As Dogs Go Wild in a World Without Us, How Might They Cope?

Pondering how dogs will fare without humans raises many challenging questions.

Posted Sep 02, 2018

"One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world." 

The fate of dogs gone wild in a world without humans

Dogs live in a human dominated world and they have done so for numerous generations. Whether an individual is homed, free-ranging, or feral, she or he is influenced to varying degrees by the very fact that humans exist. In many ways, homed dogs with whom most people are most familiar, are highly restrained captive animals. “It’s a dog’s life” is sometimes used to describe days filled with laziness and pleasure. All a dog must do, after all, is sleep, laze around, eat, and hang out with friends, and what could be easier, especially when someone reliably plops down a bowl of food for you at every meal? However, the lives of homed dogs aren’t necessarily all fun and games, and living as the companions of humans comes with some important compromises on the part of dogs

Thinking of dogs as captive beings isn’t a negative judgment because being “captive” doesn’t mean that a dog is ill treated or unhappy. Rather, it is the crucial starting point for understanding our relationships with, and responsibilities to, our furry friends, relationships that very often favor us. The thought experiment focusing on how dogs would do in a world without us raises numerous fascinating, challenging, and wide ranging questions that span diverse disciplines, including the biological sciences (evolutionary biology, ethology, behavioral ecology, behavior and population genetics), psychology, sociology, anthrozoology (the study of animal-human relationships), and philosophy. A world without humans would also mean a world without pet keeping, a topic to be considered in a subsequent essay.1

Some might say it's simply impossible and silly to consider that all humans will disappear instantaneously or over a short period of time. However, in his outstanding and forward-looking book called The World Without UsAlan Weisman disagrees and discusses a number of different ways Homo sapiens could disappear pretty fast and with little notice. Also consider what happened in Chernobyl when there was a nuclear disaster. Some animals survived, including dogs who are thriving in the area surrounding Chernobyl. In an essay by Lisa Spear called "MEET THE DOGS OF CHERNOBYL: THESE WILD ANIMALS ARE UP FOR ADOPTION" we read, "And the most surprising thing about these animals is their robust health, he [an environmental radiologist who works in Chernobyl, Lucas Hinson] said. The Chernobyl dogs are characterized by their big floppy ears and their thick, muscular bodies. 'The big breeds that persist through natural selection are the tougher and stronger breeds. You don’t see Maltese or Chihuahuas running through the zone,' Hixson said." (Please also see "Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster" and "30 Years After the Nuclear Disaster, Chernobyl Wildlife Is Thriving.")

Even if it's unlikely that we all will disappear on the spot or over a short period of time, thinking about what the world would be like for dogs without us around raises very important questions about who dogs are, individual differences among dogs, how and why dogs became dogs, who we are, the nature of past and current dog-human relationships, and the relationships of dogs to the rest of the nonhuman world, individuals who also will no longer have relationships with humans.

As I was writing an essay called "Unleash Your Dog on National Dog Day and Love Them Lavishly," I began thinking of how dogs would feel if weren't around to celebrate National Dog Day with them—what would they do without us. I noted that it's estimated that approximately 80 percent of the world's dogs are free-ranging, and many are almost completely or totally on their own. Some are friendly toward humans, and others are not, just like homed dogs. In one study of street dogs in Bangalore, India—called “streeties” by the locals, Sindhoor Pangal observed: “I found the dogs that I studied to not seem stressed at all. They showed no signs of elevated stress levels in their body language. When approached, all of them were relaxed, cautiously curious (like most street dogs) and very friendly once they realized I was no threat. When awake, they seemed to spend most of their time perched on an elevated surface if they could find one, and just watching the world go by.” Please also see "Nuances of social interaction in free ranging dogs for a video of 'Streeties.'"

All in all, it's highly likely that many dogs wouldn't notice our absence and some who live with humans might also do fine without us. While some dogs would do better than others, there are no "easy" answers to this wide ranging thought experiment and Jessica Pierce and I are outlining a book dealing with this topic.

What would dogs lose in a world without humans?  

Bjorgvdn Gudmundsson, free downloads
Dog lying on pillows
Source: Bjorgvdn Gudmundsson, free downloads

Let's dip deeper into how dogs might fare in a world without us by considering what they would lose. (For more discussion please see "The Minds and Hearts of Dogs: Facts, Myths, and In-Betweens," especially the discussion of Markham Heid's essay called "How Dogs Would Fare Without Us," with a subtitle that reads, "If humans disappeared tomorrow, domestic dogs would have to call on their wild side in order to survive." His essay is not yet available online.) Of course, many dogs would gain more freedoms without us, but this might not serve them well in a world where they would be on their own and have to fend for themselves.

