They die like dogs, don't they?
April 20, 2010 12:30 PM   Subscribe

How long do most domestic dogs last in the wilderness? My belief is that they do pretty poorly but I need better, more consise data than I'm finding.

A coworker who put forth the argument that dogs are pretty smart and argued that evidence of this was how well they did on their own in the wild. I argued that they did pretty poorly and that for every pack of feral dogs out there, there is a small mountain of dead domestic dogs that didn't make it.

I did a little digging (Alan M. Beck's 1973 paper for example) but I'm sure someone out there knows this subject better than I will without days of research. The perfect data set would show the survival rates for domestic dogs that were abandoned in an urban and wilderness environment (since I'd also like to know if they do better where they can knock over my trashcans or where they can just try to catch and eat the local fauna).
posted by Kid Charlemagne to Pets & Animals (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I imagine the breed would matter immensely. I know The World Without Us talks on this issue (spoilers: most likely domestic cats survive, domestic dogs do not).
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:44 PM on April 20, 2010

Canines aren't a monolithic group, so you might not find a study that just measures the survival of all dogs that get lost in the wilderness. The survival skills of high-energy and intelligent work dogs, like Malamutes and Huskies, are probably greater than the skills of companion dogs like chihuahuas and pugs. Breeds are indeed bred for different things, so a breed tailored for hunting will have a likely advantage over a breed tailored for women to carry them around in Chanel bags. Obviously size matters, as smaller dogs might end up as prey. Landscape and capabilities matter, too: a spaniel or a scent hound might fare well in a forest area with lakes, whereas a Newfoundland would be toast in the desert.
posted by zoomorphic at 12:50 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

The survival skills of high-energy and intelligent work dogs, like Malamutes and Huskies, are probably greater than the skills of companion dogs like chihuahuas and pugs.

The Chihuahua breed out lived the Aztec civilization, and it will very likely out live ours.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:21 PM on April 20, 2010

I'm not sure that wilderness survival is a good measure of intelligence for dogs. It's not like they're going to build a fire or put their thumbs out to hitchhike or anything. They may or may not be fast or stealthy enough to catch a rabbit, they may or may not have long enough fur to keep warm, but that's not the same as being intelligent.

I think lots of people are smarter than let's say, Sarah Palin, (pick another example if you like -- she just came to mind because she's positioned in the media as some kind of hunter gatherer Avon lady. Also, I'm lazy, okay?) but I have no doubt that woman could keep herself alive in the wilderness.

I think if you want to have the argument (and why not) you'd have to start by defining intelligence and then defining a way to measure it, keeping in mind that most living things are intelligent, it's just a question of how degree.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:40 PM on April 20, 2010

Question of degree, I meant.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:41 PM on April 20, 2010

I think it would depend heavily on local predators. Lost dogs in Los Angeles, for example, tend to be targeted by coyotes.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:00 PM on April 20, 2010

Not very long. I have no studies to cite, but I just saw a show about this on Animal Planet. Domesticated dogs generally don't know how to hunt for enough food for themselves, or the experience to realize without constantly hunting for food and water instead of wandering/trying to get home, they will die. And most probably have no idea at all how to find water that isn't in a convenient pond or puddle. A hardy, adventurous dog that already has some experience in the wilderness might last almost a week. Most would last hours to days, depending on the extremity of the conditions.
posted by catatethebird at 2:11 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a side note, every year we come across a couple corpses of dogs that have gotten lost in the wooded dog park I frequent. It's about 50 acres, with a lot of wildlife and a resevior, surrounded by a police station, hospital, other businesses and houses, and at any given time has several dog lovers in it... So a couple dead dogs a year in a place with abundent food, water, and helpful humans doesn't say much for the surviveability of the average domesticated dog.
posted by catatethebird at 2:18 PM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Most of the time, ratings of "intelligence" for dogs refers to how well they can be trained, and how well they can respond to a wide variety of voice commands. Border collies usually rate top in that.

But I don't see how that would really have much to do with survival for a feral dog.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:09 PM on April 20, 2010

If domestic dogs could do well in the wild, you'd expect to find feral dogs all over the world, wouldn't you?

But you don't. The only case of that I know of is Australian Dingos, and that's a special case because there weren't a lot of big predators to compete with them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:11 PM on April 20, 2010

My dog was a stray for a couple months living in the woods and did fine weight wise and managed not to freeze to death despite it being below zero and her not having a terribly thick coat. She has a very broad definition of "food" though, even for a dog, and an extremely positive disposition so that probably helped.
posted by fshgrl at 5:13 PM on April 20, 2010

Btw my friends pug was lost on the woods for 4 days last year and was completely unfazed. That doesn't seem to be an uncommon story based on my experience living in a rural area and having people dump dogs so I really doubt most lost dogs die within hours.
posted by fshgrl at 5:17 PM on April 20, 2010

A Terrible Llama has a very good point that wilderness survival is not the best measure of canine intelligence since dogs, like people, have become creatures of civilization. Let us not forget that stray dogs in Moscow have learned to ride the subway for transportation, beg efficiently and politely, and frighten people sitting on benches into dropping their lunch. I'd say that's a much better measure of canine intelligence.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 5:18 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Politely disputing Chocolate Pickle's assertion. Feral dogs are a huge problem all over the world. Anywhere that has dogs has a feral dog population, and they can cause big problems.

