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What would become of dogs without humans? Here’s how they’d evolve

Dogs have lived with humans for tens of thousands of years. Imagining what would happen to them in a post-human world offers insights into how we can improve dogs’ lives right now



Life



21 July 2021

Between 80 and 85 per cent of the world’s billion or so dogs live independently

Paul Kennedy/Alamy

EVEN to their biggest fans, dogs can seem ridiculously lacking in survival skills. Rufus takes off at full pelt after a squirrel with an expression of great determination, only to reach a nearby tree long after the squirrel has scampered to safety. Bella barks ferociously at a metal statue of an elk. Poppy stalks a wind-blown paper bag down the pavement. Dickens refuses to go outside to urinate because it is raining. Jethro runs home with his tail between his legs when he encounters a wild animal nearby.

Such anecdotes are a common source of amusement at dog parks, on social media and in dog-related conversations. But behind the laughter lurks an serious scientific question: if humans were to suddenly disappear from the scene, could dogs survive? After at least 14,000 years of domestication, could this species we have co-evolved with cope without provisions of food, care and regular cuddles?

Intrigued by this question, we have explored it as a thought experiment in our upcoming book, A Dog’s World. Using evolutionary theory and the growing body of research on free-ranging dogs, we imagine a post-human future for pooches. We try to work out what they would look like; how they might forage, reproduce and raise young; the nature of their social lives; and the cognitive and emotional skills they would need to successfully navigate a world in which they must compete, cooperate and coexist with other animals. Where we wound up surprised us. …

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