Archive for May, 2008

Working Class Roots

Young Audie is the son of working parents.  Here is a photo of his mother, Pip and her owner/handler Heather Houlahan at work on a recent search (click on the photo to read the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article about this search).

His father, Boston, is a working cowdog out in Oregon.  You can see photos of Boss here:

The health and working background of his parents were a deciding factor in adding young Audie to our family.  As my friend Geeske wrote:

You are going to invite a living being into your house for maybe over a decade. Thorough research will not guarantee — but will increase the chances of a happy outcome.

Yup.  Its a big decision, not one to take lightly.  There are some excellent tips for finding a good breeder in this article from Border Collie Rescue.

May 31, 2008 at 4:43 pm 1 comment

Is the Dog our Closest Animal Kin?

In an article just published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, authors Monique A.R. Udell and C.D.L. Wayne of the University of Florida propose that, behaviorally speaking, the domestic dog may be our closest animal kin.

The article starts by noting our very long association with the dog:

Humans and dogs share a long intertwined history. Fossil and DNA evidence suggests domestic dogs most likely diverged from wolves in different places at different times beginning as long as 135,000 years ago (Vila et al., 1997). This is when the morphological structure of certain groups of wolves began to change to more closely resemble the modern domestic dog. Anthropologists and archaeologists have argued that this is an overestimate, claiming that the best way to determine the time of domestication is to look for signs of a close association between dogs and humans (Morey, 2006). One way this has been done is by looking for evidence of dog burials (Morey, 2006). The earliest burial remains of a domestic dog are 14,000 years old and were found in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany (Nobis, 1979). The dimensions of the well-preserved lower jaw and teeth suggest that this animal was domesticated and could be compared to a small sheep dog, making it the oldest known domesticated animal and a companion of the Cro-Magnon Man in the late Paleolithic age (Nobis, 1979).

If the dog has been our companion since Cro-Magnon times when the Neanderthal still walked the earth — indeed, since homo sapiens first evolved, we shouldn’t be surprised that our species share a unique emotional and psychological bond. 

Dogs play an integral part in today’s society:

Although the exact location and lineage of the first domesticated dog is still under debate, the impact that humans have had on the domestic dog as a species is undeniable. Dogs play an astonishing range of roles in human society. Many individuals put their faith in rescue dogs when stranded in the wilderness or capsized in cold water. Others rely on guide dogs to get them safely to multiple destinations on a daily basis. Drug dogs, de-mining dogs, police dogs, termite- and even cancer-detecting dogs are trained and utilized as substance detectors even in the face of competition from the latest technology. There are herding dogs, hunting dogs, sled dogs, and various other specializations that are crucial to the livelihoods of many individuals, not to mention the role dogs play in entertainment and the pleasures of individual dog ownership – sufficiently reinforcing to sustain 74.8 million dogs in the United States, at a cost to their owners of over $100 billion (American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 2007).

But despite their importance as companions and co-workers there has been surprisingly little research into just what makes the domestic dog so uniquely suited to life with human beings.  According to Udell and Wynne:

The causes of the characteristic behaviors of dogs can be understood at two levels. First are the phylogenetic influences on behavior that arise as a result of the unique evolutionary past of domestic dogs. Second, and perhaps more importantly (at least in the sense that they are available for modification in real time), are the ontogenetic causes that are the history of contingencies of reinforcement each domestic dog experiences within human society during its lifetime.

The phylogeny of dogs is particularly interesting because, instead of natural selection by the environment, artificial selection by humans is responsible for the hundreds of breeds of domestic dog that exist today. There is also evidence that selection for desirable physical and behavioral traits has led to many changes in social behavior as unexpected byproducts (Hare & Tomasello, 2005). This has led some scientists to attribute the propensity of dogs for human social interaction to convergent evolution, where the two genetically distinct species were shaped by similar selective pressures (Hare & Tomasello, 2005).

There is, of course, no question that genes play a role in the behavior of domestic dogs, but a dog’s individual environmental history plays a major role in shaping its behavior over its lifetime. From the time a puppy is brought into a human household it is completely dependent on human caretakers for all of its needs. The majority of reinforcers a dog will have access to throughout its life are controlled, either directly or indirectly, by humans. This is comparable to the situation of young human children, and may explain in part the similarities in sensitivity to human social stimuli shown by dogs and children. However, unlike children, domestic dogs remain dependent on humans for primary reinforcers, such as food, water, access to mates, and even touch, throughout their lifetimes. Consequently, their access to reinforcers is contingent upon appropriate behavioral responses within the human social environment.

