I caught a late night documentary on the origins of the domesticated dog, the flea bitten, hair shedding thing snoring and farting on the hearth carpet, more usually the fashionable animated powder puff some women carry around in a handbag as jewellery. You can also see the same apology for a hamster walked by brawny men, the dog on the end of a very long lead (leash) to make it seem another person’s pooch.
The domestic dog shares 99.5% DNA with the wolf. That last fraction of DNA makes all the difference between you getting your face bitten off, or told ten times a day you are the greatest human being on the planet. From that infinitesimally small dose come pet dogs. The nearest in line to the wolf in shape of skull and size, is the German Alsatian, and in instincts and temperament, the Alaskan Malamute.
The documentary concerned itself with the missing link between the wolf and the domesticated dog. To find it some Russian genomic scientists bred wolf cubs in captivity as if they were pet dogs, hand reared on powdered milk fed through a syringe. All were dog-like and cuddly until they reached puberty, about 14 months. At that point they bared their fangs, growling if anybody dare go near their food, constantly aggressive and possessive. Simply put, they were uncontrollable.
After fifteen years of experimentation the scientists gave up. The conclusion was inescapable, a wolf cannot be domesticated. Yet somewhere in their evolutionary history, in the primal relationship of man the pack hunter and wolf the pack hunter, a single starving wolf lost its fear of humans and shared their food at an open fire. They became cooperative pack hunters.
It was at this junction in the documentary I began to see parallels with Scotland’s political history, our elite and our sub-groups; why so many Scots genuflect to southern mores and culture, to the extent a Scot will jeopardise his life in a war for the greater good of England.
As the documentary progressed so did the parallels. I shook the idea out of my head as glib, and then amusing, but the analogy grew and grew.
In 1959, Russian geneticist, Dmitry Belyaev, turned his attention to domesticating the Russian silver fox. His logical assumption was, a fox is more domestic dog than a wolf and forages in urban areas; surely it can be tamed? They hand-tamed adult foxes from a fox farm, those that showed no fear of humans. The foxes selected didn’t cower or bark at the scientists, or bite their hand off. Over a decade docile dog fox was paired with docile vixen.
Within three generations of pups the foxes were quite at home with humans. They enjoyed getting petted, fed when hungry, their tummies tickled, and generally treated as if one of the human family. Then a strange thing occurred.
The foxes began to lose their normal dark grey coat of thick hair and grow instead various colours and patterns. Some grew curly tails. It was if they realised they no longer needed a call of the wild camouflage. They grew coats to match their master’s home décor.
The change in the fox hair colour and behaviour came about by chemicals in its brain. In other words, that last 0.5% DNA – the ‘canine genome’ – is the trigger for morphing into a pet Papillion with tufty ears, or a snooty as hell King Charles Spaniel. The rest are dogs bred down the ages for specific tasks, for game, work, or guard dogs.
The nation that built the free world also punches well above its weight in variation of dog breeds. On the large side we have tall and leggy deerhounds and Rough collies, retrievers, sheepdogs and setters. On the small side there’s a welter of terriers, and the one most people assume is an English breed but is Scottish, the Dandie Dinmont.
The documentary also drew attention to the dog the world considers the most intelligent, And, sensitive to my Unionist analogy, I knew it just had to be a dog that rounds up sheep. Sure enough it is – the Border collie.
One collie the producers alighted upon had the intelligence of a two year old child. It was able to distinguish objects and fetch their exact match. Show it a yellow rubber duck and off it went returning with a yellow rubber duck. Show it a Christmas cracker, and yes, it returned with a Christmas cracker in its mouth. If the cracker was red it placed a red cracker at the scientist’s feet. The collie was so smart that had you shown it a two year old child it would have brought back the two-year old’s twin. Bright, energetic and loyal, the Border collie did not make a single error told what to do by its owner.
What idiots, I thought. A dog’s nose is a hundred times cleverer than a human’s proboscis. Fetching the same item as instructed has nothing to do with looks, everything to do with the scent the dog picks up from the materials used in the object’s construction. But no, the collie played a blinder. The scientist showed the dog a photograph of a teddy bear. Off trotted the collie wagging its tail and returned with … a teddy bear, and of the same size.
Dogs can do what our nearest relative, the chimpanzee cannot do. It can act on silent instruction. By merely pointing to, or at, an object a dog will go and fetch it, or look under it if it thinks there is something hidden there, such as food. A chimpanzee will keep asking for food though you point to a bunch of bananas nearby.
