Trail riding with AfriCanis dogs

Author: John Deppe October 2023

Finyezi and the pups in the bush on the farm.

I remember a discussion I had with Dr. Udo Kusel (the acclaimed South African anthropologist) around 2004 regarding the newly launched efforts to identify, genotype and conserve the canine companion of indigenous homesteaders in rural South Africa, in particular what has become identified as the dog that accompanied iron age settlers into these parts, and which still exists in this relationship in some areas of the country to this day. This dog was newly named the AfriCanis. We had been discussing dog behaviour and I had mentioned I was looking for a dog that might be suitable for my 10yr old daughter to begin training at the dog school where I have been training dogs for the past 22yrs. Dr. Kusel described all these amazing qualities that he insisted would be ideal for such an exercise.

I acquired my first AfriCanis dog through Dr. Kusel and the AfriCanis Society from Joh Groenewald in Donkerhoek. She turned out to be an exceptional dog, living up to the accolades that Dr. Kusel had piled upon this landrace in almost all aspects except the one most useful to me at the time. She was useless as a companion for my daughter. They had a classic “girl and her dog” relationship that was a joy to behold. But after 18months Injasuti had decided there was one voice she listened for, and it became impossible for my young daughter to train her with the beginner group when I was anywhere on the field. If social media was a thing back then the internet would have had videos of a little girl being pulled across the sports field, where we trained, like a water skier behind a motorboat. Suti did what is a feature of all the AfriCanis I have ever owned, chosen her leader herself, and she did not leave my side until she passed 13 years later.

We moved to a farm in 2007 and had also lost my beloved Great Dane in the same year. We decided to again reach out to the AfriCanis Society for a companion for Suti and acquired a small puppy from Johan and Edith Gallant. She already had a name from the Gallants. She was called Muhle (Zulu for Beauty). Muhle was a small dog. During a research excursion into the upper Tugela area in Zululand the Gallants had collected Muhle from a remote homestead. My two AfriCanis became inseparable and excelled in obedience and discipline on the training ground.

Bert Kusel’s dog Zulu.

I decided to breed a litter through Muhle and used a male from Bert Kusel called Zulu who was also a bush bred AfriCanis that Dr. Kusel had acquired for his brother during a different research excursion. Muhle had many admirers at the time. She was both an attractive and impressively intelligent little dog. However, once her pups were born, we could not find homes for them. This was my first experience of the mistrust people have for this landrace. It is a product of the racial history of this country. White people have been convinced that anything from Africa is intrinsically inferior and black people have been convinced into believing white people know better. Muhle had 3 male pups. We kept them and named them Dube, Duma and Dunga. This is where our adventure begins.

Injasuti top, left Dube, Duma, Muhle and lying down Dunga

When it was just Suti and me and my Dane, Max, out for a walk I would get to an open field and release their collars. The dogs loved to run free. For all her long legs Max could not keep pace with Suti, who was less than half her size. It became a joy to me to watch Suti run. I had never seen a dog move with the grace she possessed. It became so that you could not determine if she belonged to the earth or the air.

I began noticing aspects of her gait that was not typical of any of the dogs I’d trained or watched in all my years of owning dogs or training other people’s dogs. I noticed that her front carpus could bend backwards through 90 degrees, giving her an extended gait and thrust as she clawed her way forward. She had a double flight gait at her top speed, which I timed roughly at around 80km/h. And yet even at full flight she could turn on a dime. I was amazed at how she could switch direction with apparent ease.

Free running, she would chase “kiewiets” (plovers). The bird uses a tactic of luring the dog away from the nest and would fly eye height ahead of the dog. As the dog closes in on the plover in flight they would suddenly switch to a vertical climb and the dog would be left wondering where their lure had disappeared to. Suti was different. She would climb vertically as effortlessly. You would hardly notice the change from her horizontal flight to her vertical leap after the plover. For the most part the plovers didn’t notice either because there were frequently close calls.

She never did catch a plover, but she caught a few hares in her free runs in the bush. Nor was this vertical feat performed just when running. Before my eyes Suti had cleared courtyard fences of 2m, with a drop side a further 2 meters below that, landing with the grace of a gymnast. When Max passed, Muhle slotted right in as her running companion. Muhle ran with as much grace but being smaller was never quite able to match Suti’s pace. That all changed when the pups arrived.

Muhle was a small AfriCanis but she birthed big boys.

You could not have dreamed a better or more suitable dog for the African bush. They are hardy against the elements, indigenous parasites, and the terrain. They eat economically, run economically, live economically. They do not require extensive care or medical support. They also need very little involvement in their rearing. Muhle would catch Mynah birds, pluck the feathers, and teach her boys to hunt. She was an incredible mother.

The three young dogs were growing fast and soon showed they were not going to be defined by their mother’s small frame. They became lithe and leggy beasts, taller even than Suti. In our now ritual visits to the bush behind the plot they kept pace with Suti. Every weekend we would head to the bush and the dogs would be off. I gloried in their joy, freedom, and poetic movement. I had no chance of keeping pace, so I bought an MTB to be able to at least remain in their vicinity. For the formative years of their development this was enormous fun. We could track on trails of 40km distance.

However, over time I slowly began to realise that we perceived these outings differently. When it was mostly just Suti running out ahead the idea that this was an intensive hunt was less obvious. As they matured, when the three boys began joining her out in front, the dynamic seemed to change a bit. It became more focussed, serious, and effective. On one excursion I became concerned at just how effective they had become as a hunting pack, and this caused me some concern. Equally they had become more adventurous in running ahead and I would lose them in the bush at times, only to spot them two ridges ahead. They came back at a whistle, but I despaired that it was not responsible behaviour to take these dogs free running in the bush any longer.

Duma on the return of a free run. He had done 30kms at this point, much of it sprinting after hares. He has settled into that ground eating stiff legged trot.

At the time I was contacted by an old school friend who had become involved in the sport of dog sledding in Alaska, and upon returning to South Africa, became involved in dryland sledding. I liked the idea that I could still take the pack out running in the bush, but they would be tethered to me on the MTB. I decided to try our hand at this dog sport.

The dogs worked with the bicycle from the outset. When on leash they would keep a line next to the bicycle. Later, when I put a harness on they quickly understood the difference. They required no training whatsoever, reacting intuitively to the different contexts.

The AfriCanis mind is extremely pliable. They possess an incredible ability for allelomimetic learning. The dogs took to the bicycle from the outset. They understood it’s movement. They had an acute awareness of critical distances and positions. They understood I wanted them out front and not beside me, as I had trained them during our free runs. They were able to distinguish the difference in expected behaviour the moment I put a harness on. The result was that our first excursions in preparing for the sport were very positive. They had to learn commands like “gee” and “haw” for turning. To set off I would simply say “line out” and they would lean into the harness. I’d hop on the bicycle and say, “let’s go” and we would be off. Mushing is different to horse riding. There is no control with reigns, it is all voice command.

The climate in South Africa is not conducive to this kind of canine activity. All dog sport enthusiasts understand that dogs have a design flaw that prevents them from effective cooling in warm climates. While they can outperform most creatures in cold climates, they do not sweat through the skin and therefore cannot take advantage of this evaporative cooling process. As a result, in this warm part of the world, we are acutely aware of ambient temperatures while working with dogs. The autumn and winter months in the southern hemisphere are therefore the only months available for this kind of activity.

We started our interest in dryland sledding in the winter of 2010 and managed just a few exploratory runs before that season ended. In the summer months I immersed myself in as much information as I could get on the sport and on dogs in sport in general. I trained myself to understand hydration, how to recognise and test for dehydration, how to identify gait changes that might implicate potential injury, foot and pad health, trail medical aid, how to test the dogs on the trail, and performance nutrition. I trained myself in equipment and running techniques and how training techniques would impact event performance. By the time the new running season arrived in 2011 I was eager to test my dogs and my knowledge.

