“What Is A Dog?” Explores The Complex Relationship Humans Have With Dogs On A Global Scale

What Is A Dog book cover.

 For Picks Of The Litter, a regular book review series, Ranny Green critiques “What is a Dog?” by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger (The University of Chicago Press).

Make no mistake about it: That beloved pet curled up by your feet at the computer or stretched out at the end of your bed is the antithesis to the title of this thought-provoking volume.

Estimating the world’s dog population hypothetically to be 1 billion (an easy number to work with), the authors emphasize that “the overwhelming majority of people on earth do not think of dogs as companions, to be owned and paid for,” rather playmates or protectors from area dumps or village streets to home.

Quickly they establish, “We will make the argument that Spot and the millions and millions of free-ranging dogs all over the world are the real dogs. We should be studying them because these ‘village dogs’ or ‘street dogs’ like Spot contain the essential essence of the dog. They are the pervasive dogs of the world.” In other words, “their own unique, well-adapted species.”

In the process, the Coppingers argue that “man’s best friend is a distressingly overused and possibly untrue phrase,” noting that they are “storybook dogs” most often found in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries.

Conversely, they establish that the street dogs of Mexico, Vietnam, Africa, India, and other countries are not mongrels or strays, rather “they are the real dogs, the ancestral type of our modern breeds. They are unique and beautifully designed by evolution. Whether they are on the streets or in people’s yards or houses or in the dump at the edge of town or they only come out at night, they are part of a continuous worldwide and ancient population of dogs. They are much more ancient than any ‘ancient breed.’”

The Coppingers estimate for good, round numbers that 850 million fall into the village dog group, thus, doing our basic math, you recognize that 150 million are left to households in the developed countries.

Virtually, any work like this probes the origin of the dog. That is not the intent here. Rather, the Coppingers’ focus is on the worldwide mix of village dogs that fall outside human reproductive control.

The public, they write, tends to think that if a dog is not similar to a major kennel club recognized breed, that it must be a hybrid or mongrel. Yet, they flip that contention, noting that Mexico City dump dogs and village dogs in developing nations and mountain pooches assume their own identity, too, while living close to humans, finding their own food and mating perfectly well without our control.

Biologists, breeders, trainers, and sled-dog racers, the Coppingers have more than four decades of experience with thousands of dogs. They qualify in the been-there, done-that mode, having traveled worldwide for research and procuring numerous livestock guardian animals to bring back to the U.S. and train. These animals eventually served as founding stock for new breeds in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Their concentration is pointed at why dogs evolved the shape and behavior “we now call dog – without forgetting that evolution is an ongoing process.” But to establish a solid profile the Coppingers say four major costs must be measured – (body) design, foraging, reproduction, and hazard avoidance.

Because of their uncontrolled human environment, a litter of pups could have an untold number of fathers, giving the female greater genetic diversity, the authors argue. Because these dogs control their own reproductive life, you have many look-a-likes.

While we enjoy a symbiotic relationship with dogs, there is the disease element they perpetuate that affects why certain populations view them negatively. “If dogs disappeared, then 70,000 people would not die of rabies from dog bites next year. . . . If humans disappeared from the face of the earth today, dogs as we recognize them would go extinct,” the Coppingers argue.

Before you finish this study, you’ll be feeling right at home in the Mexico City dump, where countless interviews and observations – the authors taught a week-long research course there – are conducted of some of the estimated 200 workers and their canine “families” that follow them to and from home daily after feasting on daily garbage drop-offs. An estimated 700 dogs call the dump home.

Obtaining a consistency and honesty to their questions was admittedly a problem, the authors concede. Some respondents lie, others are suspicious and others feign ignorance to the researchers’ queries.

And, oh, yes, just in case you’re wondering: the Coppingers’ guess is that 7,000-8,000 years ago is the earliest date that verifiable evidence confirms a population of dogs. “The bet,” they conclude, “is they weighed 30 pounds and looked like what are today called mutts.”

Even as the volume’s complexities kick into high gear, the authors’ character study remains sharply on point no matter what the environment. Packed with startling, fresh insight, “What Is a Dog?” serves up a challenging portrait of a species that is chiefly endeared here and endured elsewhere.

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