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A Talk with Ray & Lorna Coppinger
Authors of
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding
of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution

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Dogs: A Startling

New Understanding
of Canine Origin,
Behavior & Evolution


eople have speculated on the origins of the dog for centuries, with the most common view that people took wolf pups from their dens and tamed them, thus creating the domestic dog or Canis familiaris. Ray and Lorna Coppinger, biologists and dog trainers, offer a very different view, suggesting that dogs evolved to fill a new niche created when people began to create permanent villages. Your editor, Barbara Petura, interviewed Ray and Lorna recently to learn how their ideas can benefit people and their dogs. Click here for the interview.

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Ray & Lorna Coppinger's "Dogs"


Dog Origins

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Barbara Petura:   Before we start talking about the new ideas about dogs in your book, would you talk a bit about your experiences with different kinds of working dogs?  I have the sense from the book that those experiences were important to your thinking.

Ray & Lorna CoppingerOur experiences with different kinds of working dogs have been intense and diverse. We both started off as kids with pet dogs, but after we were married in 1958 we started to attract hordes of them for some unknown reason.

We raised and trained sled dogs throughout the 1960s and 1970s. While Ray was struggling to train and race the team, Lorna took photographs and wrote the first comprehensive book on the history and sport, The World of Sled Dogs. We also helped our children train retrievers and various other breeds — border collies, Welsh corgis, and various mutts.

Dogs became the basis of our academic research and teaching, and far-flung lecturing. To us as behavioral biologists, dogs are infinitely fascinating.

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Barbara:   Was there a particular experience with your own dogs that got you thinking about the topic of the new book, namely a new view of the origin of the domestic dog?  Or was it something else?

Ray & LornaNo single experience triggered our thinking about the origin of domestic dogs, although we admit to feeling unfulfilled by the widespread acceptance of what we call in the book The Pinocchio Theory of Dog Origin. (Briefly, the wild wolf pup, taken from its den by people, strives to become a real dog.) All the dogs we have known, both at home and the hundreds we've watched all around the world, have contributed to our understanding.

By connecting our field observations and research with that of many others, we were able to construct a ‘new' explanation of dog origin, one that makes biological sense. As biologists at Hampshire College, in 1977 we co-founded the Livestock Guarding Dog Project, with research into the behavior and use of dogs as a non-lethal way to protect livestock from predators. During the next 15 years, we completed many field trips to various Old World sheep pastures, and imported dozens of pups to raise, breed, and introduce to New World ranchers and farmers. Eventually, our project monitored long-term records of behavior for over 1400 guardian dogs.

The most amazing experience abroad was observation of the transhumance migrations, which we first saw in Yugoslavia in 1977. The transhumance, or twice-yearly migrations of millions of sheep, shepherds and dogs, occurs between winter and summer pastures in all livestock-raising cultures from Portugal to Tibet, from South Africa to the North Polar Regions. Watching the guardian dogs and their behavior, counting the miles they travel and the numbers involved, opened a view of dog evolution and behavior that helped us to understand many of the biological mechanisms operating in the perfection of canine form and function.

Also, our first visit to Pemba in east Africa solidified the concept of the village dog -- the idea that dogs in many parts of the world, and no doubt since their beginning -- are like pigeons, rats and cockroaches, carrying out their lives in the company of humans but with no overt assistance in either their feeding or reproduction. The village dog is a key to understanding the earliest evolution of breeds.

Barbara:   You propose a new view of the origin of dogs, suggesting that people did not domesticate dogs but rather some wolves domesticated themselves.  How did that occur, in your view?

Ray & LornaIn DOGS, we propose a model whereby wild canids -- call them wolves -- domesticated themselves in response to humans providing them a new ecological niche, that is, ‘permanent' human settlements. But remember, most ‘new' ideas are made up of pieces that have been kicking around for a long time.

