Are dogs overrated?

Dogs are not as clever as humans think. An Exeter University team examined 300 studies on animal intelligence, and concluded that whilst dogs have an unusual skill set, they are not inherently smarter than other animals. For example, sheep are just as good at distinguishing humans by their faces; sea otters are better than dogs with tools; and pigeons are better at remembering events. Even dogs’ renowned olfactory powers are not that special: pigs have an equally sensitive sense of smell.


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A brief history of the Miniature American Shepherd dog.

The Miniature American Shepherd Dog (MAS) is a comparatively new breed directly descended from the Australian Shepherd Dog though purists will argue that it a separate breed altogether. There are two schools of thought regarding its origins and history. One idea is that the “Aussie” originated as a herding dog in the Basque region of Spain when, in the early 1800s, shepherds and their dogs, emigrated to Australia. In the mid to late 1800s it is possible that the Basques then took their dogs to the west coast of America to work the cattle ranches. The other thought is that they – or a similar dog – entered North America, from Europe, Asia and Siberia via the Bering land bridge 10,000 to 15,000 years ago during the Mesolithic Age. Here they would presumably cross breed with the grey wolf (Canis lupus).

            The name “Aussie” may, then, be derived from the sheep they herded, imported from Australia, along with other herding dogs and shepherds to meet the demand for mutton and wool during the California Gold Rush of 1848 and the later Civil War. The Aussie as a purebred was first registered in 1957 by the National Stock Dog Registry (NSDR) until the Australian Shepherd Club of America (ASCA) took this over in 1971 until 1990.

             Aussies came to the public’s attention in the 1950s and early 1960s when Jay Sisler performed at rodeos throughout the United States. In 1968 a certain Doris Cordova began a breeding program in California to produce a small breed founded with Australian Shepherd stock. In the spring of 1982 a letter written by Doris Cordova appeared in the National Stock Dog Magazine explaining her intentions. At this time the breed was first registered with the National Stock Dog Registry as the Miniature Australian Shepherd. Later in the 1980s enthusiasts formed two clubs, the North American Miniature Australian Shepherd Club of the USA and the Miniature Australian Shepherd Association – both now defunct – as they felt that the ASCA did not place enough emphasis on breed standards!

            More recently selective breeding over many generations has fine tuned the attributes of the Australian Shepherd. These include high intelligence with low aggression and low reactivity (but high when seeing something to chase!). Also enthusiasm, independence of thought but with obedience, stamina, speed and athleticism, toughness, guarding ability and, not forgetting, the instinct to herd. The breed standard is now maintained by the United States Australian Shepherd Association (USASA) founded in 1990.

            The Miniature Australian Shepherd Club of the USA (MASCUSA) was also founded in 1990. A year later the American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognised the Australian Shepherd as a breed. However, the USASA was of the opinion that the Australian Shepherd and the Miniature Australian Shepherd are different breeds as there is only one breed standard, to the dismay of some. Perverse when considering there are other breeds of more than one size, for example the Schnauzer and Poodle. Through negotiations it was decided to allow the Minis to gain recognition with the AKC but under a new name. After a ballot of members of MASCUSA it was decided to rename the breed as the Miniature American Shepherd. Thus, in 2011 the original club was renamed the Miniature American Shepherd Club of the USA (MASCUSA) – the same acronym. At the same time the new MASCUSA was selected by the AKC as the parent club of the Miniature American Shepherd.

            A chequered history indeed. Will things settle down? Unlikely as this is still a relatively new and unknown breed. In 2012 the AKC granted the breed Foundation Stock Service status allowing it to continue to develop. Full breed recognition in the US came in July 2015. Just this year the breed was officially recognised by certain Scandinavian countries. In the UK the United Kingdom Miniature American Shepherd Club (UKMASC) applied successfully to represent the breed and is now an affiliation of MASCUSA. A more recent club is the Miniature American Shepherd Club of Great Britain (MASCGB) along with a proposed club, the Miniature American Shepherd Activities Club UK (MASACUK). The plan is that herding (sheep and fowl) will be developed as a sport along with agility, flyball, frisbee and others.

           Most dogs born in the UK are registered with the AKC. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) now recognise the breed but as yet the Kennel Club do not! At least the KC is willing to register them as such on the Activities Register, so that’s a start! An active dog it is, as already mentioned. It excels at agility and wins many awards with its torpedo like appearance in the ring!

           Regarding temperament characteristics, as briefly mentioned above for the Aussie, the breed is a highly active working dog, requiring early socialisation with humans (including children AND men!) and other animals; also a focus in life to avoid behavioural problems later. S/he makes a fantastic family pet and is loyal to his owner/s with a strong guardian instinct. He is highly trainable with a strong work ethic which he carries out with diligence and enthusiasm. His sensitive nature makes him wary, but not shy, of strangers making him an excellent therapy dog. Behaviourally and temperamentally, therefore, this breed is almost impossible to fault; or are we biased?

