Dog breed origins are often shrouded in a “creation myth.” If you ever read an all-breed dog book, the official breed origins come across as awfully fanciful. Virtually every breed is regarded as ancient or derived from some private stock belonging to some notable: Afghan hounds were the dogs Noah took on the Ark. Beagles appear on the Bayeux Tapestry. Pharaoh hounds were the hunting dogs of the Ancient Egyptian dynasties.
These stories posit the breed as being part of something deep in the past and maintaining the breeds is magnified as a way of paying homage to the past.
Some breeds are, however, pretty old, or at least genetically distinct from the rest of dogdom to be seen as something unique. Chow chows are a good example. They retain a lot of unique, primitive characters, and as East Asian primitive dogs, they may be among the oldest of strains still in existence.
Konrad Lorenz deeply admired the breed’s wolf-like attributes, believing they represented the best of the so-called “Lupus dogs.” Lorenz believed that most dogs were actually the descendants of golden jackals, and the dogs were friendly to most people and easily broken to fit the will of man. These were the “Aureus dogs.” But the dogs that were more aloof and more independent of the wishes of their masters were seen as the direct descendants of wolves. Lorenz preferred this type of dog, and he kept many chows and chow crosses in crosses as his own personal dogs and “study subjects.”
Lorenz later rejected the dichotomy between the jackal and wolf dogs, but the idea is still worth exploring. What Lorenz actually discovered was a profound division that exists in domestic dogs: the primitive versus the derived.
In terms of evolution, an organism is considered primitive if it retains characters and behavior that are very like the ancestral form. For example, lemurs are considered more primitive than other primates because they have the long muzzles and wet noses of the ancestral primates.
Primitive dogs are those that retain many features in common with the wolf. These features include erect ears, pointed muzzles, howling rather than barking, bitches having only one heat cycle per year, pair-bonding behavior, and general tendency not to be obedient. Many primitive dogs bond with only a single person, and in the most extreme cases, allow only that person to touch them.
Lots of “Nordic” breeds fall into this category, but this list also includes many of the drop-eared sighthounds from Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Indian Subcontinent. It also includes many of the village dogs from undeveloped countries, as well as the semi-domesticated pariah dogs and dingoes.
The chow chow sort of fit between both Nordic breed type and the village dog type. It has many of the features of the Nordic breeds– curled tail and prick ears– but it also has had a long history as a village dog in China, where it had periods in which it freely bred.
One would think that chow chow fanciers would be into celebrating their dogs as primitives, like owning something between wild and domestic.
But dog people being dog people are more than willing to add embellishments.
Westerners have done a lot to add to the bear-like features of the chow chow, which Konrad Lorenz actually castigated.
However, dog breeders will often go to great lengths to justify breeding decisions, including putting out absolute science fiction as scientific fact.
A few years ago, I heard an acquaintance mention that a well-educated chow owner she knew firmly believed that chow chow were derived from bears.
I laughed at it. I did not think there was a serious discussion that chow chows were derived from bears.
And then I received notice of this website, which purports to have the full history of the chow chow. The history begins as follows:
It´s assumed that during the Miocene period (between 28 to 12 million years back), the evolution of the Hemicyon, an intermediary between the Cynoelesmus [sic], “father” of all the canine ones, and the Daphoneus [sic] – from which the bears descend as we know them today, – originated the Simocyon, an animal that varied between a fox and a small bear that inhabited in the sub-Arctic regions Siberia and the Northwest of Mongolia and of which it is known had 44 teeth.
I don’t know where this actually comes from, but it is entirely in ignorance of what we now know about the evolution of bears and dogs. Dogs and bears are indeed closely related, but the division between the two is much deeper than the dates proposed here. Their most recent common ancestor was the ancestral stem-caniform miacid, which lived about 40 million years ago. Most of the “ancestors” mention here are actually evolutionary dead ends that have little to do with modern bears or dogs.
First of all Hemicyon was not an intermediary between dogs and bears. The Hemicyon family was actually a branch of the bear lineage. Unlike the true bears, it was digitigrade and was probably a cursorial predator like wolves are today. The Hemicyon family lived between 11 and 17 million years ago, and it has left no living descendants. That is, it is in no way an intermediary form between dogs and bears.
The author mentions “Cynoelesmus,” probably meaning Cynodesmus. My guess is this discrepancy comes from a poor cut-and-paste job, but although Cynodesmus was a primitive dog. It is not the ancestor of all living dogs. The ancestor of all living dogs was Leptocyon. Leptocyon was once considered part of Cynodesmus, but it is no longer.
The other two ancient creatures mentioned in the opening have nothing to do with bears or dogs.
“Daphoneus,” which refers to Daphoenus, a type of Amphicyonid. Amphicyonids were are really spectacular sister family to the canids, which had traits in common with both bears and dogs but really behaved more like big cats. This family has nothing to do with evolution of dogs, except that this is a sister lineage that went extinct.
