Friday, February 27, 2009


When I first began to blog, I found another blog ( called “Querencia” after Bodio’s novel by that name. This blog touched on many of my interests (high east slope prairie, archeology, ranch culture, Bozeman literati, and dogs). The phenomenon of blogs touching blogs touching blogs (called “linking”) is what makes a technological phenomenon into an organic human network coming from real-life knowledge and pursuits. This is parallel to, uncontrolled by, and often far more honest than the usual media outlet networks.

One of the great dog blogs is which is written by Patrick Burns, one of the most literally grounded dog people on the planet. As a former animal control officer and constant dog companion, I find him a joy and a source of insight. His special interest is in “digging on the dogs” which consists of taking working terriers into the fields, chasing varmints (groundhogs, possoms, foxes, raccoons -- those smallish pesky mammals) down their holes, and then digging them back out. (The opposite of using hounds to tree a big cat.) What happens to them then varies, depending on the local population, the health state of the critter, and so on: some are set free. There are often photos. It’s got to be one of the most aerobic sports possible.

Terrierman links to a whole circle of dog people full of common sense. Lately this circle has begun to form and toughen into a counter-movement responding to HSUS and other publicity machines intent on raising money by monopolizing the subject. I’ve known the latter since my animal control days in the Seventies when HSUS was trying to discredit other humane organizations, esp. the American Humane Association. Their tactic is to portray something as an atrocity (in those days a high-altitude machine as a method of euthanasia), tie it to their enemy, and thereby demonize the enemy into extinction. In this case they didn’t manage to eliminate AHA, but they did make that method of killing impossible to use anymore.

When the public gets it into their heads that something is demonic, there’s no arguing with them. Also, if they get hold of the idea that something is linked to high status and possibly big money, they hang on just as hard. An example is the American Kennel Club. Based on British class system assumptions plus early domestic animal breeding, for a century or more dog “breeds” have been defined and enforced by the AKC, convincing people that having “papers” means a dog is worthy in both senses. But, also like the Brit landed gentry, the control of pedigree by inbreeding has created dogs with deep genetic flaws and validated the assumptions that make puppy mills possible: forget the dog itself -- consider the piece of paper that comes with it.

The AKC makes money by issuing these “birth certificates” that claim a particular provenance (parentage) without any information about the actual genetic inheritance of the pup, which can be badly compromised by various forces, but esp. the practice of canine incest. Incest, as defined by law, is not meant to be a moral law handed down by God and the Bible, so much as a practical prohibition to prevent damaged babies. But a dog that is prone to joint trouble, deafness, heart trouble and so on is still considered valuable if it has papers. In the early days the faulty pups were destroyed. Because of their “papers” they are now commodified for the gullible as pets.

But that’s not all. Having co-opted the idea of certain classes being “better” than others, based on appearance, the practice of “dog shows” arose. In fact, back in the days before Hitler showed where this would lead with his strange notions of an “Aryan” breed, for which he himself didn’t qualify, county fairs used to hold the equivalent of dog shows for humans, which were generally won by big blonde people. Appearance-based dog shows, added to the idea of provenance or inheritance, have created dog “breeds” with cruel, life-shortening defects. Ask any veterinarian.

The circle of dog people who write blogs I read are also fond of forming loose organizations based on dog breeds but their “breeds” or types of dogs are not grouped according to appearance. Rather they are based on performance. So terriers (terra=earth) are suited by size and temperament to pursue critters more or less their size and chase them down holes -- then dive into the holes after them. This is only helpful if the person with the dog has a shovel and spud bar, plus the energy to dig.

So what’s a “good” dog in this way or in the many other ways that dogs work with people -- specialization that formed the breeds in the first place, esp. since the specialties tend to be local -- is an effective dog, a dog that can be shaped by circumstances, evolved. Patrick is constantly reminding us that a dog with a large chest can’t go down a groundhog hole, no matter how motivated it is. And a high energy terrier kept as a pet in an apartment where no one is home all day, is going to raise hob, quite aside from the fact that as Temple Grandin remarks, a dog that lives in solitary confinement is suffering more than a hog in a factory farm, where it at least has companions. Dogs need things to do and friends who are present to do them with.

Though dogs can “speak” and defend themselves, in the face of intractable and predatory humans they are -- um -- out-manned. Therefore Patrick and his friends have made themselves into publicity terriers and are providing polemic artwork, often based on the idea of evolution. At Patrick’s website you can find examples, in case you want to go walk around the Crufts Kennel Club show, “barking” visually.

Around here people are not sentimental about animals. They love their companions and take good care of them, but they also deal with livestock as their living and know that fancy credentials don’t guarantee conformance or performance. The result of reproduction might simply be the usual hamburger. They want to see the genome, since often they buy only the sperm of the bull, not the bull.

Neither will they tolerate cruelty. Right now the Montana legislature is wrestling with the problem of how to write a bill to close down “animal hoarding” and puppy mill operations. Not easy, since hoarders are often certifiable dementia sufferers who think they are being kind to confine animals they cannot feed or care for and puppy mills who think they will get rich. They are protected by those sentimental enough to approve of outfits like HSUS who show up, offer sound bites to the media, accept checks, and leave.

As we struggle to dis-commodify so many things by restoring them to their rightful value, dogs should take a high priority.


Anonymous said...

I'd commend to you Alston Chase's lovely and tender memoir of life in rural Montana on the Smith River, and he and his wife Diana's love of Jack Russell Terriers. It's called We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear, after the Kipling line.

But it is so much more. It digs into the human vanity and the horror of AKC breeding and pedigree, which he believes has virtually destroyed a number of breeds. He provides a rich history of terriers, and how breeding is demolishing them. He notes that the breed was founded by the Reverend Russell, from mixed terrier mutts with athletic skills. The reason the Jack Russell is such a healthy dog is that it has mixed blood. It's a mongrel, with outbreeding the norm.

He probes the metaphysics of pet ownership, and the absorbing question of whether dogs or other pets can or should be duplicated or cloned. And he probes what it really means to lose a beloved pet.

But the book is also a rich, anecdotal account of Montana life with pets, and has won much acclaim from reviewers. In that, he and Mr. Bodio have much in common, and wisdom to share with us all.

Richard Wheeler

Steve Bodio said...

Hi Richard. I second your nomination of Alston's book. Actually Libby and I were among his first readers and if you look in the acknowledgments you will find us. I think it is one of the best dog books ever!