Though the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology’s (SICB’s) 2021 Virtual Meeting is now over, all who attended can agree that it showcased a plethora of interesting science, including an incredible symposium on canine science (s11), entitled “Biology’s Best Friend: Bridging Disciplinary Gaps to Advance Canine Science.” This symposium covered a breadth of information about humanity’s furry companions, from how particular genes may operate differently depending on a dog’s breed, to how sled dogs are capable of pulling heavy loads for 12 hours a day (burning 12,000 calories to do so!). While all the talks were excellent, I found myself particularly fascinated by the descriptions of dogs living lives that would be considered outside of the norm in the United States.
A village dog on a dirt road in Thailand. These village dogs belong to no one, and are free to roam, which can come with various issues regarding the dogs’ health and well-being. Image by Takeaway and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
Domesticated pet dogs in the United States generally have a stable food supply, consistent vet care, and spend more time indoors than outdoors. Most Americans who have a dog (around 98% according to SICB presenter Dr. Caleb M. Bryce) consider their pets to be a part of the family, and want their days to be spent in comfort and happiness. However, outside of the United States, this is not always the case. More than 70% of dogs worldwide are unowned and may not have a warm place to sleep indoors at the end of the day. These dogs wander through villages eating whatever scraps they can find. While many are not aggressive and can be well-known by the humans living near them, they do not have a family to call their own.
In some parts of Africa and Asia with lower-middle income economies, wild dog populations are continuing to rise, prompting conversations about how to best control these increases. Too many wild dogs can lead to disease and starvation for the whole population, which can pose disastrous health effects on both the dogs and the nearby human populations, as some diseases (e.g. rabies) can be transferred from canines to humans with relative ease. The most effective method of population control seems to be capture-neuter-vaccinate-release programs, which ensure that each dog is healthy and that breeding is slowed down on the population level. With lower disease prevalence and less dogs roaming villages, each dog will have more resources, and will live a happier, healthier life.
A forest in Nicaragua. You can imagine it would be difficult to find and capture food travelling through the dense trees and other flora here, so the use of dogs to find and capture prey is invaluable. Image by Mark Hooper and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
In some regions of the world, dogs do have owners, but are put to work to find food. Dr. Jeremy Koster of the University of Cincinnati gave an incredibly engaging talk about the dogs that reside in Nicaraguan forests. These dogs act as watchdogs and hunting companions, actively travelling with their humans through the forest to find small animals to eat. Many of the animals in these forests make burrows to hide from predators, so the dogs will find them by smell and dig the animals out of the burrow. The hunters can then cull the animals to eat. The dogs receive the reward of praise and a bit of whatever animal has been caught. In these forests, the dogs are invaluable to the hunters, as they can help catch up to 600% more animals than when the hunters go out alone. While the dogs here do bond with their humans, it takes many months for them to learn how to hunt successfully, and it can be a very dangerous lifestyle. Nicaraguan forests house some large predators such as jaguars that pose a threat to the dogs, and the threat of disease is ever present. For these reasons, dogs in this region rarely live past the age of six.
While dogs are clearly invaluable to humans outside the realm of the usual household pet, they can also be extremely helpful to other animals. Aimee Hurt of the organization Working Dogs for Conservation spoke about how dogs can be trained to help stop poaching and animal trafficking, find invasive species that could be harming ecosystems, and locate individuals of endangered species. In order to do these tasks, dogs go through an intensive training routine, beginning with being able to follow simple commands and learning particular scents, to being able to find those scents out in the wild. These dogs can come from anywhere (even rescue shelters) and are often dogs that were not suitable for other important jobs (e.g. training to be a service dog).
There are not any particular breed requirements, but the dogs must be highly motivated to play, be brave enough to explore new environments and be exposed to new stimuli regularly, and have the ability to balance the need for human engagement with independence. These dogs are sent all over the world, from Africa to California. They must show interest in this work, otherwise they do not continue with the program, and a vast majority of the animals live very healthy lives – most working until age 13 before they retire. These dogs perform an incredibly important service to their fellow animals and the environments they inhabit. To learn more about Working Dogs for Conservation, you can visit their website here.
A conservation dog, Harry, showcases his skills. Harry works for the US Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. While he did not undergo the same training dogs go through with Working Dogs for Conservation, his job is incredibly similar. Harry is able to detect illegal fish and wildlife that are brought into the country by plane or boat through smell alone. Here, he was able to correctly identify which of the cardboard boxes shown contained a turtle shell. Image by NASA Kennedy and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
While many dogs in the United States are considered loving family members who lead simple and fulfilling lives consisting of eating, playing, and sleeping, this is outside the norm for many other dogs around the world. Some dogs have no family of their own, and others may work side-by-side with their family members to find food. Regardless of the lives they lead, dogs have evolved and maintained the amazing ability to live alongside humans, and can elicit a seemingly endless stream of curiosity and affection from their human companions.
In the words of photographer Roger Caras, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
Check out these canine science papers from ICB
2021’s s11 The Physiological Conundrum That is the Domestic Dog by Ana Gabriela Jimenez
GENETICS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOR IN DOGS by J.P. Scott
written by blogger Francesca Giammona
PhD Candidate at Wake Forest University
Follow her on Twitter @_fishology