Simocyon was actually something even a little bit cooler. It was not a dog. It was not a bear. It wasn’t even in the lineage of either family. Instead, it was a genus of leopard-sized animals much more closely related to the red panda. In case you were wondering, red pandas are not closely related to giant pandas. Giant pandas are actually a primitive form of bear. Red pandas are their own thing. Modern red pandas are the only species in their family known as Ailuridae. Millions of years ago, there were several species of red panda, and Simocyon was actually a large predatory red panda. Like the modern red panda, Simocyon had a thumb formed out of its sesamoid bone. Giant pandas have this thumb, and it was thought to connect both modern species of panda. Now, we know that the giant panda, which is a true bear, actually evolved its sesamoid thumb in parallel to the red panda. The red panda lineage evolved this trait so they could more easily climb in trees, while the giant panda evolved it to hold bamboo.
So that entire introduction to chow chow history is simply wrong. It may have been correct carnivoran paleontology at one point, but it also seems that the originators of this theory just went around looking for creatures that sounded like they might be fossil dogs that could be found in Asia. “Cyon” does mean dog, but it doesn’t always refer to dogs in scientific names. Remember that there is a primitive whale the unfortunate name of “Basilosaurus,” which is in no way related to any lizard or dinosaur, and the raccoon family is called “Procyonids,” even though they aren’t that closely related to dogs.
Again, I don’t know why this theory is so popular, except that it can be used as a defense for breeding more and more bear-like features into chow chows than they had when they first came into the West. It’s also a way of making chows so much more super-special than the were before.
But it really makes chow fanciers look silly to anyone who has ever looked closely at carnivoran evolution.
It’s a fun story, but it’s not based in reality.
And when you get the paleontology this wrong, then virtually nothing of value can be trusted until the error is corrected.
Chows are cool as primitive dogs. They don’t need all the malarkey.
With all of the rallies going on in Washington, DC this weekend, it made me think about ways we might support dog-related causes. Until next time, Good day, and good dog!
The word “dog” connotes familiarity. The domestic creature that we know so well is Canis lupus familiaris. We know it as well as family.
But the truth of the matter there is a whole world of dogs we don’t know at all. When we look beyond the domestic into wild, there is a world that so utterly alien to us that we rely upon scientists and nature documentaries to tell us about it.
And the scientists know wild dogs. That is not to say that they know everything about them, but if we look at what science knows about wolves, red foxes, and coyotes, then we see that many of the questions have already been answered.
Red foxes are known because of their ubiquity. North America and Eurasia are full of them, and they’ve been introduced to Australia, where they are a pretty nasty invasive species. Wolves are known because they have become avatars for the conservation movement. It was this species that came to symbolize the wild in both North America and Europe, and its restoration is seen as a sort of redemption for all the other massacres and mismanagement that have so stained our relationship with the wild creatures. And so long as coyotes live in the canyons, brush-thickets, and suburban lawns of most of North America, they will be studied as much as they are both reviled and revered in their new kingdom.
Wild dogs have their die-hard enthusiasts. Researchers follow the African wild dog throughout the lion ranges, trying to find out more about them, and other researchers go to Chiloe to find out the deepest secrets of the Darwin’s fox.
But the truth of the matter is there one wild dog that we will never get to know. It is one that haunts the jungles and never reveals to us what it truly is.
Atelocynus microtis is how the scientists know it. English-speakers call it a “short-eared dog, and it is truly a bizarre creature. Weighing roughly 20 pounds, it slinks through the rainforests of the Amazonian interior on webbed cat feet. It has a long, pointed muzzle, almost like a coyote’s, but its resemblance to the North American little wolf is instantly shatter when one looks at its ears. They are are short and rounded where the coyote’s are often freakishly large and sharply pointed.
Unlike the coyote, which can live in the urban world quite well, the short-eared dog lives by totally shunning mankind. If humans can easily live in an area, you won’t find a short-eared dog.
Many theories about its rarity near human settlements exist, but the most intriguing is that it really is deeply impacted by the presence of domestic dogs. Domestic dogs, which derive from Eurasian wolves, carry a whole host of diseases to which the short-eared dog has no immunity. Perhaps canine disease swept through the short-eared dog population, leaving behind only those individuals with a genetic tendency to avoid people.
They wander the jungles–lowland forest, Amazonian forest, and even cloud forest–but reveal their secrets to us only in glints and glares, in quick camera trap captures and occasion run-ins along forest trails.
They materialize as mysteriously as coyotes do in the white-tail woods, yet they reveal almost nothing as they pass. They appear and are gone like phantoms in the mist.
A few years ago, one was kept captive. He was found as an abandoned puppy in the Peruvian Amazon. A veterinarian named Renata Leite Pitman kept him, and her time of this creatures, which she named “Oso,” came to be the most intensive relationships anyone has ever had with a short-eared dog. She took Oso on long walks in the forest, and Oso revealed his secrets to her.
She used him to connect with the wild ones. The approached him while he was on leash, seeming to ignore that he was attached to a human. A female offer to mate with him. A male stalked him from a distance.
