Posts Tagged ‘Raymond Coppinger’

gordon buchanan wolf

Gordon Buchanan with a wild arctic wolf on Ellsmere. Photo by the BBC.

For really long time, the mystery of human bipedalism vexed us. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, are all knuckle-walking apes, and there was an assumption that the common ancestor of all three species was a knuckle-walker. At some point, the lineage that led to our species rose up on its hind legs, perhaps to make it easier to gaze over tall grass, and we became bipedal.

The current thinking, though, is that humans never derived from any knuckle-walking ape. Instead, the common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos was likely a brachiator.  The modern brachiators are the gibbons and siamangs, the so-called “lesser apes.” These animals are highly arboreal, and because they lack tails, they rely upon their long limbs to move swiftly through the trees. When on the ground, brachiators walk bipedally, swinging their long arms to the side for balance.

Humans evolved bipedalism from these brachiators, while the chimps and bonobos became knuckle-walkers. In this scenario, humans never were knuckle-walkers, and it is misleading to think that humans rose up on our hind-legs from creatures that moved like chimpanzees.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Well, there have been quite a few studies that have compared dogs and wolves that have been imprinted on humans from an early age in hopes that we might figure out the domestication process from studying how tamed wolves behave when compared to domestic dogs.

These are interesting studies, but I think they oversell what they can answer.

It should be of no secret that I am very much a skeptic of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication. His model contends that dogs necessarily evolved from scavenging wolves that gradually evolved not to fear people and then became village dogs. Our specialized breeds are thus derived from village dogs that were later selectively bred.

Coppinger thought that wolves were just too hard to domestic without this scavenger-to-village dog step that lies between truly wild wolves and their evolution to domestic dogs.

Modern wolves are hard to tame. They must be bottle-raised from an insanely early age.  Coppinger thought that it would be impossible for people living during the Pleistocene to provide that kind of care for young wolf pups.

Like the people who assumed that humans evolved from knuckle-walkers, Coppinger assumed that wolves that exist today are good models for what wolves were like during the Pleistocene. These wolves are reactive and nervous to the point of being paranoid. It is well-known that many wolves won’t even attempt to den near human settlements, and if they catch wind of humans, they soon leave.

These animals would not be easily tamed by anyone, much less people living with Stone Age hunter-gatherer technology.

I generally accepted his arguments, and in the early days of this site, I largely parroted them.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the tigers of the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest that straddles the border between India and Bangladesh. These tigers are notorious for their man-eating behavior, and there have been many theories posited about why these tigers so readily hunt man. Among these is the argument that the Sundarbans tigers drink so much salt in their water intake that it destroys their kidneys, which disables them and makes them more likely to hunt man.

But the documentary contended that the real reason these tigers are more likely to hunt man is that all other tigers descend from populations where humans have hunted them heavily. In British India, tiger hunting was a popular activity among the colonial administrators, and this intensive hunting cause tiger populations to drop.  This hunting left behind only tigers that had some genetic basis to fear man more, and thus, man-eating tigers are exceedinlg rare now.

The Sundarbans never received this hunting pressure, so the tigers left behind had the same innate tendencies to hunt humans that the ancestral tiger population possessed.

I found this argument utterly intriguing, and I began to weigh it against what I knew about wolves. Wolves across their range have experienced even more persecution than tigers have.  In North America, we have four hundred years of humans coming up with more and more creative ways to kill them. In Eurasia, this persecution has gone on for thousands of years.

The persecution of wolves surely has had some effect in how wolves behave, including their innate tendency to accept humans and other novel stimuli in their environment.

Wolves are often so fearful that they won’t cross roads.  They just avoid people at all costs, and it just seems that this is an animal that we couldn’t possibly domesticate or even habituate to our presence.

This has led some people to suggest that dogs aren’t derived from wolves, but some Canis x creature that is related to dogs and wolves, but it is ancestral to the former but not the latter.

Genome comparisons have shown that such claims really don’t work. Dogs are derived from an archaic wolf population, and in this way, they are sort of genetic living fossils, holding the genomes of a Pleistocene wolves that no longer exist. But these wolves that became dogs were still part of Canis lupus, and thus, we have to maintain dogs as part of Canis lupus as well in order to retain the monophyly of the species.

Except for dogs that have modern wolf ancestry, no dog is actually derived from a wolf population that exists today.

And the wolf populations that exist today just seem so hard to tame and work with that it makes sense then to consider the need for Coppinger’s scavenging wolf-to-village dog stage between wild wolves and modern dogs.

The thing is, these studies using modern wolves are only using wolves that are derived from these heavily persecuted populations, and it is very unlikely that these animals are representative of the wolves that lived during the Pleistocene.

We know that when wild dogs have never experienced human hunting, they are intensely curious about us. Timothy Treadwell had a pack of tame red foxes that followed him around like dogs while he was off communing with the brown bears. Darwin killed the fox that was named after him by sneaking up on one and hitting it with a geological hammer.

Lewis and Clark came onto the American prairies where there were vast hordes of wolves lying about.  The wolves had no fear of people, and one wolf was actually killed when it was enticed in with meat and speared in the head with a spontoon.

After these wolves experienced the persecution of Western man, the only wolves left in the populations were those that were extremely wary and nervous.

In fact, the only wolves that exist now that have never experienced widespread persecution by man are the white wolves that live in the Canadian High Arctic.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching two documentaries about these wolves. The first was by Jim Brandenburg.  Brandenburg and L. David Mech spent a summer living with and filming wolves on Ellesmere.  These wolves showed no fear of them, and they allowed them to observe their natural behavior in the wild, including allowing them near their den sites.

Virtually the same documentary was recently made by Gordon Buchanan of the BBC. Buchanan came to Ellesmere and became accepted by a wolf pack, which eventually trusted him enough to allow him to babysit their pups while the adults hunted.

These wolves hunt arctic hare and muskox. They live hard lives, but because they have no real history with man, they are oddly curious and trusting of people.

It seems to me that these wolves are much more like those described by Lewis and Clark, and they are likely to have behaved much like the ancient Pleistocene wolves did. They had never undergone extensive persecution by man, and thus, they were probably quite curious about man.

If these ancient wolves were more like the Ellesmere wolves, then it seems domestication would have been a pretty easy process. In fact, it appears to me that it is so easy to have happened that the struggle would have been preventing it from happening in the first place.

So if these High Arctic wolves are a better model for the ancient wolves that led to dogs, why aren’t they included in the studies?

Well, these wolves are hard to access, and what is more, because they represent such a special population, it might not be wise to remove any of these wolves from the wild.

So the socialized and imprinted wolf pup studies really can’t be performed on them.

But we could still get DNA samples from them and compare their behavior-linked genes to those of dogs and wolves from persecuted populations.

All these other studies are ever going to do is tell you the difference between dogs and certain wolves from persecuted populations. They aren’t really going to tell you the full story of why dogs came to behave differently from wolves.

