It is not clear exactly when or precisely how, but at some point thousands of years ago, dogs became the world’s first domesticated animal. When those descendants of wolves hitched their star to humans, they hitched it hard.
Consider one key difference between the pups of wolves and the pups of street dogs, which make up about 85 percent of all the world’s dogs. Baby wolves stay for two years with their mother and father and extended family, who teach their offspring the difficult but critical task of taking down wild prey. Feral puppies, by contrast, probably never lay eyes on dad. Their mom typically stops nursing them at around 2 months of age – and then leaves.
Lacking the hunting skills of their wolf cousins, these vulnerable and suddenly solo little ones have a couple of options for survival. They must either figure out quickly how to scavenge through trash for people’s leftovers or they must be taken in by a human who will provide food.
Clive Wynne, an Arizona State University psychologist who researches dog and wolf behavior, got to thinking about this several years ago while visiting the Bahamas. A colleague who studies stray dogs there, William Fielding, mentioned that he thought many puppies did not survive being weaned and abandoned. Wynne knew that was probably true from the few studies on the topic, which have found more than 80 percent of free-roaming dogs do not make it to their first birthday.
“And what makes you one of the lucky ones?” Wynne wondered. Fielding’s hunch was that the survivors were those whose mothers ditched them near a dogless household of humans who found the pups irresistible. The idea led Wynne…