I had settled on two of the boys to run with. The smaller of the three young boys was a white dog called Dunga. In our various training runs he looked the best pick. He was a real runner and a clear first choice. To pair with him in the two-dog bike-joring class I had to choose between the other two boys. They were evenly sized, evenly paced, and equal in almost every way. Duma was a little more aloof and independently minded, so I selected Dube, by all accounts the boss boy in our pack. On long distance trails Dunga would set a cracking pace for 30km but would fade a bit. Dube would keep it up for the duration. The years I spent on the trail with him were years I am deeply grateful for. Besides his beautiful big form, excellent musculoskeletal conformation, near perfect gait, Dube had the most superb character, loyal, steadfast, and dependable.

Dunga on the left and Dube on the right. Both were good runners, but Dube proved to be the backbone of our team. He had more heart than should be possible to fit in that frame. It didn’t matter what the trail threw up at him, snow, sleet, rain, wind... he kept us going, sometimes pulling me all on his own.

There was a national sprint event lined up in Colesburg in South Africa for late winter 2011 and I was badgered into training for that as a culmination to the sledding season that year. It consisted of two 12km sprint events over two days. To prepare them for this event I would take the team out for a 30-40km run about four times a week. That meant leaving our gate around 4am, in the dark, in temperatures that were sometimes -8°C, running on tarred roads (pushing me along because dogs push into a harness that is attached to a gangline that is attached to me on the MTB), for 3km.

The hills we climb on the tarred roads are steep, so it is an excellent slow warmup. After that we clear the built-up area and hit the dirt trail. This consists of rolling hills with a small gravel path, through open veld and thicket. A few years ago, I was asked by a Canadian vet, Dr. Rick Long, to describe our training runs for a lecture he was giving on canine foot and pad health. After gravel, mud, and ice trails of 150km in the eastern Cape mountains Dr. Long was impressed with the AfriCanis feet that showed no sign of wear or damage. To some extent that can be attributed to the trail conditions I trained them on but also, and in equal measure, to good genetics.

The AfriCanis has a foot shaped like a rabbit’s foot. It is rather dainty. Pads are dark coloured and thick. Nails are dark and strong. The nails are almost prehensile and display a considerable flex, giving them excellent grip on a multitude of surfaces. Above the foot the carpus joint offers sufficient width to be stable in a sharp turn. This architecture is important because dogs carry 60% of their weight on their front legs.

Brothers Dube and Dunga on the 150km Wartrail wild mountain run, 2012.

On some trails we ran on, one might be a considerable distance from any support, so it became important to learn how to evaluate the health of the system by carefully watching movement, two little rumps rising and falling, studying any change of rhythm or form. On the long trails we would frequently stop for field tests and hydration and always ended with the dogs in excellent health at the final vet checks. It was a joy and a privilege to share the trail with two dogs that loved your company, loved the horizon, and loved to run. Working up their fitness over a 3-month period I would put around 2000kms on their feet and countless hours in their company.

I often get asked to evaluate AfriCanis parentage by people who rescue a dog and hope it might belong to a story they might wish to be part of. It really is impossible to be certain without genotype evidence. These dogs are only sourced by the society from known isolated homesteads in remote rural areas. That work is best left to experts like Edith Gallant. God only knows what might happen to this legacy when they move on. But for me I have learned to watch the running dog.

The AfriCanis really does move differently. It possesses a frugality of movement that uses so little and yet provides so very much. There is nothing exaggerated in its movement and yet the transition between gaits, body positions, energy levels is seamless and fluid. They have a stiff legged trot with a perfectly flat back that burns up so little energy and exercises such limited action on the system that they can keep in this trot for days. Even when they max out in a double flight gait their back is level and all appendages merge into one replicated movement. They single track – meaning the hind pads land precisely in the print of the fore pads. The front and rear alignment is perfect.

I have a little computer on my bicycle that tracks our performance and speeds. The fastest speed I registered was in training one day. Two dogs pulled me on a flat track at 69km/h. That comes in bursts. Otherwise, they are back to that tireless trot, eating up the kilometres and the trail, at a speed around 15km/h.