Unlike our close biological cousins the great apes, dogs seem to have innate abilities in attending to and correctly responding to human glancing and gestural cues even without prior training or conditioning.  They also appear to have an innate sense of how to use glances and gestural cues to communicate with humans and other dogs.  According to Udell and Wynne:

One of the most interesting behavioral characteristics of the modern domestic dog is its predisposition to attend and respond to human social gestures and cues.

Ever since Darwin (1859) the search for human-like social cognition (behavior controlled by human and conspecific social cues similar to that observed in humans) has focused on our closest genetic relatives, particularly chimpanzees. Though much remains controversial in this field, it seems clear that chimps and several other species of primates are only modestly successful on many tasks designed to test for human-like social reasoning. Thus, chimpanzees are only able to follow gaze and show joint attention under a limited set of conditions (Barth, Reaux & Povinelli, 2005; Tomasello, Call, & Gluckman, 2001).

 Dogs, in contrast, though they share much less of our genetic material than do chimpanzees, nonetheless show a spontaneous ability to follow human gestures to find reinforcing objects, even in the absence of training in the laboratory. Most remarkably, even dogs raised with minimal human contact can follow a human point and gaze gesture without explicit training (Hare, Plyusnina, Ignacio, Schepina, Stepika, Wrangham, & Trut, 2005).

So, why do dogs have stronger innate skills to communicate with us than the apes that we share so much of our genetic heritage with?  The study discusses several theories:

The possibility that dogs learn to attend to human social cues simply because of the intensity of their interactions with humans is refuted by the observation that even puppies and domesticated fox kits that have had only minimal exposure to human beings, nonetheless respond very accurately to human cues in choice paradigms (Hare et al., 2005).

Hare and Tomasello (2005) considered the possibility that domestic dogs’ high sensitivity to social cues is an evolutionary legacy inherited from wolves, the dog’s closest wild relative and progenitor. If general social traits common to wild canids have simply been inherited by domestic dogs, then wolves also should do well on tasks involving social cues. However, when compared to wolves and wild foxes, domestic dogs (including puppies) make significantly more correct responses on choice paradigms where social cues serve as the discriminative stimuli (Hare & Tomasello, 2005; Hare et al., 2002). This is true even though the wolves tested had been socialized and raised by humans in their homes as pets. Thus it does not seem that domestic dogs simply inherited the predisposition to attend to social stimuli from wolves.

Research was also performed on foxes that were selectively bred over several generations for tameness but not raised in captivity.  Studies found that fox kits selectively bred for tameness performed just like domestic dog puppies on tests designed to test their abilities to correctly attend to and interpret human gestural cues.  So, according to Udell and Wynne:

These results suggest that during domestication, traits that were often selected by humans, such as lack of aggression and fearlessness towards people, may have carried with them other genetic traits that led to a heightened responsiveness to human social stimuli (Hare & Tomasello, 2005; Hare et al., 2002). It also is possible that by removing genetic tendencies towards aggression and fear towards humans, other pre-existing social behaviors were no longer blocked and thus could increase in frequency.

Yes!  Even though cats have been domesticated for 8,000 to 10,000 years they don’t pay attention to or respond to humans in the way that dogs do.  But then, we don’t have a history of training — or breeding — cats to hunt, track, herd or protect us.

Dogs co-evolved with humans.  Our species belong together.  The human world is the dog’s natural environment.  We humans are responsible for making them what they are through a long history of selective breeding and by our day to day interactions with them.  Deep within our evolutionary roots we understand them and they understand us, perhaps much more than any other pair of species on this earth.

What about dogs that “go bad”?  Are some breeds more prone to aggressiveness?  Is breed profiling any more accurate than human racial profiling?  Udell and Wynne note that:

So if there is a genetic component to some aspects of behavior that have a clear impact on human-dog interaction, what about bans targeting “bad dog” breeds such as pit bulls, or profiling based on genes in general? Can these be justified by maintaining the position that behavior is a product of genetic tendencies as well? Evidence suggests that the answer is no.


