How the Dog Became the Dog

I am torn about recommending this book. On the one hand, there is a lot of information in this book, much of it firmly backed up with the latest scientific research. On the other hand, it is poorly organized and the editors seem to have been asleep at the keyboard. The same facts, anecdotes, and theories appear over and over again, making the book hard to follow and repetitive. Having been a student of Mark Derr’s in a graduate-level class on the history of dog breeds, I know that he has a lot of knowledge but is often disorganized in presenting it. This book reflects all of that.

What I like most about Derr’s presentation of the history of the dog’s evolution is the way he juxtaposes the various theories and points out where they overlap, where they contradict, and where they must obviously be incorrect. He does say that the theories are only scientists’ best guesses based on the archaeological and anthropological evidence available at the time they were generated — and offers his own interpretations and conjectures as to what might have happened.

I also enjoy Derr’s attempts to look at domestication from the dog/wolf’s viewpoint. As humans, we tend to look at things in the way that is most beneficial or complimentary to humans, but anyone who’s spent time with dogs knows that dogs are just as good at (or better at) “training” humans to behave in ways that benefit them as humans are at training dogs. Derr points out that domestication was a choice made by both parties and that benefits both — a partnership view of the human-dog relationship that seems more fair and honest than looking only at what humans can and do gain from living and working with the dog.

Much of the information in this book can be found in other books, but this book pulls it together and critically analyzes it in a new and interesting way. I recommend it as a resource for anyone who is seriously interested in studying and understanding dogs.

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