I just got to have Marc Bekoff on my podcast! We talked about Jessica Pierce’s and Marc’s latest book: A Dog’s World – Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.
I translated this book to German, and it recently got released by Kynos Publishing. Since I usually stay in touch with “my” authors in the translation process, I grabbed the opportunity to invite Marc on a Zoom chat.
In this episode, I acknowledge the relevance of A Dog’s World to pet dog owners today, and I challenge Marc on the conclusion drawn in the book: that the species dog would survive (or turn into a new species) if all humans disappeared. It’s the latter part that I want to talk about some more after further thinking about the book and our conversation.
Survival in a posthuman world
What I’m still grappling with is the idea that dogs would survive without us. My openion (and yes, this is VERY MUCH an opinion because we can’t test this scenario in a meaningful way) is that dogs would go extinct in a world without humans.
Jessica and Marc believe that many dogs would not only survive, but thrive in a world without us.
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
Where we come from
Only in the course of this conversation did I realize how different the points of origin of our respective arguments are, and how our respective conclusions followed, perhaps quite naturally, from exactly these anchor points we already had long before this conversation.
Marc’s longest field research project, I believe, was on the lives and behavior of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. As an ethologist, Marc observes behavior and writes ethograms (a list of observable behaviors and their contexts) about different species in their natural environment. In Marc’s case, these species were primarily wild canids.
Marc is a dog lover who has also spent many days at dog parks, observing the interactions of Boulder’s dog park dogs through an ethological lens. Marc has researched, by reading everything that is available in terms of observational studies, the lives of free-roaming domestic dogs around the world, and observed feral dogs arund Boulder. On the podcast, Marc points out that the ethograms of domestic dogs and wild canids is nearly indistinguishable.
Marc has also lived with dogs: companion dogs who were off leash when Marc was out with them around Boulder, CO. Marc observed the behaviors these dogs would engage in in their off-leash lives. (They were only out and about off leash when Marc was with them – so probably living degrees of freedom similar to my own dog, who is not a free-roamer.)
Taking the similarity of the ethograms, the independence of Marc’s own dogs and a group of feral dogs who would make occasional trips to the dumpster but also hunt outside of Boulder, Marc and Jessica Pierce conclude that there would absolutely be individual dogs – enough to form new wild populations – surviving the demise of the human species.
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
The anchor point of my
ship train of thought is different. I am a dog trainer. The dogs in my life are usually sports or working dogs, or very active companion dogs of high-maintenance breeds, or not so active dogs living with highly sophisticated dog folks who are most definitely not average pet dog homes. I have never had a pure pet dog myself, and neither do most of the folks I work and interact with today. My personal interest and the areas into which I am trying to stretch are behavior analysis, psychology, neurology, and behavioral medicine. I have no degree in any of these fields, but I try and learn as much as I can about them. I also live in a part of the world where many (most?) dogs are homed free-roamers. I love observing them; I consider their life quality high, and I have dedicated a Youtube Channel to them.
When I think “domestic dog,” what comes to mind is not the general pet dog population: I think of dogs who live with geeky trainers on the one hand, and free-ranging dogs on the other hand. I sometimes forget that there are also pet dogs.
When Jessica and Marc think “of “domestic dogs,” I suspect they think of pet dogs on leashes and in dog parks on the one hand and wild canids on the other hand.
What I agree on with Jessica and Marc
I fully agree with Jessica’s and Marc’s conclusions about how the lives of pet and companion dogs could be improved, and how we can draw these conclusions by looking at the behavior of free-ranging dogs today.
The sociability and ability to form groups and packs is something I see a lot in free-roamers, so we’re on the same page there as well. I don’t doubt that dogs will be (variable degrees of) sociable and able to form packs. Free-roaming dogs already do.
Alloparenting also occurs in domestic dogs that are kept in groups when breeding as well as in free-roaming dogs. Again – I have no doubt posthuman dogs could alloparent (and some would do so if they survived).
I don’t doubt that they will hunt solitarily either – I know plenty of dogs who will do so when given the opportunity (these are not free-roamers, but sports and working dogs). What I wanted to be convinced of, however, was the cooperative hunting part – something I’ve never seen and find hard to imagine.
