A dog called Gladness

2014-04-10 00:00

THE bitch was one of those emaciated curs that roam the Wild Coast, and who grant grateful affiliation to those prepared to offer love and food. She was lucky. She was rescued and delivered to our hospital, near death from biliary fever, mange, ticks, fleas, worms and starvation, and heavily pregnant. The whole nine yards. She was successfully treated and, when she went into labour, she delivered four fine, healthy puppies, all as strong as the Pondoland breakers and as colourful as the Mboytjie rocks and beach sand upon which their mother had scavenged a living.

Hazel took one pup and called her Gladness. They were glad to give her a home and she was glad to be with them. Suburbia was a darn side better than dead in a ditch or as one of the masses of starving strays. She eventually assumed her place in the pack alongside two energetic boxers, Neville and Brenda, themselves the product of many generations of dogs specifically bred for the endearing boxer features. Hooligans and clowns, these, well-adjusted and keen for any sort of rough and tumble. Gladness took a while to fit in. She was neither confident nor gregarious nor thick-skinned like her new canine family. Generations of genes focused on survival did not allow for easy assimilation into a household where trust is a given and does not have to be earned. She eventually bonded with the family when they realised that raucous commands, so appropriate for the boxers, served only to make Gladness more insecure. They had to be gentle — very, very, gentle. In those early days, she spent her time trying to avoid her more energetic playmates, often ending up around Hazel’s neck or cowering under a blanket. She could not create her own security, needing assistance every step of the way. The boxers would investigate strange noises, Gladness would run and hide.

Inevitably, though, as new events became more familiar, she became more confident and accepting. But to this day, she is resistant to change. Alter the feeding pattern and she becomes suspicious and refuses to eat. Medication is a nightmare. Lead training, too. But she has gradually been integrated into the pack, a somewhat novel but much-loved member of the household. The new rainbow canine family. All it takes is time and an acknowledgement that different is cool — something to be welcomed, not shunned.

And she is different. She would be described as an Africanis, the archetypical rural African dog, shaped by centuries of natural selection and honed by the requirements of the spartan African life into various ecological niches. These dogs followed human movement from the Middle East down to the tip of Africa. And all along the way they would assimilate genes from the locals and the fittest, and the most appropriate for that environment would survive. Today, they will be found loitering in kraals in Zululand, lazing under the shade of canopy trees in Botswana and romping with uMfana in the coastal villages. Gladness might have some “non-Africanis” genes in her. So what! Evolution is dynamic and on-going. Scratch the surface of any breed, race or tribe, and you will find some mixtures in the gene pool. Most European royal families, for example, have blood lines extending beyond their boundaries. Indeed, it was common for European dynasties over the centuries to use marriage as a political tool for empire building. Colonial hybridisation, by fair means or foul. Serfs and servants weren’t spared either, and blue blood was often mixed with that from the great unwashed. Same with African tribes. Neighbours, converts and the conquered have been integrated into the dominant local factions, and the gene pool expanded. Check out our politicians. Many share their genes with all who would receive them.

So, the African dog is not a homogenous mix of specific appearances. Its fundamental trait is not a uniform marking, a certain size or a characteristic body shape. Its over-riding characteristic is its wisdom — its ability to survive. To achieve this, it has energy and endurance, it is hardy and it is loyal. It is not a breed. It has survived with, and been honed by, its dependence on humans. It carries the dominant genes for optimal adaptation to many environments.

Gladness is not alone. She is a representative of a growing cadre of African dogs slowly conquering their latest niche.


They are becoming fashion accessories like Nguni-hide carpets, Eastern Cape accents and Nkandla swimming pools. These dogs are rapidly swopping their traditional rural pursuits in favour of rhinestone collars, premium quality food and padded indoor sleeping quarters. He may be found on a lead in an inner-city park, or she will be on the back seat of the family sedan, peering through the back window at the passing parade, her finely moulded head covered with slobber from the over-flowing jowls of the boxers flanking her.

Oh boy, life is great!

• The Village Vet is a practising veterinarian.

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