Books

What dogs are really up to

Raymond and Laura Coppinger remind us that most nations simply can’t afford to be as sentimental about dogs as the British

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

What is a Dog? Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger

University of Chicago Press, pp.240, £21, ISBN: 9780226127941

Before I read this book, I thought I knew what a dog was. It barks, it wags its tail, it fetches sticks, it craps on the carpet. However, now that I’ve finished this learned tome, I realise there’s a bit more to it than I thought. As well as the domestic dog (Canis familiaris), the genus Canis also includes wolves, jackals, dingoes and coyotes. They all seem very different, yet domestic dogs can breed with all of them. According to Darwin, this makes them all members of the same species. Now can you see why I’m confused?

Raymond and Lorna Coppinger don’t want you to make a snap decision about what a dog is — or what it isn’t. They want to make you think about how zoologists classify things: why we decide to call an animal one thing and not another. For instance, in New England wolves are an endangered species, while coyotes are unprotected. Hence, when a new canid was discovered in New England, it was classified as a coyote, not a wolf.

A lot of Britons prefer dogs to people — a preference that becomes more rational the more dogs and people you meet — but, as the Coppingers point out, our romantic idea of man’s best friend is confined to a few rich countries, where people can afford effective vaccines against rabies and distemper. The vast majority of the world’s dogs are feral, not domestic. No wonder in poor countries they’re often regarded as filthy pests.

The Coppingers aren’t so concerned with pedigree dogs — ‘pure’ breeds created by artificial selection. They’re more interested in those dogs that live rough, out on the streets. Unlike pure breeds, which vary so dramatically, these ‘village dogs’ (as the Coppingers call them) are surprisingly similar the world over. From India to Africa, from South America to Southeast Asia, natural selection has produced the perfect scavenger (the village dog), just as it’s produced the perfect hunter (the wolf).


There are about one billion dogs in the world and 850 million of them are village dogs. Only 150 million are pure breeds, and most of these are very new (German shepherds were first bred as recently as the 1890s). We’ve bred a lot of pure breeds in a very short time (there are now more golden retrievers in the USA than there are wolves in the entire world) but if these pure breeds were returned to the wild they’d quickly disappear. Thanks to all the edible refuse we produce (well, edible for dogs, at any rate), the village dog is now the most prevalent canine strain throughout the world. And remarkably, they’re all pretty much the same size and shape.

As well as venturing off into the wilderness in search of data, Mr and Mrs Coppinger have travelled to lots of less exotic places, such as Mexico City’s municipal dump (‘a wonderful place to ask questions about the special relationship between dogs and people’). Although they’re clearly very keen on dogs (they even go dog-sledging together) there’s nothing sentimental about their approach. This is an easy book to read, but it’s still a serious academic study. The Coppingers are happy to debunk their own hypotheses when the facts they find don’t back them up.

They are eminent biologists, but they wear their learning lightly. Their writing is chatty and approachable. This cheerful book speaks with a single voice — it’s impossible to tell who wrote what. Their scientific findings are enlivened by a journalistic ear for human detail:

When we ask our Muslim friends, who don’t really like dogs and don’t keep pets, why don’t they cull their burgeoning population of street dogs, or even sick and diseased dogs, they answer, ‘We can’t. The dogs belong to God.’

If humans died out, dogs would vanish,village dogs as well as pure breeds. They’ve learnt to live alongside mankind, and without us, they wouldn’t stand a chance. ‘Dogs could not take up residence in the wild because that niche is already taken — by wolves, coyotes and jackals,’ explain the Coppingers:

The dog is a shape that has evolved to a new niche that was created when people switched from hunting and gathering to growing grain. The waste products of that activity created a food supply that supports village dogs.

So, according to the Coppingers, a dog is a kind of canid that has evolved to co-exist with humans — as a pet, a worker or a scavenger (or, in some cases, a combination of all three). Once they’ve spelt it out, it all seems fairly obvious. However, I never thought it through before, and now I see dogs in an entirely different light. Far from being a shameless stooge, Canis familiaris is actually a highly sophisticated scrounger. Seems man’s best friend is a lot smarter than we all imagined. Maybe the next stage of canine evolution will be a dog that can use a tin opener — or, even better, clear up its own crap.

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Show comments
  • dukw

    Certainly agree with the ‘highly sophisticated scrounger’ bit. My neighbour’s dog is trying hard for a doggie Oscar on that front.

  • Bill Brinsmead

    Anything on how dogs fare in China and Korea?

    • dukw

      Breakfast fare, lunch fare and evening meal fare?

    • Mary Ann

      The same way as other animals?

    • Zhang Wei

      They get eaten……but at least they don’t get turned into sexual partners like what happens in the West.

    • Sue Smith

      Who cares? There are way too many of them in the world already.

      • DaviddeAngelis

        Like I said, a real charmer

    • Bonkim

      Good for TV Chefs.

