book by Ray & Lorna Coppinger

reviewed by Pam Green, © 2001

This is a unique and remarkable book which should be of great interest and great value to anyone involved in the training, use, or breeding of practical (ie real world) working dogs and working trial dogs. This book combines the perspectives of the evolutionary biologist , the dog behavioral scientist, and the pragmatic trainer-utilizer of dogs in practical work.

"DOGS, A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, & Evolution"
by Ray & Lorna Coppinger

Scribner, 2001, US $26, ISBN 0-684-85530-5

(review by Pam Green, © 2001)

This is a unique and remarkable book which should be of great interest and great value to anyone involved in the training, use, or breeding of practical (ie real world) working dogs and working trial dogs. It will come as a challenge, possibly unwelcome, to those involved in beauty show dogs and pet dogs.

This book combines the perspectives of the evolutionary biologist , the dog behavioral scientist, and the pragmatic trainer-utilizer of dogs in practical work. The authors are unusual in having serious qualifications in all three of these areas. They are known primarily for their work regarding Livestock Guarding Dogs; less well known for their long term involvement in sled dog racing.

The first section presents the Coppingers' theory as to how dogs have evolved from wolves. They present some cogent arguments that when (about 15,000 years ago) humans began living in relatively permanent villages and thus producing predictable piles of garbage and excrement, this opened an opportunity for wolves to make a living scavenging food from these dumps. This gave the advantage to those wolves who were somewhat less afraid of humans and thus created genetic selection towards tameness. The eventual evolved result is a dog rather similar to those that hang around villages all over the world : small , shorthaired, mildly wary of people. The Coppingers also present their arguments as to why it would have been far more difficult for roving bands of hunter-gatherers to have adopted wild wolf cubs and from them selectively bred a useful hunting or herding partner. (Discussion of flaws in interpretations of the recent mitochondrial DNA evidence for very early divergence of dogs from wolves, 100,000 or more years ago, will come in the 4th section of the book.) They discuss the ecology and behavior of dogs and humans living in villages today that are likely to have a lot of similarity to the early human villages.

The second portion of the book, which is probably the one of the most interest to those involved with working dogs, deals with the action and interaction of the physical and behavioral modifications that have been bred into various types of working dogs and , of utmost importance, how the differences in environment and experience during the "critical periods" or "sensitive periods" of the young puppy's life will dramatically affect the mature expression of the behavioral potential. For some types of work a fairly generic village scavenger dog will do the job IF that dog has been adopted early and raised in a way that promotes the desired behaviors for this work. For other types of work, genetically specialized breeds have been created with alterations in basic features of physical shape and physiology and/or in basic features of social and predatory behaviors. For the specialized breeds , a specialized puppy environment and experience are equally crucial. the big message is that it is the interaction between the genetic endowment and the puppy's upbringing that will determine actual working abilities. Once you have a puppy whose nature gives him potential for a job, you still have the huge task of raising him in a way that he grows into his job.

In part 2, the Coppingers show how the right ways to raise some working dogs are pretty well known and practiced by those involved with them : namely for Livestock Guarding Dogs, for Walking Hounds (hounds who accompany people on the hunt) , for Sled Dogs, and for the trial-bred Border Collie (the most behaviorally specialized form of herding dog), the Retrievers, and the Pointers. In part 3, they argue that the upbringing of Assistance Dogs (in particular Guide and Wheelchair Assist Dogs) is often faulty and far less utilizing of what is already known about critical periods than it could be. Likewise both the breeding and upbringing of what they call Household Dogs, dogs living in our homes as pets, is often sadly less than it could and should be. They make some very strong criticism of purebred breeding practices in general and the creation and maintenance of "show" (ie appearance bred) breeds and of the pet dogs who are produced either as by-product of show breeding or of working breeding or otherwise produced. Again in part 3 the message is that once you have a puppy, you still have to follow a sound strategy and dog a lot of work to build that puppy into the dog you want.

Part 3 also deals with the issues of whether people really "benefit" from having dogs in various types of association and whether dogs really "benefit" from their various associations with people. This is seen from the viewpoint of the ecologist and the evolutionary biologist.

