The Subway Riding Dogs of Moscow

There are 35,000 stray dogs on the streets of Moscow. Some of them have begun learning how to ride the subway.

When I visited Bucharest, Romania, I was stunned by the pervasiveness of stray dogs. The former Eastern Bloc capitol was home to thousands of strays, and they moved in packs, just like wild wolves. They were actually sort of scary, and many people warned me to be careful of them.

Those strays were in the middle of the slow process of going from domesticated to wild, something that’s been happening to stray dogs in Moscow for a century and a half. In fact the stray dog population of Moscow has begun to take on its own particular look, and the dogs have truly adapted to life on the streets of a big city. In fact some of them have learned to ride the subway.

Out of 35,000 or so stray dogs in Moscow a few hundred have become committed subway dwellers, and of that group a smaller number have learned to actually ride the trains. By which I mean they get on at their station, ride for a while and then get off at another station that is also part of their ‘territory.’

“They orient themselves in a number of ways,” Andrei Neuronov, an animal behavior and psychology specialist, told the Financial Times earlier this year. “They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their biological clocks.”

These subway dogs exist in an almost perfect stasis between wild and domesticated; very comfortable around people the subway dogs seem to be okay with just plopping down amidst a jam packed group of commuters and snoozing. The dogs will ignore most people, but seem to have an innate sense of who to target when begging.

Andrei Poyakarv, a wolf expert, has been studying the strays of Moscow for decades and has split them into four groups. The subway dogs are an offshoot of the beggar types. From the Financial Times:

“These are the beggars and they are excellent psychologists.” He gives as an example a dog that appears to be dozing as throngs of people walk past, but who rears his head when an easy target comes into view: “The dog will come to a little old lady, start smiling and wagging his tail, and sure enough, he’ll get food.” These dogs not only smell who is carrying something tasty, but sense who will stop and feed them.

The other groups he has identified are the guard dogs, who are most close to being domesticated. They tend to hang around enclosed areas and do ‘work’ for the local guards, who reward them with food. There are also scavengers, who aren’t afraid of people but who have little interest in them beyond eating their trash. And then there are the wild dogs, who are nocturnal and keep to empty industrial areas and wooded parks and are closest to wolves.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about Moscow’s strays, but the subway dogs really capture my imagination. Seeing a species adapt to their surroundings in such a way is thrilling. Dogs that ride the subway system - there’s something two days in the future about that. I’ve been watching the sure signs of the decay of human civilization lately, and this is the most adorable one yet.