Dog Days: The Sato in Punta

ResearchBlogging.orgBy the beach of Punta, a horde of dogs runs towards researchers as they walk to a boat bound for Cayo Santiago, a hook-shaped primate research island. The dogs come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Their furs have lost their shine to grime and dust. Some have the distinctive charcoal splatter of Dalmatians, but very faint and faded as if the blacks were smudged with wet cloth. The mange on their coats appears as if a parasitic mapmaker has carved minute scaly white hills and dry rivers that turn crimson every time the dog scratches.

They call these dogs here sato, stray dogs. These canines are forced into a semi-independent existence, moving in packs, foraging here and there, going to spaces where humans tolerate their existence. A pack of dogs this size–about ten or so–are caught between independence and dependence. You see them scampering along the beach, paws splashing the sand as they run and play. They get to immerse themselves into the social world of dogs, arranging the hierarchy in their own terms without human intervention. Yet, their independence reach their limits when the dogs intrude into the public spaces claimed by humans as their own. A few blocks away, by the main road connecting this place to the rest of Puerto Rico, is a dead black dog lying by the wayside; its body stiff, stomach bloated, and the mouth bearing the dead’s eternal smile.

A friend told me that the “stray dog problem” in Puerto Rico revolves around the politics of dog aesthetics. The lowly sato, whose “bloodline” is a tangled web of undocumented mutt street trysts, gets abandoned when it ceases to be “cute.” Their pedigreed relatives, on the other hand, seldom go feral because these dogs are status symbols, signifiers of the owners’ cool, pomp, and grace. The scarcer the pedigree is in the open market, the more expensive and prestigious the canine will be. The most expensive dog ever sold was at $155,000 and a huge market remains out there for pedigree dogs.


In many cultures however, dogs are bred more for function than aesthetics. Traits selected for are almost physiologically invisible, such as alertness, ferocity, obedience, etc, but are useful in a much broader context. In rural areas in the Philippines, dogs fulfill many functions for a farmer-hunter household; they’re more of a “beast of burden” than a “pet.” They assist local hunters in spotting wild game, ferret out rats from their farms, guard the perimeter of the house, and, in some Philippine cultures, serve as ritual food. Visiting primatologists frequently use guides with hunting dogs to track down tarsiers or long-tailed macaques. The cultural location of dogs is redefined as “pets” for apartment homes in many Philippine cities. It is not uncommon though to see a pedigree dog inside the house while a mutt serves as a guard dog outside: a cultural accommodation of sorts for modernity and tradition. Nonetheless, stray dogs remain a huge problem in urbanized areas.

The sato possesses a rich genetic heritage, starting from the line of wolves to the present day dogs. As early as the Middle Pleistocene period, wolf bones have been found with hominid remains such as the ones in Zhoukoudian, China (dated at 300,000 B.P.). The true domesticated dog, Canis familiaris, has evolved towards the end of the last Ice Age. According to James Serpell, “the earliest find of a domesticated dog consists of a mandible from a late Paleolithic grave at Oberkassel, Germany. It is dated 14,000 years B.P., 2000 years earlier than the sites in western Asia where a cluster of canid remains has been identified as belonging to Canis familiaris.” A recent study by Gray et al (open access) also said that the small dog haplotype is derived from Middle Eastern gray wolves. They revealed that “all small dogs possess these diagnostic mutations, the mutations likely arose early in the history of domestic dogs.”

The division between pedigree dogs and the sato is artificial, a chasm that is socially constructed. But aesthetics, our definition of what is beautiful and ugly, has impacted the dogs in various ways. Our tastes have become the primary selective agent for dog biological and social evolution. The sato, equally a product of a long evolution, is getting a bad rep in the process. It is about time to clear things up and pave the way for a sato revival.

Gray MM, Sutter NB, Ostrander EA, & Wayne RK (2010). The IGF1 small dog haplotype is derived from Middle Eastern gray wolves. BMC biology, 8 (1) PMID: 20181231


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