There isn't a simple list of what dogs would lose in a world without us and this is where individual differences among dogs would play significant roles in who would survive and what sorts of life they would lead. All dogs would lose contact with humans and this would mean losses of food resources, including commercial dog food, human handouts, treats, garbage, road kill, or human feces, all of which are easy calories for all dogs.

Depending on the way individual dogs lived, there also would be losses of dog beds and pillows and other places to rest and to sleep safely, no more shelters, no more breeders, no more artificial selection for traits humans prefer, no more breaking up litters and killing "non-standard" puppies, and no veterinary care including general examinations, castration, vaccinations, end-of-life care, hospice, euthanasia, and caesarean births for females of breeds in which natural childbirth is difficult or impossible. It's intriguing to consider if dogs would learn to self-medicate, as do other animals. Furthermore, there would be no more leashes and dogs being pulled away from sniffing to their noses' delight, playing with their friends, or yelling at them to stop sniffing groins or butts and to stop humping legs. There also would no more praising them ("Oh, you're such a good dog") or punishing them ("Bad dog, I told you not to do that"), and no one to tell them they really matter and that they're loved. Would the absence of helicopter humans who kept their dogs out of different sorts of trouble or human praise make any difference for dogs who were accustomed to being told they're loved and that they matter? It's really hard to know, but perhaps dogs who were allowed to be dogs and experience more independence would do better than those who lived more controlled lives (for more discussion please see "For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don't Balance Scolds and Praise").

It's also essential to consider that without humans, the lives of individuals of all or most other species also will change drastically. For example, predators and prey will no longer be influenced by the presence of humans and dogs will be influenced by changes in the lives of animals with whom they might compete or cooperate, a topic to be considered in subsequent essays.

Traits that might favor the survival of dogs without us: The making of individual wild domestic animals

Mr. Heid begins his essay by writing, "Let's be honest: Your dog would be completely lost without you." (Page 60) He then goes on to consider how dogs would do in the first years after we were gone, 50 years after our absence, and hundreds of years later. The discussion in which various researchers and others partook shows that dogs wouldn't necessarily be lost without us and there are differences in opinion among them concerning which types of dogs would most likely survive and which traits would be most likely be favored in a world with humans. Following up on an essay published by Thomas Daniels and myself called "Feralization: The making of wild domestic animals," I'm focusing on the ways in which individual domestic animals, in this case dogs, either become desocialized from humans, or never become socialized, and thus come to behave as untamed, non-domestic animals.

Let's consider a few traits and variables that might be important for dogs to survive right after humans disappear when they would be subjected to natural selection rather than artificial selection by humans. These include size, gender, the age of a dog when humans leave, color, purebred or mutt, speed, dexterity, learning ability, past experience, the ability to form alliances including finding a mate, the ability to compete for vital resources, the ability to resolve conflicts, the ability to solve novel problems and to deal with new situations, and their skill in finding safe places which to retreat and to rest and to sleep. 

In many discussions of a world without humans people first mention the importance of a dog's size. For example, small dogs might do better because they don't need as much food as larger dogs and although they might be easier meals, they might not be as appealing to predators as larger individuals. It might also be easier for them to hide from potential competitors and predators. It's difficult or impossible to know if the size of a dog would accurately influence how well they would do absent humans. Psychology Today writer and dog expert Mark Derr offers that natural selection will ultimately produce pit bull type hounds who will weigh around 50-70 pounds, large enough to survive but not too large to be able to sustain themselves.

It's also difficult to predict if purebreds or mutts would fare better. In Mr. Heid's essay, Ray Pierotti, coauthor of The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, suggests that mutts would do better and that dogs who survive would likely revert back to wolf-like behavior. I agree that mutts will be more likely to survive, however, I'm not so sure about whether surviving dogs will be more wolf-like because it might require more highly selective breeding than would likely occur. Only time will tell, however, there won't be any humans around to know! Mark Derr feels that after an initial shakedown period, dogs would do well and notes "a horny wolf is not going to turn his back on a dog that's receptive."

The importance of individual differences among dogs

It's also useful to wonder if an individual dog's survival skills exist hidden somewhere in their unique doggy nature. In our essay on fertilization, Dr. Daniels and I focused on individual differences among animals going wild. While an individual's size, gender, or breed might be important for them to survive in a world without us, individual differences in social and cognitive skills and personality might be more important for them to be able to survive right after humans disappear and in subsequent generations. For example, It's possible that street-savvy dogs or those who had more independent homed lives would likely do better than pampered dogs who rarely if ever had to fend for themselves against other dogs, other animals, or humans. Individual differences in personality and risk-taking or risk-aversion might also be important factors in individual survival. While some might argue that bold individuals might do better than more careful and timid dogs, it's also just as easy to argue that risk-averse individuals might do better because they'd no longer have humans to resolve conflicts with other dogs or with other nonhumans (for a discussion of different cognitive abilities that might be associated with the ability of individual animals to adapt to new or changing environments please see "The cognition of ‘nuisance’ species"). Versatility and flexibility in the ability to rapidly adapt to changing conditions, social and otherwise, may be the keys to surviving immediately after and long after humans are gone.  And, the ability to survive and to thrive without humans likely will result from a combination of various individual traits.

