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Cur cognition: Do stray dogs have qualitatively different kinds of canine minds?

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In previous posts, I’ve discussed my fascination with dogs, such as this recent controversial piece mentioning those good-natured pit bulls whose unearned reputations often precede them because of a few maladjusted, vicious outliers. Yet I’ve never seen anything quite like the canines of Sofia, Bulgaria, from where I’ve just returned after a week of teaching at a cognitive science summer school and from listening to a surfeit of long-forgotten, uplifting ’80s pop music, which the weary and unshaven Bulgarian taxi drivers seem to adore to no end. Some recent work by University of Florida psychologist Monique Udell and her colleagues suggests that it’s not just my imagination that stray dogs are special—rather, strays in general may be vastly more different from our pet dogs than we assumed, particularly in their social cognitive functioning.

Now, the stray dog situation in Sofia is notoriously problematic. You know you’ve got a problem when a pack of strays breaks into the deer exhibit at your local zoo and “ruthlessly dismembers” almost the entire collection, as happened earlier this year. And given the general sentiment that an organized roundup and euthanasia is out of the question for moral reasons it’s also a very prickly issue among the people living there. (Stray cats are a problem too, but they appear to be kept in check by a lot of very hungry dogs.) Stray dogs are about common as squirrels there, and from what I saw, most of Sofia’s human population also has about as much interest in strays as Americans in the suburbs have in the squirrels living in their backyards. A June, 2010 estimate placed the figures at around 9,500 dogs running loose in the Sofia confines. So when you’ve got that many animals—even man’s best friend—in a relatively small, concentrated city (not to mention one with its own human homeless problems in the form of the ostracized Romanian Roma, or “gypsies”), mass desensitization is sadly inevitable. But this human-dog indifference is even more striking because it appears to be mutual.

I watched incredulously as the Sofia strays ambled casually down the sidewalks like proper Bulgarian citizens. They stepped aside politely for human pedestrians before continuing on their way, stopped patiently to look both ways before loping across frantically organized, crowded freeways, mingled with one another at storefronts and had their mangy coats tousled by the whooshing tires of passing commercial trucks while in the midday heat they slept quietly in tree-shaded gutters mere inches from the road. Most of these animals are multigenerational strays, which means that they are the offspring of strays who were the offspring of strays and so on, and on, for many breeding generations. Natural selection must work quickly indeed under such conditions: these are the descendents of the craftiest ancestral dogs of yesteryear Sofia, those who survived puppyhood without being crushed by some juggernaut and who managed to live long enough to pass on their wily natures to their offspring. Too much reliance on humans or interest in human behavior may well be maladaptive to these dogs’ overall genetic interests within this selective context, given the situation. I love my dogs, Gulliver and Uma, and they’re pretty smart as far as dogs go. But they wouldn’t last two minutes on the streets of Sofia.

The Sofia strays may be mongrels, and indeed many looked to me more like dingoes or coyotes than they did domestic dogs, but technically they’re every bit as much members of Canis lupus familiaris as your own pampered Lhasa apso or Chocolate Labrador. But perhaps genes alone do not a dog make. In an intriguing study published in March of this year in the journal Animal Behavior , comparative psychologists Monique Udell, Nicole Dorey and Clive Wynn demonstrated that stray dogs reason about human social behavior (and in particular, our intentions) in a fundamentally different way from pet dogs.

The importance of Udell’s work can only be understood in relation to previous experimental findings demonstrating that domestic dogs (but not other canine species) comprehend referential meaning and cooperative intent in human behavior. That is to say, in controlled laboratory research, domestic dogs can do things such as understand that a human experimenter is intentionally trying to share his or her knowledge about the location of a hidden food reward by pointing deliberately at one of two containers. Inferring that an indexical point is symbolically about a referential target—something “out there”—instead of just an erect index finger sticking out from a closed fist requires more cognitive sophistication than it may seem at first blush. This is because comprehending such a gesture demands human-like social cognition, namely a precursor to “theory of mind,” which enables us to reason about the abstract, unobservable psychological states driving overt behavior. My cat, Tommy, is great, but when I tried to point out something in the corner of the room to him just now while sitting in my chair, he stood up on his hind legs to smell my fingertip.

For human beings, pointing is so much a part of our nature as to seem unremarkable. But if you think about it, it’s not even self-evident why our species points most commonly with its index finger rather than, say, its thumb or pinkie finger. According to a 1994 Journal of Comparative of Psychology article by University of Louisiana at Lafayette psychologist Daniel Povinelli and Louisiana State University anesthesiologist Richard Davis, there is an important anatomical difference between the relaxed postures of the human hand and that of our closet living relative, the chimpanzee. Go ahead, let your wrist go limp and look at your hand from the side, or if you’re too insecure in your own sexuality, just picture Adam’s limp wrist at the moment of creation in Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. See how even in this relaxed state the index finger is slightly extended? By contrast, when chimps do this (hence the anesthesiologist coauthor), their index finger falls naturally in line with their other fingers. Povinelli and Davis reason that this subtle evolutionary change in the morphology of our hands, which occurred after humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor five million to seven million years ago, is at least partially responsible for the fact that human pointing with the index finger is so culturally ubiquitous today.