….. even in times where one breed may show proportionally higher levels of aggressive behavior, there is evidence that this is not solely due to an inherited “bad dog” gene. In fact, the type of owner, not the breed of the dog, is the best predictor for dog attacks (Gladwell, 2006; Siebert, 2004). In a quarter of fatal dog attacks, the owners previously had previously been arrested for illegal fighting, and many aggressive dogs are ones that have been abused, starved, or deprived of medical attention. In addition, some owners seek out breeds that have a reputation as “bad dogs” and then shape the aggressive behaviors that later seal their fate. According to Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president of the ASPCA, “A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog. It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation” (cited in Gladwell, 2006, p. 26).

Gladwell, Siebert and Lockwood all correctly place the blame in the right place.  On the shoulders of humankind.  These studies on the power of interspecies gestural cues demonstrates very strongly that our dogs quite literally look to us for guidance on how to navigate a world that becomes increasingly more difficult for them to live in.  When humans beings fail them through a lack of proper socialization, harsh treatment and neglect — sadly it is our dogs who pay the price.

The dog truly is our best friend.  Let’s remember to treat him like one.

May 29, 2008 at 9:02 pm Leave a comment

Tornado Watch

Today we’re under a tornado watch.  Not a particularly unusual situation during spring and summer months in the Upper Midwest.  And being a common situation very likely makes it even more dangerous.

We learn from repetition.  So we have a tendency to ignore events that we haven’t experienced before.  We ignore events that are likely to at best (or worst) happen only once in our lives before they happen, and then overestimate thier likelihood of happening to us for some time after they occur. 

So, if your house has never been hit by a tornado, you are likely not to consider a severe weather alert a significant event.  And since most of us fall in that lucky group, we tend, as a society not to take these warnings as seriously as we should.

What to do?

First, take the threat seriously and be prepared. 

  • Take human and pet first aid classes.  Knowledge is power and it doesn’t cost much to get this kind of power.  Look into local classes and take advantage of them.
  • Have emergency supplies on hand (first aid kit, leashes, extra water, vital medications, flashlights, blankets, basic tools, photos of your animals, vaccination recrods, etc.)  Keep these supplies in a protected area that is simple to find when you are in a panic.  
  • Make plans.  If a storm hits, where will you go?  If you’re away from home where can you go and how will you contact loved ones if phone lines are down and local roads are closed?  If your home is destroyed but you survive, where can you stay with your pets?  These are things you need to consider BEFORE A DISASTER STRIKES.

Second, when severe weather is likely stay tuned to NOAA weather channels or local news and heed warnings.  When the sirens go off collect your family (including the four-leggers), grab your emergency supplies and go to a safe area.  What is a safe area?  Well, according to NOAA:

  • In a house with a basement:Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you.
  • In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment:  Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.
  • In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper: Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building — away from glass. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
  • In a mobile home:Get out! Even if your home is tied down, you are probably safer outside, even if the only alternative is to seek shelter out in the open. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it. If your community has a tornado shelter, go there fast. If there is a sturdy permanent building within easy running distance, seek shelter there. Otherwise, lie flat on low ground away from your home, protecting your head. If possible, use open ground away from trees and cars, which can be blown onto you.
  • In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes. [It is safer to get the car out of mud later if necessary than to cause a crash.] Get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building. If in the open country, run to low ground away from any cars (which may roll over on you). Lie flat and face-down, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
  • In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.
  • In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
  • If you are with your pets: Don’t rely on obedience to keep them with you.  If the worst happens and the storm hits they will panic and may try to escape.  If possible restrain them in sturdy crates.  If crates aren’t available use leashes, a belt, a purse strap or any other item handy to prevent them from bolting.  It is also a good idea to restrain your pets (by a leash, crate or other means) before severe weather hits

Stay in the sheltered area until you are certain the storm has passed.  When you can see that it’s safe to come out:

  • Keep your family and pets together while you wait for emergency personnel to arrive.  
  • Provide aid to those who need it.
  • Stay away from gas leaks, power lines and puddles or other water bodies with wires in them.  And avoid open flames due to the potential presence of explosive gases.
  • Watch out for broken glass, nails, and other sharp objects.  Tie or otherwise restrain your pets in a safe, dry area to keep them from injuring their paws on these sharp objects.
  • Stay out of all damaged buildings — including your own home; the danger of collapse is not worth the risk. 
  • Remain calm and alert, and wait for help, information and instructions from emergency crews or local officials.

