Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Biology, Books for the News

What Is a Dog? in the New York Times


Raymond and Lorna Coppinger have long been acknowledged as two of our foremost experts on canine behavior—a power couple for helping us to understand the nature of dogs, our attachments to them, and how genetic heritage, environmental conditions, and social construction govern our understanding of what a dog is and why it matters so much to us.

In a profile of their latest book What Is a Dog?, the New York Times articulates what’s at stake in the Coppingers’ nearly four decades of research:

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.

Other scientists disagree about the genetics of the dogs, but acknowledge that three-quarters of a billion dogs are well worth studying.

The Coppingers have been major figures in canine science for decades. Raymond Coppinger was one of the founding professors at Hampshire College in Amherst, and he and Lorna, a biologist and science writer, have done groundbreaking work on sled dogs, herding dogs, sheep-guarding dogs, and the origin and evolution of dogs.

“We’ve done everything together,” he said recently as they sat on the porch of the house they built, set on about 100 acres of land, and talked at length about dogs, village and otherwise, and the roots of their deep interest in the animals.

To read the profile—which touches on the Coppingers’ nuanced history with wild canines—in full, click here.

To read more about What Is a Dog?, click here.