The argument goes something like this. When young infants begin reaching for objects just out of their range, adults are most likely to respond to those reaching attempts and to retrieve the item for the baby when the latter’s index finger is more prominently extended. That is to say, initially, the adult mistakenly reads into the child’s reaching attempt as a communicative gesture on the part of the child. Over time, this dynamic between the child and adult serves to further “pull out” the index finger because the child implicitly learns the behavioral association, so that it slowly becomes a genuine pointing gesture. There are several varieties of pointing, and this is important for understanding why dogs’ comprehension of the gesture matters. Typically, before 18 to 24 months of age, pointing is used to manipulate others’ behaviors only, just like we’ve seen in the description above. If a baby drops her toy on the ground and points to it while looking at you, she’s basically saying, “Well, what are you waiting for, give it to me!” In developmental science jargon, this is called imperative pointing because it’s more or less a demand. But as children’s brains continue to develop, and once they’re able to conceptualize others as conversational partners who have minds that hold information, pointing becomes declarative . The two-year-old now uses pointing to say, “Hey, look over there!” because she recognizes that you’re not aware of whatever it is (the neighbor’s cat in the bushes, the exorbitantly large man eating a snow cone at the park) and wants to share this fascinating information with you. In fact, difficulties with comprehension and production of declarative pointing are often used as diagnostic indicators of autism in young children, a disorder characterized by social cognitive impairments.

So this background is important for understanding why the question of whether or not dogs possess the capacity to reason correctly about human pointing is interesting. Several years ago, Duke University psychologist Brian Hare and his colleagues reported some striking evidence showing that domestic dogs performed above chance on a variety of human-guided selection tasks—including studies in which human experimenters pointed to different objects in the room. At the time, these data were interpreted as showing that dogs have human-like social cognition allowing them to understand cooperative intent in humans. In fact, whereas tame wolves fail to score above chance in such studies, domestic dogs even outperform chimpanzees on similar pointing tests, suggesting that we may have more in common psychologically with dogs than with species for which we’re taxonomically (much) more closely related. This prompted Hare to argue that the co-evolution of humans and the domestic dog had created in the latter a genuine ability to reason about human mental states. Anybody who has ever owned or interacted with a dog can probably think up ample anecdotes here, but if not, just think of Lassie’s proverbial message-sharing abilities.

Udell and her group in Florida, however, say that these impressive social cognitive abilities in dogs may not represent the “default” canine cognitive system. In their review of this literature on dog social cognition, the authors point out that:

The currently available data suggest that populations of dogs differing in [breeding] and in environmental and lifetime pressures might display different behavioral responses to the actions of humans. Despite this fact, the great majority of subjects in studies of the origins of domestic dogs’ human-compatible social cognition have been pet dogs living in human homes, with human-oriented working dogs representing the remainder of the subject pool.

In other words, Udell and her coauthors’ contention is similar to arguments made by many researchers studying human psychological evolution—that our ability to make claims about “human nature” are seriously limited by the fact that the data upon which such claims are made are derived almost entirely from middleclass American undergraduate students between 18-22 years of age and recruited from a psychology department subject pool. She’s basically arguing that existing social cognition research on Canis lupus familiaris has largely neglected large demographic swells of the species and therefore does not necessarily paint an entirely accurate portrait of this species’ natural (default) psychological stance. Bulgaria notwithstanding, consider that within the U.S. alone six to eight million dogs can be found living in shelters each year, which is roughly 11 percent of the entire American domestic dog population.

Thus, to remedy this theoretical oversight and to address the issue of whether dogs simply inherit the cognitive capacity to think about human behaviors in intentional terms without any developmental experiences in interacting socially with human beings—that is to say, whether or not it’s something “innate” to dog psychology resulting from dogs’ brain evolution coinciding significantly with our own—Udell went to an animal shelter and administered two pointing comprehension studies with a range of dogs that were collected from the streets and classified as strays. Obviously, if these strays performed as well on such tasks as the pet dogs from earlier studies, the innateness claim would be justified. But if not, then developmental experiences with humans—and probably very particular types of experience at that—were contributing to their performing above chance in those prior studies.

