The phrase pariah dog originally referred to the wild dogs of India, but has come to refer in common parlance to any population of wild or feral dogs who live near human settlements worldwide, scavenging for food and seldom interacting directly with humans. These populations may or may not be related to the still-extant pariah dogs of India, depending on their location and heritage. The term used to be an epithet to the same extent that the word pariah could be used to denigrate as well as designate the lowest social caste of Indians, but is now used in cynology and by kennel clubs with no negative judgment implied.
All pariah dogs are feral, but not all feral dogs are pariah dogs in the genetic sense. Though they are outcasts in the social sense, and thus may still be called pariahs by observers who are not dog fanciers, feral dogs may be of any breed or mix of breeds. The individuals may be stray pets, or descended from strays, or from litters dumped in wild or rural areas by unscrupulous owners. They may form packs with other strays or attempt to join existing canid packs (such as a wolf pack).
While pariah dogs are by definition feral, pariah-type dogs are not necessarily feral. This designation is used by scientists, breeders, and historians to refer to wild dog populations which have not been domesticated, as well as recognized dog breeds with pariah dog heritage.
For example, the pariah dogs of India are not formally recognized as a specific breed by any major canine registry, though the capitalized designation “Pariah” or “Pariah Dog” is used by, for example, the United Kennel Club and cynologists to describe a dog type or dog group classification. UKC-recognized Pariah-type breeds include but are not limited to the African Basenji, the Asian Thai Ridgeback, and the American Carolina Dog.
When used as a group classification, the terms “Primitive” and “Pariah” are generally interchangeable. The American Rare Breed Association, for example, places its Pariah-type dogs within a breed group designated “Spitz and Primitive.”
Pariah dog breeds are considered “primitive” in the sense of having had little or no purposeful human intervention in their development. DNA studies indicate that they are of distinctly older gene pools than most recognized purebred dogs. All strains of pariah dogs are at risk of losing their genetic uniqueness by interbreeding with purebred and mixed-breed strays. To insure against this, some strains of pariah dogs are becoming formally recognized, registered, and pedigreed breeds as their fanciers attempt to preserve the pure type. The history of the Canaan Dog provides an example of a recently-established, formally-recognized breed based on an ancient pariah strain.