In fact, dogs are so attuned to our eye movements we need only shift our eyes right or left for a dog to follow the visual cue, which is exactly what that Border collie did, and without any accompanying voice command or whistle. About the only thing this smart collie couldn’t do was pick you up from the airport.
Nature or nurture? As far as we can ascertain, and from all the evidence, it’s nurture.
The story of the Border collie leaves us to ruminate the process of evolution tampered by a domineering owner. Treated as a playground for the southern traveller, Scotland can be contemptuously patronised as the Loch District to distinguish it from the genteel Lake District, a great place to exercise a gun dog.
Over three hundred years of servitude has seen Scotland breed a series of human types akin to dog breeds.
Public school educated in Edinburgh, all tartan trews and bagpipes for special occasions, a Posh Jock is represented by the Scottish terrier. With its generous beard, and sporran of belly hair down to the ground, not quite covering short stubby legs, it strikes an imposing sturdy silhouette.
The Scottish terrier sees Scotland and England as one big field, in scent not sight. Its nearest relative is the Gordon setter, a natural Tory voter and land owner.
For the perennial Highland gamekeeper we have the Deerhound, ever ready to bring down a stag for the duke’s gaming visitors. At the opposite end of the scale is the scruffy but plucky Cairn terrier, the blindly loyal Labour voter, living all its days believing the next meal will be the big one promised.
Cairn terriers are a friendly breed apt to claim the only real terrier is a Cairn terrier. The male of this sub-group has a habit of cocking its leg on anything that takes its fancy. To a Cairn terrier a Skye terrier is a Gaelic speaking islander and not enough around to through money at. Cross bred terriers are generally rejects, sent to work in the cosmetic industry. They are susceptible to disease, and have a short life. The distant related Border terrier likes to chase cricket balls, and slurp scrumpy from a pint glass at the local Dog and Duck pub, a Tory voter. They whine a lot.
In between there are Lurchers, ready to change owners at the drop of a rubber bone, Labour one day, SNP the next, liable to return to the Labour fold the day after. There’s no second guessing where they will wander off to one day to the next. However, I am reliably informed wee ginger dugs are the exception to the rule, SNP to a litter.
A Jack Russell terrier is often mistaken for Scottish there being so many about the place, but in fact the breed is an English incomer. It often assumes a ferociously territorial stance if any other sort of terrier invades what it regards as its property.
The Bearded collie is a Scottish breed but its lineage stretches back to the 1800s when a Border collie got together with a Polish sheepdog, which is probably why so many Polish people feel at home in Scotland.
The SNP supporter comes in various guises. There is the dignified Rough collie, a heritage dog all its life, the ‘east-west hame’s best’ golden retriever, and the West Highland White terrier that thinks real Scotland starts at Perthshire and works north. What marks them out as special is their shared kinship.
The age-old adage, the further away from London is a dog the more Scottish it will be, holds no water. The Shetland collie is a Liberal-Democrat voter. The over-groomed Dandie Dinmont is known to detest Alex Salmond for no apparent reason.
Thankfully, insuring the continuation of Scottish dog breeds proud of their homeland, almost all hard working and smart sheepdogs are SNP, independent by nature and spirit. Russian scientist have proved it, and so say dog breeders the world over.
Given enough time, we can rely on true Scottish breeds to round up sheep and goats and move them to a verdant free range Scotland, sign-posted ‘Alba’ when north of Dunkeld. And if untameable wolves are reintroduced into Scotland Unionists will not like it one bit.
I think I was a bit of a dog as an impecunious teenager. I loved going for long walks, running along a beach, and playing in a park. As for the missing link, wolf to dog, who knows? Maybe a wolf met a coyote when on holiday in Florida.
And that’s enough dodgy doggy satire for this year.
This is the 250th essay in the Grouse Beater canon.
The one line entry, “A Unionist will explore every possibility until only common sense prevails” doesn’t count. For the glaikit, that’s an aphorism not an essay.
Doing basic research I came across this amusing passage, my highlight in bold: “These findings of low haplotype diversity and high haplotype sharing, albeit with great variability, suggest that a universal SNP set of modest size will be sufficient to successfully accomplish whole-genome association studies in most breeds.” Ostrander & Wayne – ‘The Canine Genome’.