After a number of training trials to ensure that the subjects understood the basic task demands, the experimenter pointed to one of two cans and then gave the dog the opportunity to respond to this helpful gesture. A “correct” response to the pointing gesture was operationalized as the dog touching or coming within 10cm of the indicated can, and for doing so the animal received a coveted food reinforcer such as a jerky treat. To prevent the dog from simply using its nose to sniff out the reward, both cans were empty—rather, the experimenter simply dropped the food reward on top of the can whenever the subject chose correctly (i.e., selected the pointed-to can).

The most significant findings from Udell’s studies were these. Although the strays performed above chance when the experimenter was kneeling on the floor and the tip of the experimenter’s finger was rigidly held 10 cm from the target can, unlike the domestic dogs in prior studies these strays failed to respond correctly to the pointing gesture when such an obvious physical cue was removed. On pointing trials in which the experimenter’s finger was 50 cm from the closest edge of the target container at full extension and then her arm was retracted back to a neutral position before the subject was allowed to make a choice, the strays’ performance fell to chance levels. This distinction is critical for the debate over whether domestic dogs have some semblance of theory of mind, because in the first instance at least, dogs may be using a simple behavioral heuristic such as “pick-the-box-closest-to-the-hand” that does not require human-like social cognition in which they are inferring cooperative intent.

In a follow-up study, Udell found some evidence that strays who were afforded additional experience with humans in an exposure condition, which involved play, petting and free exploration of the target area, showed better performance on the pointing task, but still they were less impressive in their comprehension of human pointing than the pet dogs in previous studies. Although the authors acknowledge the limitations of this work (it cannot directly address the evolution of domestic dog social behavior), Udell and her colleagues argue that these findings reveal how:

Evidence of differences in the behavior of populations within a subspecies of animals is important when attempting to draw comparative conclusions between species and subspecies of animals …

[and so] comparisons between domestic dog populations should consider different forms of response in the presence of different human stimuli instead of searching for evidence of a universal inborn capacity to respond to human gestures.

The debate reminds me of some work I was involved with back in graduate school, in which there was some evidence that great apes that had been raised by human beings as though they were human beings actually demonstrated species atypical human-like social cognition (namely, a theory of mind). The core question in all of this is what is the ‘default’ type of social cognition of a dog, of a chimp … of a human being?

In any event, now that I’m back to the home-sweet-hominess of Belfast and its ongoing riots, I can’t help but to think back to all of those motley, feral dogs of Sofia. I was ambivalent to learn about the Bulgarian government’s plans to (finally) construct a series of dog kennels to house strays by the end of 2011. On the one hand, getting these animals off the streets is clearly a good thing in many ways, both for their own wellbeing and that of, for example, the zoo animals. And there’s also, of course, the safety and interest of people—there have been several highly publicized attacks by wild dog packs, including fatalities—on children and the elderly in Sofia. On the other hand, most of these dogs are very clever, harmless, disinterested in human beings and surviving in some very complex and novel ecological conditions. Surely these stray dogs, as well as those eking out a living in other major cities in which strays are a notorious problem, present extraordinary scientific opportunities.

And from an animal wellbeing perspective, removing these stray dogs from these environmentally rich, if difficult, industrial surroundings and isolating them to physically restricted concrete-and-steel living conditions strikes me as a rather sad prospect, too. I say this having worked at the Broward County Animal Shelter in South Florida the summer after I graduated from high school, where I saw scenes of dogs in distress that haunt me to this day. (Seriously, what kind of person would discard their happy pair of 12-year-old, sweet-faced golden retrievers because their new girlfriend doesn’t “like dogs”?) In fact, embarrassingly, I was fired from that job for spending too much time petting, playing with and otherwise comforting animals that were clearly suffering. True, I should probably have been doing something more productive and useful like cleaning cages or unloading food bags, but I couldn’t help it: the sight of a suffering dog makes me human—oddly, peculiarly, probably more so than the sight of another suffering human being. But I’ll save that curiosity for another post.  

I found some solace from my poor employee behavior from this 2006 Physiology & Behavior study by Crista Coppola (coauthored by the autistic animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin). The authors point out that when dogs are housed in an animal shelter, they usually experience a severe form of psychological stress caused by exposure to novel or threatening surroundings, separation from attachment objects, unpredictability of external events, lack or loss of control over the environment, and so on. This stress activates their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and pumps out explosive levels of cortisol, which is the major hormonal indicator of response to stress. Coppola and her colleagues found that, regardless of breed, age of dog and sex, those shelter dogs that received a pleasant “human interaction session” on Day 2 of their incarceration had significantly lower cortisol levels on Day 9—that is to say, the benefits of this simple pet and play session were found a week later, even without any subsequent interaction with human beings during the intervening days. Honestly, this finding brings tears to my eyes: simple human affection is that long-lasting and important for dogs. And Coppola and her coauthors rightly lament that it’s a pity that the vast majority of dog shelters have not instituted routine human interaction sessions with their new, stressed-out arrivals.

