Feral Dogs Adapt to Urban Life

May 21, 2008 at 3:33 am 2 comments

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?


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog, dogs, science. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andrew  |  May 23, 2008 at 5:01 pm

    The same is true in Ulan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia. You’ll see feral dogs everywhere — largely oblivious to the human population, and keeping a respectful distance. And, in general, dogs in Mongolia are not the pets that they are in the United States and Europe — and so folks leave them alone, too.

    My sister-in-law, Annie, has a few comments about dogs in Mongolia on her blog, Ulaana in Mongolia.


  • 2. a.m.  |  May 12, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for the article.
    I would also signal the debut of the internet page: straydogs.ro – a reference, news, and discussion site dedicated to the issue of stray dogs, especially in Romania.
    The study is mentioned in the section on “Articles, studies”. It goes without saying that any contributions and comments you might have are very much welcome.
    Good luck!

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