Sunday, March 25, 2012


You might be surprised to know that the big goofy Lab on your bed wasn't always a welcome member of refined society. I know. Hard to believe. But in 1879, in his pleasant, chatty book about dogs as ladies' companions, Gordon Stables sniffed without apology, "The Retriever, a dog of uncertain lineage, useful to pick up dead or wounded game... is not a house dog for a city."

Here's a picture of a Retriever (front row) about a hundred years ago along with a few friendly fellows on the steps of any house USA. I'll bet none of these dog had couch privileges.
Mr. Stables would be shocked to find out that the Retriever is today's most popular house dog. Here's a picture of our favorite, Paige, enjoying the house. Like her bird dog brethren past and present, Paige is still "useful to pick up dead game," but she prefers it pre-cooked and lightly seasoned.

Quote above: Stables, G. (1879). Ladies dogs as companions: A chatty pleasant book with many stories humorous and pathetic painted from life with how to manage in health and disease. London: Dean and Son. You can find this rare book and thousands of others at the Chapin-Horowitz Dog Book special collection, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William & Mary.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


"In the beginning was the word and the word was dog and the people made more dogs and used more words to differentiate those dogs until they had more than 400 different kind of dogs and more than enough words to explain the differences." ---Doctor Barkman
Breed standards are one of the tools breeders use to suspend change in purebred dogs. But breeds evolve anyway, even when standards remain unchanged. How is that so?
Exaggerated traits come and go with fashion. If the standard says the skull should be "very short from the point of the nose" to the eye (Bulldog), or "egg shaped" (Bull Terrier), fashion will dictate the length and shape of the head. A note of caution though - breeds are not mix and match combinations of thousands of small parts where you pick and choose what you want. They're more like combinations of genes, pre-packaged in bundles and shuffled around. A whole lot of genetic stuff, good and bad, goes along for the ride when a breeder pulls out a trait.
This is what a Bulldog looked like in 1900
...and today

A Bull Terrier in 1900
...and today

If the standard says, "The ears are extremely long," in a hundred years the ears will be really, really long.

This is a Bassett Hound in 1900
...and today

Some breed haven't changed much in a century. This is the German Pointer in 1900.
...and today
A standard is a handy tool for dog show judges who need to evaluate dogs in competition, but it doesn't suspend change. It's really just a lexical snapshot of a breed on its way to being something else. Breeds evolve. It's the breeders job to make sure they evolve in a healthy way.
To read the entire article about how standards influence purebred dogs in unintended ways click here.
(Vintage pictures in this post are from The New Book of the Dog by Robert Leighton, Cassell and Company. London, 1907; contemporary photos are from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


In Havana, stray dogs are everywhere. They're well fed, but no one owns them. Not so though for this girl. She's wearing a temporary tag that says, "My name is Canela. I am carmel color. I am sterilized. I live at the Museo de la Ortebreria, #113 Obispos Street."

In the cemetery, they snooze on the top of warm marble tombs, barely taking note of someone walking by. You can look, but when you get within 20 feet, they jump up and trot away.

At the Colon Cemetery we saw about 12 dogs. They rely on the generosity of dog lovers who put out bowls of food scraps and water.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Based on his clothing, I'm guessing the man is a Civil War veteran. And the buildings in the background look military, too. The photo was probably taken in the 1880s.

Snapshots of Civil War era dogs are rare. Sources point to the popularity of the big breeds during that time. My sister, Barbara Brackman, posted something on her blog about dogs in (not on) civil war era quilts. Read more at her Civil War blog.

Monday, March 5, 2012


The discovery of the size gene in dogs was huge in canine science. One reason is because so many other traits tag along with it. In the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of The Bark magazine, I wrote about this discovery in detail.

All puppies start out the same size and shape at birth.
Can you match the pups in this picture to the breed of dog? Answers are at the bottom of the post.

Boxer, Chihuahua, Great Dane, Labrador Retriever,
Mastiff, Shih Tzu, Swiss Shepherd, Weimaraner
(Puppy dog pictures courtesy of The Bark)

We never think about how weird dogs are because they're so familiar (There's a reason they're named canis familiaris). But think of it this way: If people were as physically varied as dogs, we'd weigh between 20 and 650 pounds and range in height from 3 to 10 feet.

This 1917 photo features a 4 pound Yorkshire Terrier and a 180 pound Saint Bernard.

A-2 Chihuahua; B-5 Mastiff; C-3 Great Dane; D-4 Labrador Retriever; E-7 Swiss Shepherd; F-6 Shih Tzu; G-8 Weimaraner; H-1 Boxer

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Cuba's large population of stray dogs live independent lives, like this one snoozing under a park bench in Havana. It's common to see bowls of food and water left on the sidewalk for unowned dogs.

The typical Havana pooch is long, somewhat low slung, about 20 pounds with a reddish-tan coat.

Such homogeneity might be the result of amorous activity on the part of pet dogs like this one, peeking out the door. Dachshunds make up a good part of the companion dog population.