Despite their unparallelled popularity amongst humans, until the end of last century there had been very little dedicated scientific inquiry into the domestic dog. Not into its behaviour, the beguiling history of its domestication or even that ubiquitous bond they seem to have forged with our species.
Nowadays it doesn’t take too much effort to find snippets of useful information on the internet, but it’s often the same old stuff. However, this programme “The Secret Life Of The Dog“, an episode of the popular BBC series Horizon, should be required viewing for anyone with a real interest in dogs, and their unique relationship with us. Those from the UK have probably already seen it, but for the rest of us it’s a real treat.
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On Tuesday, as I was preparing to publish the next post in my series about Pit Bulls, news broke of a child killed by dogs in Sweet Home Farm in Philippi. The headline in Wednesday’s Argus screams “Dog Attack Fury” and the sub-heading “Mob turns on pets after little boy killed by pack’. The three photos include a larger, featured one showing residents threatening a terrified dog – mouth drawn wide in a distinctive ‘fear-gape’ – with a sturdy piece of wood. The dogs are described as ‘strays’ throughout the piece, and the group of four that killed the toddler described as a ‘pack’.
It’s a horrible story all round, and its gravity is heightened by the fact that this is apparently not the first multi-dog incident in the area in recent times. Questions are already flying around about why so many horrible dog attacks seem to be happening right now, and the residents in the settlement now want all dogs removed from the area for good – two have already been killed by the angry residents, and some puppies were placed in a bag and left on railway tracks but survived. The COGH-SPCA is centrally involved in diffusing the anger and rescuing dogs, and they have pledged to situate a mobile clinic in the area for the next while to monitor events and remove any dogs that may be in danger.
What’s going on?
So why are we seeing this cluster of fatal dog attacks in Cape Town at the moment? No-one can give a definitive answer, obviously, and I’m sure the cold weather may have some role to play as the seasonal influences often do. But we have cold, wet winters every year, and this pattern isn’t an annual phenomenon. It is also essential to bear in mind that the different incidents that have happened recently have quite different profiles, and the killing of a young child by a group of dogs such as happened in Philippi this week is an exceedingly rare, almost bizarre, event!
What is somewhat specific to this time is the escalating economic hardship being felt across the city, the country and the world at present. Despite constant reassurances from economists, politicians and even the IMF/World Bank about recovery and bright prospects for growth, the reality on the ground seems quite different and completely at odds with these rosy sentiments. Businesses seem to be closing all over the place, and people I meet are complaining bitterly about the fall-off in economic activity compared even to last year, let alone the more distant and prosperous times of a few years ago. It’s a bit like living in a twilight zone, where represented reality seems to have little bearing on lived actuality. And when people’s consumption falls, and there is less to go round generally, that is bound to impact those animals living at the very margins who rely on a constant supply of human spillover to survive.
Was it predation?
Attached to this, the other question currently doing the rounds is: was the attack predatory in motivation? There isn’t nearly enough information available to make any snap judgements about this incident; nor are there such neat and clear delineations about motivation in general when it comes to behaviour in another species. The most that can ever be reliably offered is an estimate of probabilities, based on available data… and in this case, there isn’t even much of that to work from… not yet, anyway. As previously emphasized, it is extremely uncommon for domestic dogs ever to prey on living humans – if predatory behaviour was indeed the motivation – but when these kinds of attacks do happen, it is usually the very young (normally much younger than three years old) they will target and will usually do so in a socially facilitated group action.
Only a diligent autopsy will reveal whether or not this attack was primarily predatory in nature; from the little information I’ve gathered about wound morphology, it doesn’t seem so to me. But food acquisition isn’t the only motivator for human attacks even by hungry dogs, and predatory sequences aren’t limited to food acquisition. It can as easily be the result of changes to their overall emotional states brought on by the lack of food, and the simple enactment of parts of the predatory motor-pattern sequence (Eye -> stalk -> chase -> grab-bite -> crush/kill-bite -> dissect) can provide sufficient innate reward to provide needed relief for some dogs. These can also be triggered as a very primitive response to a variety of stimulus cues (such as distress vocalisation from the human infant). Stimulating that innate reward loop is what motivates any number of the discreet behaviours that traditional working breeds/types typically exhibit. Underneath the 14 000 years of selection for ‘tameness’ there is still a basic canid brain at work.
The reporting doesn’t illuminate
But the way the media characteristically report these kinds of tragedies often doesn’t help to inform in a useful way, and this does require some brief comment in this case. When one talks of ‘stray’ dogs one is describing a pet class animal that has strayed from their original environment and is, effectively, away from the circumstances they were brought up to cope with. A dog that was born on the streets, or is living much like their parents did, unrestrained and free-roaming, and has always been doing so, isn’t really a stray. How pets are defined differs from community to community, but those dogs are most likely community dogs, just like so many others in the townships and informal settlements of South Africa (and beyond).
