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Dogs: A Natural History

Dogs: A Natural History

4.6 5
by Jake Page, Stanley Coren, Susanne Page (Photographer)

Dog lovers do not need to be reminded that dogs are astonishing creatures, but recent research shows that they are even more amazing than anyone knew. Dogs draws on the last several decades of studies, examining everything from a dog's eyesight to its culinary preferences and sense of humor. Jake Page looks at dogs' wild brothers, the wolves, and their


Dog lovers do not need to be reminded that dogs are astonishing creatures, but recent research shows that they are even more amazing than anyone knew. Dogs draws on the last several decades of studies, examining everything from a dog's eyesight to its culinary preferences and sense of humor. Jake Page looks at dogs' wild brothers, the wolves, and their closer cousins, the wild or pariah dogs; explains the newest theory of how dogs were domesticated; describes a dog's development from puppyhood on; and finally ponders a dog's emotional life and intelligence.

While not a practical book on dog training, Dogs will give readers a better sense of why their pets behave as they do. And as an added bonus, Jake Page's own pack of six dogs makes multiple cameo appearances.

Engaging and informative, Dogs will make readers see man's best friend quite differently.

Editorial Reviews

Doctor - Jane Goodall
"The perfect gift for all dog owners and potential dog owners. I love it."—Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE
Dr. Jane Goodall
“The perfect gift for all dog owners and potential dog owners. I love it.”—Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE
Los Angeles Times
Praise for THE FIRST AMERICANS: “A book that pulses with plot-drive.”
Wall Street Journal
Praise for THE FIRST AMERICANS: “As good as popular science writing gets.”
The Washington Post
Praise for IN THE HANDS OF THE GREAT SPIRIT: “Judicious, as well as flowing, lucid, and satisfying.”
Science News
Praise for THE FIRST AMERICANS: “A lively look at a contentious debate by a man in the middle of it.”
Library Journal

Despite the plethora of books about dogs and their breeds, behavior, and training, only a few truly focus on canine natural history and evolution. Adding to this tiny subgenre, Page (science editor, Smithsonianmagazine), prolific author and owner of six dogs, traces the evolutionary tale of man's best friend from the wild wolf to a neonate version we recognize as today's modern dog. He also explains how dogs express such genetic variety; discusses their mental capacity, their trainability, and their social development with humans; and illustrates theories and observations with sketches and pictures of his own dogs. For those unfamiliar with Page's books, reading Page is a bit like listening to a lecture presented by an enthusiastic but rambling speaker who offers numerous anecdotes, quips, and tangents to the actual subject. Yet through the roller coaster of theories, hypotheses, speculations, and personal observations, there is solid science writing that will appeal to general readers. Suitable for medium to large public libraries and large academic libraries.
—Kyrille Goldbeck

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.89(d)

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A Natural History
By Jake Page

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Jake Page
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061132599

Chapter One

Origins and Oddballs

If someone asked you where domestic dogs came from, the chances are you would say wolves, and you would be correct. Over the years scientists have argued about this question, saying maybe some came from coyotes or jackals, but these days it is clear that dogs derived exclusively from wolves, and almost surely from wolves who inhabited the huge Eurasian continent. The process of domestication could have taken place anywhere from some 15,000 years to more than 100,000 years ago, depending on which scientists you pay most attention to—geneticists or archaeologists—but never mind that for now. We'll get to it in a later chapter.

Let's start with wolves. First, where did they come from? That leads us to a time sixty or so million years ago, after the dinosaurs had vanished, leaving the field to the humble mammals. Some of these were ferret- and shrew-sized mammals with lithe bodies and long tails. Called miacids, they were arboreal creatures, and from them arose all of the meat-eating mammals called carnivores. Some of the miacids gave rise to the lineage represented today by the cats, hyenas, civets, and mongooses.

Some miacids gave rise to a lineage calledCaniformia—which is to say, dog-related: dogs, raccoons, bears, sea lions, seals, walruses and weasels. And the first of these creatures to arise was called Hesperocyon (which means, approximately, dog of the evening). They were for the most part about the size of small foxes, with supple bodies, long tails, and fairly short muzzles. They walked on their toes (like modern dogs) and so they are considered the first actual canids. In addition, they were good tree climbers. (I should point out that what you have here in this brief evolutionary tale is the equivalent of a few still photographs taken out of a very long, and very complicated movie.)