Additional notes for pet owners:

  • Consider teaching your pet how to seek shelter when extreme weather hits.
  • Have your pet microchipped and/or tattoo’ed to aid in identification in the event that you become separated.
  • Plan in advance for a location where you can shelter with your pet if a disaster keeps you out of your home.  Many public shelters will not accept pets.
  • If you have a pet with medical problems consider keeping a copy of his medical records, perscriptions etc. in an offsite location.  If your home and local vet clinic are both destroyed you want to still be able to get necessary treatment and medications with a minimum amount of fuss.

Even though heart-warming stories of dogs being reunited with their owners days after being searated by a torndo, tidal wave, earthquake or other act of nature warm our hearts, we ask you to remember that these stories are outliers.

May 26, 2008 at 3:47 am 3 comments

USSA Launches Campaign Against HSUS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                May 23, 2008 
Contact: Sharon Hayden (614) 888-4868 ext. 226
Letter Exposes Animal Rights Agenda of HSUS to Feds
(Columbus, OH) – The U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (USSA) has demanded that a USDA website correctly identify the world’s largest anti-hunting organization as an animal rights lobbying organization.

The USSA sent a letter to the USDA explaining that the Humane Society of the United States’ “primary purpose is to advocate for sensible public policies” and not provide direct services to shelter, rescue or provide any direct services for animals in need.  The USDA website inaccurately portrays it as a “shelter, rescue and welfare organization”.

HSUS supports an active lobbying campaign and actively lobbies against hunting.  According to the Senate Office of Public Records, HSUS has spent up to $80,000 in a 6-month period on lobbying activities.

Despite its name, it is not in business to operate animal shelters or rescue facilities.

The USDA listings under “Shelters, Rescue and Welfare Organizations” are designed to be a resource for pet owners.

According to the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, any reference to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as an animal welfare group, as opposed to correctly designating it an animal rights lobbying organization, gives undeserved credibility to the organization.

“We sent this letter to the department because it is well past the time for the public to be made aware of what the HSUS is all about and that isn’t going to happen if it keeps getting credit it doesn’t deserve,” said Rick Story, senior vice president of the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (USSA).  “The letter succinctly points out that the HSUS falls under the heading of animal rights lobbying group and why it should be referred to as such.  The HSUS has a full animal rights agenda and wants to end all ownership and use of animals, no matter how responsible.”

This letter is a first step in the campaign announced last week by the USSA that will educate the media, elected officials, the public, sportsmen and the many others targeted by the animal rights group on the hidden, non-mainstream agendas of the HSUS.

As part of this campaign, the USSA has initiated the Sportsmen Against HSUS fund, which will be used in the continuing battle against the HSUS and its animal rights campaign.  In addition to educating people on the group’s hidden agendas, it will fund campaigns combating the public policy threats initiated and supported by the HSUS.

Sportsmen immediately began showing their support for this campaign to expose the HSUS upon hearing of the fund’s launch.

Some recent legislative attacks on sportsmen’s rights by the HSUS include:

  • the launching of a campaign to address “puppy mills,” abusive, large-scale, commercial dog breeding operations. However, the deceptive language of the HSUS-backed measures also devastates small hobby breeders, dog show kennels and sporting dog enthusiasts.
  • a mandatory spay and neuter bill in California. The measure requires all dogs to be spayed or neutered by the age of six months, making it nearly impossible for sportsmen with mixed-breed sporting dogs to remain in the field.
  • opposition to bills from across the country that are intended to lessen barriers for youth and newcomers to take part in hunting.
“It is more important than ever that all sportsmen unite to combat the principal enemy of American conservation and the outdoor sports that make conservation possible,” Story said.

To read the letter, Click Here.

To donate to the Sportsmen Against HSUS Fund online, Click Here.  For more information, please contact the USSA at 801 Kingsmill Parkway, Columbus, Ohio, 43229, call (614) 888-4868, or email

The U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance (USSA) is a national association of sportsmen and sportsmen’s organizations that protects the rights of hunters, anglers and trappers in the courts, legislatures, at the ballot, in Congress and through public education programs.  For more information about the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and its work, call (614) 888-4868 or visit its website,

May 24, 2008 at 10:53 pm Leave a comment

Peregrine Update

Last month we posted about the peregrine webcam set up on a nest box on top of the elevator run by our local farm co-op.  We got a propapne delivery yesterday and the driver told me that the first egg had hatched.  I checked in on the webcam today just in time to see one of the birds fly in to feed the young one!

