Dogs adapting to urban ecologies

A friend pointed me to this fascinating article about stray dogs in Moscow:

... It has become a symbol for the 35,000 stray dogs that roam Russia's capital - about 84 dogs per square mile. You see them everywhere. They lie around in the courtyards of apartment complexes, wander near markets and kiosks, and sleep inside metro stations and pedestrian passageways. You can hear them barking and howling at night. And the strays on Moscow's streets do not look anything like the purebreds preferred by status-conscious Muscovites. They look like a breed apart.


They also acted differently. Every so often, you would see one waiting on a metro platform. When the train pulled up, the dog would step in, scramble up to lie on a seat or sit on the floor if the carriage was crowded, and then exit a few stops later. There is even a website dedicated to the metro stray ( on which passengers post photos and video clips taken with their mobile phones, documenting the savviest of the pack using the public transport system like any other Muscovite.

Where did these animals come from? It's a question Andrei Poyarkov, 56, a biologist specialising in wolves, has dedicated himself to answering. His research focuses on how different environments affect dogs' behaviour and social organisation. About 30 years ago, he began studying Moscow's stray dogs. Poyarkov contends that their appearance and behaviour have changed over the decades as they have continuously adapted to the changing face of Russia's capital. Virtually all the city's strays were born that way: dumping a pet dog on the streets of Moscow amounts to a near-certain death sentence. Poyarkov reckons fewer than 3 per cent survive.

i-ece1f2011f7e738a20d0bcf8f7d7a3ad-ecd7de2e-ff2b-11de-a677-001.pngWhat the author goes on to describe is a bit more interesting than the typical "pariah dog". The descriptions of particular wild behavioral morphs seem reminiscent of the sort of evolutionary change one would expect from post-domesticates in an post-apocalyptic world. This is possibly the other side of the domesticated silver fox experiments, though it must be noted that contemporary dog breeds themselves exhibit a very wide range in behavioral orientations, so the Moscow strays may simply be reflecting extant variation.

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If you want study the behavior of stray dogs, Bucharest
Romania's capital city is the best place. Here the density of the dog population is very great and the animals are agressive, have attacked thousands of people and killed a few. The dogs are protected by law and by some Western animal friends organizations like "Vier Pfoten" that use a lot of money to neuter a small part of the dog crowd.A scarry example of a wicked problem.

Lots of wild creatures have adapted to the city, there's not reason that feral creatures couldn't. I've seen ravens droppiung nuts into traffic for cars to crack, and squirrels have made themselves at hom on power lines.

I've read that in a few generations feral dogs converge to a mutt with none of the breed-distinctive characteristics. A lot of highly bred dogs are unhealthy even when being cared for by humans.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

The largest street dogs I have ever seen live in Bariloche and Villa Angostura in Argentina. Those dogs were huge, German Sheperd sized, and at least the ones I saw were very friendly. I suppose they get feed with the leftovers of the famous Argentinian cousine (asados).

In my years of observation, Moscow's feral dogs are very peaceful and not like those described above as from Bucharest. I have assumed that the militsia disposes of any which are not, and therefore, at least in equilibrium, all the small packs I meet have undergone some evolutionary selection.

By Judith Shapiro (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink

Has anyone identified similar dog behavior in U.S. cities? I would think that tolerance on the part of humans for large numbers of loose dogs is necessary to support the phenomenon. Animal control departments are active in nearly every city, town and rural area in the U.S. I have two dogs, neither of which could survive on their own, despite living in an area with lots of small game and water available. The countryside is filled with competitors like coyotes, bobcats and the rare mountain lion. I think these smart adaptable dogs survive in cities for a reason: little competition and lots of discared human food.

If pigeons can use subways in NYC, why not dogs in Moscow?

If coyotes can adapt to downtown L.A. then it isn't surprising that domestic dogs are able to adapt to the different city environments. Dogs have lived with man for thousands of years.