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…