding, especially father/daughter, mother/son, and brother/sister matings.

Long, intense inbreeding within a small, closed population can produce sterile males, reduced litter sizes, poor birthing and mothering ability. In these extreme circumstances, some population gen