What is a dog? Ray and Lorna Coppinger’s new book will tell you

Ray and Lorna Coppinger know their dogs, and in their new book, they look at how canines get by in the world

  • Ray and Lorna Coppinger, with a canine friend at their Montague home. Recorder staff/PAUL FRANZ

  • Ray and Lorna Coppinger in their Montague home. RECORDER STAFF/PAUL FRANZ

  • “What is a Dog?” by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger FILE IMAGE

  • FILE photo FILE photo

Published: 4/1/2016 6:04:20 PM

It’s been the same dog, again and again, that Ray and Lorna Coppinger have seen as they’ve traveled the world to study canine behavior.

“Wherever we went, we noticed there was always this background population of dogs that was always there,” says Ray Coppinger, a Hampshire College emeritus biology professor who lives in Montague with his wife and research collaborator. “It always looks the same. We’d go to Africa, they were all out there, and they all look alike.”

They were there in Bangladesh, in Istanbul and in the dumps of Mexico City, always the same, adds Lorna Coppinger: “All around 35 pounds, this tawny kind of lion color …”

That, “to a biologist, says natural selection,” says Ray Coppinger, who’s been repeatedly quoted by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, National Public Radio, CBS and other media as an authority on dog behavior and evolution. “That’s the original dog. That’s how it looked in Homer’s time.”

The Coppingers, who are as knowledgeable about dogs as probably any couple — after decades of not only research but also on-the-ground raising and training of sled-racing dogs and then livestock herding and guarding dogs at Hampshire College — have just completed “What is a Dog?” their second collaboration and Raymond Coppinger’s 10th book about dogs, several of which have been translated into multiple languages.

Both this book, which is to be released in April, and “How Dogs Work” by Ray Coppinger and Mark Feinstein, a professor of cognitive science at Hampshire, were published by the University of Chicago Press. “How Dogs Work” was published last fall.

Both books revisit topics explored first in the couple’s 2001 collaboration, “Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution.” That study showed that “man’s best friend” is a misconception, and that dogs haven’t simply evolved as tamed wolves. Instead, they’re distant cousins.

“How Dogs Work” — a title Coppinger dislikes, because it’s not about working dogs or the work that dogs do, is instead about ethology, or the scientific study of animal behavior as originated by Nobel-winning sociologist Konrad Lorenz. “What is a Dog?” looks at how dogs get by in the world.

While our $60-billion-a-year obsession with dogs as pets in our culture is reflected in the doggie raincoats and sweaters, canine boutiques, gourmet biscuits ice cream treats as well as pet hospitals and insurance, 850 million of the estimated billion or so dogs in the world are basically “scavengers on people,” says Coppinger, who remembers never having his family dog enter the house when he was growing up. (Lorna, on the other hand, so liked golden retrievers as a child that she invited five or six neighborhood dogs to her 12th birthday party.)

“Those 850 million dogs are beyond human reproductive control,” he says. “We Americans look at a dog as your dog’s on a leash walking up and down the road, or you’re caring for them, feeding them, getting them their shots.”

Americans may also be obsessed with the breed of their dog, but Coppinger is more concerned with a dog’s behavior, which he has researched extensively — from the amount of energy and speed each member of a team devotes to pulling in tandem on the back strap, to the eye-stalk behavior that he says is common to all carnivores … and especially the behavior that leads dogs of all kinds to know where they can get their next meal.

When Coppinger, who earned his biology doctorate from the University of Massachusetts after studying literature and philosophy at Boston College, was first researching the material for “Dogs,” the prevailing theory was that dogs had evolved from wolves as human began agricultural settlements, gradually reducing the fear level as they scavenged closer to settlements.

“So we were dealing with ‘puppy wolves’ instead of adults. That was really big in those days. So we did some experiments and found, no, that’s wrong,” said Coppinger, whose new books distance themselves even further from that theory — even as research continues, such as worldwide DNA testing based at the University of Oxford.

Coppinger’s own research has taken him to places like the Mexico City dump, where he looked at where the dogs go at night. What he discovered is that the dogs may scavenge at the dump, but many follow workers home for water.

“I asked a woman, ‘How many dogs do you have?’ “She said, ‘15 … Yesterday I only had 14.’ She doesn’t have to feed them, because they’re eating at the dump. Each dog is following the other dog to water, and she is the source. Where she stops, there’s water.”

With Feinstein’s help, Coppinger answers questions in “How Dogs Work,” such as whether dogs have minds and what they might know, why dogs play and why they bark.

Rather than having a mind, dogs have behaviors, like “built in” eye-chase behaviors for which they’re bred, says Coppinger, who continues to teach distance-learning courses through seminar DVDs and the British Centre for Applied Pet Ethology.

“A border collie uses the same behaviors to herd sheep as to chase a car. Could you say to a border collie, ‘It’s after 5:00, go get the sheep, put them down in the barn and meet me down at the bar? Nobody’s ever done that, because a dog can’t do it. He’s done it 1,000 times, but it’s always under the direction of a human. It’s the human who has a mind and knows what the outcome of this behavior is. The dog doesn’t have a clue.”

When he trains a border collie to herd sheep, Coppinger continues to direct the dog: go right, go left, come up, get back, get down.

“And there’s a threshold: if I let an animal cross that line, he goes onto the next motor pattern, from eye-stalk into chase. If I don’t want him to go into chase, I tell him to sit down before he gets to the line … because if he crosses that, he’ll lose the trial because the dog showed that motor pattern.”

When it comes to barking, he explains, there many be different causes, but listening to the bark can explain what’s going on. It may be a conflict, trying to guard against a predator. A detailed analysis of the vocalization shows there may be a percussive “go away” signal or a tonal “come here.”

Or it may be a conflict, whether to retreat or protect the territory, part warning, part invitation: come here, go away, come here, go away.

One television interviewer queried Coppinger on why dogs bark and got a taste of his own sharp quip.

“I said, ‘It’s because the dog up the street barks! And then your dog barks! Then the dog down the street barks at your dog! And it takes around 20 minutes to get to the Mississippi River, and then it spreads into South America. And we figured the speed of sound, about 11,000 feet a second, and multiplied it out, to see how fast it comes around the world so many hours later, and it comes around again. And then your dog starts again ...”

When asked about the absence of any dogs at hisChestnut Hill home, Coppinger quips, “If I studied elephants, would you think of asking why I don’t have those around the house?”

There’s bluster, and even a little bit of barking as he talks about human behavior around dogs, asking why anyone would want to bring those “dirty things” in the house or spend so much on a family dog’s medical care that they’re “impoverishing themselves.”

Even without house pets, Coppinger is, above all, a perennial student of behavior of all sorts of animals, with bird feeders strategically placed outside the windows and an experiment along his driveway to see which kind of seeds the neighborhood birds pick out of the mix he’s tossed for them.

The birds are smart enough to pick out the cheaper seeds that they consider the good stuff, says Coppinger, so why shouldn’t he be just as clever in what he’s buying them?

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Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder for more than 35 years.
He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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