So for the sake of science, we need to understand that evolution through artificial selection has affected wolves as well as dogs. Dogs have been bred to be close to man. Wolves have been selected through our persecution to be extremely fearful and reactive.

So as interesting as these studies are, they have a big limitation, and the assumption that these wolves represent what ancient wolves were like is major methodological problem.


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Two dogs killing a deer in Ohio.

(Source for images)

I’ve noticed that dog people like to view their animals through reductionist paradigms.  It’s really an easy way of trying to make sense of what is really a complex matter:   the relationship between humans and dogs. The relationship between our two species is as complex as it is ancient, and because it has both complexity and antiquity, it is mysterious.

But in order to explain this relationship, paradigms have developed to explain why dogs and people like each other. Inherent in trying to understand this relationship is trying to understand what a dog actually is. We also try to figure out ways in which it differs from its wild ancestor, which should give us some understanding of what its innate nature actually is.

Sadly, trying to answer these questions has resulted in the development of reductionist paradigms, which often ignore evidence that disputes the essential assumptions of the paradigm.

Two really problematic reductionist pardigms have developed in recent years. Both are in response to each other, and both have very big problems when actually applied to understanding what dogs are.

The first of these is dogs is the one that says dogs are not wolves.  Dogs never form packs, they say.  They are never capable of cooperative hunting because they are perpetually wolf pups.

Usually, someone throws in some of Raymond Coppinger’s neoteny theories, which say that all dogs are simply juvenilized wolves and that Western working breeds are juvenilized only so they exhibit stunted predatory motor patterns. Pointers are stuck making stalking behavior. Herding dogs can only chase and stalk. Andd retrievers can only catch prey and bring it back. Because these dogs are juvenilized wolves, they can never exhibit wolf cooperative hunting behavior.

Much of the acceptance of this claim comes from a reaction to the crackpot variants of what is called “dominance theory.” Dominance within ethology is a very specific term that refers only to an animal getting “priority access to limited resources.” Unfortunately, dominance has become a catch-all for some pseudo-dog experts. Some of these people claim that virtually any time a dog doesn’t obey instantly it’s being “dominant” to you, and the best thing you should do is put him back in his place in the hierarchy.

This paradigm comes largely from observing unrelated wolves that were kept in enclosures together. Trying to make assessments about how dogs ought to behave through observing stressed out, reactive wolves is a fool’s errand. Dogs are very happy to be in captivity– which is exactly what you’d expect from them being the oldest domestic animal. They are also much more tolerant of strangers of their own species than virtually all wolves are. Wolves often kill other wolves that wander onto their territories, and if dogs were as aggressive with strangers of their own species as wolves are, dog parks would be an impossibility. Further, dogs bond with and learn from people much more easily than wolves do, so one cannot understand how dog “ought” to behave without trying to understand how they interact with people.

This one doesn’t try to make a claim that dogs are wolves. It merely assumes that because we have studies on wolves that show this behavior that we should be able to apply it to dog and human interactions.  This is not a good assumption.

Virtually everyone who has read the literature and has also spent time with lots of dogs rejects the crackpot dominance paradigm.

However, some people have replaced it with the other paradigm, which is just as problematic.

The biggest problem is that domestic dogs can learn to form packs and hunt, kill, and consume large prey.

Ask any sheep producer about the problem of packs of stray dogs.  They will tell you that sheep are quite vulnerable to attacks from wandering bands of domestic dogs. Some dogs get very good at hunting sheep together, and they often surplus kill, which means that a couple of dogs can wipe out an entire flock in pretty short order.

Secondly, I’ve heard a great many stories of dogs killing deer. My grandfather was a foxhound enthusiast in the 50’s, and every year, the local foxhound club held a field trial. They’d buy a permit from the state DNR, and they turn out 60 foxhounds into the woods. The dogs got scored for scenting the fox and running it close for a long distance.

But a great many dogs were disposed toward deer chasing.  When you turn out that many dogs, it doesn’t take much encouragement for them to take off after a deer. Out of that 60 dogs, there might be 20 that take off after deer, and of these, about half will cooperatively run down the deer in exactly the same manner as one would expect from wolves.

He told me that one year, the dogs killed something like 3 or 4 deer. One they ran nearly ten miles before they killed it. They just so happened to have dropped the deer in the middle of a pasture, and the farmer who lived there was quite upset. There were about a half-dozen foxhounds eating on a deer carcass in his pasture, and he wanted the DNR to shoot the dogs. The local conservation officer said that he would not. The foxhound club had paid for the permit, and if the dogs killed a deer, it just was part of the game.

Now, when I read someone parroting the line that dogs never pack up to hunt prey, I am reminded of these stories about the old foxhound trials. Foxhounds may not be a particularly specialized breed in the way that Coppinger suggests.  He specifically says that scent hounds don’t have any real behavioral specialization at all.

But even the breeds that have specializations in their predatory behavior are capable of hunting in packs.

Take this story of a pack of retrievers killing a deer in Alaska:

A doe had to euthanized after it was attacked by four dogs at a Juneau wetlands.

Local resident Frank Rue called animal control officials Sunday morning to report the attack.

Rue said the dogs were two golden retrievers, a yellow Labrador retriever and a skinny black lab mix with a curly tail. The dogs appeared to be wearing collars.

“I found it very disturbing that people’s pets — and that’s the main thing, pets — would be running loose,” Rue said.

He spotted the dogs from his home about a quarter mile away and used his binoculars to see if there were any people with the animals, but saw none.

His wife then saw the doe. Rue believes the dogs chased the deer from Douglas Island.

“My reaction was, the deer looked like it was in trouble,” he said, “so I figured I would go out and see if I could catch a couple of the dogs, because I had some leashes, and find out who their owners were and get them away from the deer.”

It was low tide, so Rue walked across the wetlands and whistled to the dogs, who took off running.

Rue said the doe had a torn back leg and kept falling.

Authorities determined the deer had to be put down. The carcass was donated to the Juneau Raptor Center.

“When we examined the deer, all the injuries came from the dogs,” said Brian Weed with the Gastineau Humane Society animal control. “The deer didn’t seem to have any damage from anything else.”

At the scene, Weed and State Troopers Nick Massey and Shaun Kuzakin saw two golden retrievers running toward Douglas Island. They searched the area but couldn’t find the dogs.

Retrievers are supposed to have juvenilized predatory motor patterns, and thus, they would not be able to form a pack like these dogs did and inflict such injuries on a deer.

But they did.

Furthermore, these retrievers are all derived from ancestors on Newfoundland that had strong retrieving behavior but were also required to hunt for their own food at certain times of year. Free-roaming, “off-duty” water dogs in Newfoundland retarded the entire sheep industry on the island. The dogs were notorious sheep killers, even though they also were hard driving retrievers that would dive in to freezing water to fetch nets, lines, fish, seabirds, ducks, and even seals.

