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Respecting the Village Dog
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution
by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger

Reviewed by
Julie Buckles

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Introduce a harness into my kennel of sled dogs, and nine huskies explode. They bark, howl, run in circles, and strain against their collars—Smoky spins on her head and tears down trees—until I hook each one, and we start down the trail. If I bring a ball to the kennel, they stare at me blankly. Retrievers, by contrast, would have the opposite response, chasing a ball until they drop from exhaustion.

Why is that? A smart new book, "Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution," by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger, helps us begin to understand the amazing world of dogs, their behaviors, their ancestry, and their relationships with humans.

The Coppingers have worked with and studied dogs around the world for three decades. They've raced sled dogs and worked extensively with guarding and heel dogs. And they are biologists. In this book, they focus on six types of dogs—village dogs, sled dogs, livestock-guarding dogs, herding dogs, service dogs, and modern household pets. They carefully lay out their theories about where dogs come from and why they behave as they do.

Ivan, a Siberian husky, with his long legs and muscular shoulders is clearly built for running and pulling. He raced this year in the 350-mile John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

There are 400 million dogs in the world—a thousand times more dogs than wolves. The fact that dogs sprang from wolves thousands of years ago, the Coppingers say, is "a miracle of evolution." Darwin believed that humans tamed wolf pups, and bred those with desirable traits. The Coppingers make a compelling case for another scenario.

About 15,000 years ago, people began forming permanent settlements (the first fossil evidence of dogs comes from this period). Humans created waste, and wolves began to feed on it. The less nervous wolves would stick around longer and began to form groups based on this one trait—the ability to eat in proximity to humans.

Over time, these scavenger wolves began to look and behave like dogs, surviving on low-grade food. Their heads, bodies and teeth shrunk, and they no longer formed packs. The village dog is not a mongrel or mutt, but rather the canid missing link—the dog from which all modern dogs descended. "Canis lupus split into populations that could make a living at dumps and those who couldn't." They domesticated themselves.

To prove their point, the Coppingers take us to an isolated island off the East Africa coast to look at the 'genetically' tame dogs of Pemba. These dogs run wild amongst people, but they are not pets. They appear relatively uniform—thirty or so pounds and slender, with short, smooth coats of variegated colors; some have large spots, some have markings on their heads, ears, legs or tails. They have naturally adapted to the niche of a town dump, drawn to human activity rather than avoiding it.

Making the leap from village dog to the modern household pet is not difficult. The Coppingers note that modern specialized breeds are the result of breeding through hybridization. This is the only way to make sense of bizarre extremes like the Chihuahua and the Afghan hound. Artificial or natural selection would take too long. "Hybridization is a way of instantly producing novelty," they write.

Julie Buckles with her nine huskies in northern Saskatchewan.

Written in a comfortable style for the lay reader, the Coppingers walk us through the differences between what in dogs is learned social behavior and what is genetic. A combination of nature and nurture makes a dog what it is. By trying to understand the nature of dogs, the critical puppy socialization period, and their evolutionary abilities a little better, we can do a better job breeding desirable companions without jeopardizing their genetic health.

You can teach a dog new tricks—my sled dogs could learn to chase tennis balls and retrievers can presumably pull sleds. But as the Coppingers suggest, transcending dog genetics may be another matter entirely. Huskies run not because they expect some kind of reward, but for a more important reason: It feels good.

See another GNN book review by Julie Buckles The Mind of the Raven

Julie Buckles recently completed a 21-day dogsledding trip in northern Saskatchewan with her nine huskies. She is a freelance writer living in northern Wisconsin.

Raymond & Lorna Coppinger. Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. Scribner, New York, May 2001.

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