The last litter we had I was contacted by a farmer in the Free State who is also a marathon runner. He was looking for a dog that might be a companion during his training runs. He trains distances around 50km, and his beloved Labrador Retrievers were good for 5 of those 50kms. He acquired his first AfriCanis pup from me, waited about 9 months and started taking it out on his training runs. Around this time, I gave him a call to check up if he was satisfied with his dog. He told me he liked the dog a lot, except, he complained, he couldn’t keep up with the dog on their runs.

The youngsters in a council meeting.

In time Suti passed at 13yrs. Muhle succumbed two years later to mammary cancer, also at age 13. The three boys gave me much joy. They retired from sledding as national champions, and we continued doing obedience shows with a team of dogs and a codger on a bicycle. We did numerous recreational trail runs between 50 and 150kms even into their 12th year. They were fit and strong into year 15 and only started fading after that. Dube passed at 17yrs. His brothers Dunga passed 3 months later and Duma a few months after that, a week shy of 18yrs. They were the epitome of health throughout and just about the finest dogs anyone could wish to own. But they have not left me alone. Dube has left me with his son, who is so like him in every way, and two daughters.

Dumezulu (which means “something powerful is coming”)

In total I have 6 AfriCanis and a freeway special of unknown origin. This little freeway special has allowed me to make even more observations about these indigenous African dogs. She is an urban mix of modern breeds that we rescued from the freeway and is delightful in many ways. But I have become spoiled by the AfriCanis. They require virtually no training and yet consistently make good decisions. We have been set upon by loose dogs on the trail, accosted by aggressive people on the trail, and always the dogs behave exactly as I would hope. Not so with Freeway. She consistently makes the wrong decision. She is bullterrier sized, standing half as high as my AfriCanis dogs, and yet she weighs as much as they do (without being overweight). The AfriCanis is a comparatively light dog. Dumezulu, son of Dube, stands over 64cm at the shoulder and weighs 29kgs. The girls are around 5cm shorter and 4kgs lighter. I never really recognised this weight differential until we picked up this little mix breed. We also have to use prophylactic medicines protecting her in our bush from tick borne illness, but the AfriCanis show a natural resistance to such parasites and receive no such preventative medicine.

Nathi (left) and Lungile (right) litter sisters of Dumezulu and the granddaughters of Muhle.

AfriCanis are prolific hunters and catch and eat rodents, snakes, and birds. The rodents I don’t mind. Every farm can do with a rat catcher. The birds are lamentable but infrequent. But I do wish I could get them to leave snakes alone. I’m a hobby herpetologist and have trained in snake identification, catching, and releasing and perform this duty for my local community. Most snakes around here are harmless. But we do frequently get some very dangerous critters. The most common dangerous snake here is the night adder. Nathi, one of the young AfriCanis girls was bitten in the face by a night adder. She ran around with a swollen face, showing no other symptoms, and after two days all symptoms disappeared. Duma was bitten in the face by the notorious puff adder, one of South Africa’s most deadly snakes. His head swelled to the size of a watermelon, and he was bleeding from the nose. It was one of the few times in their lives when I had to get a vet involved. It was a Sunday afternoon. The vet kept him overnight on a drip and feared for the worst. The next day in the early hours of the morning I got a desperate call from the vet to ask if we could collect our dog. He was fine but didn’t like their kennels much. He looked delicate for a few days and didn’t join in on activities but there were no lasting effects. His brother Dube fell from a height of 8m, landing with a yelp on the ground in front of me. I rushed him to the vet in a panic. After a thorough inspection it was determined he sprained his wrist and was given a dose of anti-inflammatories. They are naturally strong and vital animals.

Nathi powering through a fast-running stream. Zulu watching birds in the bushes.

The hunting prowess of the AfriCanis seems to be one of the features of its early involvement in the development of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. C.J. van Rooyen identified that as a predominantly favourable trait. It might also be worth mentioning that Injasuti, my first Africanis, carried a ridge gene. She had what might best be described as a swirl/curl on her back but in her litter, she birthed a perfectly ridged pup. I often imagined that she might have been similar to the original Powder written about in Rev. Helm’s accounts of his journey to Bulawayo. She was a medium sized, tan coloured dog with smarts that made her a perfect trail companion.