Throughout Moscow, St. Petersburg, and several other major Russian cities, stray dogs and cats are a common sight. The number of stray dogs running throughout the country is so high that even Russian experts won’t hazard a guess as to the totals. In post-Soviet Russia, generation after generation of stray dogs have adapted to city life with incredible panache. Take, for instance, the small number of Russian dogs who mastered public transportation.
Of the vast population of strays in Russia, about 20 dogs have learned their surroundings so well they’ve figured out how to get free rides on the subway. Yes, you read that right - there are dogs using public transit in Moscow and other large Russian cities. These undeniably smart dogs are far from uncommon on the Moscow metro, having garnered a cult of personality as they travel the city in search of food and prey.
For years, the Moscow subway stray dogs have drawn international attention for their ingenuity and unique ability to make the most of their urban environs. Here, for your consideration, is the story of the Russian dogs that have taken ownership of Russia’s public transportation.
Stray dogs have caused issues in Russia for decades. While the number of rescue adoptions is on the rise throughout the country, the number of strays roaming the streets has not diminished. Some activists claim the incredible number of stray dogs is due to a blasé attitude toward domestic animals on the part of the average Russian. The typical mindset toward pets is they are solely for entertainment - once they’ve lost that value, it’s nothing to toss them out into the street.
Russia is actually unique in that, on several occasions, self-proclaimed activists and environmentalists have banded together to actively murder the population of stray dogs in Russia. Unfortunately, this behavior can also hurt domestic animals, since one of the tactics employed is to leave out poisoned food.
Still, though, these attempts to cull the stray population have had little impact on the total number of stray animals.
Obviously, the Moscow strays can’t read a map to find out where they’re going. Thankfully, these bright animals don’t need a map. While scientists are still baffled as to the exact reasons the Moscow dogs can successfully navigate the subway, there are several theories.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that dogs have learned to use their sensational sense of smell, using scents specific to a given stop to move from one station to the next. Another theory plays on a dog’s ability to detect changes in lighting, passenger movements, and various sounds to determine which subway stop is which.
Yet another theory suggests that the dogs have learned the specific names of each station by listening to the intercom announcements. Or, they remember where certain humans get on and off, and find commuter buddies they follow on or off the train.
The best place to begin answering that question is this: dogs have changed immensely in the thousands of years that they’ve been living and working alongside humans. Perhaps more than any other species on the planet, dogs have learned to successfully interpret a person’s physical and emotional signals.
It’s a phenomenon known as convergent evolution, which “occurs when different species evolve similar traits while adapting to a shared environment.” As a result, dogs have developed an ability to understand which people will let them on their way, and which people will target them. These savvy dogs have adapted to know what type of behavior is acceptable in certain places. And, just like human commuters, they've adapted to the rules of the metro.
One of Poyarkov’s graduate students, Alexei Vereshchagin, is most impressed with the canine’s ability to keep calm in such a stressful environment, and even play the people around them to their advantage. “It's stressful even for people standing in a crowd, and the dogs are lying down so no one is seeing them, so anyone can put feet on them. But they get used to this," said Vereshchagin.
They patiently wait on subway platforms, navigate their way through hectic crowds, and even get some sleep while they are on board. And just like people, sometimes they mix up their trains. One news crew spotted one such animal who seemed to have little difficulty finding her ride within a labyrinthine train station. The dog seemed to actively understand that a friendly attitude was essential for getting through her ride with no trouble.