One of these early canids was Cynodictis, which lived in the forests of North America some forty million years ago. It had several features that turned out to be characteristic of most dog-like animals ever thereafter: longer legs, a particularly bony growth in the ear called the auditory bulla (which you may now forget about), and a bigger braincase than its ancestors. Also, it had scissor-like cheek teeth called carnassial teeth for shearing and chewing meat, a telltale sign of a meat eater be it a dog or a cat or any other carnivore.

As long as forty million years ago, the canids were already on their way to becoming long-distance runners suited to pursuing game over open ground, exhausting their prey the way wolves do, scissoring out big chunks of meat and bolting them down. Over the millions of years the legs would grow longer, the feet longer and more compact, the tail shorter. Five spreading toes would turn into the four compact toes (plus the dew claw) adapted to running fast over considerable distance. They ran on their toes only, what scientists call digitigrade. The basic shape and pattern and number (forty-two) of the teeth would remain similar. The essential pattern of today's dog, in other words, was established.


I believe I have made this word up. It means the condition of walking on one's toes, which is what most modern predators do and, in the case of dinosaurs, did. Birds walk on their toes, as do cats, hippos, and, of course, dogs. The familiar term, dogleg, is a result of digitigradience: the bones that correspond to the rest of a typical foot are held off the ground, sloping rearward with the ankle and foreleg angled forward from the (non-existent) heel.

Animals who plant their entire foot on the ground are called plantigrade, and they include bears, squirrels, mice, and humans. Unguligrade refers to ungulates, the name for hoofed animals like horses, goats, antelopes, and deer. For example, in the case of the horse, the claw of the middle toe evolved into a single toe (the others becoming mere slivers), which became the hoof.

My word digitigradience also suggests a continuum, variation. Our dog Amelia walks on her toes but they spread out a lot, to the extent that you might be forgiven for thinking she was plantigrade. On the other hand, Ding, the Australian Cattle Dog, walks almost entirely on the tips of his toes, tending toward the unguligrade. Ding's trot is an airy gait, much like the trot of a spirited Arabian horse, while Amelia, whose trotting days are nearly over (except when she hears the telltale sound of dog biscuits being lifted from a bowl) plods along a lot like a bear.

Over the next twenty or so million years, the early dog-like creatures gave rise to other lines of carnivores, most notably bears. These were larger and bulkier than canids, and some grew extremely large, like the cave bears of Eurasia (which were vegetarians) and like what is probably the most terrifying predator ever to roam the earth: the great short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), who stood as high as a moose at the shoulder and was probably fast enough, at least in spurts, to run down a horse.

Canids also branched out into other dog-like lines in this long period, for example big, almost bear-sized bone crushers something like gigantic hyenas. One of these, known to science as Epicyon haydensis, was the size of a bear, and the largest canid ever known. But all the canid-type evolutionary experiments ended in failure—extinction—but for one lineage represented by a canid called Eucyon. By about ten million years ago, Eucyon's line ranged around the American southwest, and served as ancestor of all of the dog-like groups of animals living in the world today.

Before long—another two million years, say—at least one species of these canids, something like a small coyote, made its way across the vast land bridge called Beringia from North America into Asia. In Asia, the environment was undergoing major changes as the . . .


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What People are Saying About This

Jane Goodall
“The perfect gift for all dog owners and potential dog owners. I love it.”—Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE

Meet the Author

Jake Page was the founding editor of Doubleday's Natural History Press, as well as editorial director of Natural History magazine and science editor of Smithsonian magazine. He has written more than forty books on the natural sciences, zoological topics, and Native American affairs, as well as mystery fiction. He and his wife live in northern Colorado with six dogs and a steady supply of dog hair, available free.

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Dogs: A Natural History 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brainylainy More than 1 year ago
This is a good introduction to the evolution and behavior of wild and domestic dogs written in an accessible stylle. Altho the author alludes to the differences between dogs and wolves, he. doesn't elucidate them systematically, nor dies he explain why he considers why some breeds are more like wolves than others, like Shad Peis
Cheri Coleman More than 1 year ago
great book