I happened to have owned a golden retriever that would retrieve anything with a soft mouth, including eggs. However, she learned from a Norwegian elkhound how to hunt, kill, and consume rabbits, and she would readily hunt rabbits for food. Her retrieving behavior did not keep her full hunting behavior stunted. It was like she had both behavior, and she knew when to use both– just as her ancestors in Newfoundland clearly did.

The other problem with the theory that dogs don’t hunt cooperatively is that they fall back on studies of street dogs from either urban areas or from developing countries.  Street dogs don’t get much of a chance to hunt because they live where there aren’t a lot of prey species. Further, they haven’t had any reason to learn how to hunt. Scavenging off the fat off human civilization is much easier. Dogs from developing countries also often have access to open garbage dumps, which are much easier feeding opportunities than what they’d get from hunting.

The only exception to these studies are the ones that look at stray and free roaming dogs in Italy, but then again, the dogs don’t have any reason to learn cooperative hunting. There are not many large game species in Italy, so even the wolves are forced to scavenge at garbage dumps. The dogs are more tolerant of each other than wolves are, so they are able to form huge packs around their garbage dumps and keep the wolves at bay. The dogs and wolves sometimes exchange genes, resulting in wolves with black coats and dew claws on the hind legs.

No one seems to get that there are dogs that evolved to live free of large garbage dumps.

We just don’t call them dogs.

They are better known as dingoes.

Dingoes are East Asian domestic dogs that went feral in the Australian bush.  They are not missing links between dogs and wolves. They are truly feral domestic dogs that are most closely related to street and village dogs in Indonesia. They form packs to hunt larger macropods, and they occasionally formed relationships with indigenous Australians in order to hunt cooperatively.

To debunk the crackpot dominance paradigm, some well-meaning people have attached themselves to a series of assertions that are just as problematic as what they are debunking.

People are trying to come up with hard and fast delineations between what separates a dog from a wolf. So far, I’ve come across only two that clearly separate them. Wolves have an active supracaudal gland. Dogs don’t. Dogs sweat through their feet. Wolves don’t. Well, at least northern wolves don’t. I would not be surprised to find out that southern wolves from the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent sweated through their feet. These are the subspecies most closely related to the domestic dog, and it would make sense that dogs and these wolves wold share this trait.

Clear delineations between dogs and wolves simply don’t exist.

The only really good way to understand dogs is to think of them as a subspecies of wolf that is specially adapted to living in a human environment.

The claim that dogs are just neotenous canids that never can hunt cooperatively in packs sounds very convincing on paper, but the real animals don’t read the books.

They are capable of learning many different behaviors from each other and from us.

If hunting together in a pack is something dogs obviously have learned to do, well, it sort of shoots the hole paradigm down.

And just as we reject the crackpot dominance theory, we have to reject the reactionary theory that came out in response to it.

Dogs are too complex for our attempts to simplify them.

That ought to be our rule whenever we try to consider them and their relationship with us.

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Many people don’t like that I consider dogs to be the same species as wolves.

And usually what they’ll do is accuse me of holding views I don’t have.

For example, I don’t say that the average person should keep a pet wolf. The chances of that going wrong are just too high, but it doesn’t mean that it will never work out.  I have to point to several cases of people keeping wolves and having no problems with them, most notably Wags, the tame wolf that Adolph Murie kept while studying the wolves of Denali. Wags was taken from the den of a wild pack, and she wound up becoming something like a golden retriever in wolf form. Wolves have also been trained as hunting dogs and working dogs, and at least one turned out to be a decent bird dog and retriever.

However, the chances of a human-wolf relationship going wrong are very high, so I do not recommend that people keep pet wolves without learning as a much as they can– and of course, getting the proper licenses.

The other attack I get is that I think dogs are wolves, and therefore, I must believe that we should use compulsory, alpha-based training regimes.

That’s a position I not only don’t have, it is a position I have denounced as utterly unscientific and untenable in the modern era. (See Mark Derr’s piece in the New York Times for a good explanation of why).

Now those first two are pretty easily dealt with, but a third one requires a bit more of an explanation.

This third argument requires a bit sophistication to fully understand, but it’s one that I think can be explained if we look at other cases in nature for comparison.

This argument is one that is made by Raymond Coppinger in his book on dog domestication and behavior. There is a chapter in the book in which he denounces any attempt to represent dog phylogeny in their scientific name, which is Canis lupus familiaris. Coppinger totally defends the old scientific name Canis familiaris because dogs and wolves occupy different ecological nichees.

It’s definitely true that lap dogs have a very different ecological niche than large moose- and bison-hunting wolves in Canada.

However, what about Middle Eastern pariah dogs and Arabian wolves?  Both animals scavenge for most of their food. Neither forms large packs based upon a mated pair, but they essentially  have the same ecological niche. And they do exchange genes quite a bit, although because the wolves are far less common, this gene exchange is much more limited than it might have been.

The same goes for the wolves and stray dogs of Italy. These dogs and wolves don’t hunt prey, because there aren’t many prey species about. Instead, they hang out at garbage dumps and live on that. The wolves of Italy are much more interbred with dogs than people realize. Dog genes for black coats and dewclaws on the hindlegs are working their way into the wolf population.

If we actually take Coppinger’s argument out to its logical end, then wolves themselves represent several species, even though genetically they comprise just a single species. Wolves in the high arctic hunt muskoxen, while wolves in the Middle East hunt gazelles and hares and mainly scavenge. The newly discovered African wolf subspecies (Canis lupus lupaster) isn’t even the top predator in its ecosystem, and it subsists largely by scavenging kills and hunting small prey.

Yet they are all classified as wolves (Canis lupus).

If wolves can occupy such a wide variety of ecological niches and still be considered the same species, why on earth would we not broaden it out and allow dogs to be classified as wolves?

Just as Arabian wolves are adapted to living in the deserts and arctic wolves have adapted to living in polar regions, domestic dogs are wolves that have adapted to live with humans.

I don’t know why this is so hard to accept, but there is a lot of resistance in some quarters to considering dogs a subspecies of wolf.

But that’s exactly what they are.

Now, in other species, there are different subspecies that have different ecological niches, but no one contends that they should be separated into distinct species on the basis of their differing niches.

Let me give you one that is pretty close to home.

To me, this is a fox squirrel (Sciurus niger).

Eastern or northern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger vulpinus).

It’s a big squirrel with thick tawny gold tail and belly.  They live on the border of pastures and hardwood forests, and they are more common along river valleys in West Virginia than ridgetops. Densely forested ridges tend to have mostly Eastern gray squirrels, which are smaller and usually have gray tails with white banding. In my area, these are the two most common squirrels, although one sometimes see American red squirrels (“fairydiddles.”)  The fox squirrel is the largest tree squirrel in North America, and it is from this subspecies that they get their common name. Their tales actually look like those of a red fox, and their full scientific name reflects this similarity– Sciurus niger vulpinus. This subspecies is found from the interior Mid-Atlantic states and the Appalachians north and west to the prairie provinces.

