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Are Older, Male Dogs a Hunter’s Best Friend?

Professors Koster and Tankersley explore the relationship between Nicaraguan hunters and their dogs and find that older, male dogs might make the best companions.

Date: 2/9/2012
By: Tom Robinette

The world’s foremost expert on hunting with dogs in the tropical forest doesn’t even have a dog – but he might like one.

Jeremy Koster, assistant professor of anthropology, has been studying the use of hunting dogs in the forests of Nicaragua for nearly 10 years. His latest National Science Foundation-funded research focuses on whether older dogs and male dogs make better hunting companions than younger and female ones. Part of his work also examines the dogs’ nutritional health and whether hunting with dogs is the best option for wildlife sustainability.
Professor Jeremy Koster travels in a dugout canoe on the Lakus River in Nicaragua.

“A lot of people say to me, ‘You must really love dogs if you aspire to become the world’s expert on them,’” Koster said. “I jokingly tell people that I’m the world’s expert simply because nobody else has really examined the use of hunting dogs in small-scale societies, so I’m an expert by default. And I like dogs. If I had a pet, it would be a dog.”

Koster’s and University of Cincinnati colleague professor Kenneth Tankersley’s paper, “Heterogeneity of hunting ability and nutritional status among domestic dogs in lowland Nicaragua,” will be published in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is available now in the PNAS Early Edition online. It is Koster’s third published work on his research on hunting dogs.

“Because it has been an under-studied topic, there are lots of different questions to ask,” Koster said. “‘How does hunting with dogs affect wildlife?’ ‘How does hunting with dogs affect the decision-making of the hunter?’ More recently I noticed there is variation in hunting ability among these dogs, and I started asking, ‘How does that relate to some of these other variables?’”

As not much research had been done on the subject, Koster didn’t know what to expect when he began field observations in 2004. He assumed the indigenous Nicaraguan hunters would lead dogs along a forest trail until they found animal tracks, at which point the dogs would engage in hot pursuit of their quarry. He imagined a somewhat methodical process with dogs keenly following their masters’ commands.

What he witnessed when he first accompanied a hunt was entirely different. When the hunters arrive at the desired location, they immediately set their dogs loose, allowing them to disappear into the forest. Then the hunters wait to catch up until they hear the dogs signal they’ve found something by barking in excitement. Oftentimes the hunts were chaotic, and dogs would encounter animals that were undesirable and even endangered, such as jaguars and giant anteaters.

Koster’s findings on his initial hunt gave him a whiff of how bizarre things could get. The hunting dogs had found a skunk – not the game they were hoping to bag.
Koster joined Nicaraguan hunters and their dogs on hunts in the forest.

“It was five minutes into my study,” Koster said. “That was eye-opening for me. I had to throw out all my preconceived notions.”

Since that malodorous beginning, he’s learned far more than just to be prepared for anything when joining a hunt. Based on what he’s found, it seems as if older, male hunting dogs make the best companions as they tend to have greater potential for harvesting prey. This could be because older dogs have more experience and male dogs tend to be larger than females and thereby are able to go after bigger targets.

While Koster was in the field, Tankersley was performing much of the isotopic analysis of their findings in the lab. He examined data on the diets of the hunting dogs and their owners and found that the dogs’ and owners’ diets were similar. This meant the dogs often ate nearly as well – or as poorly – as their owners. The level of care given to the dogs provided insight into their importance in affecting their owner’s social status. Tankersley said the study is unlike any done before in the world, and his partnership with Koster is a perfect example of the effectiveness of taking an interdisciplinary approach to research.

“This is the first study that took a look at living people and the isotopic ratios, correlating with diet and nutrition and with hunting dogs as well,” Tankersley said. “The kind of old walls we had – this is cultural anthropology, this is biological anthropology, this is archaeology, that’s geology – those walls are coming down. We’re finding the most exciting and productive research is truly where people of different disciplines work together on a single problem.”

Blazing a new trail in science is part of what originally attracted Koster to this research. He said he’s driven by the idea of discovery and that there’s new ground to cover – even with his work on hunting dogs. For now, he’s considering a broader study, potentially spanning multiple years and spreading to different locations. In a world where humans regularly rely on interactions with other species – such as a hunter and his dog – understanding those relationships can provide insight into human behavior.
Koster stands with a hunter holding a peccary.

“Why not focus more attention on dogs, the very first domesticated species and a species that continues to help humans in a number of different ways?” Koster asked. “Maybe my research can contribute to some of the understanding about how the dog-human relationship may have transpired in the first place.”

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