A few weeks ago, I attended a day long lecture by Ray Coppinger, PhD and co-author of Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. This book was published in 2002 and I read it several years ago. I remembered how much I enjoyed the book and how much I learned by reading it so when I had the opportunity to attend a Coppinger lecture, I jumped at the chance. I was not disappointed. It’s been a long time since I attended a lecture or workshop and took notes, let alone ten pages of notes. If you ever get the opportunity to hear Dr. Coppinger speak, I highly recommend it. He brings knowledge, experience and great humor to a topic he’s been studying for many years; dogs around the world.
It would be impossible to boil down a book like Dogs into an eight hour lecture so Dr. Coppinger treated us to his own version of the highlights of the book. First off, he gave us a primer in studying dogs. He organized the study of dogs into three categories: genetics, paleontology and anthropology. This was an excellent refresher and as throughout the entire day, Dr. Coppinger’s personal stories and sense of humor made wading into these topics fun and interesting.Where I really started enjoying myself the most though was when Dr. Coppinger started applying these principles to his study of dump dogs and village dogs. He travels the world studying dog populations of all kinds and his personal stories really brought his research to life. Not many people in the world could say that the Mexico City Dump is one of their favorite places in the world. Imagine having to hire a body guard to protect you from people while conducting your research in South Africa!
Dump dogs are dogs that live in large city dumps. They are not “owned” by people per say, but they often associate with certain people (the recyclers who go through the dumps for items to resell). They will even follow some of these people home, but not sleep in the house. These dogs have their favorite garbage trucks that they wait for, just like our dogs who come to know when their feeding times are or hear us open the cupboard or pick up their food bowl. Food is plentiful for them. None of the dogs are spayed or neutered so sex is one of their favorite past times (they have plenty of time for this). These dogs don’t fight over food or females in season (plentiful resources) but will fight it out for shade and water (scare resources). Coppinger notes that you will see plenty of puppies and adult dogs in the dumps but few adolescents which often don’t survive. Once they’re weaned from their mothers, they have trouble competing against the older adult dogs and if you see them, they’re bony and starving. This niche favors producing as many litters of puppies as possible since so few offspring survive.
Village dogs live among humans and feed off of their refuse. Coppinger explains that if you ask someone if a village dog is their dog, they look at you a bit confused. I thought it would kind of be like asking someone in America if that was their raccoon except that dogs are so uniquely suited to human company and are so affiliative to humans by comparison to a wild raccoon. These dogs associate themselves with certain people but are not owned per se even if certain people feed them. He referred several time to the “cuckoo affect” of females delivering litters near or under peoples homes. Who can resist feeding a puppy?!
Coppinger estimates that there are half a billion, no that is not a typo, half a billion dogs in the world. The way dogs live in North America and Europe is an anomaly compared to the way the rest of the dogs in the world live. Only about 20% of the dogs in the world live as our dogs do. We are people with huge disposable incomes and can afford to own and breed for genetic mutations. I found his riff on how wealthy people love genetic freaks (Great Danes, Pugs, Dachshunds) hilarious because it’s so true.
The perspective of a Behavioral Ecologist is so refreshing for someone like me who spends her entire career trying to help dogs live successfully in a highly artificial environment where all the things dogs are genetically programmed to do (humping, digging, barking, chasing and biting) can result in a dog’s death sentence. As Coppinger postulates, if your dog could choose between remaining intact and living a life in the Mexico City dump consisting of foraging, procreating, playing and living an unrestricted life or living in the luxurious prisons we call our homes, they’d probably pick the dump.
In what I consider to be a happy coincidence, I saw articles including pictures from Animal Behavior Associates about the Behavior of Turkish Street Dogs (they reference Coppinger’s book) and Managing Street Dogs and Cats in Turkey. They touch on a topic which Coppinger touched on in his lecture about how inhumane rescue can be depending on the circumstances.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you read the Coppingers’ book? Did reading the Coppingers’ book change the way you view dogs? Have you traveled to other countries where dogs live differently than they do here in America?
This is so interesting. I love the idea of observing these dogs.
Kody has the most interesting instincts. I think all dogs do this, but if he’s waiting for food (when his food is cooling in the morning) the instincts come out. He’ll start shivering like he’s cold and starving. It’s irresistible, I know he’s fine, but it’s very effective and triggers the caring centers in my brain. He probably doesn’t know he’s doing it. Evolution kept dogs that shivered and had behaviors humans interpreted as ‘desperate’ alive. People couldn’t help but give them food and those dogs lived to breed.
