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Book Review
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution
by Raymond & Lorna Coppinger

Review by: Kate Connick, Feb. 2003

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger's Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution is a delightfully engaging and thought-provoking book. Written from a biologist's perspective, this book examines the evolution of dogs, the variation in their form and behavior, and their role in human life throughout the ages.

Those who like their dog books warm and fuzzy will not enjoy this one. This book challenges many sentimental notions about dogs, ranging from the idea of dog as domesticated wolf to the magic of the assistance dog at work. Being biologists, Coppingers define canine success as the opportunity to secure food, safety, and breeding opportunities. As well, they appear to define happiness as the opportunity to express instinctive behavior patterns. This clearly is not the perspective through which most of us view dogs, and yet that is what makes the book so effective. It offers a very different way of examining a species with which we are all so familiar.

Coppingers convincingly propose that dogs were not domesticated as a direct result of artificial human intervention with wolves. They postulate that dogs evolved naturally as a byproduct of human settlement. Once humans formed more or less permanent dwelling areas, wastes in the form of uneaten food and fecal material accumulated. This created a scavenger niche. As wolves are too timid by nature to adapt readily to such a niche, forces of natural selection began favoring an ever-tamer variety of wolf.

The primary criterion for selection was a reduced flight distance from human beings. As tools for successful hunting were not needed by these scavenger-variety canines, the wolf's larger head, brain, teeth, and overall body size evolved into something smaller, as well. The temperamentally bolder yet less physically formidable nature of the dog is essentially what separates it from the wolf. Where wolves specialize as pack-hunting predators, dogs specialize as scavengers at human encampments. Likened to the canine version of rats, these village or dump dogs are thought by the authors to be the naturally-evolved forerunner of the modern-day dog.

The significance of Coppinger's theory is twofold. One, they argue that dogs are a legitimate species in their own right and not merely a household version of a wolf. Two, this has implications for training, as many traditional training paradigms rely on understanding and treating dogs as if they were wolves. Coppingers argue that dogs don't form packs in the manner that wolves do and that dogs are about as similar to wolves as humans are to their ape ancestors. In the same way that one wouldn't attempt to raise a human baby as if it were a chimp, it would be equally senseless to rear a puppy as if it were a wolf.

The authors examine how the reviled or barely tolerated village dogs may have become more valuable to humans. Interestingly, they propose that hunting with dogs in its earliest form was never about food-acquisition but has always been a matter of sport for both humans and dogs. The earliest hunting dogs, they believe, were "walking hounds" who assisted in pest control once humans began agrarian living.

Barking is one of the earliest working applications, as well. By maintaining dogs alongside people and/or livestock, alarm barking could serve as an early warning to humans that something out of the ordinary was afoot. As well, barking served to easily spook natural predators. Consistent in Coppingers' image of early dog, ironically, is a canine with a low prey drive and minimal aggressive behavior. They hang around. They eat wastes. They make noise if something scares them, inadvertently scaring the source of the noise away. This is certainly very different from the notion of a tamed wolf being harnessed for its ability to lead hunting expeditions and valiantly protect its packmates.

The authors examine at great length the way in which form embodies function - the manner in which the jobs that dogs were chosen to perform placed selective pressure on physical traits that resulted in specialized new shapes. The authors have a vast experience in raising and racing sled dogs, and they present sled dogs as the epitome of physical perfection for a task. Although their discussion is a bit overdone, the gist of it is that a dog must be large enough to move a sled, small enough to not overheat with exertion, and coordinated with the size of its cohorts in order to be an ideal sled dog. Selecting for performance has resulted in a physical form that can run distances better than any other animal. Similarly, they explain how the long snout of a sighthound is advantageous to the task for which it was created or how the large size of a livestock guardian dog suits it for the lifestyle to which it has evolved.

