Would Dogs Be Better Off Without Us?
A thought experiment tells us a lot about man’s best friend—and ourselves.
This web adaptation was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.For more about the book, see “Science and Speculation Say Dogs Would Do Well Without Us” (Psychology Today, October 21, 2021) by co-author Marc Bekoff. For a deeper dive into many of the topics addressed in the book, please visit Dr. Bekoff’s blog, Animal Emotions.
Would dogs be better off without us? This may be a difficult question to consider if you live with a dog, love dogs, and find beauty in the enduring loyalty of the human-dog partnership. If you are reading this book with a dog curled up next to you on the couch or on her fluffy dog bed, happily licking peanut butter out of a Kong, this question might even be too painful to contemplate: How would my dog survive, naked and afraid, set adrift in a frightening new reality, without me to keep her safe? Yet try to imagine for a few moments not only what your dog might lose, but also what she might gain. Better yet, think about the whole range of individual dogs who currently share the planet with humans and consider the potential losses and the potential gains of having the world to themselves. And think about dogs who might come after the transition, who have never known life with humans. Maybe dogs as a species would have a better go of things on a planet that they didn’t have to share with people, if the 20,000-year-long domestication experiment—which, arguably, has had its problems—were called off once and for all.
Dogs would be challenged by living on their own in a posthuman world. But a posthuman world is also full of what you might call “dog possibilities”—the various ways in which dogs would adapt, innovate, and expand their experiential worlds. We’ve seen that there is far more to the lives of dogs than being a house pet, spending the day chasing balls, barking at the postal delivery person, or waiting anxiously for their person to come home from work. A dogs’ world is a bustling place, with dogs working on their own and with others to solve the puzzle of survival and to reap the rewards of life. Trying to catalog what dogs might stand to gain and lose if humans disappeared can help bring into focus some of the ways in which humans make life hard for dogs. More pertinent for those of us who live with companion dogs are the potential insights about how we might, without even realizing it, be asking our dogs to live in ways that constrain who they are and who they might become, the many ways in which we compromise the “dogness” of dogs. Having a sense of the whole experiential range of dog possibilities may help us become better companions to our dogs.
To explore whether the dog sitting next to us on the couch is fantasizing about a humanless world, we’ve tried to identify the potential gains and losses for dogs in a world without us. As you might expect, the question, “Would dogs be better off?” does not yield a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the further you dive into the question the murkier the waters become.
Variables at Play in the Gains and Losses Game
We’ve constructed a comprehensive list of what dogs stand to gain or lose if humans go extinct in our book. Here are a few thoughts on why judgments about gains and losses are complicated.
What dogs may gain or lose as a species is distinct from what an individual dog stands to gain or lose. The sudden disappearance of humans will result in broadscale losses at the individual level. Many dogs will be ill-equipped to survive, not having had any lived experiences of obtaining their own food, finding shelter, or forming a workable pair bond. Depending on how humans disappear, individual dogs in captivity—for example, inside homes with no way to get out, or locked inside shelters or laboratory cages—will perish. Overcrowding of dogs in some areas may lead to intense competition for scarce food resources. Moreover, large numbers of individual dogs will be unable to reproduce because they have been desexed, and so even if individuals manage to survive, they will be at a genetic dead end. Nevertheless, enough dogs may survive this first wave so that viable populations will be able to take hold in habitable ecosystems. Dogs as a species may very well go on to flourish.
The gains and losses for dogs in a world without humans will be unique and will depend a great deal on where a dog begins this unprecedented journey into a posthuman future. The unique characteristics of where and how each dog is living when humans disappear will greatly influence what challenges they face and what is experienced as a loss or gain. How well they cope will depend on an individual dog’s personality, past experiences, learning, social and emotional intelligence, and physical attributes.
Dogs currently live in wildly diverse relationships with humans, and while some dogs may keenly miss humans, others will be glad to see us go. A pet dog with a well-informed, motivated, and empathic human caregiver has more to lose than a dog caged at a research laboratory or in a puppy mill. Feral dogs will miss the enormous piles of garbage that humans produce but may not experience any loss of human companionship. Although the challenges for pet, free-ranging, and feral dogs will be different, the loss of humans and the transition from human selection to natural selection will be abrupt, and it won’t be pretty for many of the dogs on the planet.
There will be far fewer posthuman dogs inhabiting the planet. A reduction in total numbers should not necessarily be viewed as a complete loss because arguably there are too many dogs, their population having been bloated by intensive human breeding and careless pet-keeping practices. The size of dog populations, especially in dog-dense areas, will need to be much smaller to be sustainable, with sustainability depending on the carrying capacity—the maximum population size of a species that can be sustained within a given environment—of different habitats in which dogs are trying to survive.
Posthuman dogs may form short- or long-term groups. What might be a gain for a group isn’t necessarily a gain for all individuals within the group, and much will depend on who else is in the group and the ecological conditions with which the group must contend. Groups of animals tend to be most robust when they contain a broad range of behavioral phenotypes. It may be good for a group to have a combination of high-ranking and low-ranking individuals, but life might be difficult for those individuals who are of lower rank.
If humans disappeared, some gains and losses would be felt immediately, such as loss of human food subsidies and the gain of freedom from physical constraint, but the effects of human disappearance will reverberate and shift over generations.