However, this is also a fox squirrel:

Southern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger).

This is the Southern fox squirrel, and it is the subspecies one will find in Eastern North Carolina and most of South Carolina.

They superficially look nothing like the fox squirrels I know so well, but they are considered the same species.

However, the two subspecies are quite different from each other.

The vulpinus subspecies is quite adaptable. They have been introduced to California, where they have thrived, and if you can live from Applachia to Saskatchewan, you can do pretty well no matter what the conditions are.

The niger subspecies is in decline. They are almost entirely dependent upon the long-leaf pine forests that once covered much of the Southeast. For those of you who have not been in this part of the South, most of the land is dominated by subtropical pine forests. Historically, the long-leaf pine has been the dominant pine, but these old growth long-leaf pine forests have been cut– and the land was replanted with more commercially lucrative short-leafed and loblolly pines.  The fox squirrels prefer the more open understories that the long-leaf pines provide, and the short-leaf and loblolly forests are much better suited for Eastern gray squirrels.

In states that have both vulpinus and niger fox squirels, the vulpinus subspecies prefers to live in any available oak-hickory forests, while the niger subspecies prefers to live where there are stands of subtropical pine– especially if it’s long-leaf.  In some parts of the Piedmont, these two different kinds of forest can be relatively close to each other, but as far as I know, no transitional zones between vulpinus and niger fox squirrels have been documented. They probably do exchange genes where their ranges overlap, but because niger fox squirrels are so habitat specific, there likely isn’t much of one.

No one consideres vulpinus fox squirrels a separate species from niger fox squirrels, even though they have very different ecological niches. The niger subspecies is also quite a bit larger than the vulpinus subspecies, which is in conflict with Bergmann’s rule. In other normal situations, taxonomists would at least try to consider them to be different species.

In fact, they have a better claim to having a separate species status than dogs and wolves, but I don’t think anyone would seriously consider these fox squirrels to be different species.

After all, there are several different subspecies of fox squirrel besides these two.  The most famous is the critically endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus), which looks like a giant Eastern gray squirrel, which even more habitat specific than the Southern fox squirrel. They also are specialized to living in the Mid-Atlantic pine forests from Southern New Jersey to the Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It currently is found only in Eastern Shore portions of Virginia and Maryland.

Vulpinus fox squirrels are much more habitat generalists than either the Southern or Delmarva fox squirrels. They have a different ecological niche, and if one really wants to play around with Coppinger’s adamant defense of Canis familiaris, then we have to split up the fox squirrel species.

Ecological niche can be used to determine species status, but to rely upon it alone, as Coppinger does in his defense of the usage of Canis familiaris, is to inadvertently open up whole taxons to splits that are pretty hard to justify on face value.

So if one isn’t willing to say that there are multiple species of fox squirrel, we are going to have go with Canis lupus familiaris.

Sorry, folks. Dogs are wolves.  The arguments on the contrary make no sense in the light of what we know about other species.

Update: It turns out that all these subspecies of fox squirrel have only diverged in the past 14,000 years.


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If all it takes for carnivorous animal to become domesticated is for it to scavenge off of people and eventually evolve tolerance towards humans to fit this niche, why didn’t man domesticate the black-backed jackal?

I find this species to be the biggest affront to the Coppinger model, because it is one species that has lived very close to man for tens of thousands of years. For example, analysis of “dog” remains from South Africa’s Western Cape Province that had been dated to the Later Stone Age turned out to be black-backed jackals. These “dogs” were living within hunter-gatherer camps in Southern Africa, but they were not dogs at all. They may have been on their way to becoming semi-domesticated, and jackals would have been great to have around. Leopards are known to stalk both people and jackals, and the jackals would have given an alarm call whenever they scented a leopard nearby.

Traditional accounts of dog domestication say that this is all you need.

But black-backed jackals do this very well, and they likely have been doing it longer than any other species of wild dog.

But no one has domesticated the black-backed jackal.

I think Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, a dog writer and anthropologist, who wrote The Hidden Life of Dogs, a book that is often misrepresented in the popular culture by those who haven’t read it. She often gets attacked for saying that dogs “marry,” but she did indeed have two Siberian huskies that formed a pair bond and were monogamous. When the male of the pair was given away, the female became open to suitors, which is exactly how wolves reproduce. Most wolves form monogamous pairs because it is much easier to rear puppies in this fashion, but there are always Casanova male wolves that come in and try to mate with females that aren’t part of pair bond.  When these bitches give birth, the pups usually die because their mothers don’t have access to the pack’s dens and regular nutrition.  However, in Yellowstone, these bitches have managed to rear their litters, creating super packs once the pups mature. All that dogs have done is adopt that model of reproduction. But it doesn’t mean that they are incapable of forming pair bonds.

Now, in her second book, The Social Lives of Dogs. examines human behavior more closely. In her first dog book, the work examines how her dogs relate to each other, but in this book, she examines how her dogs relate to humans, cats, and parrots, which all live in her house. Part of her book was in response to Coppinger’s work, which lays out a domestication theory that has the elements listed above.

But she had grown up rather unusually. As I mentioned, she is a trained anthropologist. Her mother, Lorna Marshall, was an anthropologist who wrote the first ethnography of the !Kung people of the Kalahari.  The whole family lived with the !Kung for parts of nearly two decades. (!Kung are a Bushmen people. The ! represents the click sound you are supposed to make before saying the K in “Kung.”)

It is from this perspective that she examines how dog domestication could have happened, using the relationship between the Bushmen and the black-backed jackals as a very good analogy for how dog domestication happened.


Using an entirely different methodology from Mark Derr, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas realized that domestication could not happen from scavenging and alarm-sounding canids alone.

There has to be some room for cooperative in the domestication theory.

Black-backed jackals do hunt cooperatively. They are somewhat aggressive with each other– but so are Jack Russell terriers. And Jack Russells have been used to hunt everything from rats to wild boar to black bears.

For this reason I reject the notion that black-backed jackals were not domesticated because they were more aggressive with their social partners.  Many domestic dog breeds, including virtually all terriers, have been selected for their scrappy dispositions. It’s well-known never to let more than two intact male terriers of certain breeds run around loose together in a backyard. You are simply asking for trouble.

I think that Thomas got the real reason why they weren’t domesticated.

They simply had no interest in socializing with people or hunting the same prey as people.

Socialized wolves definitely would have been interested in going on long hunts in ways that these jackals simply were not. And still aren’t.

We have had ample opportunity to domesticate this species, which lives in roughly the same areas where our species first evolved.  This is likely the first species in the genus Canis with which we had contact. It has proven to be very adept at living near people and scavenging off of them.

But none has developed spots or floppy ears.

None has become a dog.


