Understanding Real Breed Histories

Mullock, James Flewitt, 1818-1892; Charles Randell with Greyhounds at Stonehenge

One common trope that exists in old breed histories is an attempt to connect extant dog breeds with ancient ones.  These stories were fanciful, and with the advent of the molecular revolution in biology, almost none of these stories can be taken seriously.

Among these stories are those that connect “greyhounds” with the Middle East. Often cited are the texts in the Bible, which you may have noticed, were not originally written in English.  English Bible translations were done long before we had established breed or a firm understanding of dogs in other countries, so when one reads about greyhounds in the Middle East in the Bible, it is important to understand that “greyhound” was a translated term. The dogs in the original source are not the same as the greyhound known in England and Northern Europe at the time. They are most likely referring to salukis.

Salukis and greyhounds are often thought of as being similar dogs, but having lived with both, I can tell you they are quite different dogs. Salukis are distance dogs. They don’t have lots of round muscle over their body. Greyhounds are sprinters.

Further, if I were going to pick one to train as a pet, I would go with the greyhound. They are far more biddable. Indeed, I find myself losing my temper far less with the greyhounds than I ever did with the salukis.

The reason for this difference is that the two breeds are out of entirely different stock. We know this from study of their genomes. We know that greyhounds–and whippets, Italian greyhounds, and borzoi– are from a root-stock that is most closely related to herding dogs of the general collie-type. This discovery came about through study of genetic markers.

This same study found that salukis and Afghan hounds are in a whole other clade with several livestock guardian breeds. The prick-eared sighthounds of the Mediterranean– the so-called Pharaoh hound of Malta, the Ibizan hound, and Cirneco dell’Etna– are in a different part of this same clade. They, too, are related to livestock guardians. Their closest relative is the Great Pyrenees.

In Edmund Russell’s work on the history of the greyhound in England, there is careful attention paid to the real history of these animals.

Russell contends that there is no real history of the greyhound in England until 1200, when they become common place in Medieval hunting art and literature.  The archaeology of British dogs shows that there was not much morphological variation in them until the Romans arrived. Indeed, the only main morphological variation observed in dogs in Britain before the Romans is that one specimen from the Iron Age had a shortened muzzle.

So Russell spends more time on the “greyhound” as a term that means the ancestors of these various British sighthounds, which we know from genetic data are most closely related to various herding dogs that originated in Britain.

He follows the evolution of these hounds from Medieval hunts, where there were many regional and quarry-specific strains, to the beginnings of club coursing to the modern racing and coursing greyhound. He clearly understands that some of these regional dogs become distinct breeds through political and cultural memes. The dog we call “the greyhound” today is a very specific animal that evolved through club coursing into modern racing and dog showing. The whippet is a subset that evolved from working class racing and rabbit coursing. The Scottish deerhound is a subset the was used to hunt red deer in Scotland on those large estates.

These three breeds have intertwined histories, and their evolution as breeds need to be understood within the cultural and political ideas of the societies that produced them.

Russell’s work is an environmental history, which means that he attempts to understand dog breeds and human tasks within the concept of a niche. “Niche” in this case means exactly what it does in ecology– a particular place or task within an ecosystem.

Hunting cultures will create niches. The gun dog breeds of Britain are all divided into three niches:  pointer/setter, flushing spaniel, or retriever.  We could try to understand their evolution in much the same way as Russell attempted with “the greyhound.”  The spaniel started out as the original dog, but some were good at stopping before the flush. These dogs became the setters and pointers. Later, with the advent of firearms, there was a desire to produce dogs from spaniel and setter stock that were good at picking up shot game. Having large numbers of dogs on a shoot that did different tasks was a symbol of patrician largess, and because British hunting cultures were patrician-based, these breeds evolved in this way.

This basic dog became something different in Germany, where hunting became much more egalitarian following the failed revolutions of 1848.  Commoners were given access to the forests in the various German states, as a way of alleviating class antagonisms. Because commoners could not keep vast hordes of specialized dogs, German hunters bred all-rounders. Even dachshunds have been used to pick up shot game and flush birds and rabbits. The various Vorstehhund of Germany not only did the gun dog’s task, but they were bred to flush and bay wild boar, dispatch badgers and foxes, and to retrieve any manner of game.

Russell might have made his work stronger if he had looked at other Northern European sighthounds. Dogs of this type were widespread across the North European Plain into Russia and Ukraine. Some societies lost their traditional sighthound. France, Germany, and the Benelux are without their traditional sighthounds, but Hungary and Poland have their hounds. Russia has several breeds of these type, including the widespread borzoi.  Of course, Russell’s main area of focus is the British Isles, specifically England, where the coursing greyhound was developed.

So the real histories of breeds are often a lot less fanciful than what we read in old dog books. The truth of the matter is that it is complex, and we should try to avoid putting the cart before the horse when trying to figure out the truth.

Assuming that we can piece together a breed history based upon folklore or what was written in one of those all-breed books from fifty years ago is an act of folly. We need to understand that the molecular revolution is changing how we understand how dogs evolved, and right now, it is tearing away much of our understanding of how dog breeds themselves came to be.

 

 

Natural History

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