Drifting Toward Home

One unintended consequence of the mass transportation of unwanted dogs nationally and internationally is that people like me with an interest in animal health and behavior may now encounter problems seldom if ever previously seen. Observing some of these animals’ behaviors in a novel environment and hearing and reading first-hand accounts from their new owners makes me appreciate the elegance of the basic canine behavioral repertoire and its adaptability. It also makes me admire the resiliency of those animals who ultimately successfully make the transition.

Last month I wrote about instinctive drift, the tendency of animals to drift toward more deeply entrenched behavioral responses when we demand a similar behavior that leads to a less natural result. That commentary discussed the original report which described this phenomenon using food-procuring behavioral displays. This month I want to consider territorial displays, those physical and behavioral adaptations that enable animals to achieve as much stability as possible using the least amount of energy in a particular environment. Although all animals do this, those moved to environments grossly different from those in which they evolved as individuals provide the most dramatic examples.

Enter the transport dog. Because many of these animals come with little or no reliable history, observing their behaviors in their new Russian street dogsenvironments may provide the only clues regarding their pasts. While some animals who arise from strong free-roaming roots may readily adapt, others drift back to the territorial displays associated with their previous lifestyle so fast, it’s difficult to imagine how they endured the confinement in someone’s home, let alone the human manipulation associated with capture and transport. Some in the non-adaptive group possess incredible escape skills. They figure out doorknobs and lever handles and even some locks in no time, go through screens, chew door and window frames, dig through doors and floors, or escape through incredibly small openings like seasoned pros—which some of them probably are.

These animals display separation anxiety only in the sense that their anxiety arises from being separated from access to freedom. Freedom to come and go as they please is the more stable mental and physical territory toward which they drift. Where they go and what they do once free in their new environments may provide clues regarding their social orientation in their lives prior to capture.

In the past I’ve written about how species are labeled social, semi-solitary, or solitary for convenience, but the social orientation of individuals within any species may span the entire sociability continuum depending on a specific animal’s physical and mental environment. Relative to free-roaming dogs, a solitary orientation would benefit those living in environments in which survival depends on the ability to prey on small game. In such an environment, the presence of another dog could have life-threatening consequences if prey were limited. Adopted transport dogs who belong to this group may disappear into the woods or fields when they escape their new homes. It’s possible that some of the most fit among them make incredible journeys back to their original homes where they feel the most secure. However such trips though miles of alien territory would be arduous and it seems likely that only a few would survive. But for those who did, the benefit—being reunited with a territory that is known to them—would be worth the risk.

Meanwhile a more social orientation would benefit free-roaming dogs who survive by group-hunting larger game to ensure their success. This orientation also would help prevent anything more serious than ritualistic squabbling with other dogs in the group over access to the kill because injuries to any member  could jeopardize the survival of all.

Scavengers lie somewhere between the solitary and group hunters on the sociability spectrum. While they don’t need canine assistance to hunt or subdue their food, they may need it to protect their food supply from
competitors and themselves from predators. Depending on the climate, they also may need each other for warmth and protection from the weather.

Thai street dogs 2As you might expect, individual dogs belonging to any free-roaming group also span the physical and mental fitness spectrum. That in turn determines the group’s social structure at any given time. What does this mean relative to captured and transported dogs? The answer to that question lies in the answer to another question: Which free-roaming dogs in a group would be the easiest to capture—the most or the least fit? Logic and a basic knowledge of animal behavior say the latter. A most poignant subgroup of these dogs are the pregnant females or those nursing puppies who will be especially vulnerable to being caught.

Consequently, a fair number of those animals who wind up in the transport system not only will want but also will need someone giving them recognizable cues regarding the proper behavior in order to achieve physical and mental territorial stability. The more the new physical and mental environment differs from the one from which the dog was taken, the greater the need for this kind of guidance. Naturally more subordinate dogs experience a fair amount of freedom within a group led by those who are physically and mentally fit. As a result, these animals automatically orient toward those they consider more capable for cues in their new environments. Because these dogs most likely have had more predictable interactions with other dogs than people, it’s not surprising that they may gravitate toward other dogs.

Now we come to something else I’ve realized about dogs that I never considered before, even though I knew the phenomenon existed in other species. In addition to transported animals not being able to understand the people in their new areas, apparently at least some of them may not be able to understand the other dogs in the new area either. And vice versa: the resident dogs may not be able to understand the transports. This makes me wonder if, like some species of birds, lines of dogs who live in the same geographic location for multiple generations over time would develop their own unique form of communication. These “dialects” could take the form of  body language expressions or kinds of vocalization that enhanced survival in that environment and therefore got passed from generation to generation. While those dogs within the transport’s original group knew exactly what they were communicating, dogs in some other location may not.

Any regional variations in intra-canine communication may create a stressful dilemma for some more social transports, and especially more naturally subordinate ones. On the one hand, they want the companionship of other dogs to provide cues regarding the proper behavioral response in the new environment. On the other, being around other dogs who don’t communicate the same way they do and respond negatively to their overtures may be more stressful to the transplant than being alone.

In these and other circumstances and regardless of the transport’s social Dan cover sans titleorientation or place of origin, if the demands of the new physical and mental territory are sufficiently great compared to any benefits they deliver, then the pull toward the old may become irresistible. In that case, the result may be anything but an all-positive experience for these animals and their new owners.