Contrary to popular belief, black-backed jackals play no role in dog domestication. There are no black-backed jackal/dog hybrids. Black-backed jackals are more distantly related to the domestic dog than the dhole and African wild dog are, and there have been no confirmed hybrids between dholes and domestic dogs or African wild dogs and domestic dogs. (Although the Bangkaew dog is said to be part dhole, I would like to see the DNA evidence).



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In all the different accounts of people using wolves to do the tasks that are normally reserved for dogs, I had not come across anyone using a wolf as a gun dog. Audubon met a hunter in Kentucky who used a wolf to trail deer, and a French hunting hound pack included a wolf as a member.

There is also the story of Big Jim, one of the wolves raised to be released upon Isle Royale that happened to bond very strongly with a retrieving water spaniel. He learned to retrieve ducks from her, but I don’t know if he was ever of any use as a hunting dog.

But there actually was a wolf that proved to be an excellent retriever and gun dog.  He was actually a multipurpose gun dog, for in addition to being a great retriever of grouse and ducks, he also would bring down deer that had been wounded by the hunter’s bullets. He would sometimes kill  the deer, and then he would allow the hunter to collect his venison.

The story of this wolf comes from Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life Among the Indians by James Willard Schultz, also known as  Apikuni. Schultz grew up in the Adirondacks, where he learned woodcraft and hunting methods from the local mountain men, but as a young man in the  late 1870’s and early 1880’s, he moved into the Montana Territory, where he worked as a trader with various Indian tribes– most notably the Pikuni or Piegan. The Pikuni are nation within the Blackfoot Nation, and they are the only members of the Blackfeet to live in the United States. Schultz would chronicle much of their culture and daily life, selling accounts of his experiences to Forest and Stream. He would also become associated with the region that eventually became Glacier National Park, where he became well-known as an outfitter.

The story of his hunting wolf is rather simple. It begins with Schultz taking a wolf pup from a den, and he then trains it just like anyone would train a gun dog.

This wolf clearly was not a Native American dog, for the author makes it very clear that most Native American dogs, which probably were never encouraged to do much playing, didn’t want to play with him. The author makes a clear distinction between the two.

Further, it suggests that the wolves that became dogs could have participated in hunts with hunter-gatherers. If one reads the part where Schultz’s wolf was of great utility in bringing down wounded carefully, one could see how such a wolf could have been used even by people using more primitive weapons.

There is a general tendency in the popular conception of dog domestication generally tends to deny this possibility.

It’s stories of wolves like this one and the one that Audubon saw accompanying the Kentucky deer hunter that lead me to consider this possibility.

It’s also of note that this particular wolf fits almost exactly what  Raymond Coppinger derisively calls the “Pinocchio Hypothesis.”  Coppinger contends that no one ever tamed a wolf pup that has reached the weaning stage, so it must be impossible that hunter-gatherer man ever collected wolf pups and tamed them in this fashion. Hunter-gatherers just didn’t have puppy milk replacer, and they simply wouldn’t have been able to raise tamed wolves at all. Thus, dogs had to have come from wolves that self-domesticated through evolving to fit the niche as scavengers in human settlements.

Schultz was able to take an already weaned wolf pup– and not only was he able to tame it, he was able to use it as a hunting dog. This pup was eating bison meat, not suckling from bottles filled with Esbilac.

One should note that nowhere in Coppinger’s book is their any consideration for good historical records of wolves that were very useful as working dogs. These records are ignored or are not considered at all. It is almost as if they don’t exist.

Not only was this wolf working very nicely as a hunting dog. It was retrieving. Retrieving in the Coppinger model is an inherited predatory motor pattern. This inherited motor pattern is a truncation of normal predatory behavior, and dogs that inherit it are unable to engage the full predatory sequence. A dog that retrieves can’t  kill, dissect, or consume. It can only grab something and carry it back– and it exists within specialized breeds. One certainly wouldn’t find a wolf that did it, and if one did, that wolf would be unable to kill anything. Of course, this wolf not only retrieved shot birds, he actually killed wounded deer.

Modern wolves may no longer possess this aptitude. Decades of persecution have certainly changed wolf behavior. They are now much more emotionally reactive than the ones that lived on the Great Plains during the nineteenth century.  Most Native Americans were not wolf persecutors in the same way that Europeans were, and accounts of wolves in that region generally discussed how docile and curious they were.  Meriwether Lewis described the wolves he encountered during the Corps of Discovery Expedition (1804-1806) as being “extreemly gentle” and that Captain Clark had managed to walk up to a wolf and kill it with his espontoon.

Decades of persecution removed the curious and docile wolves from the population, leaving behind only those that are too emotionally reactive to handle to produce the next generation. Making comparisons with dogs and trying to generalize how domestication could have happened using these wolves is a major methodological error.

It is likely that the wolves of the Old World were much like these wolves. They had to have been very easy for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to interact with. A wolf like “Big Mouth” would have been almost impossible not to domesticate.

The other factor that drives much of the conversation on wolf versus dog behavior is that there has always been an assumption that wolves must be handled roughly to get them to behave.

Did you read in Schultz’s account any place where he used lots of domination and confrontation to train his wolf?

He didn’t.

But modern wolf experts will write out all of these domination exercises that people must use to keep them under control.  A few months ago, I saw an Animal Planet program in which a wolf expert claimed that the reason why a woman’s captive wolf and wolf hybrid pack killed her is because she didn’t bite them. With animals that are already really emotionally reactive, such methods might exacerbate some of the aggressive behaviors that wolves might be exhibiting in already stressful captive situations.

Making comparisons with modern wolves in these high stress captive situations and domestic dogs and then trying to promulgate a domestication theory from these comparisons is really methodologically stupid.

All we really have are these historical accounts, and from them, we might be able to glean some idea of how domestication might have happened.

We know from modern examples that scavenging is not domestication.

Wolves in the Middle East and Italy have been scavenging off people for a very long time, but no one has seen them develop floppy ears or a curled tail or start barking or herding or pointing.

The idea that scavenging alone was the main force behind dog domestication is really quite dubious. Lots of animals have scavenged off us– everything from spotted hyenas to raccoons to marabou storks.  Black-backed and side-striped jackals have been scavenging off people ever since people learned how to hunt successfully. And they haven’t become dogs either. They also have contributed nothing to the domestic dog gene pool,  simply because they are not chemically interfertile with dogs, wolves, coyotes, golden jackals, or Ethiopian wolves. Scavenging alone will not make an animal evolve into domestication.

I think in the end that the real reason why people have issues with these notions is quite simple. Deep down, people are uncomfortable with knowing that dogs are wolves. They are wolves that experienced different selection pressures, but the two animals have not speciated. There are dog-like wolves and wolf-like dogs, and the two populations have exchanged genes and have continued to exchange genes. Wolf people tend to think of dogs as debased wolves, while dog people like dogs to be different so we don’t have to have a discussion about dominance hierarchies. Never mind that the dominance model that has been used to understand both wolves and dogs has largely been falsified through new scholarship. When one says dogs are wolves, one is not also saying Cesar Millan is a genius. Of course I’m not. But I’m not going to deny what dogs are in terms of their phylogeny, just because of the failed dominance model.