Also, in canid biology ‘packs’ are defined as social units that hunt, rear young and protect a communal territory as a stable group1, and are usually related2. When I’ve previously complained about using this descriptor to describe groups of domestic dogs demonstrating socially facilitated (sometimes mimicry – ‘monkey see, monkey do’ – behaviours), the standard excuse is that in common English usage, ‘pack’ is the standard collective noun for groups of dogs. But this isn’t actually true either. ‘Pack’ is indeed the collective noun for ‘wild dogs’, ‘kennel’ the formal collective noun for domestic pets and many working types, ‘cry, mute or pack’ for hounds and ‘litter’ for puppies. For the curs, – that underclass of dogs that includes the unpedigreed, the mongrels, the strays and the free-ranging neighbourhood dogs, the formal collective noun is actually a ‘cowardice’. Sad, but true.
Why sweat the semantics?
The descriptions used in reporting incidents like this is important because of the enormously pejorative associations that can be attached to sloppily ascribed labels, and the way the general public perceive a current problem because of that. When stray dogs are assumed to be responsible for such a shocking incident, it impacts the way people understand strayed animals overall. It also redirects attention from the stable population of community dogs that lives in the area, or any area, and obviates any responsibility the primary human caregivers may have for what their dogs do when out roaming the streets, if such caregivers there be.
The regular appeal to this notion of dog ‘packs’ behaving in certain ways misrepresents the canis familiaris in the first instance, as well as the canid family as a whole. The dog family is essentially capable of complex social behaviour and living arrangements, but the propensity to form these societies is dependent on needs and niche, and is not a genetic imperative. Some wolves form packs (extended families), some form meta-packs (such as in Yellowstone National Park). But the Ethiopian wolf – and it is now widely assumed that dog domestication originated in the middle east – customarily will live either singly or with a mate. Pack formation amongst the northern wolves depends on the required foraging strategy (big prey requires many hunters, but can also provide sufficient food), and can vary seasonally (catching a snow rabbit may be problematic when there are nine mouths to feed). Cayotes have been known to form social groups when needed, as have jackals. Social formations are an emergent facility, and not a hard-wired necessity.
What can possibly explain this kind of behaviour?
The first issue which I’m sure is being diligently investigated is whether rabies played any part in this tragedy. I personally believe that to be unlikely, as that malady mitigates against social interaction with other dogs as much as anything else. But that is always a concern when dogs begin to exhibit such profoundly atypical behaviours and it must be ruled out as even a cofactor. Last year there were a spate of rabies cases reported in various townships and informal settlements in Gauteng and it is a constant threat with dog populations.
When domestic dogs form loose, transient groups their interactive behaviour always has the potential to increase the threat to the human population they live amongst (boldness in numbers, for one thing). But I personally believe that something else entirely may be in play in this case, as well as previous cases in the same area that have been claimed. The basis of the peaceful and mutual interaction between domestic dogs and humans is the late onset of ‘Hazard Avoidance Behaviour’ at about 48 days, and the untypically drawn out ‘Critical Period for Social Development’ (from about 3 weeks until about 16 weeks)3. This developmental window allows for a form of ‘social imprinting’ (and I use the term in the less formal sense) that the process of domestication has moulded in the domestic canine species.
The situation for their wild cousins is very different, which is why taming them reliably is often very difficult (the onset of a wolf’s ‘Hazard Avoidance Behaviour’ is more like 19 days, as a contrast, and their Socialisation window less than half that of the domestic canine). This is the foundation of what makes dogs such reliable human companions, and what makes wolves not. It allows young animals to identify who and what form part of their social ‘in-group’, and generally an animal doesn’t show the suite of predatory behaviours (or residual parts of that) to those in the in-group (Border Collies raised living with sheep in the barn are unable to herd them – to show ‘eye’ – when they grow up, for instance).
This is the reason so-called “puppy socialization classes” were established and promoted to the middle-classes, and is in large part a mechanism to counteract the isolation of young dogs that confinement behind picket fences in suburbia had engendered. Since the earliest times, the village dog population in rural areas in the Developing World, as well as the neighbourhood dog population in low-income areas in the cities, had constant and multitudinous contact with people, and especially children, as a daily routine. This included those young and very impressionable dogs roaming the streets.
In recent years the increase in crime in general, and crime against the most vulnerable in our society – the young children – in particular, has ensured that children are spending less and less time on the streets, interacting with the neighbourhood dogs. This includes those puppies in the midst of this Socialisation-sensitive Critical Period.
In recent years the increase in crime in general, and crime against the most vulnerable in our society – the young children – in particular, has ensured that children are spending less and less time on the streets, interacting with the neighbourhood dogs. This includes those puppies in the midst of this Socialisation-sensitive Critical Period. As a result, the dogs are likely to grow up with a very different relationship with people, and especially with children. Because of this change in human social conduct, dog-human dynamics may change over the next while, and this attack may prove to be a mere precursor for a much more serious problem down the road. I personally don’t know of any other situation anywhere in the world where a free-roaming population of dogs is growing up with limited close contact with such a populous human community, or what the long-term implications of that might be. It’s just a hypothesis, but perhaps one that requires some consideration.
- Mech, L. D. (1970). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. New York: Natural History Press ↩
- Bekoff, M., Daniels, T.J.& Gittleman, J.L. (1984). Life History Patterns and the comparative social ecology of carnivores. Annual Review of Ecological Systematics, 15, 191-232 ↩
- Coppinger, R., & Coppinger, L. (2001). Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scriber, New York ↩
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