Here’s a link to the webcam if you’d like to check them out yourself.  There are still three more eggs in the nest.  We hope to see more hatch soon.

In dog-related news young Audie has been bringing me bits of eggshell he finds from nests in the woods around our house.  He has such a soft mouth he can carry eggs (he did bring me one tiny, blue, unhatched egg) without breaking them.  Last week he also brought me a dead sparrow he found on our porch.  He carried with such care that I think if it had still been alive it could have flown away after he gave it to me.  Here’s a picture of him holding it gently by little more than its feathers.

Bird Dog

May 24, 2008 at 2:17 pm Leave a comment

Cats, Dogs and Danger

Bombay, the white tiger, was born in captivity in America but was rejected by her mother and sent to Germany, ending up in Circus Williams where she was introduced to Jack, a four year-old Dalmatian.

The two have developed a relationship and circus animal trainer Manuel Willie says there is no danger for the dog.

Hmmmm, regarding that “no danger” comment, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.  There is some danger involved in absolutely everything we do — and I’m pretty sure that under nearly any sane person’s scale of relative danger, playing with tigers would rank fairly high. 

That said, see the link below for video on Scientific American’s website.

May 23, 2008 at 10:04 pm Leave a comment

Watchout Sheep Dogs!

This just in from The Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Strongsville High School senior Kaleigh Eichel came up with lots of impressive observations on instinct and evolution for her winning entry at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair last week in Atlanta.

But here’s what you will remember most about her work: The girl trained a 19-cent goldfish that herds its tank mates like cattle.  Really. She has video to prove it.

Kaleigh hoped the untrained fish would follow the trained one to the food. Instead, the newbie cowered by a wall of the tank.  What followed was nothing short of “amazing” to the budding scientist, as she watched the trained fish poke at the untrained one, finally goading it like a shepherd into getting to the snacks.

YouTube fodder? Well, maybe, but Kaleigh sees a bigger lesson in animal communication. The Comet goldfish exhibited altruism and an ability to survive when their habitats change suddenly. By teaching the other fish to go through the maze, the species eats for another day.

Here’s a link to a clip of her video:

Being a scientist myself, in searching for information on this I was pleased to find Wired Magazine’s blog entry regarding how girls swept the top awards at this year’s International Science and Engineering Fair

May 23, 2008 at 8:45 pm Leave a comment

Hands-off Dog Training Revisited

Back in February we posted about a couple of ‘hands-off’ dog training methods largely to poke fun at a new training system that is supposed to let your dog train himself by watching educational videos.

Today a friend forwarded this link to a video of a truly remarkable woman who really has developed a hands-off training system.  In the video Donna Rock is shown training utility and freestyle exercises to a border collie and a doberman.  Folks, I’m pretty hard to impress but I am absolutely in awe of this woman.



UPDATE May 23, 2008

Here’s a link to a short video biography of Ms. Rock:

May 22, 2008 at 10:43 pm 4 comments

Yikes! Ticks!

I am, generally speaking, a pretty brave person.  I used to be a HAZMAT responder.  You know, one of those people who grabs a bunch of high-tech equipment, puts on a moon suit and helps clean up potentially lethal toxic waste spills.  I love snakes and I spent an entire summer living in a tent in grizzly bear country. I’m a tree-climber, I’ve been white water rafting, skiied in steep back country terrain and I regularly work with large dogs who bite people.

But I’m absolutely terrified of anything with eight legs.  I’d rather step on a rattlesnake (and yes, I’ve done it before so I KNOW) than find a tick embedded anwhere on my body.

Did I mention that SE Minnesota is tick heaven in the spring and early summer?  Did I also mention that one of the joys of my life is hiking through the woods… and brush with my dogs?  Why oh why does one of the most joyous pastimes in the world have to be so inextricably (pun intended) associated with something so completely and utterly evil?

