Smarter than the average stray

For years, people have regarded animals around us, especially dogs, as ‘living in the moment’ and unable to create complex plans or form ideas about the future. I suppose this kind of throws a wrench in that line of ‘scientific’ thought:

Yes, some of Moscow’s stray dogs have figured out how to use the city’s immense and complex subway system, getting on and off at their regular stops. The human commuters around them are so accustomed to it that they rarely seem to notice.

“In Moscow there are all sorts of stray dogs, but… there are no stupid dogs,” Dr. Andrey Poyarkov, a biologist who has studied Moscow’s strays for 30 years, told ABC News.

As many as 35,000 stray dogs live in Russia’s capital city. They can be found everywhere, from markets to construction sites to underground passageways, scrounging for food and trying to survive.

Taking the subway is just one of many tactics the strays have come up with for surviving in the manmade wilderness around them.

“The street is tough and it’s survival of the fittest,” says Poyarkov. “These clever dogs know people much better than people know them.” (ABC)

The Russians have even erected a monument to one of the stray-dog commuters named Malchik, who was stabbed by a fashion model in 2002 in the station. While Russia has a feral dog problem, with upwards of 35,000 dogs that are stray or wild dogs in the city, the commuters seem to pay no mind to the dogs, and the dogs react in kind:

According to Alexei Vereshchagin, a graduate student of Poyarkov’s who has studied them, the dogs generally go out of their way to avoid conflict with humans. They often get fed by passing commuters, and a malnourished stray dog is apparently uncommon in the city. They have also developed their own distinct social groups, a characteristic of animals who don’t have to compete as much for basic needs like food and shelter. (Source)

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. (WSJ)

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.)

It’s fascinating to see how dogs, left to themselves in groups, can be capable of organizing themselves and developing a variety of strategies for coping with the environment in which they live. And what’s more, this behavior seems to be improving over time – such as learning to cross the street with people – which defies some long-held theories about animal behavior and the ability of non-humanoid animals to learn complex actions from others. The story of the Moscow stray dogs is also an interesting lesson in cohabitation of humans and animals, and though capture-neuter-return policies in Moscow haven’t been effective in reducing the amount of strays, the people of the city consider the dogs a characteristic.

I honestly can’t think of a better characteristic than a city that treats strays with kindness and tolerance.

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About Mel

Likes: Canada, spelunking, shiny objects, painting her living room a different color every couple of months, animals, dogs, clicker training Dislikes: Canada, styrofoam packing peanuts, snoring, crazy stalkers, failure of google-fu Favorite sports: hockey, marriage, agility, curling, hockey, snooker, hockey Noted for: participation in charities, antique furniture obsession, not-entirely-appropriate sense of humor, obsession with dog training
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One Response to Smarter than the average stray

  1. Thank you for a great post.

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