James Gorman, in the NYTimes:
… Add them up, all the pet dogs on the planet, and you get about 250 million.
But there are about a billion dogs on Earth, according to some estimates. The other 750 million don’t have flea collars. And they certainly don’t have humans who take them for walks and pick up their feces. They are called village dogs, street dogs and free-breeding dogs, among other things, and they haunt the garbage dumps and neighborhoods of most of the world.
In their new book, “What Is a Dog?,” Raymond and Lorna Coppinger argue that if you really want to understand the nature of dogs, you need to know these other animals. The vast majority are not strays or lost pets, the Coppingers say, but rather superbly adapted scavengers — the closest living things to the dogs that first emerged thousands of years ago…
In 2001, their book “Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution” challenged the way scientists thought about the beginnings of dogs.
They argued against the widely held view that one day a hunter-gatherer grabbed a wolf pup from a den and started a breeding program. Instead, they argued, dogs domesticated themselves.
Some wild canines started hanging around humans for their leftovers and gradually evolved into scavengers dependent on humans. Not everyone in canine science shares that view today, but many researchers think it is the most plausible route to domestication.
During their travels over the years — to look for sheepdogs, to introduce them to sheep farmers who hadn’t used dogs, to attend conferences — they noticed dogs in the street wherever they went, and after a while they began to think about the dogs’ lives…
The Coppingers were joined for the recent conversation at their home by Kathryn Lord, a former student of Dr. Coppinger and now a researcher at Hampshire College, who studies the development and reproductive behavior of dogs, including village dogs. She shared her insights on what makes a dog a dog, and not a wolf, for example. Wolf puppies depend on their parents and other adults regurgitating partly digested food.
“This is all but lost in dogs,” she said. It does happen, but reports suggest that in village dogs it may occur several times a week.
Among wolves in the wild, she said, “it’s seven times a day,” and it is an uncontrollable reflex. In one experiment, she tried testing adult wolves by putting them into a pen with unrelated pups after a big steak meal.
“They’d actually run around with their heads in the air to avoid the puppies,” she said. “Eventually they’d lose their lunch.” At which point they would run off and let the youngsters have at it.
The point the Coppingers and Dr. Lord make about these behaviors is not that dogs are somehow less caring or noble than wolves, but how perfectly adapted they are to the lives they lead.
They don’t need to be big and strong to bring down prey. They don’t need the kind of parental care and hunting instruction that wolf pups get. As Dr. Lord said, dog pups don’t need to catch and kill anything. “They need to walk up to a rotten melon and eat it, which they can do at 10 weeks.”
Puppies, after they are weaned, cannot compete with adults, so unless disease or dogcatchers have put a dent in the adult population, most of them starve. They have a true superpower in reserve, however, that can help them escape their fate. They can convince a human to feed them…
That’s some superpower! Over the last few decades, scientists have shifted from talking about Man-the-Hunter capturing & taming the mighty wolf to Humans-the-Wasteful encouraging a new form of scavenger to live off our mostly unintentional bounty. Another few decades, will the narrative be that outliers from two very different species jointly “invented” each other?
The Coppingers’ books are not, in my experience, an easy read, but they’re full of interesting tidbits. The NYTimes has a sidebar article on “The Dogs That Don’t Belong to Anyone” which is both lovely and heart-breaking, much like all other human stories about dogs…
IIRC, this is also the current thinking about feline domestication — cats started hanging around to catch all of the mice and other rodents that were attracted to human agriculture, and then started realizing that the hoomans also had warm, safe places they could sleep and nice scritchy fingers.
I really should go grocery shopping now that I have a list, but Saturday is my lazy day.
Puppy dog eyes = social Darwinism.
Or the ultimate in manipulation.
Well, by definition, domestication means breeding for desirable traits. Puppy dog eyes fit into that.
@debbie: OMG you are not exaggerating at all.
Speaking of which, if I remember my animal cognition reading correctly, that’s one of the differences between dog puppies and wolf cubs. Dogs look at people’s faces and can interpret some human facial social cues, whereas wolves generally don’t.
Isn’t this more or less what people have been saying about cat domestication: they they started out as hangers-on and only later were deliberately taken in? The only difference is that cats started out as predators on domestic vermin rather than scavengers.
@debbie: Same thing. Social Darwinism doesn’t always mean “die, muthaphucka”.
Yup, though IIRC dogs domesticated during hunter gatherer times and perhaps fit that culture whereas cats domesticated more recently during the development of agriculture. Or so it is thought.
@Miss Bianca: Yeah, I think actual Social Darwinism is supposed to more amoral than immoral, like nature.
