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?