Being confronted by other animals in ways they weren't when we were around might also mean that dogs who could more readily form relationships with other dogs or members of other species would be more likely to survive. Mark Derr suggests that dogs and cats might form alliances. These groups may be loosely formed aggregations or more highly structured packs and be important for getting food and defending food and other resources. Years ago I suggested that the "best pack" or group would be made of up individuals of different personalities. For example, in a well-organized and well-functioning cohesive group, there would be leaders and followers, higher- and lower-ranking individuals, and divisions of labor among them. 

Dogs also are omnivores and this might also help them avoid injurious competitive encounters with other animals. Alan Weisman suggests that dogs living in areas where there aren't predators would do the best. Dogs also can interbreed with wolves and coyotes and produce fertile offspring, so this might also help to propagate their genes in future generations. And, absent humans and as they experience new challenges, it's interesting to speculate if female dogs would eventually go from experiencing two heats per year to one, and where they would go to give birth and safely rear their children. 

In his essay, Mr. Heid writes, "Indeed, many of the traits that make dogs our best friends in the first place are the ones that would help them persevere in our absence." (Page 60) Sure, some dogs would miss their humans, but because around 80% of dogs are on their own or pretty much on their own, there's a large number of dogs who might not really miss their or other humans. Nonetheless, of course, the story gets more complicated, because some humans had been sources of love and support for some dogs and these dogs might indeed suffer at the loss of what their humans had previously done for them (for more discussion please see "Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?").

It's also interesting to imagine what future dogs will look like and what they would be called if we were around. I think that long after humans are gone we'll still end up with animals who can be called dogs. They won't necessarily resemble their ancient canine ancestors and there would be a lot of variation depending on where they live and their interactions with other animals with whom they either cooperate or compete. Obviously, without humans there won't be any human tinkering with breeding patterns and, as I mentioned above, Mark Derr suggests that natural selection will produce pit bull type hounds who will weigh around 50-70 pounds, large enough to survive but not too large to be able to sustain themselves. He also notes thousands of years after humans disappear "...it's feasible that the world would be him to four or five different species of dogs, each composed of a handful of breeds suited to various ecosystems. But he's quick to add that there's no right answer when guessing about the dog's future." 

Future thinking about how dogs would do when transitioning from a human dominated world to a world without us

Clearly, musing about how dogs would do in a world without us raises numerous questions that are related to who dogs were before we disappeared and most importantly, individual differences among the dogs themselves. When people talk with their dog they often ask something like, "What would you do without me?" or say "You would never survive without me." I hope the previous discussion shows that some dogs might do very well without their or other humans. 

It's also clear individual differences among dogs are very important to consider and that sweeping generalizations about who would make it and who wouldn't are rather limited. Along these lines, Mark Derr writes, "The more you generalize about dogs--saying they can't do this or they don't do that--the more you find that generalization is false...Dogs will fool you every time; they're much more capable than some people give them credit for." (Page 65)

Please stand by for further discussions of how dogs would do in a world without humans. Each time I ponder how dogs will do without us more and more questions arise, and I'm constantly learning about all things dog including their relationships with other dogs, with other nonhumans, and with humans. The list of questions that needs to be addressed is seemingly almost endless, and this makes this thought experiment so very exciting because it focuses on the current state of dogs and the nature of their relationships with humans and other animals. As we think about how dogs will fare without us, Jessica Pierce and I often wonder if we should be preparing them for the possibility that we may not always be around to help them along. We could do this by positively challenging them and enriching their lives and allowing them to be dogs. Of course, we would have to balance making them work for food or for other things they need with treating them kindly and giving them lots of love because of the remote possibility that we will be leaving the scene imminently. However, homed dogs especially might be better prepared for our departure by having them earn our support and love in non-abusive ways and by experiencing more independence. 

I hope that musing about how dogs will do in a world without humans will benefit them now as they currently try to adapt to an increasingly human dominated world that many dogs find highly stressful. This surely would be a win-win for all, even if we'll never know what happens to them in our absence.

1I thank Jessica Pierce for her help with this essay and for continuing to talk with me about what a world without humans would be like for dogs and other animals. 

More Posts