But the dogs in Coppolo’s study were largely owner-surrendered ex-pets, those who’d learned to be dependent on the kindness of human beings in their lives. Whether these cortisol-relieving effects of human interaction would be replicated in, say, those stray dogs of Sofia is unclear. It’s possible that the effects would be reversed, given their developmental histories on the streets.

And so it is that those stray dogs in Bulgaria broke my heart and intrigued me by their adaptedness to their unusual surroundings. Like the Bulgarians, I was left without any easy answers to the problem. It’s a real mess indeed, with people bringing puppies home, failing to neuter them and so on. But, for science’s sake, and particularly for our understanding of the coevolution of human and canine social cognition, I’d personally love to see someone do a research documentary on the feral dogs of Sofia before they’re off the streets and locked up for good behind those new kennel walls.  


In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Sign up for the RSS feed, visit, friend Dr. Bering on Facebook or follow @JesseBering on Twitter and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns. Jesse’s first book, The Belief Instinct (Norton) [The God Instinct (Nicholas Brealey) in the U.K.], will be published early February, 2011.

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  1. 1. JamesDavis 7:53 am 07/16/2010

    Wow! This article is really good, but it left me sad for our most beloved pets. I have a male boxer named Herkules and he is the most loving, kind, and considerate person I have ever met. The look on his face breaks my heart when he sees a dog that he knows is not being treated well. If he saw those dogs in Sofia, I would be in tears all the time.

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  2. 2. Olivsciam 8:03 am 07/16/2010

    I guess we wont be friends after this comment …

    Stray dogs : to be short let’s say that I really dislike them, and I see no moral reasons not to euthanize them. In a gentler way I would be happy for a start with massive sterilization.

    I’m travelling since nearly one year, I started from Eastern Europe (sofia included), Turkey, India, Thailand and Laos. In all those countries I lived or heard about ‘horror’ stories regarding the stray dogs. From the trekker stopped in his walk by 5 huge dogs in the middle of nowhere to the local people dying of rabies (the cute slavering puppy that westerners hate to kill will bite local people that have no means or access to anti-rabies vaccines) . Or the poor traveller surrounded in the middle of the night by a pack of 30 dogs. Or two black dogs coming out of a black pitch night and attacking a late night beach walker. Or the people on two wheelers chased by dogs, even falling down and hurting (or worse) themselves. I could continue a long time …
    On the stray dogs side I could say that they have a terrible life, I saw some horribly gory wounds on some of them, without anybody caring for them. And don’t forget all kind of skin diseases and so on… Or if they are lucky during the tourist season they will be cared for by heart-bleeding tourists and then deserted and let to themselves for some months of a hellish and starving life.

    Those dogs have the weird habit of being shy and out-of-the-way during the day. But wait the evening and this is another story. They are the kings of the night .

    No really I don’t see the point to let them be. They have a not so nice life and are dangerous for the humans.
    Just get ride of them will do a lot of good for many people.

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  3. 3. dandj2121 9:17 am 07/16/2010

    While reading ‘olivsclam’ comment my first thought was that this is a person who does not like dogs. Yes, I agree with him that packs of wild dogs can be dangerous and cause fatal damage.
    A more thoughtful consideration of that problem might be the determination of how these packs came to be.

    Stray dog packs have only one initiator. Humans!

    The person who sees a cute dog in a picture, pet store or elsewhere and decides to bring it home but then, bummer, they find out the dog requires care. Lots of care.

    For some that becomes to much so they take the easy way out. They open the door and good bye problem.

    Many do not survive, either starving to death or meeting with an accident, that eventually causes a painful death.

    To blame the animal for that which man has created is flawed.

    Survival is a basic instinct in all living creatures. For these abandoned dogs to bond with like is natural. They do what they must to survive.

    Humans would do no less.

    The control lies not in killing the strays but in penalizing those who caused the strays to begin with.

    The last sentence tells it all. "Just get rid of them"—-
    as if they were dirt you could sweep under the carpet when company is coming.


    Neuter your animals and if you cannot keep it do NOT just open the door. Take it to a no-kill shelter.


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  4. 4. msh 9:18 am 07/16/2010

    while the comment above makes some valid points I might remind him/her that the overpopulation of cats and dogs is mostly due to humans, either through negligance or ignorance. If people would spay and neuter their animals then there might not be such a problem. That said, perhaps the commentor would like to round up and euthanize all the ‘bad’ humans who do so much damage not only to their own kind but everything else in the world.

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  5. 5. durbrow 9:51 am 07/16/2010

    I agree. This is a good article. I wonder if it is worth mentioning about whether these dogs can become tame within their lifespan or whether, like foxes, they may resist re-domestication.

