From automatic ball launchers to smart doghouses and sophisticated prosthetics, big tech for pets is big business. Admittedly, many of these life hacks benefit humans first and dogs second as we invent new ways to balance interspecies living with our active lifestyles.
This begs a bunch of questions: Are dogs better off with humans ... or left to gallivant freely on their own? Do dogs really need us to survive (like we think they do)? What would happen to dogs if *poof* humans disappeared from the planet?
[Read: “Spirituality and Dogs.”]
Because as much as we want to think we are dogs’ best friends, that is not always the case. Many dogs are subject to violence, neglect, or indifference from humans. And even conscientious, caring animal lovers must confess that their dog might sometimes be annoyed when dragged along on seemingly endless errands or forced to sit under a café table while their loquacious human chats on ad nauseam.
Nor is it accurate to suggest that dogs always gush forth with unconditional love or “live in the present.” These romantic musings project our human ideals onto others. Indeed, each dog has a unique experience, with thoughts and emotions, memories and desires. So, while we humans spend a lot of time trying to figure out just what dogs are thinking, I suspect that most times our guesses are way off base.
In their thought-provoking book, A Dog’s World, Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff imagine what life might be like for various dogs in a world without humans. Informed by biological, ethological, and ecological research, the authors speculate about pros and cons for dogs on a post-human Earth. They consider both what they call transition dogs—those who would have previously lived with humans—as well as future generations of dogs who would have no idea what a human was.
Of importance, Pierce and Bekoff also remind us that most dogs do not live in human households right now. While the precise number of dogs is difficult to pin down, it is estimated that free-range dogs make up about three-quarters of the global dog population.
In sum, A Dog’s World reveals what we might expect: Some dogs would be better off. Some would not. While reading the book, I realized that “Would dogs survive?” is not the most useful question we might ask. Instead, how dogs would survive without us provided valuable insights for how we might better help dogs thrive while we are still around.
I recently asked Dr. Bekoff a few of my most curious questions about the future of dogs.
You suggest that it’s important for humans to not compromise a dog’s “dogness.” Why is this crucial?
The simple answer is that we need to let dogs be dogs―let them use their highly evolved sniffers―and do dog-appropriate behaviors even if we think they’re offensive. Butts and noses are important to dogs. Furthermore, because only around 25 percent of dogs in the world are “homed” dogs, we shouldn’t use those as models of who dogs really are. Free-ranging and feral dogs also are dogs, and so, there is no universal dog.
A Super Bowl ad I watched this year for the all-electric Kia EV6 featured a heart-warming story of the relationship between a man and a robot dog. In an age of increased conjecture about the role of AI, robotics, and the speedy expansion of the metaverse, do you think there is a role for virtual or robot dogs? And if so, do you think encouraging people to have these types of “dog” relationships might help resolve problems like live dogfighting, puppy mills, or animals left out on chains all winter?
Bekoff: I’m not sure I can answer this important question with any certainty. If someone wants a companion robotic dog because they don’t have the time or other resources to give a real dog a great life, then that’s fine. But to suggest that a robotic dog can replace a real dog doesn’t make sense to me. It’s the shared alive positive emotions that bond most people to dogs―and vice versa. I call it “social glue,” the give-and-take exchanges that make for reciprocal, respectful, compassionate, caring, and kind dynamic relationships. I’d love to see robotic dogs used for the more egregious activities to which some humans subject truly sentient, feeling, furry, barking, quirky, live dogs.
In A Dog’s World, you explore what might happen to dogs if humans disappeared from Earth. Auspiciously, right before reading your book, I read Daniel Ehrenhaft’s speculative fiction novel The Last Dog on Earth. In my conversations with people about both books, I’ve noticed that people have a lot of curiosity about what happens if canine/human bonds are broken but few people ever talk about what might happen for cats. So why do people seem to presume that cats can take care of themselves more than dogs can? Or do you think this is because our bonds with cats are different than those with dogs?
Bekoff: Dogs and cats are different but not as different as some people make them out to be. I’ve written a few essays about this, including “Dogs Are Not Smarter Than Cats, and More: A Media Muddle” and “Are Some Cats Psychopathic, or Are They Just Being Cats?” I don’t know cats as well as dogs, but I love them as much. It turns out I’m allergic to most cats, so that’s put the dampers on my working with them.
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And so, what does the future hold for dogs? I’m not sure. Yet, using our imaginations might just be the first step to creating a kinder now that encourages each one to “be their best doggie self.”
Want more creative ideas for dog life? Read “Walking the Divine Fido.”