‘A Dog’s World’ Review: When the Pug Joins the Pack
In a post-human world, dogs might thrive without many of the traits that make them such appealing pets.
By David P. BarashOct. 21, 2021 6:25 pm ETSAVEPRINTTEXT3Listen to articleLength6 minutesQueue
What’s the difference between dogs and cats? Dogs say “These people feed me. They must be god!” Cats say “These people feed me. I must be god!” The joke contains a furball of truth: Compared to cats, dogs are more deeply involved with people. This presumed entanglement is the starting point for “A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans,” by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff. Ms. Pierce is a bioethicist and philosopher at the University of Colorado, Denver, and Mr. Bekoff a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
This book is an evolutionary thought experiment—untestable, informative and great fun—asking what dogs would be like if human beings disappeared. “Speculative biology,” the authors write, “is an exploration of what might be, using out-of-the-box thinking and imagination.” “A Dog’s World” appears to have all four paws on secure scientific ground as Ms. Pierce and Mr. Bekoff start from basic evolutionary and ecological principles to develop powerful predictions and insights into dogs as we know them today.
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A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans
By Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff
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Recent buzz about various “rewilding” prospects has included reviving extinct animals such as Siberian mammoths and reintroducing them into their original habitats. What if dogs were to be similarly rewilded? Here fiction preceded science. In Jack London’s novel “The Call of the Wild,” Buck, a 140-pound St. Bernard–Scotch Collie mix, is taken from his cushy human-made surroundings and eventually reverts to type in the Alaskan wilderness. Having become an alpha, “he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.” What song might our real-life dogs sing, under similar circumstances?
“A Dog’s World” serenades us with plausible tunes. Natural selection favors reproductive success, nothing else. Without human intervention, dogs with physical anomalies such as drastically foreshortened snouts and oversized heads (bulldogs and pugs) would quickly disappear, unless they figured out how to do Cesarean sections. No more German Shepherds with hip dysplasia, no more tiny Shih Tzus.
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In this “regression toward the mean” would breeds of any recognizable sort persist? Wolf-like types, such as malamutes, huskies and akitas might do well. The behavioral and anatomical traits of individuals would, however, be more important than which breed they represent. Would they form packs? Probably. Even now, abandoned dogs often form feral groups. Much of the human influence on companion animals has effectively been to deprive them of natural inclinations, notably opportunities for breeding and socializing: Many people don’t allow their pets to lie on the sofa, never mind gnaw on deer skulls or roll in yummy carrion. Post-human dogs would probably scavenge as well as hunt, and go from their current regime of reproductive cycling twice per year to once, like their free-living relatives.
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“Dogs have been bred for certain physical traits,” the authors note, “including the shape and position of ears, the length of tails, and growth patterns and coloration of fur, as well as certain behavioral traits” like friendliness, and “breed-specific functional skills such as pointing, fetching, herding, and guarding.” We’ve bred for these features for our reasons, not theirs. Indeed, those who are “treated best”—pampered with high-end food and pricey dog beds—may be the least likely to survive without us.
Dogs have always shown themselves behaviorally and ecologically flexible, like their canid relatives, the foxes, jackals, coyotes and, of course, gray wolves, with which they share 99.8% of their mitochondrial DNA. (Hence their present taxonomic designation, Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of Riding Hood’s bane, C. lupus lupus.) Is there enough “latent wolf” within dogs that without us they would simply go back to where they came from? No, the authors assert. Dogs won’t go back to being wolves; they will become new and different canids—with specific pressures to survive. Ms. Pierce and Mr. Bekoff generate a persuasive list of the many gains and losses dogs would experience in the absence of humans: loss of readily available, mostly nutritious food; of veterinary care; of shelter from environmental extremes, not to mention the social benefits dogs derive from interacting with Homo sapiens, with whom they have been closely associated for tens of thousands of years. Lifespan would almost certainly be reduced, as it is now for feral dogs.
But they would gain reproductive freedom, along with release from the inhibitions we unintentionally impose. “Without humans, dogs would be freed from the constraints of being square pegs forced into round holes, of being dogs expected to live and act like furry people.” No more “leashes, crates, fences, and shock collars.” Imagining such a scenario leads to a provocative question: Would today’s dogs be better off without us? Some extremists maintain that pet-keeping is itself abusive and should end. Ms. Pierce and Mr. Bekoff know dogs and love them too. They urge that so long as we “have” dogs, we ought to consider what they are wired to do: “barking, digging, sniffing butts, chasing squirrels, rolling in dead stuff, running fast, playing with other dogs. These are behaviors we should allow, even encourage, in our dogs.”
This fascinating inquiry into what dogs would be like without us could well lead to another one: What would we be like without them.
Mr. Barash is a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book is “Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents.”