Heidi (Basileas Alpine Rose), owned by Christine Bailey. Photograph by Richard Jarrold.

Victoria Wine and Threshers come together to form First Quench.

Cast back to 1998. First Quench Retailing was formed by the merger of the Allied Domecq owned Victoria Wine and the Whitbread owned Threshers. This brought together the 1,470 Threshers, Drinks Cabin, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up and Huttons shops with around 1,500 Victoria Wine, Wine Cellar, Haddows, Martha’s Vineyard (see below) and The Firkin branches.

As a sociologist this holds a fascination for me from a social history point of view. At the time of the merger, the company employed around 20,000 people, with its head office in Welwyn Garden City, and claimed to account for 13% of the UK take home drinks market – Tesco, in comparison, claimed around 14%.

In 2000 the company was purchased by the Japanese private equity firm Nomura Holdings for £225m. Terra Firma Capital Partners then purchased the company in April 2002 – for an undisclosed sum! A chequered few years ensued with the selling off of some Threshers branches to franchisees and the conversion of others to convenience stores. The company went into administration in 2009 and was subsequently purchased by Midlands based Dave’s Discount Group. This company now has over 47,000 retail branches though the above mentioned brands appear to have been dropped!

In 1997, Victoria Wine, in a last ditch attempt, launched its first (and only) superstore to rival the supermarkets, Majestic Wine Warehouse, Wizard Wines and others. This involved the re-launch of Martha’s Vineyard, a 5,000 sq. ft. warehouse in New Barnet, Hertfordshire along with an ‘all bells and whistles’ shop in London’s Oxford Street. Michael Hammond, the then managing director, however was clutching at straws offering “ample free parking, keen prices, deliveries, wine tastings and knowledgeable staff”, a model already established by the competition!

Of course there were many other off-licence chains and independent wine merchants so far not mentioned. Let’s not forget Argyll Stores, Ashe and Nephew, Augustus Barnett, Cullens, Arthur Cooper, Roberts, Davisons, Peter Dominic, Fine Fare, Gough Brothers, Lennons, Oddbins, Arthur Rackham and Unwins. Also, Dolamore, H Allen Smith, Thomas Baty (Liverpool), Buckinghams, Christopher & Co., Greens, John Harvey, The Hungerford Wine Company, Quellyn Roberts (Chester), La Reserve, Henry Townsend, Willoughby’s (Manchester). All these are now confined to history but at the time were forces to be reckoned with. Some moved on however, such as The Wine Society, Tanners, Berry Bros & Rudd, Adnams, Farr Vintners, Majestic Wine Warehouse, Naked Wines, Laithwaites (formerly Bordeaux Direct), Ex-Cellar and Liquorbin. Waitrose – trading as Waitrose Cellar – has also helped fill the gap with an extensive range of quality wines, spirits, sherry, port, beers and lagers, madeira, masala and much more beside. Indeed, they were certainly instrumental, along with other supermarkets, in the gap appearing in the first place!

How Victoria Wine started in 1865 and prospered as the first choice wine merchant of the ordinary person, until its demise at end of the 20th century, will be discussed in the next blog.

Martha’s Vineyard – too little, too late!

The current environmental crisis ‘is everyone’s fault, therefore no one is to blame!’

Some will argue that the COVID-19 crisis was a disaster waiting to happen and that it is nature’s way of revenge for mans’ inhumanity to other animals and disregard for the environment generally! The planet cannot sustain the current exponential population growth indefinitely though projections are that the rate of growth will level by 2100. The bubonic plague of 1347, for example, killed an estimated 475 million people worldwide and the population took some 200 years to recover.

When talking about the environment, Greta Thunberg states, “Some people say we are not doing enough to fight climate change. This is not true because to ‘not be doing enough’ means you have to be doing SOMETHING. In reality we are doing NOTHING. The politicians say it is EVERYONE’S fault. This means no one can be blamed or held accountable and is an easy way to pass the problem on to someone else”

Below are a couple of recent blogs discussing this in greater depth:


The almost unbearable heat of southern Spain!

The sometimes oppressive heat and the slower pace of life in Almeria, southern Spain, is typical of Europe’s only desert. The ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ were shot here in the early ’70s for good reason. Horse culture is still prevalent! The Mediterranean coast invariably suffers from drought at this time of the year and relies heavily upon piped water from the River Ebro and other parts of the wetter north coast. This is thanks to the PHN running into billions of euros, largely as the result of EU subsidy!

A typical view of Almeria!

Dogs were bred to pull our sleds millennia ago!

The 9,500 year old remains of a dog found on the tiny island of Zhakhov, northern Siberia, are remarkably similar to living dogs in Greenland, genome sequencing has revealed. The discovery shows that people bred dogs for pulling sleds more than 10,000 years ago.

Mikkel Sindling and his team from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, excavated the remains from an ancient human settlement, along with other less well preserved dogs alongside what look like dog sleds. “We thought it would be a primitive dog, but it’s a long way down the path to domestication – that was quite sensational”, says Sindling.