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  6. 6. cowgirl19 10:02 am 07/16/2010

    Hullo…dogs like sex as much as humans do. Humans are not so responsible for their ‘over-population’ as much as the instinct for survival of the species and doing what comes naturally. Why do we always think that we are gods who create everything, problem and solution? Much is out of our control and probably should remain so.

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  7. 7. sjd0218 10:04 am 07/16/2010

    I love dogs and cats.
    Frankly, I think euthanasia and systematic neutering would be a better solution for Sofia than trapping them for the rest of their lives in a kennel.
    I think humans are extraordinarily selfish and narrow focused when we think that any animal who’s natural existence (including dogs and cats) is freedom is going to suddenly find life in a cage better than death.

    We ought to require neutering and permits to breed.
    We ought to make deliberate feeding of feral animals illegal. We aren’t helping the problem by making them overly dependent on human intervention, we make populations too large to be sustained naturally. Large populations dependent on human intervention don’t develop the kind of necessary traits for true survival. (see above on the traits of the feral dogs in Sofia) Feral cats in America are a classic example of stupidity of kindness on the part of humans.

    And when they naturally thrive despite lack of intervention, we must cull them to more natural populations.
    (Dogs and Cats aren’t threatened with extinction, so removing large swaths of populations isn’t going to hurt the ecosystem.)

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  8. 8. E-boy 1:12 pm 07/16/2010

    See, I’m not sure that the difference cited between dogs raised among humans in a household and strays necessarily suggests the appearance of pet dogs being able to recognize a point or interpret human intentions is some form of rote generalization off simple rules.

    Human language requires exposure for an individual to learn it properly. If you fail to get proper exposure to it in the critical developmental window the consequences for future language ability are pretty dire.

    My point here is, that dogs capacity to read human intentionality may be contingent on proper exposure and socialization. Strays, like the rare human who is raised without language exposure, may simply not get the appropriate stimulus to make the full flower of this potential available to them.

    I will grant that the simpler of the two options (which is the one cited in the posting) is, until and unless evidence to the contrary appears, the safer and more conservative stance. However, I think it’s definitely worth questioning and further experimentation for the simple reason that dogs do function on a more than instinctual level and close proximity to another social species like humans for tens of thousands of years with the comparitively short generation time dogs have would certainly allow ample time for modification to dogs existing social capacities. Modern humans have certainly changed quite a bit in the relatively recent past.

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  9. 9. Saraberry 3:49 pm 07/16/2010

    I think it is important to really discern the age, relationship and orgin of feral dogs, not to just assume they are a related group. In Italy, the feral dogs that Coppinger studied were constantly acquiring new strays and the puppies weren’t making it to two years. I think it is impossible to compare historical wild dog groups to current feral groups if the relationships and longevity is different. If it is the same as in the past, then it makes more sense.

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  10. 10. ormondotvos 3:51 pm 07/16/2010

    Don’t forget to think about human overpopulation… same effects.

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  11. 11. Marc Lévesque 7:02 pm 07/16/2010

    "Theory of mind" -article

    That’s my pet peeve, vagueness undefined incarnate, a slight of hand.

    "Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states–beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.–to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own." -wikipedia

    "Mind (pronounced /mand/) is the aspect of intellect and consciousness experienced as combinations of thought, perception, memory, emotion, will and imagination, including all unconscious cognitive processes. The term is often used to refer, by implication, to the thought processes of reason. Mind manifests itself subjectively as a stream of consciousness." -wikipedia

    Everybody has it, animals too. Now verbosity, as the above definitions show, is a strictly human affair.

    "[and so] comparisons between domestic dog populations should consider different forms of response in the presence of different human stimuli instead of searching for evidence of a universal inborn capacity to respond to human gestures." -article

    Animals respond to gestures, and not only human gestures.

    "After a number of training trials [...] A “correct” response to the pointing gesture was operationalized as the dog touching or coming within 10cm of the indicated can [...] [etc, etc]" -article

    That procedure has nothing to do with "pointing", rather it is about the dog learning an elaborate, and interactive (with the human), choreography through operational conditioning. All the dog needs to heuristisize is "when human’s arm is in position x (in relation to room, me, whatever) go to …". What the experiment clearly shows is simply that the more a dog has experience with training, the more trainable he is.

    Overall, an enjoyable read.

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  12. 12. sfreiman 8:15 am 07/17/2010

    Sounds like the street dogs in Calcutta, where I spent three months recently.

    Those dogs are indifferent to the many people passing by or living with them on the streets. But when I approached a dog to pet him, he would welcome the attention.

