How Dogs Work, by Ray Coppinger and Mark Feinstein

Anne Carter on the complex workings of our canine companions

October 15, 2015
Review: How Dogs Work, by Ray Coppinger and Mark Feinstein

From lapdogs to guard dogs, canine companions have long been the objects of our affection and interest. As biologist Raymond Coppinger and cognitive scientist Mark Feinstein explore here, our efforts to broaden the scientific understanding of “how dogs work” makes them a source of intrigue too.

In a complement to existing science-informed books on the subject, Coppinger and Feinstein bring the concept of dog behaviour neatly to the forefront. While we already have a fairly firm grasp on the physical inner workings of canines, How Dogs Work focuses more on the differences brought about by breed traits, and makes comparisons between dogs and an array of wild canid species, including jackals and dingoes.

The authors begin by outlining the workings of the dog in a mechanistic way, loosely comparing them with machines. They go on to consider how this notion may help in understanding and unravelling the behavioural complexities of the dog, highlighting recent thinking that has moved us on from the long-held idea of dogs as some form of “modern wolf”, both in terms of behavioural differences and adaptive responses to very different environments.

Aimed at both lay and specialist reader, what really sets How Dogs Work apart is a host of anecdotes by Coppinger that provide compelling real-life context. Throughout the book, he draws on his experience of owning and competing with sled dogs as well as his expertise with a range of other working dogs. Exploring sled dog shape and its “optimum conformation” is a novel approach, and the authors refine the concept down to a mathematical equation based on round dogs and square dogs (although not literally). “Behavioural shape”, they argue, is key to why a dog “does what it does”. The “chase” behaviour in a border collie, for example, is selectively bred to improve herding behaviour when working sheep, just as “freeze” and “point” behaviours are useful in gundog breeds.

Coppinger and Feinstein spend some time discussing the research that has served as building blocks in our current perspective on behaviour, and in particular (in something of a Who’s Who of fundamental behaviour) the work of Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen. At times, however, the more novel and interesting ideas that they raise are left to drift, as the authors focus more on the older literature than current research. Additionally, some of the material here will be familiar to those who have read Coppinger’s previous books. Although the book’s bibliography will be useful for curious readers new to the subject and looking to broaden their knowledge, in some chapters it is a little sparse.

How Dogs Work concludes by suggesting that, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no simple or indeed single answer as to “how dogs work”; instead, the authors point to clear differences in breed traits and the complex interplay between intrinsic responses, selection of traits and learning. While behaviours can be learned and modified, which they neatly liken to turning switches on and off, Coppinger and Feinstein’s focus on “pre-programmed” innate behaviours provides a fascinating look at ongoing research for the general reader, and a valuable aid for anyone interacting with dogs in working environments.

Anne Carter is senior lecturer in animal biology, Nottingham Trent University.


How Dogs Work
By Raymond Coppinger and Mark Feinstein
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £18.00
ISBN 9780226128139 and 6322704 (e-book)
Published 22 October 2015

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Assistant Recruitment - Human Resources Office

University Of Nottingham Ningbo China

Outreach Officer

Gsm London

Professorship in Geomatics

Norwegian University Of Science & Technology -ntnu

Professor of European History

Newcastle University

Head of Department

University Of Chichester
See all jobs

Most Commented

men in office with feet on desk. Vintage

Three-quarters of respondents are dissatisfied with the people running their institutions

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

Canal houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

All three of England’s for-profit universities owned in Netherlands

Humboldt University, Berlin

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy

sitting by statue

Institutions told they have a ‘culture of excluding postgraduates’ in wake of damning study