Friday, February 09, 2007

Wrestling Dogs of Central Asia

Today, several friends sent me this link to a New York Times piece on Asian "fighting" dogs.

I put "fighting" in quotes because the practice of testing wolf-guarding flock dogs, non-lethally, is an ancient one in Asia, pre-dating the mostly Islamic societies that now practice it, and is more akin to wrestling than fighting. The dogs signal when they have "had enough", a signal honored both by their canine opponents and by their owners, who have no desire to have their herd guardians crippled. But owners will generally not breed to a dog that will not stand up to an opponent. (I should mention that wolves are as common in most Central Asian back country as coyotes here, but more dangerous).

You might consider the practice a form of field trials for wolf- protection dogs.

Even scientists in the Stans and the Caucasus test their herd (and Border Patrol) breeders thus. I am in possession of a paper by two Azeri scientists (as yet unpublished so I can't post it yet) defending these matches while still deploring western dog fights.

Mary Scriver wrote: "Fascinating, Steve. Sounds like they are more like St. Bernards or Kuvasz or Great Pyrenees among the dogs we know. But the dogs look as though they'd just as soon skip the brandy kegs and knock back some vodka."

I replied: "You are exactly right. I suspect these are the ancestors of all that stuff. Similar ones also in Turkey-- here is one in the distance with a spike collar and a collar in a shop."

Matt also saw the St. Bernard resemblance:

"These dogs in the story look like tough customers. I was looking at their faces and kept thinking they looked familiar. Then it hit me: St. Bernards! What a dog the St Bernard must once have been...."

Me: "All the same descent I'm sure-- what the Romans called "Mollossian dogs" when they first came to Europe.

"I'd rather see them wrestle than be turned into drooling decerebrate mutants like modern show St. Bernards any time."

More pics; Libby with a tobet, the Kazakh version; and a good pic of the same dog. Fierce only when they have to be.

Matt here with a notice about the elephant in the room...

Steve and I were just musing on the significance (if any) of living in the last two states in which cockfighting is legal. I don't think it will be the case for long. I am not an advocate of pitting animals, but I think I understand it: the basic principle, and even the basic appeal. The few cockfighters I know are not simpletons, thugs, compulsive gamblers or drug dealers. They love their animals (no hyperbole) and know them very well. Moreover, these men are part of an actual native culture which---anymore---I am finding to be of value almost regardless of context.

I asked Steve, "Can we blog on this?"

He replied, "Yes. I've been thinking about how."

It's tricky, a little. I don't think you can dance around the AR and hunting and dog breeding and coursing and falconry realms and not in good faith address pit fighting.

My own position would NOT be in knee-jerk opposition, just to offer up a sacrificial lamb. For one, I don't really care much about pit fighting either way. It's just not my thing (which, incedentally, is how I replied to our city's animal control officer when, in a very cordial discussion some months ago, he asked me directly how I felt about it. My main concern---and part of the reason for that meeting---is that falconry not be confused with cockfighting. Let the two activities defend themselves from separate charges, at least.)

But more importantly, the "sacrificial lamb" theory doesn't work. The falconers who, in California some months ago, wanted to let the coursing enthusiasts twist in the wind should take note: The animal rights crowd wants it all. They are insatiable. They are not out to split hairs on these issues.

Consider the idea that these Russian dogs are being tested (and not "pitted" for its own sake). These dogs have a tough job (defending sheep from wolves!) and need to be demonstrably tough in order to make the grade for breeding. But instead of accepting that important distinction, the AR position would predictably be: "So what? A 'legitimate explanation' for an illigitimate job (sheep protection) is no argument at all."

Put simply, the animal rightists would rather have NO sheep to protect! And thus, no protection dogs needed.

Which begs the question: "OK, but what should these rural Russians eat, if not the meat of the sheep in need of protection? What should they wear, if not the wool of the sheep in need of protection?"

And to those questions, regardless what answers they give in debate, their real answer is, "We don't care."

Steve agrees, with the caveat: "But that's the argument they can't make to the public!"


Anonymous said...

I saw this in the Times today as well; glad you folks posted on it. Is there particular reason for the tail docks or is it a traditional thing?

I find myself nodding in agreement - maintaining real local culture is just plain worthwhile as most of life gets homogenized down to nothing. And you're right Matt - the AR folks want it all. During the video on the Times' site, there's an interesting observation - the Russian AR people regard the dog 'fights' as a back burner issue behind fur. I'm not a trapper - it's a dying art in a lot of the northeast - but the strategy (trappers, then houndsmen, then...) is pretty obvious.

I read a couple of Vicki Hearne's books (Adam's Task and Bandit) ages ago and ever since then, I just can't roundly condemn pits. You'll never find me anywhere near one and what happens with dog fighting up here bears no relation to what Hearne talked about - folks just plain don't take care of their dogs - but I've got to admit ambivalence. I think I sometimes scare folks when I talk about proper etiquette - washing the other guys dog 1st, etc. - I've usually hasten to add it's all book learning >grin<.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

When we impounded fighting pit bulls in the Seventies, they were scary for about a week. By that time we'd been around them long enough to corrupt them with praise and bits of our lunches. The trouble was that by the time the court took a look at them, the "evidence" was just some tubby friendly dogs.

It's pretty well-established that some dogs are too aggressive for living in dense populations, but it doesn't necessarily correlate exactly to "breed." I wonder what the world would be like if the "aggression" genes were isolated (it's pretty well-established that much of temperament is hereditary in dogs -- some breeds have been developed on purpose to be helpful or hyper or possessive, etc.) and then dogs with dangerous genes had restrictions imposed on them. The next question would be whether to make that apply to all dogs or dogs of a certain size.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to clarify - the 'pit' in para 3 above is the venue, not the breed. I've had great pit bulls, Am Staffs etc. in my classes (also Dogues du Bordeaux, Mastiffs, one Neapolitan Mastiff, etc.). Encourage tuff dog owners to name their dogs 'Daisy' rather than 'Kali' - it makes a difference (at least as far as their expectations are concerned - lots o' self fulfilling prophecy).

Steve Bodio said...

John: the ear dock is for defense; I'm not sure the tail is anything but tradition.

Love the idea of "Daisy" (;-)

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Anonymous said...

Well now, isn't that begging the question? If it's the argument they can't make in public, how do you know it's their argument? Oh, right, because you just pulled it whole cloth out of your whiny persecuted assssssss.

Your argument is a bit disingenuous; it reeks of guilt. How do you know the 'sacrificial lamb' theory doesn't work? Or that the AR crowd 'want it all'?

It's simple really. Specious arguments about 'improving the breed' and 'traditional lifestyles' aside, you know that all of these sports involve wounding and killing animals for entertainment. You know that if you cared about the welfare of animals you wouldn't be willing to tolerate this, and you know that the AR crowd, by definition, care where you don't.

So you could make the same point in a far more convincing manner by simply saying "AR activists will never accept one or two bloodsports as a 'sacrificial lamb' because all bloodsports involve the suffering of animals."

So why didn't you say that? Well, I guess that's just the argument you can't make in public.