    I was often out at night, and I never saw packs of dogs who looked like they were hunting, nor did any dog, day or night, ever threaten me. The street dogs were not thin; there is abundant garbage on the streets, and I saw dogs in garbage dumps grazing peacefully with other dogs, pigs, and birds.

    Of course, India is unusual in the quantity and type of its street fauna. Few cats, but in addition to dogs I often bumped up against cows, buffalo, monkeys, pigs, goats. All wandering the streets independently.

    Not to everyone’s taste, but I loved it.

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  13. 13. Anil C Thakuria , MD 1:09 pm 07/17/2010

    Who do we think we are ? Who empower us to decide which species live and some member of which do not as felt undeserving of existence and undesirable by us ? Not that too long ago a very cognizant , developed , so called advanced and civil society , if not all 100 percent of the population, at least most of its citizen went along agreeing with their cruel leader and eliminated after getting out of them what ever they had , last drop of blood in the forced labor camp and then putting them in the oven or closed rooms with poisonous gases : six million of the members of one particular community alone , plus millions more considered undesirable by another group of human being were eliminated thus. Is this not an extension of the same thinking and mind set , " Stray dogs : to be short let’s say that I really dislike them, and I see no moral reasons not to euthanize them." as one of the commentator put it above. Remember more than 2 decades later (after the holocaust ) our population was 3 billion and now another 5 decades later it is nearing 7 billions. You make all the other extensions and implications.

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  14. 14. TJGeezer 1:53 pm 07/17/2010

    @durbrow said: "I wonder if it is worth mentioning about whether these dogs can become tame within their lifespan or whether, like foxes, they may resist re-domestication."
    My wife and I rescue street dogs in Rosarito and Tijuana, Mexico. Many have been injured or abused, most are parasite-ridden and distrustful. But not hostile. It takes a bit of time, while nursing them to health, to win their trust, but they do come to trust us. The ones we can save, we nurse to health, bulk up with good feed, socialize with strokes and good humor, and eventually find good homes for with humans who know they may be getting a challenge. These dogs are almost uniformly brighter than "normal" dog. We once saw a male patiently teaching a littler of puppies how to cross a busy local street safely. One pup at a time, barking the rest back to the curb, he showed how to nose into the traffic lane, look both ways, and proceed cautiously. If the pup got it wrong, he patiently nosed it back and repeated the lesson. When I was a kid, I was taught dogs don’t teach by example. Humans have a LOT to learn about dogs. One thing I can attest – they can be befriended and most will eagerly cooperate with a nonthreatening human, if given a chance.

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  15. 15. firesparks8 3:48 pm 07/17/2010

    This article really hit home for me. When I was growing up my parents would take me to Greece every summer. Greece also has Bulgaria’s problem with strays roaming streets – it has gotten better now as the population starts to learn what it is to take care of their pets and actually buy nice things for them but I digress. Ever since I was little I was never afraid of the strays – one time when I was 4 I wondered off and my mom found me straddled atop a huge German Shepard stray sitting under a tree. Another summer though, I met a German Shepard Husky mix that I named "Gonzo". He had been coming to my Aunts apt complex b/c my cousin had been giving him scraps of food. I fell in love with him. He would come with me when I would go running (and always try to lead me back to the apt complex) and wouldn’t leave my side. He would come running from wherever he was
    (sometimes it seemed up to 5 blocks away) when I would call from him from the 4th floor of the apt building yelling Gonzo and whistling and wait for me downstairs. He once or twice protected me from other strays. Standing in front of me with hair on his back – teeth slightly bared- basically telling them I was his. It was amazing. I even brought him up to my Aunts apartment in secret to his amazement and sniffing joy. I would feed him and spend time with him every day till I left. My parents didn’t let me keep dogs as pets back then and I am not sure what ended up happening to him. And it brings tears to my eyes just to think of him. But he was the coolest stray I had ever met. And regarding the suffering of a dog effecting you more than the suffering of a human I think it comes down to this: as a fellow human u know that although maybe a human ends up on the street due to circumstances out of their control – they are not completely innocent. But dogs -with their faithfulness and love of affection – they are innocents. So seeing them in pain or suffering effects us more cause we feel like a human probably caused this – since this is a domesticated dog. Someone either took this dog or his mother or grandmother home and then released it out on the streets due to who knows what and now the outcome of that decision is the sad dog in front of you. I don’t know that’s just my thought. Again, great article!!

