MY WIFE Moira is the very proud owner of a lovely little white West Highland Terrier dog called Kirsty. When it appears to Kirsty that I am doing nothing really interesting or useful around the house or garden, she kindly takes me out for a walk around the nearby woods and fields.
It is not that Kirtsy is all that interested in walking per se, but she has her own vast and varied circle of four-legged friends, with whom she delights to socialise. She looks forward to meeting them, when they are also out exercising their own humans.
Kirsty’s cosseted associates come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiny but assertive Yorkshire Terrier called Judy to the huge and impossibly beautiful St Bernards, who rejoices in the name of Berkeley and weighs in at 198lb!
It is logical that all of our local dogs are generally amenable to each other, because they are all members of exactly the same species. In biological terms this means that any dog can potentially breed with any other dog. In some cases, however, this is clearly unlikely, as with Judy and big Berkeley, who are destined, I suspect, to remain “just good friends!” Having said that, I believe that there is one recorded incidence where a small German Dachshund called Fritz managed to impregnate a huge Great Dane, Vorsprung durch Deutsch technique – or maybe somebody put him up to it !
The ancient ancestor of our present day dog is the wolf and despite the long domestication of the dog, there is absolutely no genetic barrier between dogs and wolves. The dog is man’s oldest, as well as his best friend. The ancient Egyptians used dogs for hunting eight thousand years ago, and Stone Age Man very likely had hunting dogs before 10,000 BC.
About five thousand years ago, man began breeding dogs for various purposes, for example small terriers to keep down vermin and sheepdogs to develop their herding abilities. In this respect the German Shepherd is one of the most versatile of breeds and has been used for many and varied purposes over the ages.
One of Kirsty’s favourite pals is Ben, an old cunning and laid-back German Shepherd, who is an absolute magician at gently wheedling and cajoling biscuits out of the pockets of everyone he meets. Ben’s expertise is not so surprising when one considers that a German Shepherd dog has a superb sense of smell with 220 million smell cells, although like most dogs only average eyesight. The extra cells have the effect of multiplying its sense of smell, so that its nose is about a million times more sensitive than a human’s.
A German Shepherd’s sense of smell is on par with that of a Bloodhound, and like most other dogs it has superb hearing and can detect high pitched sound frequencies of up to 40,000 vibrations a second, as against man’s 20,000. Old Ben, of course, also has a long and distinguished ancestral line of outstanding canine intelligentsia.
The German Shepherd dog was originally brought to this country by soldiers returning from the First World War, who had admired the dog’s courage, devotion and intelligence when they carried front-line messages for the German Army. Because of the anti-German feeling here, the soldiers felt that the dogs could not be known by their correct name so they called them Alsations, after the region of their origin – the Alsace-Lorraine frontier area, between France and Germany where they were used as sheepdogs. The breed’s correct name was officially restored in Britain by the Kennel Club in July 1977, but in some other countries the dogs are still known as Alsations.
The very first guide dog was a German Shepherd. The original idea of using dogs as substitute eyes for the blind grew out of a chance incident at a German hospital, during the First World War. A doctor, who was walking in the hospital grounds with a blinded soldier, was called away to deal with an emergency. He left his pet German Shepherd dog with orders to look after his patient. On his return, he was so impressed with the dog’s sense of care and responsibility, that he immediately began to experiment in training dogs specifically to help the blind.
A wealthy American lady, Dorothy Eustis, who was then training German Shepherd dogs in Switzerland for the army and police, heard of the doctor’s work. She became very impressed, so much so that in 1928 she set up a guide dog centre at Vevey and three years later lent one of her dog trainers to start a trial scheme in Britain. It was a tremendous success, and from this trial grew the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, founded in Britain in 1934. Of course, since then the idea has spread right round the world and now uses various breeds.
One of the most famous and brilliant German Shepherd police dogs, employed by the former Lothian and Borders Police, was officially called Mountbrown Visor (except at his Police Handler’s home, where he doubled as the family pet). During his distinguished career, he recorded more arrests than any police officer in the force!
“Top Dog” was the nickname of a remarkable animal, another German Shepherd dog of yesteryear, who became the world’s most popular animal film star. Called Rin Tin Tin, he was discovered as a shell shocked puppy cowering in a German trench in 1916, during the First World War, and rescued by an American officer, Captain Lee Duncan. Captain Duncan took the puppy home with him to Los Angeles and nursed him back to health and realising the dog’s high intelligence, trained him for a film career.
Rin Tin Tin was a smash hit with filmgoers of the time and for several years provided his studio, Warner Brothers, with it’s main source of income. He was duly given top billing above that of his human co-stars. At the time of his death in 1932, his fan mail was running at about 2,000 letters a week, the same as Douglas Fairbanks Senior, probably the most popular film star of his time! Captain Duncan must have been a very proud man indeed, and very glad that he took pity on the terrified four-legged waif he found in the battlefield!
The popularity of dog breeds varies from country to country, and from time to time. No official world league table exists but in terms of ownership, the German Shepherd always figures very highly and must be a regular contender for the title of Top Dog .