The food resource thing …
I have never – NEVER – seen free-roaming dogs who did not depend on anthropogenic food resources. Even the feral dogs around Boulder that Marc mentions visit the dumpster. That makes me suspicious of whether they could survive if they had to rely on hunting. When Marc’s student saw them hunt cooperatively – did these dogs actually take down prey, or were they just chasing, like many dogs would, without actually killing/consuming? I am not clear about this. Even if they killed, but did not consume – I don’t think we could call that cooperative hunting. For hunting to be hunting, doesn’t it need to end in eating the prey? (I don’t know; I’m sure there is a definition though.)
What even is a feral dog?
A feral dog is a domestic dog who isn’t tame. A dog like this will have a bigger flight distance than other free-roamers. I have seen very few feral dogs in my life, and they usually look as if they were starving because they are too scared to visit the dumpster on a regular basis.
How do feral dogs happen? I suspect a truly feral dog has missed out on any and all human contact during the sensitive socialization period, as a very young puppy. This can happen if a free-roaming dog has puppies away from their home – say in a forest where humans rarely go -, and the dog’s humans don’t look for or don’t find the puppies.
Why are there so few of them? Because most of them will die! Your chances of survival are much higher if you are not feral and can access human handouts and the waste we generate.
Wouldn’t there already be feral dogs everywhere today if it was easy to be one?
I also suspect that if dogs without humans were a realistical scenario, we’d already see successful secondarily wild dogs who have no contact with humans whatsoever, and who hunt cooperatively. As far as I know (and I may be totally wrong – please comment with resources if I am!) these dogs do not exist today. (It has been argued that Dingoes are not feral dogs, but true wild canids. That said, I have read that there are secondarily wild dogs on the Galapagos Islands. I haven’t had time to look into them yet. If these dogs were truly feral and descended from the domestic dog, and were not dependent on any anthropogenic food resources – this would be a convincing argument for me that under specific and rarely occurring circumstances, the species dog might be able to survive in certain locations in a post-human world.)
The posthuman dog future I imagine, based on my anchor point
From my current point of view, given the dogs I see, I think most pet dogs, if left loose in a world WITH humans, would make decent free-roamers and enjoy the trash we leave behind as well as our handouts. They’d have social relationships etc. Working dogs like mine would also enjoy killing all the livestock around town (which would result in them getting poisoned or shot).
If I imagine the fate of dogs in a world without humans, these same dogs would eat all the trash we left behind, and then feast on the livestock (easy prey) as well as urban rats and pigeons (also easy prey). And then, they’d die, mostly in the transition dog generation (the generation of dogs who still had human contact).
I have a hard time imagining dogs learning to hunt cooperatively in the little time they have after all the livestock and trash are gone. Most of them will die, and the few that survive … Will they be neutered? In that case, they’re in a genetic dead-end street. Will enough of them be both intact and able to hunt cooperatively? I really doubt it because the free-roaming dogs today – remember that’s about 80% of the world’s dog population! – have been selected (naturally, if you will, by humans killing dogs who kill livestock) to NOT hunt. I’m not sure if “average pet dogs” will be able to hunt. Working dogs certainly would (solitarily at least), but there are so few, and they are so far apart, that they may never meet each other. And if you’re a working dog (other than a terrier), you may be too big to sustain yourself on the kind of prey you may be able to catch by yourself once the livestock is gone. And the livestock will be gone because it will either die without us or be killed by transition dogs.
A thought experiment
I just googled, and according to a dubious source (but that’ll do for my thought experiment), a 100g jack rabbit contains 173 calories. Now let’s see how many calories an adult dog needs. Say Game’s RER is 650, and if she had to stustain herself by means of hunting, her caloric needs would be 650 x 2-5, which, if I’m calculating this correctly (and I may not), makes 1295 caloiries. That’s a lot more than a single rabbit. If Game had to sustain herself on jack rabbits she’d have to catch 1295 divided by 173 makes 7.5 jackrabbits every day. That is A LOT of rabbits. I cannot imagine a world in which my dog would successfully catch this many rabbits on a daily basis.
We’d also have to look at the energy spent on hunting a rabbit. Since this calculation is based on the caloric needs of an active working dog, let’s say if all of Game’s hunts were successful, she would meet her caloric needs every day with 7.5 rabbits. But she is unlikely to succeed every time. So how many calories would she loose with each rabbit that got away? How many calories does it cost to hunt one rabbit? (I do not know.)