The 4th section comes back to evolutionary questions, such as whether dog and wolf are separate species or not (which depends on which definition of species one focuses upon), re-evaluating the mitochondrial DNA evidence and other evidence as to how long dogs have been distinctly dogs rather than wolves, and issues of doggie size and shape and "intelligence" (a concept that th Coppingers find inappropriate -- essentially for the same reason as in humans, namely that it throws apples and oranges and avocados and broccoli into one category, ie that one learns more by distinguishing the various possible mental and behavioral factors that can be assets or liabilities for success in certain kinds of endeavor). Also discussed the concepts of neoteny and paedomorphism as affecting the evolution of dogs.


The above discussion attempts to describe the contents and messages of this very interesting book without unduly intruding my own commentary or additions. Being myself someone who does have an extensive background in biology, especially in genetics and evolution, and who has a fair bit of experience in training of & competing with working trial dogs for competition in Obedience, Tracking, Protection, and Herding (as well as a few other types of task) and also a lot of practical experience in "rehabbing" rescued abandoned dogs to become valued and well behaved household & family companion dogs, and as someone who is widely read in the doggie literature, I DO of course have something to add and something to intrude. these sections will follow below.


Throughout the book there is much analysis of "benefit". Now it is critical to understand that the term "benefit" in these viewpoints means something rather different from our everyday use of that word and concept !! For many readers it will be an alien point of view. "Benefit" means biological benefit or genetic survival benefit. "Benefit" means being helpful to the goal of surviving long enough and well enough to reproduce, plus anything that helps one to ensure that one's offspring will also successfully reproduce. The phrase " a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg" sums it up rather well. Thus we and our entire lifework is judged only as the means by which our DNA is able to make other DNA. If you don't reproduce , you might as well never have lived, because you are genetically a "failure". This point of view is an absolutely valid and necessary one for understanding those changes that come about by biological (genetic) evolution.

However biological/evolutionary "benefit" does NOT represent the whole story for the very recent phase of human species , which has in the past few thousand years become a species that evolves by culture and technology as much (or more) than it does by biology (genetics). And to me, there is a sense in which our dogs living so intimately with us share our cultural and technological evolution. I would argue that in our recent history as a species we have seen major impact from individuals who never successfully reproduced : obvious example would be Isaac Newton, who seems to have lacked any inclination for any sort of sexual relationships -- a grave defect from the evolutionist's point of view. We've also known dogs who let us no puppies but who have created an indelible impact on the way our species interacts with theirs.

I would argue that our everyday definition of "benefit" would be specifically "personal benefit" or "individual welfare", which is the individual survival , health, safety, comfort, and happiness of the individual without any regard to whether or not that individual reproduces is also a valid concept and one to bear in mind when evaluating the interactions of dogs and humans. In some cases, eg such as the discussion of the deformities and consequent health problems that have been bred into some breeds, with the Bulldog being the most flagrant example, it is clear that there has been the opposite of "benefit" from both the biological/evolutionary viewpoint and the individual viewpoint : such dogs cannot survive and reproduce without immense artificial aid and such dogs suffer great discomfort , ill health, premature death and in some cases real misery. Another example of such a breed would be Great Dane, which at best live very short lives, and I was told recently that gastric dilation and volvus has become so common that some concerned breeders are having gastroplexy performed on their puppies prior to sale.

I do notice that from time to time the Coppingers seem to shift view from biological benefit to individual benefit, but they don't always announce that they are changing viewpoint. The reader just kind of has to keep track of the shifting views. and definitely keep adding your own view, which probably is more focused on the individual dog;s welfare. Whenever the Coppingers are bemoaning that certain dogs have been sterilized or cut off from reproducing into the general population, do remember that they are talking from a very specific point of view and that point may or may not seem highly relevant to you -- or to your beloved companion dog.

I should add that I strongly agree with the repeated thesis that once you have a puppy, you still have to follow a sound strategy and dog a lot of work to build that puppy into the dog you want. For an example of the building of a multi-talented puppy into a superbly accomplished working trial dog, I have only to recall in detail the puppyhood of my own dog Bones, who ultimately attained almost every working title available to Bouvier during the era of his prime working years.

In summary, this is a book that every thoughtful dog person should read and re-read. It is one of the most thought-provoking books that you will ever read.


site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 1/8/03 revised 4/21/03
return to top of page return to Site Index