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Nature & Environment

If humans all vanished overnight, what would happen to our dogs ?

December 10, 2023 · Comment icon 24 comments
Cute dog lying down.
Could dogs take over the world ? Image Credit: Pixabay / PicsbyFran
How would our canine companions fare if all the humans in the world suddenly disappeared ?
For many of us, dogs are our best friends. But have you wondered what would happen to your dog if we suddenly disappeared? Can domestic dogs make do without people?

At least 80% of the world's one billion or so dogs actually live independent, free-ranging lives - and they offer some clues. Who would our dogs be if we weren't around to influence and care for them?

What are dogs?

Dogs hold the title of the most successful domesticated species on Earth. For millennia they have evolved under our watchful eye. More recently, selective breeding has led to people-driven diversity, resulting in unique breeds ranging from the towering Great Dane to the tiny Chihuahua.

Humanity's quest for the perfect canine companion has resulted in more than 400 modern dog breeds with unique blends of physical and behavioural traits. Initially, dogs were bred primarily for functional roles that benefited us, such as herding, hunting and guarding. This practice only emerged prominently over the past 200 years.

Some experts suggest companionship is just another type of work humans selected dogs for, while placing a greater emphasis on looks. Breeders play a crucial role in this, making deliberate choices about which traits are desirable, thereby influencing the future direction of breeds.

Are we good for dogs?

We know certain features that appeal to people have serious impacts on health and happiness. For instance, flat-faced dogs struggle with breathing due to constricted nasal passages and shortened airways. This "air hunger" has been likened to experiencing an asthma attack. These dogs are also prone to higher rates of skin, eye and dental problems compared with dogs with longer muzzles.

Many modern dogs depend on human medical intervention to reproduce. For instance, French Bulldogs and Chihuahuas frequently require a caesarean section to give birth, as the puppies' heads are very large compared with the mother's pelvic width. This reliance on surgery to breed highlights the profound impact intensive selective breeding has on dogs.

And while domestic dogs can benefit from being part of human families, some live highly isolated and controlled lives in which they have little agency to make choices - a factor that's important to their happiness.

Dogs without us

Now imagine a world where dogs are free from the guiding hand of human selection and care. The immediate impact would be stark. Breeds that are heavily dependent on us for basic needs such as food, shelter and healthcare wouldn't do well. They would struggle to adapt, and many would succumb to the harsh realities of a life without human support.

That said, this would probably impact fewer than 20% of all dogs (roughly the percentage living in our homes). Most of the world's dogs are free-ranging and prevalent across Europe, Africa and Asia.

But while these dogs aren't domesticated in a traditional sense, they still coexist with humans. As such, their survival depends almost exclusively on human-made resources such as garbage dumps and food handouts. Without people, natural selection would swiftly come into play. Dogs that lack essential survival traits such as adaptability, hunting skills, disease resistance, parental instincts and sociability would gradually decline.
Dogs that are either extremely large or extremely small would also be at a disadvantage, because a dog's size will impact its caloric needs, body temperature regulation across environments, and susceptibility to predators.

Limited behavioural strategies, such as being too shy to explore new areas, would also be detrimental. And although sterilised dogs might have advantageous survival traits, they would be unable to pass their genes on to future generations.

No more designer breeds

Ultimately, a different type of dog would emerge, shaped by health and behavioural success rather than human desires.

Dogs don't select mates based on breed, and will readily mate with others that look very different to them when given the opportunity. Over time, distinct dog breeds would fade and unrestricted mating would lead to a uniform "village dog" appearance, similar to "camp dogs" in remote Indigenous Australian communities and dogs seen in South-East Asia.

These dogs typically have a medium size, balanced build, short coats in various colours, and upright ears and tails. However, regional variations such as a shaggier coat could arise due to factors such as climate.

In the long term, dogs would return to a wild canid lifestyle. These "re-wilded" dogs would likely adopt social and dietary behaviours similar to those of their current wild counterparts, such as Australia's dingoes. This might include living in small family units within defined territories, reverting to an annual breeding season, engaging in social hunting, and attentive parental care (especially from dads).

This transition would be more feasible for certain breeds, particularly herding types and those already living independently in the wild or as village dogs.

What makes a good life for dogs?

In their book A Dog's World, Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff explore the idea of "doomsday prepping" our dogs for a future without people. They encourage us to give our dogs more agency, and consequently more happiness. This could be as simple as letting them pick which direction to walk in, or letting them take their time when sniffing a tree.

As we reflect on a possible future without dogs, an important question arises: are our actions towards dogs sustainable, in their best interests, and true to their nature? Or are they more aligned with our own desires?

By considering how dogs might live without us, perhaps we can find ways to improve their lives with us.

Bradley Smith, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, CQUniversity Australia and Mia Cobb, Research Fellow, Animal Welfare Science Centre, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (24)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #15 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 7 months ago
Why do you think that?
Comment icon #16 Posted by Iilaa'mpuul'xem 7 months ago
It was a 90-minute special documentary here... I've seen it a couple of times. 
Comment icon #17 Posted by Ogbin 7 months ago
 A tv show that focused on what would happen if people disappeared. they said dogs are not capable of surviving for long.. can't remember why though.
Comment icon #18 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 7 months ago
I think that applies to breeds of dog that are totally domesticated. However, Dogs like Shepards, Huskes and others that still have wolf characteristics I believe would still be able to survive. JIMHO 
Comment icon #19 Posted by Piney 7 months ago
Dingos and  Algonquian Yellow Dogs evolved from Southeast Asian wolves. They don't thrive well in colder areas. Which is why they only survived wild here in the Southeast. They also aren't the ancestors of most modern domestic breeds. Northern wolves are. So they would return to a sort of Northern wolf appearance.  @Waspie_Dwarf The Dolphins submitted to the cats in the 80s after they destroyed the trans-dimensional Mouse Empire and they've been secretly ruling the world ever since. So keep them happy....
Comment icon #20 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 7 months ago
Comment icon #21 Posted by openozy 7 months ago
Interesting. We do have the Alpine dingo over here but The Snowy Mountains aren't Siberia so I doubt those dingoes would survive. I have noticed if you mix domestic dog breeds enough they mostly end up dingo size and shape. Those wolf looking ferals were the first wild dogs I've seen to look like that over here probably because the others were dingo crosses maybe.
Comment icon #22 Posted by MissJatti 7 months ago
Life..uh... finds a way!
Comment icon #23 Posted by eight bits 7 months ago
I think it also depends on the details of the domestication. The bad boy below is a Catahoula leopard dog of my happy acquaintance. He is a genetic engineering masterpiece. His base ancestor was bred by the Choctaw in Louisiana as a general purpose work and hunting dog. My buddy has webbed feet, reflecting the marshy environment that his ancestors worked in. (Up here these days in New England, the webbing helps him get through the snow.) Then the Spaniards showed up with greyhounds and mastiffs (among others). The Choctaw decided to go swimming in that gene pool, adding speed and mass to what ... [More]
Comment icon #24 Posted by Grim Reaper 6 7 months ago
That is a beautiful dog and I agree with you a breed like this would most likely survive it appears they are breed for it. I agree with your comments above, I think they are spot on. My comments were directed at the FOO FOO breeds like the toy dogs and all the smaller breeds that were bread to be house dogs.In my opinion those dogs would just become a food source for other animals. Here in Korea we have breed of dog known as the Jindo Dog, these dogs were not bread, they are a natural species that is only found in Korea. They come in Brown, Brown white and White. These guys were originally dom... [More]

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