‘How Dogs Work’ Explains The Science Behind Why Dogs Do The Things They Do

For Picks of The Litter, a regular book review series, Ranny Green critiques “How Dogs Work,” by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein (University of Chicago Press).

Make no mistake about it, this is a scholarly work and no casual literary walk in the park for the typical dog lover.

Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, and Feinstein, a professor of cognitive science at Hampshire College (Amherst, Massachusetts), have pulled together their expertise here that will be well-received by animal behaviorists and training professionals.

In a nutshell, the two focus on the ethology of dog behavior, the species’ evolution, behavior, cognition, and domestication. In the process they incorporate numerous studies relating to wolves, avians, and other animals and how these influence their conclusions.

At the outset the authors establish, “This book is about the behavior of animals, and in particular about how dogs and other canids [like wolves and coyotes] ‘make a living’ – what a biological organism like the dog actually does, and how and why it does what it does. We want to understand the forces and mechanisms that enable a dog to ‘tick’ as it moves and acts in the world.”

In that context, they concentrate on why Border Collies chase after sheep but livestock-guarding dogs don’t; why Greyhounds can run extremely fast but small breeds can't; and why a newborn pup behaves differently than an adult dog.

As you maneuver through the book you get the sense the academicians are attempting to slowly put together a 1,000-piece puzzle, but you’re left sometimes wondering if a few pieces might be missing in the end.

Just when I found myself questioning how much of all this is genetic, they write, “We do have to be very careful and precise, however, when we say that all behavior is genetic. The actual patterns of movement that an animal exhibits are never explicitly ‘written’ directly in the language of DNA itself.”

Shape plays a big role in the behavioral patterns of the dog, the writers argue, but what you see isn’t totally the picture of what you get. “The shape of an animal is not simply its external form, its visible body. Animals also have extraordinary complex internal shapes – the inner workings of the machine – and individuals as well as breeds [and species] can vary significantly in the details of those component structures, too.”

Note they say “machine,” a metaphorical label they place on these working breeds throughout. To explain, they see the basic character of animal behavior as “ultimately shaped by its genetically determined physical plan.”

The first step in doing ethology in the field – whether they’re looking at working dogs or wolves – is to fashion “an inventory of motor-pattern behaviors, informed best guesses about the set of the shapes of behavior that are adaptive in the life of a particular species or breed.” That’s called an ethogram.

Here are a few key observations their studies have produced:

  • Modern dog breeds (“artificially selected varieties of a single species”) typically exhibit only parts of the predatory motor-pattern sequence of their wild canid relatives.
  • Intrinsic behaviors are not – and cannot – be taught or reshaped by human trainers and companions.
  • Training a working dog depends on the presence of particular motor patterns. In the case of the Border Collie, it’s the eye/stalk/chase sequence. Without it, the dog will not become an effective herder.
  • Researchers believe the critical period for socialization in puppies begins at 4 weeks and ends at some point between 8 and 12 weeks.

Despite hundreds of studies on the behavioral patterns of the dog, the authors caution “that the impulse to see man’s best friend as a special kind of animal has created a cultural perceptions of dogs – charming and appealing as it may be – that can easily encourage an overblown picture of their mentality.”

Bottom line, they note, “The final shape of a dog, including its behavior, is always a result of how its intrinsic form responds to the properties of the environment in which it grows and lives.” These forces combine in determining how a dog works.

After finishing this work, however, I was left feeling this story has a lot longer to run and lot more distance to cover.


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