That must be a strong instinct because I doubt it has been necessary for many generations before Kody. Although if you think about it, shelter dogs that can manipulate human emotions are more likely to survive.
It’s kind of cool to see that even with all the breeding, these free roaming dogs can quickly adjust to their freedom. Although I am very American in my dog dogma, I want to pamper all these dogs and I have mixed emotions about dogs having to live wild and eat garbage. There are some dogs in America I know would be better off that way.
Brenda Huber says
I find this very interesting. I also find it fascinating that one can make a living, traveling around the world’s dumps, observing dogs! My mom came from a tiny village in Croatia where there were no dogs. Animals were viewed as 1) food and 2) vermin. There was too much poverty to afford the luxury of feeding a dog…. The village was on an island, so it was cut off from any “roaming” wild dogs. People would allow “barn cats” to live on their property, to kill off vermin, but they were never fed by humans. My favorite proof of American pet culture conpared to the rest of the world was from 1982, when my uncle visited & my dad took him to the local Albertson’s to buy dog food. He was dumbfounded, “You have an entire aisle of FOOD FOR DOGS????” Without missing a beat, my dad gestured & said, “..and this side is for cats.”
Christine Hibbard says
@Matt, I think you’d really enjoy the Coppingers’ book. Thanks for sharing with us Kody’s shivering behavior around meal time. He’s terminally cute, that’s for sure! I’d feed him shivering or no shivering. 😀
@Brenda, I wonder what your uncle would think about what we do for a living?! *laugh*
Deborah Flick says
First of all, thank you for this informative summary! And second, I have Coppinger’s book but I have not read it. Somehow it got buried in the stack next to my bed. Today, it’s moving to the top of the pile.
How fortunate you were to spend and entire day with Ray. Stories bring everything to life.
Christine Hibbard says
@Deborah Flick: I’d love to get a reading group together to discuss Coppingers’ Dogs. As you read, I’d love to write/speak to you!
Colleen Falconer says
Christine, I’m seeing Ray Coppinger at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, IN next weekend. I decided to take the leap after reading about your experience seeing him recently – I can’t wait!!!! I thought you’d appreciate the irony that I started reading this most recent blog post of yours but stopped myself, because I don’t want to spoil ‘my’ seminar. ha! ha! But I’m really looking forward to reading it when I’m back! 🙂
Christine Hibbard says
Hi Colleen! I can’t wait to hear about your experience seeing Dr. Coppinger at Wolf Park. How cool is that?
Bev Davis says
Hi Christine I was on the tour in South Africa and we really did not need a bodyguard! I was fortunate to attend a 2 day seminar with Ray Coppinger, go to a township in Johannesburg and one just outside Durban as well as attend a talk on sled dogs. He is an amazing man and anyone who loves or works with dogs should try and see him. X Bev
Christine Hibbard says
@Bev, glad to hear you didn’t need a body guard! How wonderfl that you were able to travel and with with Dr. Coppinger. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note about your experience.
Jade Charleson says
Hey Christine, I’m a student in my first year studying B. Sc. (hons) in Psychology. I’ve started a class on evolution and find it absolutely fascinating. I’m currently writing an essay about dogs and their ’emotions’ and stumbled across this blog post. I think it’s wonderful that you have a career in something you enjoy so much! I found your post very interesting and inspiring to investigate the things that you enjoy. I also have a new perspective on dogs too as it is a shame that they are penalised in our cultures for behaving in ways they should. Anyways, thanks for the post! 🙂 x
Christine Hibbard says
Hi Jade, congratulations on your studies. If you haven’t read Dogs: Evolution, Behaviour and Cognition by Miklosi you should check it out. Miklosi’s research is all about evolutionary biology and cognition in dogs. Thanks for reading Behind the Behavior!
I have a total of four dogs and they are all adorable. I also love reading books related to them so that I can get to know them more closely. The book that I am reading is some kind of an FAQ/trivia type of plot about dogs and their common behaviors along with myths. In short, it has helped me a lot to train them all well.
Hey Christine –
Your summary of Raymond’s work is neat. I have been reading about some new technology that was developed by the Gallant Labs at Berkeley – brain visualization. It sounds space-age but we now have the technology to be able to “read minds”, check out this video that explains it. Wouldn’t it be GREAT to be able to see what dogs think and feel too! It may help us understand why they do what they do!