His team sequenced the remains, along with a 33,000 year old Siberian wolf and 10 living sled dogs from different parts of Greenland, and compared their genomes with each other as well as other dog and wolf genomes. The results show that modern sled dogs in Greenland, who’s ancestors were taken there by Inuit people around 850 years ago, are more closely related to the Zhakhov remains than any other kinds of dogs or wolves. The genomes also show that sled dogs have not acquired any DNA from wolves in the past 9,500 years. Sindling adds “It’s largely the same dog doing the same job”.

A modern day husky rig!

Climate change: can we trust the scientists?

A vast accumulation of evidence substantiates the adverse effects that human activity is having on the levels of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere leading to changing weather patterns. This evidence has been collected over the last few decades by scientist from a wide section of specialisms and all corners of the globe. However, behavioural psychology suggests that we (humans) can never be totally objective and that our values and beliefs affect how we engage with facts. The scientific community is split; some arguing that the facts need to be addressed and reversed, whilst others argue it is already too late and that we should, for example, be concentrating on alternative and renewable energy research. The distinction may seem somewhat blurred but is, nevertheless, an important one!

Contrary to the image that scientists collect data, gather theories and form a hypothesis totally objectively is, by the standards of social science and psychology, a misguided one.  Facts are open to interpretation, bias and the values of a particular scientist. They may be guided by what they want and expect to see rather than what they actually see – in other words they become subjective.

It is important, therefore, that the scientific community acts consensually, pooling knowledge and stretching the boundaries. In 1962 the American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1986), introduced the term paradigm shift – the move away from a particular theory or model. He argued that scientific knowledge does not grow linearly but is an accumulation of, sometimes opposing, theories. This opens up possibilities that would not have otherwise been considered. Science can never be exact and, by definition, a theory is only scientific if can be falsified, tested or refuted. For example ‘all the ducks I’ve seen have feathers, therefore ALL ducks have feathers’. Compare this with ‘all birds have feathers, therefore all ducks are birds’. Which is the scientific statement?

To answer the original question, yes, of course we can and must trust the scientists – after all who else is there?……………….to be continued.

Thomas Kuhn in 1972


It’s official: the sixth mass extinction is here.

The following is reported by The Guardian:

Scientists have found evidence that the disappearance of wildlife is occurring at a rapidly increasing rate – renewing fears of a human prompted ‘sixth mass extinction’ (named the Anthropocene Extinction) which will endanger our survival. When researchers looked at 29,400 terrestrial vertebrate species for which population data is available, they found that of 543 extinctions that occurred since 1901, 173 took place between 2001 and 2014. The trajectory is set to continue climbing. 515 species are are now classed ‘critically endangered’ by the IUNC; that is with populations fewer that 1,000. Examples include the Sumatran rhino and the Hainan gibbon.

Here I digress from the article:

So much of this loss is as the result of human activity, for example an increasing population forcing towns and cities to expand into nature’s habitat. The forcing together of wild animals, especially in meat markets of eastern Asia, often in appalling conditions, means that disease and viruses are more easily transmitted between species.

This was the case in Wuhan, when COVID-19, it is thought, passed from bats – which have a natural immunity – to pangolins. From here it jumped to humans. It appears not to jump the other way as the virus seeks a healthy and hardier species to invade; it is not in its interest that the host should die. The fear now is that it will pass to hitherto unaffected regions of the world, higher primates and, who knows, elephants, dolphins and whales……the list goes on!

In spite of fears of a second peak and subsequent peaks in COVID-19 cases, the UK and other governments have to balance the risk of relaxing the recent punitive measures against a severe and continuing downturn in their economies. This has the potential to prove fatal to human existence on earth. A vaccine has not yet been developed (NB – at the time of writing). The common cold, another form of coronavirus, is still endemic. Could cases worldwide exceed those of the bubonic plague of 1347 killing an estimated 475 million people, 20% of the, then, world’s population and taking some 200 years to recover? Well, this may or may not happen; the current crisis could, if we are lucky (!), prove to be a mere stutter towards the inevitable extinction of life as we know it.

A previous blog examines this question in more detail:

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The Hainan gibbon found in Hainan island, China

BBC News reports the killing of a Ugandan silverback mountain gorilla!

One of Uganda’s best known mountain gorillas, Rafiki, has been killed. Four men have been arrested and face the possibility of a life sentence under a wildlife protection law that was passed last year. They are claiming self defense!

There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) described Rafiki as 25 years of age and the leader of a group of 17 mountain gorillas within the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (ironically). The group was further described as being habituated to human contact, but that the group is now unstable and may now disperse without a figurehead! Failing that, the group could be taken over by a wild silverback gorilla and revert to the wild. Potentially this would have an impact on tourism to the park with loss if revenue, upon which the Ugandan government relies.

In 2018, the mountain gorilla was removed from the list of ‘critically endangered’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after intensive conservation efforts, including anti-poaching patrols. It was downgraded to ‘endangered’.