According to the Minnesota Department of Health (and my vet) 2008 is shaping up to be a record season for ticks and tick-borne diseases.  Cool (she says with a dramatic eye roll).  I’ve been finding ticks every day.  On my dogs.  On myself.  On my sweet, darling husband.  AND IN MY HOUSE.

Gawd.  If I really thought that setting off a small thermonuclear device here would KILL THEM ALL I might be tempted to do it.  But the evil little bastards would probably not only survive the blast, they’d most likely also mutate to even some sort of even more horrific form.  Enormous, glowing zombie ticks sucking horses and heifers dry in one horrific sip and swallowing small dogs whole.

I suppose I could just stay out of the woods and avoid the worst of it, but the joy the dogs and I find in those long rambles is worth the risk.  I could also probably do something sane like use DEET to repel them and wear white clothes so I could find them more easily — but DEET is about the only thing that scares me more than ticks and my butt looks huge in white pants.

So, I suffer.  I live in a perpetual state of the heebie jeebies.  I FEEL THINGS crawling on me even where there aren’t.  I obsess about checking the dogs over.  And over.  And over.  And I’m sure I change clothes and take more showers than I need to. 

Thank god the dogs don’t share my phobia.  Last night I watched Audie examine a tick on his belly in the most nonchalant way imaginable.  To him it was just interesting.  It creeped me out.  After I removed it, he wanted to check it out.  I couldn’t wait to kill it — and take another shower.

May 22, 2008 at 12:53 am 3 comments

Feral Dogs Adapt to Urban Life

From the Wall Street Journal:

A tiny group of zoologists study Moscow’s stray dogs and how they’re adapting to a rapidly changing city. Among them is Alexei Vereshchagin. He set out to study wolves — “such a romantic creature,” he says — but as science funding crumbled with the Soviet government, he couldn’t.

So the 31-year-old, rust-bearded Mr. Vereshchagin started studying strays instead, and loved it. “The behavior of stray dogs is like theater,” he says.

As the number of cars in Moscow has exploded, and their speed increased from the days of Soviet clunkers, strays have learned to cross the street with pedestrians. They can also be seen occasionally waiting for a green light. (Dogs are colorblind, so researchers theorize they recognize the shape or position of the walking-man signal.)

Back in the lean Soviet era, restaurants and the now-ubiquitous fast-food kiosks were scarce, so dogs were less likely to beg and more likely to forage through garbage, the zoologists say. Foraging dogs prospered best in the vast industrial zones of Moscow, where they lived a semiferal existence. Because they mainly relied on people to throw out food, and less on handouts, they kept their distance from humans.

Now, old factories are being transformed into shopping centers and apartment blocks, so strays have become more avid and skillful beggars. They have developed innovative strategies, zoologists say, such as a come-from-behind ambush technique: A big dog pads up silently behind a man eating on the street and barks. The startled man drops his food. The dog eats it.

Key is the ability to determine which humans are most likely to be startled enough to drop their food. Strays have become master psychologists, says Andrei Poyarkov, 54, the dean of Moscow’s stray-dog researchers. “The dogs know Muscovites better than Muscovites know the dogs.”

Comfort in Crowds

Perhaps the biggest change, according to Mr. Vereshchagin, a protégé of Mr. Poyarkov, is that strays today hardly need to do anything to get food. One of their chief tactics, made possible by their increasing comfort in crowds, is simply to lie in a busy subway passage, where thousands of people pass by, and wait for someone to toss them something. The dogs get fed without even having to go to the trouble of nuzzling a leg.

Adaptations by individual dogs have added up to a dramatic shift in canine culture. Begging is a submissive activity, so today there are fewer all-out interpack wars, which sometimes used to last for months, according to Mr. Poyarkov. Within packs there are more stable social hierarchies that allow the whole group to prosper.

I am amazed at the wonderful ability of these dogs to adapt to city life.  This story is a testimony to the incredible resiliance and adaptability of dogs.  As the feral dogs of Moscow developed the skills necessary to ride the metro trains, politely beg for food, limit aggression and calmly sleep in a crowded, busy environment they have, in effect, constructed their own adaptive sub-culture.

So, why haven’t feral dogs in America cities been able to adapt this way?  Is the key factor traffic, public indifference to solicitation or the efficiency of our animal control personnel?

May 21, 2008 at 3:33 am 2 comments

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