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  16. 16. tomasarturo 3:51 pm 07/17/2010

    interesting article. it made me think of my sojourn on the island of Ibiza in the late 60′s. there was a society (and I do not use the term carelessly) of master-less dogs. a melange of exotic breeds that had been brought to the island by the so-called jet-set and subsequently abandoned. unlike the hard-scrabble existence of the stray dogs of Sofia however, their Ibizenco counterparts lived in comparative affluence on the abundant refuse from the town’s many restaurants. it was interesting to observe how this society, this sub-culture operated. there were cliques and couples, pairs of friends, and loners, all trotting with Rexrothian freedom through the streets. indifference to the human population around them was general, though there several individual dogs that formed casual affectionate relationships (perhaps atavistic?) with certain of the individual humans that shared their world. I had a few canine friends who, if they saw me sitting at a cafe table, would leave the group they were traveling with and come over to say hello and have their ears (and that spot between their eyes that they cannot reach) scratched.

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  17. 17. eyespot 6:10 pm 07/21/2010

    A new slogan for humans: hanging out with us gives you theory of mind…

    Jesse’s comment about the stress in shelter dogs receiving no human contact was heartbreaking but also made me cringe thinking about the time when we routinely placed new infants into bassinets and left them there for days after birth while mothers rested in their hospital rooms apart from them…. good move that one… humans… we might have theory of mind but sometimes a fat lot of good it does us.

    Great post as usual. (and cognitive science summer school sounds really fun… way more fun than soccer camp or something…)

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  18. 18. hillarystruthers 8:02 pm 07/21/2010

    This is the same stray dog situation as Valparaso in Chile- the numbers, the mutual indifference, the adaptation. Thank you for the informative article!

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  19. 19. PIT BILL VICTIM 10:48 am 07/22/2010


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  20. 20. mwms 5:41 pm 08/8/2010

    "the sight of a suffering dog makes me humanoddly, peculiarly, probably more so than the sight of another suffering human being. "

    I’m with you.

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  21. 21. rahulbasu 2:43 am 08/9/2010

    We have 4 strays at home from the local shelter. I can corroborate the difference – since they don’t really comprehend the pointing gesture, teaching them most things become very difficult. We have only managed to get them to sit, but I think our dogs equate "sit" with "food".


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  22. 22. doctorpsycho1960 9:37 pm 08/11/2010

    It sounds to me as though these feral dogs are the guardians of a valuable gene pool which could be the source of a useful new working breed. If they are to be kenneled, puppies should be taken from them for study and training.

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  23. 23. cbutleruf 10:19 am 08/14/2010

    The discussion regarding cognitive ability frusterates me. This is a matter of behavioral training.

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  24. 24. leashedForLife 9:22 pm 09/23/2010

    no-one would expect a 2-year-old human-child reared in a closet while living in a crib, with minimal interaction or care, to behave like a normal child:
    make direct eye-contact to solicit or engage, smile at a smiling adult, babble in the pre-lingual babble peculiar to their mother-tongue: since their caregiver didn’t talk to the infant, where would the modeling come from?
    that infant would cry when hungry or frightened, or scream in frustration, but their behavior would be profoundly affected for life – even as an adult.

    a stray who has learned to ignore humans who ignore them, and avoid humans who act predatory, and solicit humans to offer food or petting, has still missed their formative exposure: living with humans.

    the =pet dogs= who were tested for their reaction to pointing and eye-gaze were not TRAINED – they already had the concept.
    human-attention [eye-gaze on an object] and human-direction [pointing to an object] are worth investigating.

    wolf-pups reared intensively by a dedicated caregiver STILL did not get the concept, and when they attempted to teach them, it took intense and formal, careful teaching to even get their response above accidental odds or sheer chance;
    semi-feral pups reared with no direct contact with people [dam was fed, pups saw the person come and go] massively outperformed the human-habituated wolves, even after they were ‘trained’.

    strays cannot be blamed for being strays – but desex of every dog is step one: INJECTABLE desex for every male-dog at large is a do-able task.
    if only 50% of the males hit by a dart-gun are sterilized [which is ridiculously low-odds], it would be a huge advantage.

    removing all the human-friendly dogs from the street and placing them in pet-homes is another option; there is no reason not to euthanize strays who are actively-aggressive toward humans.
    placing human-neutral feral dogs in a non-breeding colony for study and cognition-research is another option.

    the article is intriguing and fun to read, but purely speculative – which slightly disappointed me.

    - terry pride, APDT-Aus, apdt#1827, CVA;
    member Truly Dog-Friendly
    "change is good… You first!" [Sept-2005]

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  25. 25. wheelchairindia 12:48 am 12/16/2010

    My point here is, that dogs capacity to read human intentionality may be contingent on proper exposure and socialization. Strays, like the rare human who is raised without language exposure, may simply not get the appropriate stimulus to make the full flower of this potential available to them.
    <b><a href="; title="Hearing Aids" target="blank">Hearing aids</a></b>

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  26. 26. noigilersiraw 5:19 pm 01/22/2011

    Sophia admin should understand that controlling the dog means excess cats like there are in this city where I live. Roaming cats have killed all the rabbits and all the chipmunks and all the voles and moles and ….(no they do not kill rats – go figure) Anyway here in my town lawn grubs are out of control because there are no voles . So what you say : Pesticide companies have dumped so much poison into city lawns , that raw pesticide (it is a nerve war poison ) now pollutes the local river from which we drink. Personally , I would rather have roaming packs of dogs.

