Nov 1, 2008

Dogs: A New Understanding

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


  1. This sounds really interesting. I'm reading a book about dogs right now, Working Like a Dog by Gena K. Gorrell. Very good. I'll be reviewing it when I'm done.

  2. I've also frequently wondered at all the different breeds within the same species--there are soooo many types of dogs! And now all of the fancy cross breeding! Sounds like an interesting find, Jeane.

  3. This sounds like an amazing read. I have always been a lover of non-fiction books about dogs but I have tired of the endless Jon Katz books (I am not a fan of him personally)
    Thanks for the wonderful review, this is going to the top of my wishlist :)

  4. I read a lot of Jon Katz, too. I liked his books okay. What was tiresome for you?

  5. I think it was a mixture of things he had done as a dog owner. Allowing a dog to chase vehicles (even behind a fence) seems very irresponsible and I have known people who've lost dogs from using this to tire out their high energy pets.

    Also I really felt like he wasn't trying hard enough to help his various dogs before having them put down - I can understand about the first two who were sick, but he didn't even try any treatments.

    But mostly it was his choice to put his border collie to sleep becuase it had behavior problems, I have a 3 year old border who is a complete nightmare when around strangers, but we are still trying and will never give up. He may never be a dog to walk peacefully in the neighborhood, so instead we find remote wilderness areas and hiking spots.

    Sorry for blabbing on, but I am extremely concerned when it comes to dog owners who are not willing to dedicate themselves to their pets. These dogs depend on us and we have to do everything we can to help them live happy lives.

  6. You're right. I had forgotten about how easily he ditched his dogs. I was hoping he'd really made more effort to treat them medically or deal with the behavior issues than he described in the book. I know how you feel.

    I have two cats, and one has some kind of digestive problem the vet has never been able to explain to me. I've tried all kinds of food, and even on the best he still gets sick frequently. It's hard for me to find a pet sitter who doesn't mind cleaning up cat puke when we're gone, but I still would never get rid of him just for that.

  7. I'm glad you understood where I was coming from, I sometimes get a bit too critical about pet-owners.

    I totally get you on the cat puke problem - I had a cat years ago that barfed all the time :/ The vet assured me she was grade A healthy but was cursed with a sensitive tummy. We found that filling her water bowl from our cooler of spring water rather than the tap helped out quite a bit. We think the iron in the tap water was irritating her belly.

    I just figured "hey I've dealt with baby poop, puppy poop and stinky hamsters - whats a little puke?" lol

  8. Anonymous5/09/2009

    Jeanne, I'm new to your site but am thrilled to see some of the dog books you've reviewed. Earlier I had suggested Ray Coppinger's book to you Dogs: thinking it was so esoteric that it mostly appeals to serious dog geeks and behaviorists. Tonight, I found your review. He has contributed so much to our understanding of canine evolution. A friend of mine just went on a trip with him to study dogs in a big dump in Mexico. He continues to see dogs as they are and with a scientists mind. We can all continue to learn and hopefully dispel some of the popular mythology regarding dogs and their social structure and behavior. Bravo to you making it through this book. Coppinger at his seminars is always amazed when people make it to the end.

  9. Jude Illes- Thank you. Coppinger himself was surprised people read it to the end? that's kind of funny. I did find a few chapters a bit dry, but the whole concept was so intriguing to me (having never known anything other than the popular beliefs of dogs) that I had to read the whole thing.


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