If I recall correctly, this is pretty much what people have been saying about feline domestication. They were attracted by mice an other critters attracted by human agriculture and were later invited in the house.
@Amaranthine RBG: if they were anything like the felines I’ve acquired over the years they invited themselves in.
@Matt Rogers: Doggone it, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree
We need a better grade of troll around here.
@Roger Moore: Watch how many take the bait. It’s evolutionary.
@redshirt: “Evolutionary, my dear Watson”?
FYWP. What up? 2nd time comment has vanished. Is spooky.
@Matt Rogers: Snort! Ya lost me there in some kind of connection to people having their voting rights restored and…..people getting free stuff fro m Uncle Sam…. Just what the hell ARE you talking about?
I heard about those guys! They’re called EXXON.
Guess I don’t understand Social Darwinism. I thought it was a passive kind of selection based on desirable characteristics. Sorry.
@Matt Rogers: this is a new one.
Iowa Old Lady
You all are replying to a comment I don’t see, which is perhaps for the best.
Looks like the new troll got the hook before I even got here. Oh, well, I’m sure I didn’t miss much.
Better trolls, please. As for dogs, I bet they proved themeselves worthy of keeping around when they served as early warning systems against intruders. Dogs can smell them before humans could even see them. After a few lucky incidents, I can see friendly humans also tossing the occassional scrap to the helpful visitors. A bit of leftover mammoth skin, a piece of sloth fat…a little bit of too-bad to eat bison must have seemed like heaven to those ancient scavangers who had to look for carrion. So the dogs stuck around.
I believe, recalling the effect my two cats had on me, that pets also domesticate humans. I felt like home was home when my cats were there and began to care more about how my house looked, how it felt to me. And the process of taking care of them opened up parts of me that I didn’t know I really had. I bet the same process happened to early humans as well. Tending the dogs brought out a great deal of compassion, made people settle down and start caring for themselves and each other.
@debbie: others are probably more versed in the theory than I am. But I thought social Darwinism is the idea of survival of the fittest applied to socioeconomic dynamics. It was the way to validate the winners in late 19th Century society.
I didn’t use the term in its true sense in my puppy dog eyes comment.
Kind of. Social Darwinism was usually an attempt at social engineering that pretended to be “natural.” Like, we have to give all of the wealth and power to the people who already have all of the wealth and power because it’s only natural for them to have it.
‘Chariots of Fire’ on my local PBS station tonight.
@CarolDuhart2: Well said. And that first time a hunting party took a well behaved dog out with them and he/she led the hunt and identified game right away, I bet light bulbs went off over all the hunter’s heads.
That is, if they had any idea what light bulbs are.
@Mnemosyne: And on the flip side, the weak and ill should be culled from the population.
Current thinking is that dogs can interpret some human facial cues better than other humans. It’s an even more vital survival skill for a puppy than for a human baby, since adult humans are predisposed to find babies attractive!
The timeline is part of what scientists are trying to tease out in studies like this (earlier article from the same author). Dogs have been hanging around humans for a very long time, but developing a scavenger species would have required groups of humans large enough to produce significant ‘waste’ — there’s still an argument that goats may have been domesticated at the same time or slightly earlier than dogs, because of course herding tribes find dogs very useful & vice versa.
Cats, it’s pretty well settled, are a side effect of granaries — once your group is agricultural enough to store grain in quantities you’ll need a small predator to keep the mice/rats/pigeons in check. Some groups tried ferrets or snakes, but cats smell better than the first and are more adaptable to human handling than the second.
@Miss Bianca: The troll kicked the (bit) bucket.
Yes, and again it was a pretense of it being “natural,” so they were just helping nature along by getting rid of … undesirables.
Not to mention that it was all based on a very shallow understanding of evolution to begin with, but a very convenient one for elites.
@John Revolta: What’s interesting is that a big proponent of the Negative Income Tax back in the 70’s was Milton Friedman.
The article touches on some other differences, such as that wolves will spend a lot of time raising their cubs (teaching them how to hunt, etc.), whereas with dogs, once the puppies are weaned, they’re basically on their own. Also, wolves are at least somewhat monogamous, but dogs screw around. A lot.
So, for every 7 human critters, there is a dog? I doubt it.
Much like “Republican health care plans,” my guess is that was a reaction to direct expenditures actually being made rather than a serious proposal.
Medieval Dog Names
In England we find dogs that were named Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri. Anne Boleyn, one of the wives of King Henry VIII, had a dog named Purkoy, who got its name from the French ‘pourquoi’ because it was very inquisitive.
@Baud: No, he was quite serious about it; it’s called the Earned Income Tax Credit.
