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What Is a Dog?

by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger University of Chicago Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 272 pages
AU$39.99 NZ$43.47
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Of the world’s dogs, less than two hundred million are pets, living with humans who provide food, shelter, squeaky toys, and fashionable sweaters. But roaming the planet are four times as many dogs who are their own masters—neighborhood dogs, dump dogs, mountain dogs. They are dogs, not companions, and these dogs, like pigeons or squirrels, are highly adapted scavengers who have evolved to fit particular niches in the vicinity of humans. In What Is a Dog? experts on dog behavior Raymond and Lorna Coppinger present an eye-opening analysis of the evolution and adaptations of these unleashed dogs and what they can reveal about the species as a whole.


Exploring the natural history of these animals, the Coppingers explain how the village dogs of Vietnam, India, Africa, and Mexico are strikingly similar. These feral dogs, argue the Coppingers, are in fact the truly archetypal dogs, nearly uniform in size and shape and incredibly self-sufficient. Drawing on nearly five decades of research, they show how dogs actually domesticated themselves in order to become such efficient scavengers of human refuse. The Coppingers also examine the behavioral characteristics that enable dogs to live successfully and to reproduce, unconstrained by humans, in environments that we ordinarily do not think of as dog friendly.


Providing a fascinating exploration of what it actually means—genetically and behaviorally—to be a dog, What Is a Dog? will undoubtedly change the way any beagle or bulldog owner will reflect on their four-legged friend.

Foreword by Alan M. Beck



Part 1 About Dogs


1 What Is a Dog?

2 The World Is Full of Village Dogs

3 Why Do Village Dogs All Look Alike?

4 What Is a Niche?


Part II Behavioral Ecology


5 Behavioral Ecology of Dogs

6 The Cost of Building a Dog

7 The Cost of Feeding a Dog

8 The Cost of Reproduction

9 Avoiding Hazards and Their Costs


Part III That Special Relationship between People and Dogs


10 The Symbiotic Relationship

11 Dogs Adopt People (and Other Animals)

12 People Adopt Dogs

13 People Breed Special Dogs

14 Breed Genes Stray into the Village Dog Population

15 Dog Genes Stray Back into the Wild


Part IV Summary


16 Where—and Why—Are All These Dogs?

17 What Should We Do—If Anything—with All the Dogs?




“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.”

-New York Times


“The dog is a shape that has evolved to a new niche that was created when people switched from hunting and gathering to growing grain. The waste products of that activity created a food supply that supports village dogs. So, according to the Coppingers, a dog is a kind of canid that has evolved to co-exist with humans — as a pet, a worker or a scavenger (or, in some cases, a combination of all three). Once they’ve spelt it out, it all seems fairly obvious. However, I never thought it through before, and now I see dogs in an entirely different light. Far from being a shameless stooge, Canis familiaris is actually a highly sophisticated scrounger. Seems man’s best friend is a lot smarter than we all imagined.”

- Spectator


“This is an informative, well-written book on the evolution of all canids, including the wild types (wolves, coyotes, jackals, and dingoes) and the ubiquitous and diverse domestic dogs. . . . Recommended.”

- Choice


“From their decades of research, the Coppingers have given us yet another epic book about dogs. The Coppingers take a unique and intensive look at the biology and population genetics of Canis familiaris, the niche that dogs occupy, and the problems that they face cohabitating with man. A must read for anyone really interested in knowing this animal that many call ‘man’s best friend’!”

- Ken McCort, owner and operator of Four Paws training center
Raymond Coppinger is professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College.


Lorna Coppinger is a biologist and science writer.