In any case, if two rabbits, after a high-energy chase, got to safety, Game would be losing rather than gaining calories. Consequently, that very same day, 7.5 jack rabbits would not be enough anymore – she’d have to successfully hunt, kill and consume, say, 9 to make up for the energy spent on the ones who got away. This is even less likely because every hunt is tiring, and hunts #8 and #9 have a smaller chance of success because of it.
Dogs don’t need to eat every day. So Game could go a while without eating 7.5 rabbits a day and still do okay. She’d gain experience hunting with every attempt – but she’d also spend energy on every attempt, successful and unsuccessful. After several days of not eating, there may be peak performance due to peak motivation, but then that performance will go down unless Game was highly successful at peak motivation. So by the sheer amount of rabbit hunting required, I don’t think it is realistic for a dog of Game’s size to survive as a solitary hunter. Most solitary hunting canids are smaller than she is. (There are solitary coyotes or foxes, for example, and they get by hunting bunnies and rodents (and, given the contents of the scat I’ve seen around Guanajuato, lots of cactus fruit). Game is heavier than they are.)
So Game would likely have to go after larger prey, and large prey can often only be overwhelmed by means of cooperative hunting. Will dogs really figure that out in time? I have my doubts. The largest prey animal I know fairly well are (Austrian) deer, and they are fast and flighty. It’s certainly possible to hunt them cooperatively, but I imagine it would require a lot of practice. And transition dogs may not have that time. Especially because, being dogs, they would not gather to brainstorm for a future of hunting while there still were anthropogenic food resources. Instead, they would – evolutionarily myopically, if you will – focus only on these easily accessible resources until they ran out of them. (Just like we humans and our fossil fuels, really. We’ll only implement meaningful changes once we’re past that climate change tipping point, and at that point, our changes will make little or no difference for many folks around the world, because the places they live today will have become uninhabitable for our species. This is an opinion, not a fact, and I would love for it to be wrong.)
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
There may be dogs (smaller than Game) who can sustain themselves on bunnies and the like. But will they happen to be close enough to another transition dog to breed? Maybe in rare cases. Will their puppies survive? Few will, I assume, because the survival rate of wild canids and free-ranging dogs is very low.
The anthropogenic world as the dog’s niche
After thinking about all of this some more, my opinion still is that dogs won’t survive without us – even though during the conversation itself, I was trying to be open to the possibility that they would.
I would not say that the ecological niche of the domestic dog is the human household (80% of the world’s dog population is free-roaming), but I would say that their niche is the anthropogenic world. And this niche will disappear with us. I’m not optimistic they’d adapt to a new niche fast enough … even if they all happened to be free and outdoors when we humans disappeared from the planet. I think of their niche as the anthropogenic world in the same sense I think of this being the niche of urban rats and pidgeons. In my opinion, all three of the above would die after eating all the resources we left behind when disappearing. I suspect this will be the fate of everyone who is considered a Kulturfolger animal in German.
I also realize that this very much is an opinion based on my background, my work and my interests. I can absolutely see how a different background, like Marc and Jessica have it, will lead to completely different conclusions!
Why does everything have to be so annoyingly relative?
Coming at a topic from different angles can lead to misunderstandings or talking past each other – I think this, too, happened to us. And it just goes to show how difficult it is for folks from different fields, who have different jargons they take for granted, to understand each other! For example in my conversation with Marc, this happened when Marc used the word “engram.” This term also appears in A Dog’s World (once). I had never come across it before, and researched a little when translating the book. Conveniently, the German equivalent is “Engramm.” It’s basically the same word with the same Greek root. In the book, Marc writes:
“We’ve provided a range of ideas about what the evolutionary trajectories of posthuman dogs might look like. A recurring theme has been trying to understand and appreciate the ancient impulses and memory traces that still lurk in dogs’ brains—the indelible engrams that still influence what they do and how they feel and which will shape how they do without us.”(Page 157 in my copy of the publisher’s PDF)
I looked up the meaning of the term when I was translating, but I can’t say I feel like I understood it. The way Marc uses the term, it seems to refer to a kind of collective memory of generations long past. Something that isn’t “active” – basically something that isn’t “online,” but could theoretically be brought online again by life circumstances. From digging into the topic a bit, it seems to still be controversal whether engrams actually exist.