And yet, the authors are highly critical of maintaining "breeds," per se. They contend that selecting dogs based on performance maintains the best strains in terms of specialized physical and behavioral form without artificially and unnecessarily limiting the available gene pool. Coppingers are scathing in their view of kennel club style breeding progams which severely restrict gene pools and base breeding decisions on capricious aesthetic qualities, thereby damaging dogs in the process. Bulldogs, of course, are the easy and obvious target for this type of criticism.

Physical variation between breeds is proposed to be a matter of developmental timing. The authors argue that the reason breeds are genetically identical is because they all carry the same basic plan but that physical variation is a result of different timing relating to growth. A bulldog and a borzoi might have the same facial bones, but the bulldog's starts growing later and stops growing sooner than the borzoi. The same could be said for other areas of growth. It's an interesting notion that they base largely on the fact that infant canines are all basically the same but appear to take on different growth patterns as they mature.

They propose a similar idea with regard to behavior. A wolf's socialization window is smaller and earlier than a dog's, and their fear period begins sooner. A border collie shows precocious predatory (eye-stalk) behaviors that a livestock guardian dog does not display until it is much older. The timing can be so skewed that some parts of a behavioral sequence never appear at all. Ideally, livestock guardians will never possess the eye-stalk or chase behaviors that herding or hunting dogs might. Perhaps pit bulls don't possess the part of social behavior that allows them to recognize or respond to submissive signals. Or the timing may be such that parts of a behavioral sequence are wildly exaggerated, as in the compulsive eye-stalk of a border collie.

That being said, the authors consistently and repeatedly emphasize the interaction of both innate features (physical and behavioral) and environmental influence, arguing that virtually everything is epigenetic. They stress that without the appropriate environmental support, a dog cannot properly manifest the behaviors that one would otherwise expect from it. Although this may seem obvious, they feel the need to hammer the idea home because of the husbandry errors that they see. For example, simply because a dog is a member of a livestock guardian breed does not mean that it will perform the task if it has not been properly raised with and socialized to sheep.

The authors are critical not only of modern breeding practices but of pet ownership itself. They present the case where household dogs might be considered a type of parasite, as they drain human resources without providing a comparable benefit. Alternatively, one could view it as a lose-lose situation for both species. Not only are the human resources drained, but the household dog typically is a victim of irresponsible breeding practices that results in marginal health. As well, it loses out on reproductive opportunities and the opportunity to express innate drives. They "believe the modern household dog is bred to satisfy human psychological needs, with little or no consideration of the consequences for the dog."

They are similarly critical of the assistance dog field. They suggest that the service dog industry manufactures as undoglike a dog as possible, interferes with its ability to succeed at its eventual mission by providing a disjointed and inappropriate rearing environment, and forces the dog into a form of slavery where it is programmed to perform tasks that have no inherent meaning or value to the animal.

The Coppingers contend that one cannot maintain physical shape and alter behavior at the same time, that the dog will come apart at the seams. In other words, it is impossible to maintain a dog that physically resembles a working dog but does not possess intense working drives without inserting structural instability. That is their explanation for the health issues that affect the modern-day purebred dog. I'm not convinced by the argument, but it's one that breeders and non-breeders will delight in debating.

For the Coppingers, there are generic dogs that suit generic purposes (like pet ownership or dump-scavenging), and there are highly specialized, working dogs specifically geared for working purposes (and which are wholly unsuited to pet ownership). There doesn't appear to be any middle ground (except for foundationally unhealthy, unstable, watered-down, kennel club versions of working dogs), and for the dog afficionado, that's a rather limited and overly pessimistic view of dogs.

This isn't the kind of book that's going to give practical advice on pet-keeping. Nor will it offer sweet and sentimental inspiration. There's plenty to disagree with. Yet I relished reading it, because I thoroughly enjoy the authors' willingness to pose esoteric questions and challenge widely held notions. The book does have its weaknesses, but it is readable, engaging, and cogent. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who has more than a passing interest in dogs.


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Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution.
by Raymond & Lorna Coppinger
Published by Scribner, 2001. ISBN: 0684855305

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