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Penn Vet prof updates popular book on domestic dogs

By: Katherine Unger Baillie Date: Apr 27, 2017

James Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare at Penn Vet, with his colleague’s dog Scout.

Penn Vet professor James Serpell has updated his popular book “The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions With People,” which was originally published in 1995. The new edition captures the latest scientific information about dogs and their relationship with humans.

Dogs have occupied a place of importance in human life and culture dating all the way back to their domestication some 15,000 years ago. Yet up until the last few decades, rigorously collected scientific information about man’s best friend was relatively difficult to come by.

Now all that has changed. A newly updated book, edited by James Serpell of Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, captures some of this new understanding in 20 detailed but reader-friendly chapters. This second edition of “The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions With People,” updating the original 1995 text, comes at a time, Serpell writes in his introduction, when dogs have become “something of a scientific celebrity.”

“Numerous, highly respected, ‘high-impact’ scientific journals now regularly publish scholarly articles on the evolutionary origins of the dog, its molecular genetics, its social behavior and cognitive capacities, and its complex interactions with human society,” he writes.

To update the book, Serpell, the Marie A. Moore Professor of Animal Ethics and Welfare and director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at Penn Vet, asked the authors who contributed to the first edition to update their chapters, and sought several new authors to discuss emerging issues of interest.

“It was clear that there were some topics that have expanded greatly over the last two decades, and even some areas of study that didn’t really exist back in 1995,” says Serpell. “Topics like canine cognition and the use of genetic tools to trace the origins of domestic dogs have been massively expanding areas.”

The book is divided into four sections: Origins and Evolution; Behavior, Cognition and Training; Dog-Human Interactions; and Life on the Margins, which focuses on free-roaming dogs.

Though the text presents data and occasionally uses technical language, Serpell says he and the authors strived to make it accessible to a lay audience, employing explanatory footnotes to unpack scientific jargon.

One priority for Serpell was to debunk some popular notions of the proper way to train dogs.

“I wanted to set the record straight in the two chapters on dog training,” he says. “We’re trying to get away from this idea of dogs as just tame wolves. This obsession with dominance has really been very counterproductive in dog training circles, and has only succeeded in damaging relationships between humans and their dogs.”

Another burgeoning area of research, covered in the final section of the book, concerns the management of stray and feral dog populations. It’s estimated that as many as two-thirds of dogs living today are free-roaming, which can pose risks to humans, wildlife, and of course the dogs themselves.

The book concludes by pointing to areas that merit future research attention, such as the evolutionary mechanisms that led to the emergence of dogs as distinct from wolves, and the differences between breeds in various aspects of canine science.

“The field of canine science has come a long way since 1995,” Serpell writes, “but, as readers of this book will discover, many aspects of the biology and behavior of dogs and their relations with people remain mysterious.”

Originally published on Thursday, April 27, 2017.