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How the Dog Became the Dog

This is the book to read if you're interested in dogs and us

Books on dogs are incredibly popular, some more credible and more evidenced-based than others. It often seems as if anyone who has lived with a dog wants to write about their best friend, and it's understandably difficult to choose which book to read. Some are too "cute" for my liking, and while they sell well they put out myths about how our best friends became our best friends.

My current favorite book is Mark Derr's new book simply called How the Dog Became the Dog. Derr clearly knows dogs as well as anyone else who's writing about these amazing beings. His two previous books, A Dog's History of America and Dog's Best Friend clearly, concisely, and cautiously summarized our various relationships with our domesticated friends. Derr's newest book, with the same admirable rigor and clarity, explains how dogs became dogs, a question of interest to numerous people, researchers and non-researchers alike. Derr writes authoritatively about what we know and what we don't know about how the dog became the dog. He critically considers what we know about domestication using the latest information from a wide range of disciplines including biology (genetics, physiology, anatomy), anthropology, paleontology, psychology, and sociology, and dispels myth after myth that have appeared in other books and essays, written more with hubris and hype than fact. And what's so nice about Derr's book is that it's an easy read. 

Among his most important messages, Derr shows how shared sociability and curiosity drew wolves and humans together resulting in a close and enduring relationship of cooperation and mutual utility. Each benefited from the relationship in different ways. The dog was an "evolutionary inevitability" and the relationship between dogs and humans was based on a deep empathic understanding. Derr also rejects the somewhat popular notion that dogs are merely juvenilized wolves, an explanation that appeals to the concept of neoteny.

After reviewing reams of available data, Derr goes on to conclude there was no identifiable domestication event but " ... rather, mutations were captured and passed on for reasons of utility or desire or amusement or lassitude in certain populations of dogwolves. It thus becomes more accurate in many ways to speak less about how the wolf became the dog and more of how the dog became the dog ..." Derr also realizes with welcomed humility that in the future his ideas will have to be revised as we accumulate more information. But, given what we know now, this book is a superb summary peppered with caution.

if you read one book on dogs this should be it, a fact-filled volume that's easy to read that'll make you want to learn more about these amazing animals who figure intimately into numerous aspects of our lives. An interview with Derr on National Public Radio can be found here. I'm sure all dogs would thank Mark Derr for writing his book and we too should thank him for setting a confused record as straight as can be given what we now know and still have to learn.