The anthropologist Frederick Zeuner wrote in the 1960s that many of the domestic species were originally crop pests, species adapting to a niche that humans created. Biologists Alan Beck in the US and Luigi Boitani in Italy showed modern examples of village scavengers, dogs living well on the surplus of human habitation. Walter Poduschka in Austria emphasized the realities of population biology. Psychologists John Paul Scott and John Fuller understood the importance of the genetic tameness of dogs in contrast to the genetic wildness of wolves. These and many, many other scientists provided evidence on which to build a theory.

But it was Dmitri Belyaev's long-term project in Russia that first demonstrated, we believe, how the genetic transformation from wild to domestic canine could occur, without human intervention. It's based on ‘flight distance,' a component of wild animal behavior that dictates how close the individual can approach some object before turning and running away. This is all in Chapter 1, one of our most favorite chapters in DOGS.

Barbara:    Do you consider this new view of the domestic dog to be important for owners and trainers of working dogs of various kinds?  How might people change their thinking about dog behavior and training?

Ray & LornaThe village dog origin of our modern dogs won't in itself change dog training techniques. Dog training has been changing rapidly over the past few years anyway. Besides, we never found that dog trainers paid very much attention to evolutionary theory.

Dog trainers would tell you that you should dominate the dog like the leader of a pack of wolves, and then tell the dog in a high squeaky voice, "Good Boy!"  We think the importance of DOGS may be that it helps dogs more than their owners. A view of dogs as essentially village scavengers that are easily adapted to people and kind of fun to play with, opens many new windows for people in their relationships with their dogs. Relationships should be based on positive situations, play, having fun.

Barbara:   Among your new views of the dog is a rejection of the trainer as the "alpha wolf" and the dogs as the "submissive pack member."  Why have you rejected what has essentially become dogma in the dog training world?

Ray & LornaThe alpha wolf model of dog training certainly does appear frequently in print, but we wonder if it was ever really incorporated into serious dog training. We suspect it was never very useful in training dogs, and that almost everybody intuitively knew that. It was "say one thing, do another."

Certainly all the new techniques, such as click and treat, are not based on dominance. We've watched top trainers like Terry Ryan and Ken McCort, and never saw any hint of "I'm the dominant wolf." People who try modifying aggressive dogs don't try to "dominate" them into submission. Everybody agrees that would be a disaster. Imagine training a wolf by dominating it. Quick way to get killed.

It is a mistake to think that because dogs are descended from wolves, they behave like wolves. Wolves do not show the "alpha roll," or any other hierarchical behavior, except in specific circumstances, particularly during reproductive and feeding behaviors. Wolf packs on a hunt are working cooperatively, and hierarchy goes by the board.

Training dogs is fun for me and for the dog, as it should be. Our sled dogs ran because running is fun and feels good. Endorphins are released, social interactions are increased. Try running while you're being submissive. Dogs aren't pulling sleds because they are forced to or are submitting to some person's will. Everybody who ever drove dogs knows that you absolutely cannot force them to do it.

Barbara:    It will be hard to get that alpha wolf/submissive wolf thinking eliminated from the parlance of dog training, but for starters, how should people think about their relationship with their dog?

Ray & LornaIt won't be hard to get the wolf pack mentality to go by the board simply because we don't think many of the experts ever really believed it. It is through social play behavior that animals learn from one another. Further, it is fun to play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.

Colin Allen and Marc Bekoff have recently drawn attention to a category of behaviors they call intentional icons. Dogs have signals they use when they want to play — the play bow. The play bow is a signal that all the following behaviors like growls and snarls are all in fun. Consider what might happen if you gave the "dominant male" intentional icon, indicating everything that happens from now on is about the driver being the dominant dog. The sled dogs, if they were reacting as submissive wolves, would then lie on their backs and pee in the air instead of running as a team.

Instead of threatening our dogs every time we want to train them, we need to perfect the human play bow which tells the dog the games are about to begin. Remember that games have rules, and what the dog and the humans learn during play is what the rules of the game are. That makes sense in teaching or training, whether it is dogs or students. The intent of dominance display is to exclude the subordinate from some activity, like breeding. The alpha wolf isn't trying to teach the subordinate anything.

