Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB
I recently gave a presentation on applied animal behavior to a wonderful animal advocacy group on the Micronesian island of Guam. I was on the island on behalf of my wife’s (Dr. Renee Ha, UW Psychology/Animal Behavior) research on the endangered Mariana Crow, and I offered to meet with the local shelter group, GAIN (Guam Animals In Need) to do a little education… and ended up getting an education myself.
I started out talking about the principles of animal behavior, and of learning, and of treatment of anxiety in the shelter environment, and all of the information that is so widely useful to my clients and audiences (speaking and blog, in-home and shelter-based) here in the States. But that’s not what they really wanted to talk about… they had different issues, like how to lay their hands on the animals in the first place. We had to talk for a while before I realized what we were talking about: truly feral dogs. These are not household pets that had escaped, and were running loose for days, or weeks, or even months. These were not the offspring of family pets that had been dumped for lack of energy or motivation to find homes. These were multi-generational, wild-living dog packs.
Now, we should be clear about our terms when it comes to these sorts of animals. Wild dogs would refer to species not yet domesticated, living in the wild, like African Wild Dogs, wolves, and so on. At the other extreme are free-ranging household pets. In between these two extremes falls two groups recognized by wildlife experts (these terms apply to any formerly domesticated species but we’ll stay focused on dogs here): feral dogs and pariah dogs. Pariah dogs, as an ecological term, was coined by Lehr Brisbin, a biologist in Savannah GA many years ago in his work on abandoned dogs at a Federal facility in the area (nice article about him here. The term Pariah Dog has now been adopted by a number of breed groups as a name for a type of dog formerly occupying the “pariah niche” in ecology-speak, and now returned to domestication (human controlled breeding). But the original pariah-type in ecology referred to dogs who were breeding freely, without human intervention but reliant on humans for food (and probably predator avoidance and reduction too). Many areas of our country have resident pariah dog packs, groups of varying social composition, dependent on human handouts and refuse, and protection from their physical and biological surroundings. Feral dogs, on the other hand, are truly wild packs, able to fend for themselves in the wild, no longer dependent on humans at all. These packs are much less common, and what appears to exist on Guam.
Now, this issue of pariah groups consisting of loose and dynamic, let’s say, aggregations of dogs, as opposed to feral, not dependent on humans, reproductively stable dog packs is interesting from an ethological perspective. It is in these pariah groups that canine aficionados opposed to the concept of social hierarchy among dog find the lack of a social hierarchy like wolves. And this makes sense, since the social structure is quite different: in wolf packs, or packs of truly feral dogs, the pack is an inter-related extended family group, whereas in pariah aggregations of dogs, there are no, or few, close genetic relationships. And as we know from ethological studies, kinship is a major force in the determination of social organization and hierarchies. So it would be fascinating to study the social organization of these (fairly unusual) truly multigenerational, feral, reproductively-stable groups of dogs. Based on the existing literature, I predict we would find strong male and female social hierarchies as we do in wolves and most other canids.
Aaah, so many interesting research studies, so little research money!! And eventually we come back to the issues of the GAIN volunteers of Guam. Truly feral dogs are wily, smart animals (you don’t survive in the jungles of Guam, exposed to other predators like large monitor lizards, venomous brown tree snakes, and most critically, other feral dog packs, without becoming very reclusive and cautious, like, say, wild wolves and coyotes! What could I tell them? These were not the black labs, pit bulls, and Yorkies that I am used to treating. These dogs all knew, or were learning quickly, exactly where their next meal came from, and all knew exactly where they were sleeping that night, and for whom capture meant holding out a treat and grasping them firmly by their collar! These folks needed to know how to set live-traps in the jungle, and how to deal with truly wild canids when they were found injured or hit by a car. So they had fascinating academic questions here, but they needed real, practical help.
So I switched gears, began to think more about my training as a wildlife biologist, and about how to deal with the very most extreme cases that I have seen in shelter animals, dogs raised in environments with a total lack of socialization (rare, in our world, thank goodness), and hopefully, was able to provide some suggestions that might help. It was a wonderful meeting, an enlightening one for me, and I promised the GAIN team that I would remain in touch, and look for possibilities to fund some very exciting research in their world. I’ll be back to the Mariana Islands later this summer, and if I can make it to Guam, I look forward to interacting with all of them again!