Are Dogs Hunters or Scavengers?
Defining Hunters and Scavengers
You may think your dog is a great hunter when you watch him chase some squirrels or when he points at some nearby birds, but when he gets into your trash can to eat some of your leftovers, you may think he's more of a scavenger. So, are dogs really hunters or are they more like scavengers? If we look at the fact that the dog is a subspecies of the gray wolf, we may readily assume he must be a hunter. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the dog evolved from the wolf more than 11,000 years ago and co-evolved alongside humans since then. So, to obtain a verdict to this query, several factors must be held into account. For starters, and for the sake of clarity, let's first discuss the differences between hunters and scavengers.
How is a hunter made and how is the act of hunting itself defined? A hunter is any animal or person who pursues any living animals for the purpose of eating flesh or for recreation purposes. Obviously, humans are perhaps the only species that can sometimes hunt just for the fun of it, considering that when dogs look like they hunt out of fun, often do so mainly out of instinct. It's almost a reflex, the dog sees a fast movement and without even thinking, its ears prick up and in a split second he's into the frenzy of the chase. Canine play indeed often entails elements of hunting such as stalking, pouncing and shaking toys with side-to-side head movements. Many dogs then go in for the final kill by removing the "entrails" of their stuffed toys.
Common hunting animals that come to mind are those who hunt with other members of their species (pack hunters) such as wolves, lions and hyenas. On the other hand, many other animals also hunt alone such as tigers, leopards and bears. Regardless of their hunting style, these animals must be crafted in such as way as so to be successful in survival. They must be fast, have good reflexes, be capable of tracking down their prey and have weapons to bring in the kill such as sharp teeth and sharp claws.
And what about scavengers? Scavengers are animals that feed on dead animals or other food left behind that is found nearby their habitats. Common types of scavengers that come to mind are vultures and raccoon. However, common hunting animals such as hyenas, lions, tigers and wolves, may also scavenge if presented with the opportunity. So if wolves, which are a dog's ancestors, are normally pack hunters, but resort to scavenging when given the opportunity, where do dogs stand? Cast your vote below, and then come back to reading the next paragraph....
Are dogs hunters or scavengers?
A Step Back in Time Reveals an Insight...
So we know that wolves are pack hunters and that they will resort to scavenging given the opportunity. At this point, we may wonder where do dogs stand? After all, despite dogs sharing many similar traits with wolves, they also have many differences that set them apart. To better understand this, let's take a brief look into doggy evolution.
Biologist Raymond Coppinger, who has extensively studied the evolution of modern dogs, believes that the story about humans taking wolf pups from their dens and welcoming them into their homes is "nothing more than a romantic fairy tale. “ Despite many people trying to raise wolves in their homes, the wolf remains a tamed animal whereas a dog is a domesticated one. Coppinger explains: I don’t care how tame wolves are, try to take their bone away or fool around with them when they’re in a courtship performance, and you could die right there on the spot.
So if humans didn't domesticate dogs, how did modern dogs evolve from wolves? Raymond Coppinger believes that the wolves ultimately domesticated themselves approximately 15,000 years at the end of the Ice-Age when humans started living in villages for extended periods of time and started producing waste possibly scattered around the homes or left in designated dumps. Such leftovers most likely attracted the unwanted rats, pigeons, cockroaches and...the occasional wolf, which as mentioned before, is for the most part a hunter but will resort to scavenge given the opportunity.
The wolves who were less hesitant—basically, those most likely to have shorter flight distances (those who seemed less concerned about being closer to humans) survived and passed down this behavior trait to all successive generations. Soon, more and more wolves were more comfortable being around humans. It's unclear if these proto-dogs were significantly smarter or just exceptionally lazy....
Further studies seem to support Coppinger's belief that dogs became domesticated from sticking around human settlements as agriculture started blooming. A recent study published in Nature found that the ability to digest starches was likely a part of the evolution from wolf to dog. Indeed, it appears that dogs possess special genes responsible for digesting starches, which sets them apart from wolves. The same process appears to have happened in humans as farming started to evolve. Even humans evolved to better digest starches. “This is a striking sign of parallel evolution,” claims Lindblad-Toh, a geneticist at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Robert Wayne, a geneticist at the University of California, agrees that starch metabolism could have played an important role in adaptation for dogs but he thinks it most likely developed after behavioral changes took place when humans first took dogs in, back in time when they hunted large game.
Another possible explanation is that the dog's ancestor trailed along when humans hunted with arrows and bows in hopes of scavenging on the waste pile. Then, when humans discovered agriculture, the dog’s ancestor could finally give up roaming and hunting and make the dumpsters of villages their permanent habitat. In order to do this, the fear parts of his brain had to be already somewhat changed. At the same time, humans likely selectively allowed only the most docile dogs to survive since any dog demonstrating aggression likely was killed. Since this proto-dog no longer needed to walk far, his body no longer had to be fit as before; therefore, his skeletons, muscles and brain started adjusting to sedentary life. Since he no longer needed to use his teeth to kill, his jaws and teeth became smaller and so did his head and his brain, explains Alexandra Semyonova, author of book The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs.
So, Are Dogs Hunters or Scavengers? The Final Verdict
So are dogs ultimately hunters or scavengers? Owners of hunting dogs may report that their dogs are with no shadow of doubt hunters, but are they really? Yes, they may point, flush and retrieve downed birds, but their hunting styles are a far cry from how they used to hunt in the past. From silent stalkers, dogs have been selectively bred to hunt in a symbiotic relationship with humans. This has caused alterations in the predatory sequence.
When hunting with humans, dogs no longer follow the predatory sequence from A to Z which entailed searching, stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and eating. Nowadays, you have retrievers delivering downed birds with a soft mouth, pointers quietly pointing and spaniels flushing birds out of bushes so hunters can get a clear shot. Collies also will stalk, chase livestock but will not bite or kill (ideally). This suggests that once dogs met human, their evolutionary capability to hunt was altered.
Sure, dogs still are blessed with strong noses and they're still capable of hearing in the ultrasonic range so they can hear the faintest squeaks from rodents and they still engage in fixed action patterns and for a good part reflexive ancestral behaviors such as turning in circles before laying down. Sadly, in some cases, predatory drive may also pop its ugly head during predatory drift. However, with the growth of agriculture, hunting skills were further inhibited in dogs as no farmer wanted dogs who killed their sheep. They rather preferred selectively breeding dogs and training them to herd them instead.
So what's the verdict to the question are dogs hunters or scavengers? It appears that for a good part dogs are scavengers since they fail to display the whole predatory sequence. Yet, occasionally, there are dogs who will appear to be more predisposed to hunting by carrying the whole predatory sequence. For instance, Terriers and Sighthounds often boast the full range of predatory behaviors but these breed groups are mainly bred to hunt and do so mostly for the thrill of the chase rather than for mere survival purposes.
So, if we take a look back at our definitions of hunters and scavengers we will notice how dogs for the most part no longer pursue living animals for the purpose of eating their flesh. If so was the case, the dogs would live off prey and live independently from humans. Instead, dogs live alongside humans in exchange for food, attention and shelter and many of them wouldn't even survive if brought back to the wild to fend for themselves. So looks like Rover is no longer a hunter in the real sense of the word, but—no offense intended, most likely an opportunistic being with a history of living by a village dump.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli