of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution
by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger
This book is fascinating. It challenges so many widely held popular beliefs about dogs. With careful logic, the Coppingers examine what dogs are and how they got to be that way, from a biologist's understanding. They pick apart the idea that dogs are descendents of wolves deliberately tamed and bred by early humans, explaining why it would have been nearly impossible for that to happen. Instead their hypothesis is that dogs actually domesticated themselves, adapting to a new niche- scavenging at Neolithic rubbish heaps. According to Dogs: A New Understanding, this means that even though dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, dogs don't behave like wolves and shouldn't be treated like they do. It's very complicated. Sometimes the explanations get quite technical, but the authors always bring it back down to layman's terms.
Presenting a new idea about how dogs evolved is only a small part of this book. It covers many other topics. Why are there so many different dog breeds? How is it possible that dogs can take so many diverse shapes and sizes, yet still be the same species? How much of canine behavior is intelligence, and how much genetic or instinctual? The Coppingers go into a lot of detail about several working breeds: sled dogs, livestock guarding dogs, and sheep herding dogs in particular. I was intrigued by the chapter about sled dogs, which describes how physical attributes -size, body shape, gait- are what make the best sled dog. (It also criticizes Jack London's books which dramatize the life of working dogs in Alaska, making me curious to read them again). There is heavy criticism in this book about how working breeds have now become household pets, and the breeding of dogs for show. The Coppingers aver, like Jon Katz in The New Work of Dogs, that many current relationships between dogs and humans (including, to my surprise, service dogs) are not mutually beneficial and probably bad for the dogs. We "need to think harder about how dogs intersect with people," they say. This book held my attention all the way to the end. (Except for one boring chapter about the scientific nomenclature of canine species.)
I just have to mention one of my favorite parts of the book. It describes an experiment where Dmitri Belyaev, a geneticist, tried breeding for tamer silver foxes at a fur farm in Russia. He eventually got foxes that acted like dogs- begging for attention from humans, taking food from their hands, etc. But they also started to look like dogs: floppy ears, spotted coats, upturned tails. You have to see this for yourself.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 352 pages, 2001