Gentle Ways Dog Blog
Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs – A new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution
Meeting, listening to and speaking with Ray Coppinger at the Sparcs conference this past summer changed me in many ways when it comes to understanding canine evolution and origin ( and maybe also, the lack thereof). As a dog trainer, I feel the most important thing I can do for me, for my clients and for the dogs is to keep myself up to date as much as possible when it comes to understanding our canines, and the science; from origin, evolution and genetics, to behaviors, motor patterns, cognition and more. This might not be important to the dog owners, as all they really want - is help with their dog’s training or a behavioral issue - but for me, what I know (or do not know) will ultimately impact the suggestions, advise and teaching protocol I present my clients.
So what was so revolutionary to me when I listened to Ray Coppinger? There were numerous facts. From the fact that all existing breeds are most likely no older than approximately 200 years old and that there ARE NO ancient or primitive breeds. The closest dogs to primitive/ancient dogs are those scavenging “mix breed” village dogs roaming country villages around the world. He describes them as less than thirty pounds, seventeen to eighteen inches at the shoulder, with smooth short coats and tulip ears with a variety of colors. These dogs have existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. IF we were to look to modern examples of the “protodog” – this is where we should look first.
I also learned that the chances we will EVER find out the true evolution of dogs, is very slim. This includes using genetic methods, paleontology and anthropology. There are a number of flaws using all of these methods. First of all, there is no such thing as the first dog, nor would such an animal be identifiable. A paper published in Science magazine suggested that dogs diverged from wolves about 135,000 years ago. If humans had any role in the domestication of dogs, then we are talking the Homo neanderthalensis era. This is probably pushing the limits. This research was using mitochondrial DNA. Fossil evidence of dogs even twelve thousand years ago is circumstantial. There are no archeological evidence found that dogs existed between 135,000 to 12,000 years ago. There has been skulls found around that time period buried with humans, however, how do we know these were dogs and not wolves? Wolf puppies are almost identical to dogs up to five months old.
How good are the mtDNA data? Unfortunately, species with the largest population appears older. Subspecieation – meaning increase in population and decrease in population makes it hard to determine the genetic tree, so to speak. Deseases that kill a population including wolves and dogs, causes the mtDNA information to get lost. If all dogs in a specific niche but one dog died due to decease, then the surviving dog would become the original dog of all future dogs in that niche. Then the measurement of time would start with that dog.
Another interesting subject is the evolutionary process that has taken place supposedly, from wolf to dog. Our current dogs have very little resemblance with the wolfs of today. Wolves are wild – they live in the wild and avoid people. Dogs live around humans and look to humans to provide them with food. A genetic change has occurred over time. How did this happen? In Coppinger’s book referenced in the header above (which covers all of what I am referencing here, and much, much more), he questions or reason over a number of theories of how this would have occurred including Darwin’s natural selection, “taming” the wolf, or that people created dogs by artificial selection. Without getting into deep details, I will quote out of the book these fabulous words: “the biological reality is that the wolf is now a distant cousin of the dog. The canid family tree split, and wolves and dogs went along their separate branches. The wolf displays specialized adaptations to the wilderness, and the dog displays specialized adaptations to domestic life. The two canid cousins are adapted to different niches and they are very different animals because of it”.
After hearing Ray Coppinger speak and speaking to him personally, especially about the breeds people now look at as “ancient” (publicly listed as shar-pei, Shiba Inu, Chow Chow, Akita Inu, Basenji, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Afghan Hound, Saluki and maybe a few more), then realizing the flaws in our current method using MtDNA to identify these breeds, I decided to read the book referenced in this blog. It covers an amazing amount of information, not only about origin and evolution, but also about what a “natural dog” really is. It covers critical socialization periods (based on the onset of hazard-avoidance behaviors in wolves and dogs) and onset of different motor patterns needed in working dogs. It talks about the onset of predator behaviors in different working breeds and also covers the physical conformation of a specific breed. Why can a sled dog compete in a sled dog race, faster than a greyhound or any other breed? Why not use “wolf-dogs” or malamutes? Why not Saint Bernards?
He (and his wife Lorna who is the co-writer) also write about behavioral conformation of dogs, including breed specific motor patterns for herding dogs, hounds, livestock guarding dogs etc, and finally discusses the purpose (or not) in service dogs and companion dogs.
If I were to select ONE book for anyone interested in dogs to read – this one will be it.
I just finished reading Dog Sence, a national bestseller by John Bradshaw, and this book is one that every dog owner or every one who is thinking about getting a dog should read.
Early in the book, he talks about the genetics of canids and the derivation of the domestic dog. He says that "To understand the domestic dog fully, we need to look beyond the process of domestication - beyond even the wolf - to examine the dog's entire history". He explains that although dogs descended from the grey wolf, the mere fact that two species have considerable overlap in their DNA doesn't mean that their behavior will be the same. DNA doesn't control behavior directly, it specifies the structure of proteins and other constituents of cells, so that a tiny change in the DNA can lead to a huge change in behavior.
He explains that dogs are not pack animals although they do occasionally form groups, and they are much more adept than wolves to form relationships with people. Bradshaw suggest that domestic dog is not a product of one species, the grey wolf, but of a whole family, the Canidae. Many of the canid species have social lives. Looking at behavioral traits from the other canids will give us a better picture of when and how dog behavior may have originated. He is bringing up a very interesting point when comparing dogs to wolves: Although DNA analysis indicate that dogs descended from Eurasian grey wolves, none of the wolves that have been studied can possibly be considered the ancestors of the domestic dog, but the two had a common ancestor many thousands of years ago. There is no evidence to suggest that modern wolves closely resemble these common ancestors, as with dogs, the modern wolve specie has evolved as well. The "pack theory" is broken down by John Bradshaw, and he highlights many errors to this theory based on flaws in studies of wolf behavior. The american timber wolf, which is a sub-species of the grey wolf, is the most studied wolf of all and has been used to interpret the behavior of dogs. However, it has not been possible to trace the DNA of any of the dogs to North American wolves.
In a later chapter which is called "Why Dogs Were - Unfortunately - Turned Back into Wolves", he discuss the concept of Dominance and Hierarchy and explains how this conception of "alpha" is fundamentally misguided. For ex. the normal way for a wolf to become a "dominant" animal is simply to become sufficiently mature and experienced to be able to find a mate, and then to breed. The term "dominant" then becomes synonymous with "mother" or "father". He looks at how wolves behave in unnaturally groups in captivity, how wild wolves behave, and how feral or "village dogs" behave when allowed to establish family groups and conclude that dogs have taken an evolutionary path different from the wolf, so if we want to understand dog behavior, we need to do so on the domestic dog's terms.
Other highlights in this book: Evidence that physical punishment causes harm and mis-trust, How puppies become pets (about socialization & fear periods), and then a very interesting portion of the book that talks about dogs emotions, cognition, senses and pedigree and breeding.
What about emotions? Yes - according to Bradshaw, your dog "hopefully" loves you. He does get angry. And most certainly feel joy or happyness. But we may experience these emotions in different ways.
But what about guilt? Jealousy? Grief? I will leave his answers for you to read when you pick up your copy of this book. Worth it!