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  27. 27. FunPawCare 11:08 pm 11/29/2012

    Hi Jesse, in fact I just wrote an article about this yesterday. Enjoy :)

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  28. 28. Awesomedogs 11:52 pm 11/29/2012

    While interesting, I don’t believe for a moment that underlying cognitive differences account for the change in response to finger pointing. First – shelter dogs are not necessarily feral dogs. Shelter dogs are owned and relinquished dogs.
    Second, as someone who has worked with and trained thousands of feral dogs, I can say with absolute certainty that finger point problems stem from a different source.
    As you can see in some of the comments, some people hate feral dogs. They are hit, kicked and even beaten. A finger point is often associated with a terse “Come Here NOW.” That also happens with shelter dogs. Those animals are often given up for behaviour problems. They have often faced angry outbursts from owners. “Look – do not take the garbage – this garbage – the one I’m pointing at.” But, they also meet people who crouch down and are kind. Those people offer food. It’s a very poignant visual and I don’t doubt for a moment that dogs are smart enough to learn both sets of conditions.
    It is extremely common to see distrust of humans in both populations. But when you take feral puppies, those who have not had the opportunity to be mistreated. They act just like pet, purpose bred dogs. No difference at all.
    Love the finger point studies. Use them in class all the time. Tell clients to never point to something and say leave it. Very confusing for the dog.

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  29. 29. Philosoraptist 2:06 pm 10/3/2014

    The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are more than 200 million stray dogs worldwide.

    That’s not even a billion.

    Some people are very sick in the mind while others seem to be generally apathetic and ignorant. Hearing people talk about killing millions of intelligent animals due to a personal opinion is disturbing to say the least.
    You think with all the anecdotal and scientific evidence clearly demonstrating the usefulness of dogs to society (avalanche rescue, seeing-eye, cancer sniffing, bomb sniffing, flood rescue, fire rescue, police service ect…) people wouldn’t become perversely infatuated with the idea of genocide, but I digress.

    In my opinion; all those who advocate mass euthanasia are either sick, immature or ignorant. 200 million strays. How many humans are there on the planet? There is no excuse. A lack of intelligence and empathy for life created this situation and majority of the guilt rests on people who refuse to see dogs as anything but objects or tools. Those lacking characteristics are helping to preserve the current situation and additionally preventing a truly positive solution from being achieved. What a morbid reality. These dogs, born into poverty are guilty and deserving of death how? Quit acting like you are being practical because in light of various solutions, genocide is just cold.

    Holocaust references aside, these are not rats or insects we are talking about but rather, a species that is and could be even more so, extremely useful to different people in different situations. Those who advocate genocide without even thinking about the implications or questioning their authority to make such decisions intrigue me. Explain to my how your ignorance and lack of empathy for life makes you different then Hitler, Saddam or Pol? I’m sorry; it’s just that I always thought advocating such thuggish methods for dealing with the problem of living things you find an inconvenience is the very definition of evil. I’m not making a case for Hitler. I’m just suggesting you check yourself before you claim that your version of genocide makes you less of a monster.

    It’s entirely possible we fix the dog problem by accepting some responsibility and using the knowledge currently available to adopt, train, re-home, patch up and otherwise find purpose and/or places for nearly all strays or at least enough to significantly curb the problem while providing all the benefits to society that dogs provide.

    I know that there will always be people who feel the need to contribute stupid ideas to intellectual conversations but honestly. If they can read and write then why is the obvious humane choice so difficult to comprehend for some? Are people really that far gone? I don’t think I want to know. This is kindergarten human empathy 101. Can you imagine how much more affordable seeing eye dogs would be if we had a couple million trained right now?

    But no; let’s just kill them all.

    Considering there are less than a billion strays and what, 7 billion of us? It doesn’t seem that unfeasible to make use of them instead of slaughter. Of course this would involve a lot of people to suddenly have some empathy that wasn’t originally there which I believe to be not as feasible. As long as there are swathes of animal abusers among us, you can guarantee this problem will never go away. It’s as pervasive as racism. People of colour shouldn’t be blamed for racist perceptions nor is it their fault. Same deal for strays.
    We fix the problem when we fix ourselves.

    “strays cannot be blamed for being strays”

    “removing all the human-friendly dogs from the street and placing them in pet-homes is another option”

    “placing human-neutral feral dogs in a non-breeding colony for study and cognition-research is another option.”

    Can we have a round of applause?

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