I think that much of what we think about wolves and dogs has unfortunately become too reductionist. I’m not saying that the typical family should be keeping a pet wolf, and I do recognize that there are tendencies in which wolves– in general– do differ from domestic dogs. The unfortunate aspect of this reductionist line of thinking is that has created a dichotomy in which dogs are dogs and wolves are wolves– and it has always been so. The truth is that dogs are derived from wolves that were very easy to domesticate. The nervous and emotionally reactive wolves we have today are not that easy to domesticate at all, but assume that they have always been this way I think is very faulty.

This model makes sense only if we ignore many examples of wolves that succeeded as working dogs in the past. Such a model does create contours, which easily fill out into a meme.  But meme like this one can be as blinding as it might be helpful, and this one is no longer of any use. It makes excellent fodder for documentaries, but the simple reality is that dog domestication is much too complex a subject to be reduced to such broad contours and generalizations.

Schultz was able to do something that many experts today would say is impossible.

He took a weaned wolf from a den, and he trained it to be an excellent hunting dog.

None of those things can happen, if we are to believe the popular literature on dogs and wolves.

But they did.

Simple as that.


Many years later, Schultz would train a coyote to be a retriever and turkey flusher, but because dogs and wolves are the same species, I felt that it was more appropriate to discuss the dog and wolf dynamic in this post. I will have a separate post for Smokey, Schultz’s duck retrieving coyote.


Many of these issues are discussed in Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog, which will be out this month.

See related posts:

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One of the most important aspects of the Coppinger model for dog domestication and, as a corollary, dog behavior is that physical appearance is intimately linked to behavior. The fox farm experiment on which he bases much of the model is that spots and floppy ears are hallmarks of domestication, and if we take a look at modern dogs, those that look the most like adult wolves will be more aggressive and wild and those that are most juvenilized in appearance will be more docile and trainable.

In a section in which he discusses aggressive behavior, he makes a rather interesting, though I think quite flawed, suggestion. The breed in question is the German shepherd dog, which is often used for protection.  If we were to breed out the aggression in German shepherd dogs, how would we do it?  Well, Coppinger has a solution.

So to breed aggression out German shepherds, we should just try to breed them to be like yellow Labs?

Well, not so fast.

I will provide two examples of two different sets of breeds to show you how this is not case.

Here are your first pair of dogs:

125-pound golden retriever from North American pet lines.

Blond hovawart.

These two dogs look like they could be litter mates.

However, let me ask you another question:  Say that you’re a burglar, and you want to break into a house that has one of these dogs in it? Which do want to burgle?

You want to burgle the house with the 125-pound golden retriever. The hovawart will tear you up.

Hovawarts are a recreation of a German estate and farm guard dog that was common in the Black Forest. It was recreated with a lot of German shepherd blood, and the dogs behave more like German shepherds than the golden retriever that they superficially resemble. Hovawarts also come in black and tan and solid black colors, but the blonds really look like golden retrievers.

If Coppinger thinks the way one breeds aggression out of German shepherds is to breed them to look like Labradors, these particular breeds suggest otherwise. Here are two breeds that look very similar to each other, but they behave very differently. The recreated Hovawart is said to have some Newfoundland in it, which might account for some the superficial similarities. Golden retrievers and Newfoundlands do share a recent common ancestry.

( I should note that the golden retrievers in Germany rarely approach the size of the North American pet dogs, so it’s actually very easy to tell German golden retrievers from hovawarts, which are very common as pets.)

Now, someone did breed the aggression out of German shepherds.

This is a run of the mill German shepherd dog:

A typical German shepherd dog.

Here’s a strain of shepherd that has had most of the aggression bred out of it.

Shiloh shepherd. This breed is derived from German shepherd dogs that have been selected to be docile and gentle.

The Shiloh shepherd is derived from the German shepherd, but it has been selected to be very docile and gentle. The strain was founded in the 1970’s, and the breed is almost entirely German shepherd dog in ancestry. It has just been selected to be more gentle than the typical German shepherd, and unlike the more typical German shepherd, they are not generally considered suitable for schutzhund or protection dog work.

Notice something?

These dogs look nothing like yellow Labs, but they are closer to Labradors in temperament than the typical German shepherd dog.

Both of these pairs of dogs strongly suggest that one cannot tell the temperament of a dog by looking at it.  Just because a fox has spots doesn’t mean that it’s genetically tame, just as the appearance of the dog doesn’t always indicate what the temperament should be.

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Romeo was wolf who befriended many dogs at the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska.

For some reason, he didn’t take up with a other wolves.

He tried to join up with domestic dogs.

Maybe there were reasons for this attraction to domestic animals.

One story goes that he lost his mate, and he then went searching for a new one. He discovered that Labradors were his type, and he spent years trying make one his new mate.

The more likely story is mentioned in this article, which is a commemorative of this gentle black wolf.

He was probably a two-year-old wolf that dispersed from his natal pack in search of a mate and a territory to call his own.

Judging from his temperament, he was probably not happy hitting on surly wolf bitches. Wild wolves are much more aggressive with pack mates than most domestic dogs are.

So he took off after sweet Labs and other gentle domestic dogs for friendship and “romance.”

Nick Jans, a wildlife photographer, who really got to know Romeo had a Labrador bitch with whom Romeo was particularly infatuated. That’s how he got the name. He was “in love” with a retriever.

Tons of photos of this wolf exist, many of them wonderful juxtapositions of a northern wolf and a domestic dog. Both members of the same species, but one supremely adapted to living with man and the other supremely adapted to living in the frozen wilds, where recalcitrant moose is the main food source.

His head was so much larger than those of any dog– a very important trait of northern wolves. Big heads possess larger muscles that can control far more powerful jaws.

You have to have those if you’re going to grapples with the great Elch on a regular basis.

Romeo was suspected of running off with a few dogs, but the evidence for that is somewhat lacking. We do know that wolves in Alaska are quite cannibalistic, and they eat other wolves that encroach on their territories, as well as any domestic dogs that happen to be running lose.

And there is always this photo of Romeo carrying pug in his jaws.

The pug survived this whole encounter:


My guess is that Romeo considered large dogs to be adults of his own species.

However, a pug has traits that wolf might associate with a wolf pup. It has smaller size and a shorter muzzle.

Adult wolves will actually show very strong parental behavior towards their offspring. Domestic dogs will carry their pups when they are very small, but wolves will carry them even after they are few months old.

All Romeo was doing to the pug was trying to take care of a puppy.

My retriever treated adult Jack Russells as if they were puppies, much to the chagrin of the Jack Russells.