  • JSC

    They’re not all scroungers, my mutt brings me my mail and shoes (well, any shoes to be honest) every morning and all he charges is a single chew bone. If only some humans had the same work ethic that my dog does…

    • Bonkim

      You will have to put him on a living wage.

      • JSC

        He’s worth every penny. 🙂

  • Buzzby19491

    Without man, dogs would never have evolved from wolves, and wolves would still be the predominant apex predators in the Northern Hemisphere.

  • monsieur_charlie

    It’s true, most dogs are far more charming than most people.

    • Sue Smith

      That’s a dreadful thing to say; can your dog discuss ‘Common Practice Harmony’ with you, or advise on the movements of the Dow? Until that day, dogs will remain out in the backyard – where they properly belong. I don’t have one, but I used to when I lived on a farm where it was never – repeat NEVER – inside our home. I have never aspired to live in a dog kennel and don’t imagine I ever will. Repeat after me please: US/THEM.

      • monsieur_charlie

        I haven’t met you but I’m sure most people would prefer my charming little Jack Russell to you.

        • Sue Smith

          All too typical response from the “love me, love my dog brigade”. Ho hum.

          • monsieur_charlie

            And an unusually nice response from a “gobby” woman.

          • Sue Smith

            Pity you’ve never developed any “people” skills, though easy to see why. You like them lying prostrate at your feet demonstrating ‘unconditional love’. Eeeew. People who live in dog kennels shouldn’t throw stones.

            Go on, let him lick your face – you know you want to!!!

          • monsieur_charlie

            I have to say, that idea appeals more to me than being lectured about the Dow by an uppity woman.

          • Sue Smith

            Plenty more evidence of why you spend your time with 4 legs rather than 2.

          • Chris Bartelt

            Irony.

          • Chris Bartelt

            Issues?

          • DaviddeAngelis

            What a lovely women – sounds like a real charmer

  • SeaNote

    Okay, now explain dog’s best friend.

  • evad666

    Dogs provide companionship, protection and Security offering an increase in hearing range to their humans in return we provide food,a warm cave and a scratch behind the ears and between the shoulder blades.

    • Zhang Wei

      In some cases alot more……

      • Jay Igaboo

        I don’t know if you’re Korean, but is your post based on a gastronomical experience?

    • Sue Smith

      What’s so sad is that there are so many people who cannot find meaningful human relationships and put all their energies into animals. My husband and I have had 5 children and though we both encouraged them to be kind to animals, we stressed the importance of human relationships. As a family we discussed animal fetishism and the obsession with dogs, all thinking that while dogs could be cute it was and is distinctly unhealthy having them inside the home in intimate spaces.

      And nothing makes me more annoyed than seeing those bloody royal corgies, overindulged to the point of nausea and providing a real danger and obstacles to people who could easily fall over them. Besides all that, they’re absolutely hideous.

  • Darnell Jackson

    Dogs are ace, they have the same emotions and expressions as us.

    • Sue Smith

      You might be describing yourself, but please leave me out of it.

      • Jay Igaboo

        I’ve read your posts. you sound like a miserable, well, b/tch, really, You must go around with a hang -dog expression all day long.

        You’re barking mad!

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Where’s your evidence Sue’s you?

      • PeterK10

        Like children, dogs are only as good as their owners. Undisciplined children often have parents who should have remained childless. The same goes for PIA dogs and their lackadaisical owners who should have remained dogless.

        No question dogs have interesting, occasionally fascinating, aspects. However, they are not human, contrary to many commenters’ opinions. People fall in love with their dogs and see them as better than humans…fine. Keeps them out of the dating pool.

        • Sue Smith

          Couldn’t agree more. And the idea that if you don’t love their dogs you’re the worst in the world. Truly this is ‘love me, love my dog’ stuff come true for these unfortunates.

          I was at a friend’s house this week for afternoon tea and as soon as my husband and I walked into the house the stink of dogs hit us in the face. Eeeeew!!! They were lolling about on the furniture and I was nearly heaving.

  • Trini’s dad

    I am na gettin dis bratha. Why dis dawg lickin black man face? Whe di Irish fella two compleet di pictsha?

  • amanuenensi

    Sadly Muslims were told that angels will not enter a house where a dog lives, quite wrong of course, it is the ghost or demon floating through the room that Rufus barks at. Ask any good vicar.

  • Trainspotter

    The geezer in the pic has one because he is begging. This stops him being arrested by the police because they then have to feed and care for it.

  • Giuseppe Cappa

    Yet another anti-human article by an author who prefers dogs to persons. I am sure the author is so irrational to eat lamb but not dog, while the former is much cuter and no less intelligent than the latter. No wonder the author seems to believe in macro-evolution, clearly a secular superstition.

  • JhonMarsh321
  • JhonMarsh321
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