Dogs inherit specialised hunting skills

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The dog’s most recent jobs were developed only after we started hunting with guns and killing from a distance. Small dogs (bantams) and short-legged dogs (dwarfs) that otherwise would not have survived in nature had been kept and intentionally bred for probably no more important a reason than our inherent human capriciousness. (I’m sure that’s also the reason why certain coat colours that are rare in wolves or feral dogs – white, black, deep red, piebald, tricolour, black and tan, merle – became more prevalent in dogs. Don’t go looking for logical reasons for everything we did once dogs started living with us. One factor that’s predicable in our relationship with dogs is our quirky unpredictability.) These smaller or shorter legged dogs became the hunting companions of the foot hunter, the man who walked to hunt. The smallest dogs were used as earth dogs, to scent out prey that had gone to ground. Their descendants evolved into terriers, dachshunds, pinschers and other small farm dogs. The larger ones – those that went on to become the Bassets and Laufhunds – were eventually used to chase larger prey over rough terrain.

Royalty, nobility and aristocracy throughout Europe and Asia used trained hunting dogs for sport hunting before the development of the gun, when game was captured by net or shot by arrow and it was these dogs that formed the breeding root stock for the modern gundogs, the pointers, setters and retrievers. I’ll discuss all of these dogs too, in the next chapter.

Where ever royalty or nobility hunted they enacted laws to prevent local peasants from using their own dogs to capture game set aside for the pleasure of the king. Peasants were compelled to hobble their dogs, usually by mutilating them. In some regions laws stipulated that peasant dogs have their tails docked. This was thought to alter their balance enough to make them inefficient hunters. It was also a way to determine whether a dog belongs to the aristocracy or the peasantry. More often the mutilation involved amputating a limb. The Swedish province of Oland, a thin, long island just off the east coast of that country was once a private hunting ground of the Swedish king, who had fallow deer imported onto the island as suitable game for his court and his friends to hunt. Until the law was changed in 1801 it was illegal for Oland peasants to keep dogs unless one of the dog’s front limbs was amputated.

The dog’s brain has finite abilities 

Over the millennia dogs were bred for a variety of utilitarian reasons, to be eaten, to be companions, to guard, attack, fight, kill, pull carts and sleds, turn spits, herd and chase, follow trails, point, set and retrieve. They are capable of such varied abilities because their minds are flexible. They inherited from the wolf a wonderful selection of hard-wired biological “learning centres” in their brains, abilities the wolf needed to survive and breed. Through intentional selective breeding, but just as often through whimsy and serendipity, we enhanced some of these learning centres and diminished others.

One of the factors that differentiates what a dog’s brain is capable of, from what our brains are capable of, is the influence of culture. In us, behaviour spreads from person to person, almost like a contagion. This is, of course the basis for our religious beliefs, our fashion sense, even our food preferences. Not so in the dog. Other than in puppyhood, dogs are relatively poor learners from the ‘culture’ of other dogs. In that sense, there are limited cultural influences on their behaviour. But our culture has certainly influenced today’s dogs. In the last two hundred and fifty years we began breeding them primarily for their looks – for conformity – rather than for utility. We started classifying dogs into categories and then into breeds. Once we had done that we prohibited other dogs from joining these elite categories. We created “purebreds” around 400 types of dog that have come to dominate dog numbers throughout North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.?Most of my family’s dogs have been purebreds – Scottish and Yorkshire terriers, Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Most of the dogs I care for at work are purebreds. This has given us an eclectic choice of colours, shapes, sizes and dispositions to choose from, but it has not necessarily been good for dogdom, certainly not for their physical health and well-being.

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