On the podcast, Marc used the term engram again, and I asked whether this would work like a modal action pattern. (“Model action pattern” is in my active vocabulary; I know its definition: it is a behavior chain that is released by a certain stimulus and usually displayed through to the end (it is difficult to interrupt). It hardly varies from one occasion to the next or between individuals. Modal action patterns are more like a highly complex reflex you don’t consciously control than advanced and varied social communication. Modal action patterns are NOT offline, but very much online, and they are innate. An example is the hunting sequence of the wolf: search – eye-stalk – chase – grab-bite – kill-bite – consume. Another example is the herding behavior of the Border Collie, which is a modified hunting sequence: it goes from search to eye-stalk to chase, and ends there.
Anyways, so I asked Marc whether an engram was like a modal action pattern, only that it would be brought online by necessity rather than already being online and simply being displayed when a certain stimulus was present.
Marc ended up basically giving me the definition of a modal action pattern. But whatever an engram is, it can’t really be a modal action pattern – unless there is a field (psychology? ethology?) that uses “engram” in the way behavior analysts use “model action pattern,” and the terms actually mean the same.
But cooperative hunting – not hunting, but the cooperative part – can, by its very nature, not be a modal action pattern. Modal action patterns are rigid and hard to change, and cooperation is flexible and adaptive. So Marc didn’t answer my question, and I don’t think that was on purpose, but either because Marc isn’t familiar with the way “modal action pattern” is used by dog trainers or because I didn’t manage to formulate my question clearly! Argh! Or maybe I’m using an outdated definition of modal action pattern!
Cooperative hunting is by its very nature varied because different individuals have different roles. In a word: I still don’t understand what exactly an engram is. In both a German article and the English Wikipedia article, it seems to be about memories of something that happens in your lifetime, and (maybe) the physical location where these memories are stored in the brain. But this is not the way Marc uses the term, as far as I can tell: cooperative hunting can’t be an experience being remembered by an individual dog who has never had the experience of hunting cooperatively.
I don’t think it has been shown that it is possible to “remember” the social behavior of our very distant ancestors. Sure, we are influenced – both through social learning and genetics and in-utero/in-petri-dish experiences by biological relatives and the folks around us. But these are not distant ancestors! So I am still confused about the engram explanation of cooperative hunting, and this is frustrating to me. We were discussing a topic we were both passionate about (dogs), and we didn’t speak the same jargon. I’m used to talking to behavior folks and dog trainers, and we have a shared vocabulary! Marc is probably used to talking to ethologists or pet folks. With the former, there is a shared jargon (which I do not speak), and the latter probably don’t ask the kinds of questions I ask. Anyways, if someone reading this can explain the meaning of “engram” to me, please leave me a comment!
Communication is fucking hard!
In the end, this is probaly the take-away from the conversation I find most fascinating: it is difficult to understand each other if you don’t have a shared vocabulary! And it is really the anchor point of our experience our our field that informs our opinion! When you start with wild canids and compare their ethograms with domestic dogs, you’ll conclude that because they are very similar, they will also be able to hunt cooperatively. (At least if you are Jessica Pierce or Marc Bekoff.)
When you start with working dogs (and know little about wild canids) and observe free-roaming dogs who depend on anthropogenic food resources, you don’t think they will master cooperative hunting. (At least if you are me.)
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl – and Game’s tail!
And really, this is a metaphor for so many things in life! Depending on where we’re coming from, we’ll find strong arguments to support our respective opinions. (Yay, confirmation bias! Yay, anchoring effect!) We may be fully convinced of them. And yet: some of them are opinions, not facts. It’s both hard and worth striving for to hold both these truths at the same time: on the one hand, our convictions themselves on the basis of which we are who we are in this world. And on the other hand, the fact that some of these convictions will always be opinions we can’t currently fact-check. And that’s fine. Complicated – but fine. Doesn’t make them less valid. But sure makes everything a whole lot more complex.
There are facts, of course. I am not a relativist. I see facts, and will fight for them, especially if they are facts I care about on a deep and personal level. But whether or not dogs would survive in a world without us? That’s not something we will ever be able to know.