Barbara:   You also tackle the nature/nuture issue in the book, looking at the relative importance of genetics and environment in shaping a dog's temperament and behavior.   You clearly think both play a role in a dog's development, but how important is each?  Are genes and environmental experiences equally important, or is one dominant?   Why?

Ray & LornaThe nature/nurture dichotomy has been dying for a long time. Daniel Estep said it very well a few years ago, that talking about behavior as "genetic" is just a shorthand that many of us use -- including in DOGS.

Behavior is actually epigenetic, or above (or more than) the genes. It is like saying that an animal's size is genetic, implying that there is no environmental input. But everyone realizes, if an animal doesn't eat it won't grow to its normal size. On the other hand, all the food in the world won't make an animal any bigger than its genetic potential.

Now, think of behavior as a size and shape. If you don't nurture a dog's behavior it won't grow to its genetic potential. No matter how much you nurture a pup's behavior, it can't go beyond its genetic potential. It is the interaction between genes and the environment that determine how the dog will behave.

Barbara:   Important to all breeders and trainers of working dogs in your discussion of the "critical period" in a young puppy's life.  You give great examples of what is done with livestock guardian dogs during that critical period to prepare them for their life's work.  What about sled dogs -- what experiences should a sled dog pup have during that critical period?  How can others generalize from these ideas?

Ray & LornaWe showed why it was important to raise livestock guarding dogs with sheep during the critical period as an illustration of what every professional should know about raising working dogs. Sled dogs are usually raised in big pens, playing with other dogs, and often going out on fun runs. We know at least one driver who fed his pups separately so that they would not have any resource to fight over.

The idea is not to let hierarchies develop during the critical period of social development. We want our sled dogs' social behavior centered around play with other dogs and me. The driver should be a fun guy and when he shows up they are going to play games, and when they get through everybody is going to feel good. Pups develop the attitude that other dogs are fun to be with, not to be avoided.

Most professional dog handlers have fun tricks to play with their dogs. Bird dog people have an old quail wing on a string that the pup chases and starts learning the rules of the game. Ray has a bright silver de-hooked lure that he casts out with his fishing rod to see if he can keep our Jack Russell terrier from getting it. He loves the chase. But, it is getting to the point where Ray needs a bigger, faster reel.

Critical period gets several long looks in DOGS, and we show how it is related to breed differences and working abilities in several behavioral types of dogs. It should be easy for readers to extrapolate to other breeds, once they understand how it works.

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  What reactions are you receiving to the book?

Ray & LornaReactions to the book have been wonderful. People have been kind with their praise for various sections. You can tell they are good "dog" people because they respond so quickly with the "good boy!" They write, "I have only finished the first chapter but wanted to say . . ." That is the sign of somebody who understands click and treat. So far we have seen only one cranky response.

Barbara:   What impact do you hope the book will have?

Ray & LornaWe hope the book will open the different issues of dog evolution and behavior to a healthy discussion. The idea behind science is to generate a testable hypothesis and then see whether the data support or deny the hypothesis. It is in the spirit of the process where the action is. If people offer data that refute all of our hypotheses, we will have to go back to the drawing boards.

People have already started with, "That is really a new and interesting way to look at something, but it isn't the way I understand it. Couldn't we consider the following observations?" That is marvelous. We don't know it all, of course, nor was our intention to try to explain it all. Really, the reason we wrote the book was to have fun, and play with some ideas. We really hope that readers will have the same good sensations playing with those ideas.

Lorna and Ray Coppinger were interviewed via e-mail by
Barbara Petura, Webmaster,
on June 16, 2001. Thank you, Lorna & Ray!

2013 Note: The publication of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding
of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution
made the Coppingers
leading experts on dog origins. See Ray's comments in the article:
Learning to love cereal key to dog's co-evolution
  in 2013


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Read our review of "Dogs" here

Meet Ray & Lorna Coppinger

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