So why wouldn’t a wolf make this error?

Romeo disappeared in the September of 2009.

Hunters were blamed, of course.  There was an illegal wolf kill near Juneau in the September of 2009.

But no evidence suggests that any hunter is to blame.

He more likely died of natural causes.

Rome was truly a remarkable animal.

Many people have poo-pooed the various historical accounts of amicable relationships between wolves and dogs that I have posted on this blog. (The one I have found about a bunch of wolves that had playing with a mastiff in seventeenth century Newfoundland is my favorite.)

I keep being told that those wolves have be feral Native American dogs. They have to be because we all know that all wolves are aggressive towards dogs, and they have always been this way.

It is more likely that before widespread persecution wolves were much more willing to have friendly relations with both dogs and people. Lots of reasons for this difference in behavior are possible.

One is persecution was a Belyaev experiment in reverse in which emotionally reactivity, nervousness, and fearfulness were selected for in the wolf population. If a wolf had these traits, it was less likely to be shot, poisoned, or trapped.

In the Belyaev experiment, the onset of the fear period in the tame silver foxes also developed later than the wild-type foxes. If the reverse experiment selected for an earlier onset of the fear impact subperiod, then wolves would have a very hard time socializing as they once did.

It would also negate part of Raymond Coppinger’s theory that hunter-gatherers would have to collect wolf pups before they were 21 days old in order to socialize them to humans. Perhaps what we are seeing in modern wolves is an unusually early onset of this subperiod that is the result of selection from persecution.

And maybe the ancient wolf population experienced the onset of this period in a way more similar to domestic dogs,  which experience this subperiod when they are 8 to 10 weeks old. Modern wolves experience this subperiod when they are less than three weeks old, which is why Coppinger makes so much noise that a hunter-gatherer man could not have captured wolf pups and tamed them.

Another is reason is that wolves are not able to live as they once did. Crazed persecution and now regular wolf control programs have disrupted the pack systems that once existed. Wolves do not grow up in the same environment that they once did. Their puppyhoods are spent in very unstable situations, which certainly does affect their development. These wolves that live on moose in Alaska don’t live like the wolves that lived on the Great Plains, where bison meat was always available. They also don’t live like wolves that were living on the Mammoth Steppe, where there were always abundant prey species.  It also means that wolves are more likely to turn toward cannibalism just to survive.

All of these factors affect wolves and their behavior.

The modern wolf is a truly victimized species, and it can explain why they don’t normally act like Romeo.

But maybe Romeo wasn’t always the exception.

Wolves had to have been incredibly easy to domesticate. We’ve not been able to do this with any other large carnivore, though as I mentioned earlier this week, we tried with cheetahs. The Ainu people of Japan used to capture Hokkaido brown bear cubs and raised them for a ritual slaughter. (The Ainu revere the brown bear as the “god of the mountains.”) No one has domesticated a brown bear (though Doug Seuss has come close!) or a cheetah.

But we have not only domesticated the wolf, we’ve made our domestic wolf our closest animal companion.

Romeo helps provide some clues on how domestication could have happened. Wolves dispersing from their natal packs could have joined up with humans or with camp wolf populations that had developed from pups that the hunter-gatherers had raised.

He was truly a remarkable animal, one that should have warranted at least some scientific inquiry.

Of course, hew as but one individual wolf, and wolves and dogs are individuals. It is folly to make too many generalizations about them.

But he still was so utterly beguiling. That’s why residents of Juneau loved him so much.

For whatever reason, he didn’t consider dogs to be food or people to be dangerous.

He tried to join up with us.

Perhaps he was doing what some wolves did tens of thousands of years ago, when they first caught wind of the naked bipedal apes and decided that they might be of some use to them.

Romeo was an historian.

He told us of a past that we never wrote down and are only now trying to glean from the archeological and genetic evidence.

But he all he wanted was to have a mate who wouldn’t bite his face off.

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I must say that I go with Serpell on this one:


Coppinger’s biggest problem is he assumes that wolves have always had short critical periods for socialization.

If we could select for tameness in silver foxes through those few generations of selective breeding, just think of what our widespread persecution has done to the wolf. When I say persecution, I don’t mean that we killed a few every year to control their numbers. I’m talking total annihilation. The only wolves that survived were the nervous and reactive ones– the ones most likely to also be very crazy about their territories and engage in cannibalism.

The wolf that exists right now has to be very different from the wolf that we first domesticated.  In North America, where wolves were not heavily persecuted until Europeans arrived, there are accounts of friendly, curious wolves approaching people. Lewis and Clark even have an account of killing a wolf with a knife, after drawing it in with a piece of meat.

Serpell is correct. Hunter-gatherer people have always kept pets. Not all of them do, but those who live in lands with relative material abundance often do, especially those who live in the Amazon.

Early man was probably very fascinated with wolves early on, and it is likely that wolves were fascinated by us, too. It probably didn’t take much before people began keeping them as pets.

Dogs and proto-dog wolves have existed with humans for far longer than Coppinger’s theory suggests. His theory is strongly predicated upon dogs being domesticated around 12,000 years ago, when small-scale agriculture allowed for the formation of the first semi-permanent villages.

However, the genetic evidence is all pointing to a much earlier time period for the origins of the domestic dog, and there is some archeological evidence that dogs were living with people in Europe over 30,000 years ago.

Contrary to what many programs of this sort suggest, Coppinger’s theory is not the accepted scientific consensus about the origins of the domestic dog. In fact, if you were to ask me what the scientific consensus on the origins of the domestic dog, I would have to say that there is no consensus right now. As I said before, there are lots of theories and lots of evidence,  and almost none of it is in accord.

However dogs were domesticated, it had to have been so easy that a caveman could do it.

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These toy spaniels have been trained to kill rabbits.

These toy spaniels have been trained to kill rabbits.

From Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution:

Brian Plummer in Scotland has a pod of [Cavalier] King Charles spaniels that tears across the countryside searching for bunnies and kills them. Here is a hunt that is seriously uniform, to say the least. They have not been selected to be hunting dogs. But Brian, who prides himself on being a good dog trainer, uses them to illustrate his point: if you think about it and work at, you can teach any dog to do any task.

I made the case that any dog can do anything only if it is socialized correctly when a tiny puppy. I was sure Brian would see this as an exception to the rule that you can train any dog to do any task. He didn’t seem to. Then I asked Brian if one could train King Charles spaniels to hunt lions. Or could King Charles spaniels join transhumant migration, and guard sheep against wolves, even if they were socialized properly? Well, Brian’s a good dog man; he knows dogs. He just gave me a big grin and asked: “What do you think?” (154-155).


Brian believes that nuture is more important than nature in determining intelligence [working ability].  I had spent a delightful day hunting rabbits with Brian and his  [Cavalier] King Charles Spaniels (#44).

“Why did you pick this breed?” said I.