@Shell: And George Washington had foxhounds named Tippler and Sweet Lips. I kid you not.
@dmsilev: Basically, the argument goes, dogs have outsourced juvenile (post nursing) puppy-feeding and puppy-training to humans — or at least to human garbage sources. As a species we have many flaws, but we’re excellent dependable garbage producers!
@amk: You’re reading backwards; it takes a minimum of seven humans to support one dog, if that dog is entirely dependent on human garbage as a food source.
Keep in mind — there’s an anthropological theory that humans evolved less as Mighty Hunters and more as Mighty Scavengers, apes that evolved to run long distances to reach megafauna carcasses & strip them before the hyenas & vultures could do so. Our communication skills enabled us to share information on the location of the latest dead mammoth, and our tool-making skills to compensate for our inefficiencies at reducing that carcass to manageable chunks before the bigger scavengers took over the bounty.
@Gelfling545: You sure got that right!
All one need do is look up the experiments in Russia to breed foxes that were the least skittish around humans. After not very many generations, they ended up with what were for all intents and purposes fox dogs. Even began to look dog-like.
@NotMax: And even their fur started to change color, as I recall…more patches of white underneath – another sign of domestication?
@NotMax: Can I buy one of these fox dogs?
This is awesome. I have an abandoned hunting dog and her seven week old pups out in my garage.
Counting on that superpower of theirs to find them good homes. Three pretty serious commitments in the first week and working with a great local rescue agency so they will all find good homes.
@FarmerG: thank you for taking them in and rescuing them!
@Mnemosyne: Interesting stuff. I have to read it more carefully later. Of course, humans have also been more opportunistic scavengers than mighty hunters.
The other thing that scientists have to account for is how early dogs found a way to not be a threat to humans and their children, and how humans were able to recognize that dogs were not a threat.
Also, human and dog interaction was so successful that dogs were able to spread with the spread of human societies.
Am I the only one to have spent time out on the trail and see how much dogs love human poop to eat? That is my theory of why the first started following us around. Lots of nutrition just left in piles. And it made human camps cleaner.
@Lymie: Yeah, dogs love practically any poop to eat… I figure that’s subsumed under the tasteful noun ‘waste’ for scienterrific purposes.
And I’ve always figured resource-guarding the outdoor evacuation facilities was probably a big factor in the mutual relationship between dogs & humans. Because when it’s not just the bears shitting in the woods, having a beta-wolf hanging around yelling I found this latrine first — you can’t have my poop trove! at larger predators probably meant more to our human ancestors than Victorian visions of Tarzan subduing his own wolfpack. Imagine a woman knowing the noisy canid yapping into the darkness just kept her — or her six-year-old — from accidentally encountering something quiet & dangerous in the darkness just outside the firelight. That noisy canid could even get a little extra bonus when the next deer was butchered… thus reinforcing the idea of mutual benefit…
Cathie from Canada
When my sister was touring Egypt, she found dogs that viewed people as sources of shade! There were often feral dogs around the tombs and monuments — while they weren’t particularly friendly to people, they would lie down in the shade created by the lines of people waiting to enter the tourist sites.
A documentary I saw on dogs pointed out that in many parts of the planet, dogs create economic opportunity — for example, herding breeds like sheepdogs allow us to raise cattle, sheep and goats in mountainous or desert areas which are virtually impossible for people to access
@NotMax: Apparently the gene(s) for not being afraid of people (while also not being aggressive) also contain(s) (coincidentally) the floppy ear and spotted coat genes, so yes, the foxes had floppy ears and even bark. So all kinds of doggish characteristics came along automatically in the selection of friendly proto-dogs.
I’ve traveled enough to countries where dogs are more often feral than pets, and it always makes me sad. I try to give them little treats I save, one time bought a flea medicine for one just to give him some temporary relief. Humane efforts are starting in a lot of these countries, but so many of the people are also living in terrible conditions that it will be generations before things change for the animals.
I’ve been watching a lot of BBC nature documentaries lately (Yay, Netflix!) and one thing that comes through again and again: any predator will turn scavenger at the drop of a carcass. After all, why expend all that energy hunting when there’s a meal lying right there in front of you?
And humans make a lot of garbage and waste a lot of food.
Good article, but I disagree with their take on rescued street dogs from the Caribbean. One of our 3 was a puppy in Puerto Rico, was rescued, fixed, and brought to the mainland. She’s lying under my desk now getting pats and have a nice life with two adopted brothers for company and playmates. (She looks a lot like Cole’s Lily actually)
@redshirt: At one point, you apparently could buy a domesticated fox.