A Dog’s World: What Would They Be Like If Humans Disappeared?

From a Wall Street Journal review by David P. Barash of the book “A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans” by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff”:

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….

“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.

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….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.

“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….

Dogs have always shown themselves behaviorally and ecologically flexible, like their relatives, the foxes, jackals, coyotes and, of course, gray wolves, with which they share 99.8% of their mitochondrial DNA….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….

But they would gain reproductive freedom, along with release from the inhibitions we unintentionally impose….No more “leashes, crates, fences, and shock collars.”…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.”

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