Dr. Marc Bekoff

Would dogs be better off without us?

This excerpt is from A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff (Princeton University Press, 2021). This web adaptation was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Would dogs be better off without us? This may be a difficult question to consider if you live with a dog, love dogs, and find beauty in the enduring loyalty of the human-dog partnership. If you are reading this book with a dog curled up next to you on the couch or on her fluffy dog bed, happily licking peanut butter out of a Kong, this question might even be too painful to contemplate: How would my dog survive, naked and afraid, set adrift in a frightening new reality, without me to keep her safe? Yet try to imagine for a few moments not only what your dog might lose, but also what she might gain. Better yet, think about the whole range of individual dogs who currently share the planet with humans and consider the potential losses and the potential gains of having the world to themselves. And think about dogs who might come after the transition, who have never known life with humans. Maybe dogs as a species would have a better go of things on a planet that they didn’t have to share with people, if the 20,000-year-long domestication experiment—which, arguably, has had its problems—were called off once and for all.

Dogs would be challenged by living on their own in a posthuman world. But a posthuman world is also full of what you might call “dog possibilities”—the various ways in which dogs would adapt, innovate, and expand their experiential worlds. We’ve seen that there is far more to the lives of dogs than being a house pet, spending the day chasing balls, barking at the postal delivery person, or waiting anxiously for their person to come home from work. A dogs’ world is a bustling place, with dogs working on their own and with others to solve the puzzle of survival and to reap the rewards of life. Trying to catalog what dogs might stand to gain and lose if humans disappeared can help bring into focus some of the ways in which humans make life hard for dogs. More pertinent for those of us who live with companion dogs are the potential insights about how we might, without even realizing it, be asking our dogs to live in ways that constrain who they are and who they might become, the many ways in which we compromise the “dogness” of dogs. Having a sense of the whole experiential range of dog possibilities may help us become better companions to our dogs.

To explore whether the dog sitting next to us on the couch is fantasizing about a humanless world, we’ve tried to identify the potential gains and losses for dogs in a world without us. As you might expect, the question, “Would dogs be better off?” does not yield a simple “yes” or “no” answer, and the further you dive into the question the murkier the waters become.

Variables at Play in the Gains and Losses Game

We’ve constructed a comprehensive list of what dogs stand to gain or lose if humans go extinct in our book. Here are a few thoughts on why judgments about gains and losses are complicated.

What dogs may gain or lose as a species is distinct from what an individual dog stands to gain or lose. The sudden disappearance of humans will result in broadscale losses at the individual level. Many dogs will be ill-equipped to survive, not having had any lived experiences of obtaining their own food, finding shelter, or forming a workable pair bond. Depending on how humans disappear, individual dogs in captivity—for example, inside homes with no way to get out, or locked inside shelters or laboratory cages—will perish. Overcrowding of dogs in some areas may lead to intense competition for scarce food resources. Moreover, large numbers of individual dogs will be unable to reproduce because they have been desexed, and so even if individuals manage to survive, they will be at a genetic dead end. Nevertheless, enough dogs may survive this first wave so that viable populations will be able to take hold in habitable ecosystems. Dogs as a species may very well go on to flourish.

The gains and losses for dogs in a world without humans will be unique and will depend a great deal on where a dog begins this unprecedented journey into a posthuman future. The unique characteristics of where and how each dog is living when humans disappear will greatly influence what challenges they face and what is experienced as a loss or gain. How well they cope will depend on an individual dog’s personality, past experiences, learning, social and emotional intelligence, and physical attributes.

Dogs currently live in wildly diverse relationships with humans, and while some dogs may keenly miss humans, others will be glad to see us go. A pet dog with a well-informed, motivated, and empathic human caregiver has more to lose than a dog caged at a research laboratory or in a puppy mill. Feral dogs will miss the enormous piles of garbage that humans produce but may not experience any loss of human companionship. Although the challenges for pet, free-ranging, and feral dogs will be different, the loss of humans and the transition from human selection to natural selection will be abrupt, and it won’t be pretty for many of the dogs on the planet.

There will be far fewer posthuman dogs inhabiting the planet. A reduction in total numbers should not necessarily be viewed as a complete loss because arguably there are too many dogs, their population having been bloated by intensive human breeding and careless pet-keeping practices. The size of dog populations, especially in dog-dense areas, will need to be much smaller to be sustainable, with sustainability depending on the carrying capacity—the maximum population size of a species that can be sustained within a given environment—of different habitats in which dogs are trying to survive.

Posthuman dogs may form short- or long-term groups. What might be a gain for a group isn’t necessarily a gain for all individuals within the group, and much will depend on who else is in the group and the ecological conditions with which the group must contend. Groups of animals tend to be most robust when they contain a broad range of behavioral phenotypes. It may be good for a group to have a combination of high-ranking and low-ranking individuals, but life might be difficult for those individuals who are of lower rank.

If humans disappeared, some gains and losses would be felt immediately, such as loss of human food subsidies and the gain of freedom from physical constraint, but the effects of human disappearance will reverberate and shift over generations.

Editor’s Note: For more about the book, see “Science and Speculation Say Dogs Would Do Well Without Us” (Psychology Today, October 21, 2021) by co-author Marc Bekoff. For a deeper dive into many of the topics addressed in the book, please visit Dr. Bekoff’s blog, Animal Emotions. ###

Jessica Pierce is a faculty affiliate at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School. Her books include Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. Find her at jessicapierce.net.

Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. His books include Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Find him at marcbekoff.com and on Twitter @MarcBekoff.

Here's what you need to know about the emotional lives of animals

Scientific research shows that many animals are very intelligent and have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs are able to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes and warn humans of impending heart attacks and strokes. Elephants, whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and alligators use low-frequency sounds to communicate over long distances, often miles. And bats, dolphins, whales, frogs, and various rodents use high-frequency sounds to find food, communicate with others, and navigate.

Keep reading... Show less

What Would a Mother 'Food' Cow Tell Us About Her Children?

The science behind bovine sentience

Keep reading... Show less

Zoothanasia: The Cruel Practice of Killing Healthy Zoo Animals

Many zoos routinely kill healthy individuals they refer to as "surplus" animals because they're no longer useful to them. The animals can't be used as breeding machines or they're taking up space that's needed for other animals of the same or other species. As morally reprehensible as the practice of killing surplus animals seems, it's a reality and part of business as usual for many zoos.

Keep reading... Show less

Many Captive Species Have Permanent Sanctuaries: Finally, Whales and Dolphins Will Have Theirs

Animals kept in terrestrial and water zoos—zooed animals—clearly are not living anything that resembles a normal life. They suffer from all sorts of psychological and physical disorders and have lost the freedom to make choices and to control their own lives.

Keep reading... Show less

Pets as Gifts: Please Don't Surprise Me With a Life Sentence

Around holiday time, people begin to ask me if it's okay to give a pet as a gift. Just as I was pondering what to write this time around, Hugh Dorigo sent me a short clip from his recent film "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats.

Keep reading... Show less

Traditional Conservation Science Is Ethically Challenged: Compassionate Conservation Fixes That

Author's note: Many of the ideas in this essay were developed in close collaboration over the past few years with Drs. Arian Wallach and Daniel Ramp of the Center for Compassionate Conservation. I am deeply indebted to their breadth of knowledge and wisdom. We might not always agree, but that's just fine for getting much needed discussions and debates on the table.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Gunman Provides More Evidence of the Link Between Animal Cruelty and Violence to Humans

The relationship between violence toward nonhuman animals and human animals—often called the "link"—is well established. I've written about this relationship in a number of essays, most recently focusing on New Zealand's war on wildlife in which youngsters are being taught in school and government-sanctioned events to harm and to call so-called pests.

Keep reading... Show less

Empathy Burnout, Compassion Fatigue: The Downside of Being an Animal Rescuer

We're doing it for the animals and the work is never done

Keep reading... Show less

Why Switzerland May Be the Best Country in the World - If You're a Pet

Humans share their homes and lives with a wide variety of nonhuman animals. However, globally, companion animals are considered to be objects under existing laws. Regulations and laws protecting companion and other animals don't come close to keeping up with what we know about their cognitive and emotional lives.

Keep reading... Show less

Why Do People Say They Love Animals and Then Kill Them?

I really enjoy working with youngsters and talking about animal behavior, conservation and human-animal relationships (as one kid said, it should be called animal-human relationships). Many youngsters are keenly interested in these topics and often ask questions that belie their age. Not only are many youngsters well versed on animal behavior from watching the various companions with whom they share their home, but they also watch incredibly good documentaries on TV. A good number also are very concerned about how animals are mistreated, and ask questions that show they empathize with, and feel compassion for, the plight of other animals. 

Keep reading... Show less

Sentience is Everywhere: Indeed, It's an Inconvenient Truth

"The science of consciousness has dethroned humanity from the simplistic pyramid we have thus far based our actions on, and opened a new way of viewing and engaging with life around us."

Keep reading... Show less

Animals Raised for Food Have Deep Cognitive and Emotional Lives - So Why Do We Treat Them With Such Cruelty?

The following excerpt is from The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce ( Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

Keep reading... Show less

Can Humans Truly Connect With Nature by Eating a Big Mac?

Do we really need to kill other animals to connect with nature and with ourselves?

Keep reading... Show less

Why Can Only Humans Be Murdered? What About Non-Human Animals?

It's well known that the language we use to refer to nonhuman animals can be used to hide or sanitize the often egregious ways in which we use, harm and kill them. Words such as euthanize, dispatch, harvest, and cull are frequently used to refer to instances in which people with different motivations and intentions kill healthy animals. It's about time these polite words are changed to the harsher word, murder, because that's what it really is. However, time again, we are told that only humans can be murdered, because that's the way legal systems view killing other-than-human animals.

Keep reading... Show less

If You Truly Care About Social Justice, Then You Might Want to Think About Who It Is Exactly You're Eating (VIDEO)

In her excellent essay, Dr. Hope Ferdowsian clearly showed "Why Justice for Animals Is the Social Movement of Our Time." Here, I want to follow up on how issues of rampant and brutal animal abuse, specifically in the profit-driven animal-industrial food complex, and social justice, are closely linked.

Keep reading... Show less

Animals Have Emotional Lives, Too

Scientific research shows that many animals are very intelligent and have sensory and motor abilities that dwarf ours. Dogs are able to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes and warn humans of impending heart attacks and strokes. Elephants, whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and alligators use low-frequency sounds to communicate over long distances, often miles; and bats, dolphins, whales, frogs, and various rodents use high-frequency sounds to find food, communicate with others, and navigate.

Keep reading... Show less