NatGeo: "Packs of wild dogs roam America's city streets and backcountry roads. Lingering on the edge of domestication, they live in dilapidated buildings, old cars, and sewers— anywhere that will shelter them from summer's blistering heat or winter's bitter cold. "

My understanding, from working with animal rescue people, is that a dog's survival chances aren't dependent on how well it can find food and water. Instead, it's how well that dog manages to integrate into the existing packs.

A stray that slots itself right into an existing feral pack will get along just fine. That's what packs are for, really. But a dog that doesn't fit in for whatever reason will be ostracized if it's lucky - killed by the pack if it isn't.

Dogs are pretty good at finding food and water. Fluffy and adorable and loving they may be, but every dog has powerful drives to eat and drink. And dogs as scavengers can eat just about anything.
posted by ErikaB at 6:03 PM on April 20, 2010

ErikaB, those aren't dogs living in the woods. They're dogs living in human cities and towns.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:12 PM on April 20, 2010

When I was a kid, local dogs would regularly pack up and kill deer and small livestock. Feral dogs are around everywhere, but there's really no definitive way of telling them apart from other shy, loose dogs. They usually stay away from people, but not from habitation. If people where to disappear, they would take to the woods, but there's really no reason to do that now.

Sure, some dogs would die - but a great many will live. Most country/farm dogs will be fine, they're used to killing small game.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:37 PM on April 20, 2010

It depends on your definition of wild: Typically wild dogs are defined as "wild in that they can not be handled and they usually have a 20-40 foot flight zone. They can not survive in the wild on their own and so usually eat from garbage and live close to the dump. They can form dog packs and hunt other pets (or people) depending on the alpha male’s behaviour repertoire... So true wilderness survival seems unlikely. Dogs appear smart enough to exploit humans, but too dumb to survive in the wildness, or vice versa depending on your yardstick for what constitutes smart.

I am assuming the dearth of information on domestic-wild dog transition survival is because it would be difficult to get good information on the attrition rate of dogs going wild. Making any assessment of the situation is further complicated by the fact that in many places wild dogs are quickly euthanized. Once they get wild, Veterinarian Samson-French (WARNING: article about boy being mauled) estimates the dogs live between two to three years in Northern Canadian communities. This is an especially big issue on the reservations, where there is little public infrastructure to deal feral dogs.
posted by zenon at 8:12 PM on April 20, 2010

dogs are pretty smart and argued that evidence of this was how well they did on their own in the wild.

For comparison, the survival rate for humans lost in the wilderness is pretty lousy:

Statistically speaking, people missing beyond 24 hours have about a 50 percent survival rate. Each additional day drops your chances again by close to 25 percent. After four days... rescue efforts usually turn into a recovery mission

(Which is skewed of course by the fact that if someone's gone missing for 24 hours it's likely because something has already gone wrong -- but even so it suggests that wilderness survival isn't going to be a very good metric for intelligence.)
posted by ook at 9:05 PM on April 20, 2010

The New Guinea Singing Dog has lasted at least 6,000 years, largely as a feral dog population, and while some have been recently domesticated and shipped to other countries, others have happily escaped domestication attempts, to forage again in the wild for themselves.
posted by paulsc at 1:03 AM on April 21, 2010

The thing is, my friend has a tendency to cite individual circumstances and then widely extrapolate - like mentioning the movie Eight Below in yesterday's conversation. Using that same technique I can show that being shot in the head is not fatal because there was this guy in Viet Nam.... She seems immune to my comment that anecdote is not the singular of data.

What I'm really looking for is what percentage of dogs that get dumped out in the country make it, say a year, pack or no. The article I mentioned earlier said that of feral dogs (in that study) about half were dead by time they were age one and about 2/3rds by age two, but many of those were struck by cars or euthanized, and, of course, in the city people put food in big metal cans out in the ally so food (if your willing to eat stuff I've seen dog's eat) is easy to come by.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:34 AM on April 21, 2010

I'm sorry but I don't have any data for you but I can tell you that it's impossible to win an argument with someone who won't play by the rules. They will always win.

The guy who wrote the blog Things My Girlfriend and I have Argued About described arguing with her as like a school of logic fish being chased around by a truth shark.

There's also a stray possibility here is that she thinks you're cute and it's fun to watch you get jacked up about this.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:08 AM on April 21, 2010

Well the whole "how they did in the wild" argument is kinda off...dogs didn't evolve naturally. Humans selectively bred them from docile wolves.

Also there is a big difference between a single dog and a pack.
posted by radioamy at 4:28 PM on April 21, 2010

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