On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know

Facts versus beliefs

Posted Apr 27, 2016

Getting things right in the name of science: The truth matters

Over the past week a large number of people have sent me information about two recent essays, one called "The World Is Full of Dogs Without Collars" and the other titled "Man's Pest Friend." Both are concerned with a new book by Ray Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger called What Is a Dog?, not Who is a dog. The use of the word "what" is consistent with their reductionist view of dogs as being relatively unfeeling and unthinking animals. Some of the emails I received also had questions about some other claims including the authors' comparisons between dogs and wolves (for more on a number of spurious beliefs put out in What Is a Dog? please see "What a Dog Is Not!"). 

Comparisons between dogs and wolves: We need facts not beliefs

Some comments about play behavior: Here I simply want to briefly comment on some of these comparisons "in the name of science," -- what we really know -- because there's plenty of scientific data available and it's essential to get things right, especially for readers who are seeking knowledge. In an earlier essay called "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who's Confused?" I wrote about a book called How Dogs Work by Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein and expressed my deep concern about some claims made about play behavior by dogs and comparisons between dogs and wolves. It's extremely clear to others and to me that Coppinger and Feinstein's coverage of play is strongly misguided -- copious amounts of data are ignored and stories and unpublished student projects are offered instead -- and what they write does not represent what we really know from detailed scientific research. Indeed, in one instance, when writing about comparisons in behavioral variability between young dogs and young wolves, they present as facts a discussion that is the exact opposite of what my students and I discovered, and they cite the essay in which we present these data. This is indeed rather confusing and disturbing. It also is most unfortunate for naive readers, especially since they will be misinformed by their coverage because dogs and wolves are so misrepresented. 

Dogs, wolves, and starvation 

In "Man's Pest Friend" we read, "Most feral dogs starve to death, but then, according to our authors [Coppinger and Coppinger] most wolves starve to death as well." This didn't jibe with what I know about wolves, so I asked one of the world's leading wolf experts about this and he wrote, "No this is not true -- in human landscapes they die due to humans -- in natural landscapes other wolves." (Please also see the comment below about feral dogs that does not support the above claim.) Here is another belief expressed as if it's a fact. There also are problems with the Coppingers' take on the origin and domestication of dogs. Many of these are dealt with in Janice Koler-Matznick's forthcoming Dawn of the Dog, in Pat Shipman's The Invaders, and a in number of essays by Psychology Today writer Mark Derr.

Where did all the dogs go?

There are still some lingering questions and I continue to receive emails (and have had some other forms of personal correspondence) asking if I know what happened to the 1000's of sled dogs for whom Dr. Coppinger was responsible. On page 25 of How dogs Work we're told, "Some four thousand dogs 'went through the yard'" when "Ray spent fifteen years breeding and training dogs that pull sleds." I have no idea, but according to people I consulted, this is an incredibly large number of dogs, an average of around 267 a year. I welcome feedback on this question. 

Along these lines, on page 186 of What Is a Dog? we read, "Allowing purebreds to breed randomly within the sexually isolated population would be better. And even better than that would be to let a female breed many males, producing litters with many sires and culling those pups that don't meet one's standard, as the pre-eugenic breeders of hunting and working dogs did."

An unfortunate on-going charade: The truth matters, readers beware

Beliefs don’t substitute for facts and data that have been reviewed by peers, and there are plenty of data that are readily available. In a review called "Dogs, dogs, and more dogs: Fact, fiction, or something in between?" of an earlier book by the Coppingers, I wrote, "Throughout the book there’s a disturbing lack of reference to numerous highly-regarded experts in this field (though they do cite my own work liberally). Instead the authors depend on people who have done little (or no) empirical work on dogs or wolves and whose work has not been published in peer-reviewed professional journals, the standard by which researchers are accredited... All in all, I found little in Dogs to be startling except for the lack of a clear indication where the line between facts and guesses lay... The book is riddled with wholesale generalizations and relies too much on personal anecdotes and unsupported speculation to win my recommendation. Dog lovers and dogs themselves deserve better. Readers beware is the best advice I can offer."

This trend continues in these two recent books. In his review of How Dogs Work called "Cartesian Canines," Mark Derr notes that it is "confounding and often self-contradictory" and that their discussion of play "misrepresents or ignores the current state of science" (Times Literary Supplement, April 8, 2016).

In the name of good science we simply must represent other animals for whom they are. There is no need to embellish or diminish dogs or other animals. But, of course, it is essential to get things right. And this is something that the above mentioned books do not do in a number of different areas.

A forthcoming review

Here is a forthcoming review of What is a Dog? by Dr. Michael W. Fox, author of The Dog: Its Domestication and Behavior and other titles with Dogwise publications. This review will appear in his Animal Doctor syndicated newspaper column with Universal Uclick.

I am dismayed that this reputable publisher (which published my doctoral dissertation Integrative Development of Brain and Behavior in the Dog and other scholarly texts about dogs have put this one out. The title is a giveaway with the “What” rather than the “Who” about indigenous/natural/aboriginal/landrace dogs. The authors’ observations of free-roaming village and third world city garbage dump foraging dogs, and the plethora of tangential reference citations that provide no deeper understanding or appreciation of the nature of these dogs, objectifies them. I find this objectionable, having studied and lived with these landraces from Africa and India. This book is an affront to the species and a waste of trees. 

There is nothing documenting the symbiotic benefits of aboriginal dogs to indigenous peoples, no details about the nature and spirit of these dogs or of their sensibilities, protectiveness and intelligence---traits that benefit the human community. Rather, their observations, cast in a Darwinian perspective, give a false impression of scientific authority, but to what end? They regard the hard life of village dogs as their “paradise” and state that injuries from fights over a bitch in heat rarely cause injury. Yet even a small bite can mean a slow death from flesh-eating maggot fly infestation. They assert that these dogs, unlike wild canids who range far to hunt and bring food in their stomachs which is regurgitated for their cubs, are lacking this aspect of maternal care. But they have little need to do so since the pups around weaning time are close to food sources, and indeed, on occasion do regurgitate. 

They confuse symbiosis with commensalism (eating off the same table, page 133) which was a catch question for my students of animal behavior in my classes at Washington University, St. Louis. I trust that the students at Hampshire College, where co-author Raymond Coppinger is emeritus professor of biology, are now better informed and inspired by his successor.   

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage: marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)