“Because these dogs have been the epitome of the housebound, nonworking pet dog for centuries,” said he.  “If I can train them to hunt rabbits, I make my point:  I can train any breed to do anything.”  And sure enough, after scampering over hill and dale (actually, the neighbor’s lawn), holing the rabbit, and driving it out with a ferret, the King Charles spaniels killed it.

Then we went down to the river and put his golden retriever (#4) through the fetch, retriever, and deliver-to-hand routines. Nice dog! she would work all day long and enver quit. I asked Brian if he could train his golden to herd sheep, and he responded instantly, “No problem. It would be asy to train a golden to herd sheep.”

“Could you then take that dog into a sheepdog trial and win?”

“Oh no!” he said without hesitation. I knew I was talking to someone who understands behavioral conformation.

“Oh no!” Just like that. The reason he cannot teach the golden to win a sheep trial is the same reason I cannot teach a dachshund to win a sled dog race. They are the wrong shape– the wrong conformation. The dachshund has the wrong physical conformation and the golden wrong behavioral conformation to herd sheep (192-193).

The numbers are the rankings for each breed in “Working and Obedience Intelligence” that Stanely Coren put together in The Intelligence of Dogs. (The ranking in Wikipedia does not line up with list in that I have in my copy of Coren’s book.)

The authors continue:

I have trained border collies to retrieve ducks, but it is just for fun, perhaps an interesting novelty. The border collies isn’t as big and its mouth is the wrong shape and it does not have the body volume of a swimming dog. It gets cold. It lacks the appropriate physical conformation. But what if took a German shepherd or some other breed that was about the same size and still couldn’t get it perform like a good retriever: I’d have to conclude it not only he size that’s important. Rather, there is something about the shape that underlies the perfect performance.

Shape of the perfect performance? It is the shape of the brain the breed that is the underlying cause of the unique intelligence [working ability]. Intelligence is not more or less in each breed, but rather, each breed has a different kind of intelligence (193-194).

Essentially, what the authors are saying is that you can train dogs to do lots of things, but there are unique talents and abilities in all of these different strains of dog. These talents and abilities are hard-wired into the strains, and these strains provide the ability to work at various tasks.

Not only do dogs have to have the right working conformation in terms of size and build, they also have to exhibit the right behaviors. Biddability is an inherited ability, just as any other behavior. Biddability is nothing more than an enhanced ability to communicate and receive communication from humans. It is nothing more. It is not intelligence, per se. It is working ability.

Retrieving, pointing, herding, and quartering are all inherited motor patterns that are hard-wired into dogs. In these strains, we expect these motor patterns to develop. Once they develop, the dog can be polished through training into a working animal.

This is not to say that some dogs don’t exhibit unusual inherited motor patterns for their breed. I’ve seen pointing Labs and goldens and read about a pointing bloodhound. I knew a miniature dachshund that had very strong retrieving motor patterns and was as a hard driving about her retrieving as any retriever. I know a Jack Russell that is the same way. German shepherds and other continental sheepdogs, along with collie-types, exhibit an air-scenting motor pattern somewhat similar to quartering in a gun dog.

But all of these dogs are not at the same level as a dog that has been bred for generation after generation to exhibit the strongest level of these inherited motor predatory motor patterns. That’s why they are generally much better at these activities than other breeds of dog that give off these abilities.

Now, that Jack Russell I mentioned is a far better retriever than my current golden. He would be useless for his breed’s original task, but he wouldn’t be a good bird retriever. He has another motor pattern. Whenever he retrieves a tennis ball, he gets really into it, and if you’re done playing with him, he’ll take that ball and pluck all the green fuzz off it. I can just see him doing that to a shot bird.

Behavioral conformation is really important to working breeds. It provides the basis for which training can proceed. I’ll actually go a bit farther. In a working breed, the behavioral conformation is inherited and then polished and refined through good training. And that’s why if we breed working dogs, we have to focus on breeding these working motor patterns.

I am aware that this is controversial for some people.  I’m not denying you can’t train any dog to do these specialized behaviors. What I am denying is that is nearly impossible for you to train any dog to do these specialized behaviors and have them compete successfully against dogs that were already hard-wired to have them.

*Keep in mind that I don’t agree with everything that the Coppingers say in this book. However, it is a really good primer for understanding dog behavior in terms of their evolutionary past and their centuries of selective breeding.

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Before I get comments denouncing me for putting a post on Coppinger’s theory, I need to make some things clear. Coppinger argues for a self-domesticating dog that evolved from the wolf because wolves that lacked fear of humans were better able to scavenge off of people. This happened when hunter-gatherer humans began to form the earliest agricultural settlements and were able to stay in one place. He bases this theory on the fact that wolves are almost impossible to domesticate. Wolf puppies must be captured early, as in within a few days of their eyes opening, in order to become imprinted on people. Modern domestic dogs can become imprinted on humans up to three months of age. I think Coppinger is a great behavioral ecologist, and he does apply the methodology of behavioral ecology to domestic animals.

However, there are some holes in his thesis. One is I have read several historical records of wolves living in North America during the early years of settlement.  The Diaries of Lewis and Clark is a great account of wolves living on the Great Plains. Their behavior is very different from modern wolves, which absolutely fear humans and avoid us at all costs. These wolves were curious of people, and I believe one wolf was killed with a knife during this adventure, Modern wolves will kill domestic dogs that roam into their territory, although it’s not a hard and fast rule (very few things with wolves is).  Lewis’s dog, “Seaman,” a Newfoundland (a bit different from the modern breed), never suffered attacks from wolves. I think the difference is this. Wolves in Europe, North America, and Asia have suffered a great persecution. It’s like the selection of Belyaev in reverse. The only wolves that remain are descended from ancestors who were nervous enough to avoid man. How this affects the way wolves develop as pups can only be up for conjecture.

It is possible that wolves living at the time when humans were hunters and gatherers were curious about people.  Their pups possibly had a longer period for imprinting. This could easily lead to hunter-gatherers keeping wolves as pets. BTW, pet keeping is something known to all people, except the Bushmen (San) in their original state. The natives of Australia kept dingo pups as pets. Women would nurse them as their own babies. However, once the dingo pups reached maturity, they were no longer fed. They would be released into the bush to fend for themselves. These were people without agriculture. However, they had a relationship with the dingo. The dingoes hunted on their own and were never used for hunting. The only purpose the dingoes provided was as a living blanket during the cold nights. The colder it got, the more dingoes were needed. A really cold night, might need three dingoes. Hince the name of the band “Three Dog Night.” This could explain some of the early interactions with humans and early dogs and ancient wolves.

However, again, this is largely speculation. We do know that dogs have been found that are older than the time period in which Coppinger postulates that dogs evolved from wolves, making the hunter-gatherer or “captured cub” thesis a little bit stronger.

James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania promotes this theory of the dog’s origins. His book on dogs is easily the equal of the Coppingers’.

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