She came to know that Oso had an innate fear of jaguars. If she showed him jaguar scat or played jaguar sounds, he would run in terror. He was so young when captured that there is no way he could have learned this from his mother.
From Oso, we learned that the short-eared dog is a major seed disperser, but they still prefer meat to all other foods.
We also learned that male short-eared dogs aren’t sexually mature until they are three years old. Their testicles simply don’t descend until then. For a dog of that size, that is remarkably long time before sexual maturity.
Leite Pitman studied others of Oso’s kind. She set up camera traps and put radio collars them.
But we still know next to nothing about them.
Their exact range is still hotly debated. They have been spotted as far north as Panama’s Darien Province, and it is suggested that the mysterious mitla the Percy Fawcett encountered in Bolivia was likely a short-eared dog or something very much like one.
Compared with what L. David Mech and Doug Smith know about wolves or what Stanley Gehrt and Simon Gadbois know about coyotes or David MacDdnald knows about red foxes, Renata Leite Pitman has only scratch the tiniest layer of the surface when it comes the short-eared dog.
This will be the enigma dog, the one we simply cannot know. The jungle will hide it well, and it will live without us knowing.
There is nearly a pop culture following for the thylacine, that extinct marsupial carnivore from Tasmania that looked like a wild dog with a pouch. It’s probably extinct, but it is still an enigma. It was an enigma when it was alive, and it is an even more so now that it is gone. We want it to be alive so we can have it reveal its secrets, but these secrets have passed with the last of the striped false canine.
But the short-eared dog is still here. Its mysteries are still looming long in the mist. Maybe we can find out. Maybe we can know.
But this creature seeks to avoid our kind, enemies who bring not just violence of predations as the jaguar does but also the pestilences that waft from the lop-eared village wolves through the jungle air.
Atelocynus mictrotis is canis enigmaticus. The enigma protects it, shrouds it, veils it in mystery.
And without us, it moves long the jungle paths, sniffing the air for jaguars and rotting fruit. Free but harried. Unmastered but unknown.
This is the dog we will not know as it wanders the Lost World away from us into the densest thicket.
Doesn’t it seem like it was just New Year’s Day? Well, Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and today we kicked off a mega Valentine’s Day giveaway with Bark &…
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First and foremost, thank you and the countless others who provided a voice for the innocent fur baby victims of the vile and disgusting Vick.
It troubles me that you carry such horrific imagery of what occurred at the pool on Vick's property. Someone with such compassion for the voiceless doesn't deserve such a heavy burden. It speaks volumes about you as a deeply compassionate person, that you have absorbed the pain of what these innocent creatures must have endured, although I do hope somehow this burden can be lifted from your shoulders and your mind.
I am not one that easily forgives although, being a person of faith and knowing God encourages us to forgive, I do try. I cannot say this about Vick though, God forgive me but, in my mind to forgive or even try to forgive that vile, disgusting excuse for a human being would be no different that worshiping the devil himself. Maybe he has paid his debt to society from a legal view (although I say that is crud) but he has not and in my opinion will never pay his just dues to each and every animal who suffered at his hand. Since individuals like him don't usually change for the better, I fear dogs may now be suffering the same fate at his hand and pray to God that I'm wrong.
God forgive me, but I pray that when Vick's time has come that he receives the very same compassion that he showed the dogs unfortunate enough to live and die in his world. May he suffer no less than 10 times the pain and slow death for each dog that suffered at his hand. Unless there are others we know of at least 51 so by my calculations he is deserving of no less than 510 times the suffering and slow death as his victims. May there be a pool filled with plenty of water with Vick's name on it as well as many batteries at the ready also with Vick's name on them. I know perfect location on his body to attach the electrical cables and it is NOT on his ears.
Thank you again Donna and may you find peace from the burdens you carry.
BAD RAP Blog
I own several pit bulls and love them to death. I really don't like people out there that have such a negative view on them. Just because the owner mistreats there dog doesn't mean the dog is bad, just trained that way. I own www.pitbullsupply.com and hear a lot of stories from my customers.
Thank you for sharing
BAD RAP Blog
‘Jilly Bennett Photography – Blog’
It’s time for me move on – or rather sideways! This blog, along with Menton Daily Photo has been running for 10 years and it’s time to consolidate so that everything is in one place.
Thank you, thank you for your loyalty to Riviera Dogs and to me. Your loyalty, your comments and encouragement helped me so much in my photography journey.
The new blog will be published probably once or twice a week – but with more photos and more words. And of course there will be lots and lots of dogs – but also stories of life in France and Italy and sometimes a little about photography.
Of course, if you want to look back at postings on this blog, well, they are not going anywhere. You’ll be able to find all the posts and photographs from the last ten years at any time – I just won’t be posting here anymore.
So onwards…. if you are interested in dogs (and you’d not be here if you weren’t) but also life as it’s really lived in the south of France and Italy and my journey in photography, come with me …
Click on the link Jilly Bennett Photography and do subscribe for updates. Don’t forget to click on the confirmation button you receive after subscribing and then you’ll find me in your mailbox on a regular basis.