What Can “Streeties” Teach Us About Companion Dogs?
Summary: For most of human history, and indeed in much of the world today, dogs are not subjected to anywhere near as much restriction of movement as they are in the global North. This article argues that looking at how free-roaming dogs lie now, as well as how companion dogs were historically treated, suggests that the highly restrictive lives companion dogs live now may not represent the best welfare for them.
Let me start by saying I am not an expert on street dogs. However, I am currently working on my PhD, and part of my investigation centers around how we might give companion dogs better autonomy. This naturally led me to research street dogs and how they spend their time without the restrictions humans may impose. I began reading studies about their ecology, behavior, and interactions with people and their environment. I immediately started thinking more about how this is in fact incredibly important knowledge for my professional work as a dog behavior consultant as well. Dogs that are uninhibited by regimented human management are essentially the quintessential dog for learning about behavior from a canine perspective. My question then, is, what can the lives of free-roaming dogs tell us about our own companion dogs, and how can this help us to help our dogs live their best lives?
Social restrictions on companion dogs: A brief history
In Western society, the number of dogs kept as pets has risen exponentially over the years. Dogs were bred expressly for specific purposes of hunting, guarding, sport, and/or companionship. The rapid growth in pet popularity emerged in the 19th century. This coincided with the urbanization of the emerging middle class. This growing love of pets has matured into a consumer-rich industry of luxury pet products and services.1
However, with this growth of the pet population, so too grew restrictions and measures to control dogs both in homes and in public spaces. Back in the mid-20th century, dogs in many Western societies were allowed to roam freely, having some sense of a private life, whereas today they are subject to strict laws that prevent wandering, with the potential for negative consequences for both the dog and the caregiver.3 The reasons for these restrictions are both social and economic.2 There are concerns about dogs freely mating and about dogs creating a public health risk from things like dog faeces or undesirable interactions fuelled, at least in part by, sensationalized media coverage of “dangerous dog” attacks.4 These are some of the reasons that have led to a social expectation of “responsible” dog ownership, where caregivers are expected to be in control of their dogs at all times.
Such expectations put pressure on caregivers to comply with restrictions and to control all, or most, interactions—short leashes, designated off-leash parks, fewer dog-friendly spaces, and a need to prevent undesired behaviors such as barking, wandering and the like. It might also mean more in-home restrictions such as kennels, timed and restricted feeding, limited and controlled access to outdoor spaces, and active suppression of undesired, though perhaps completely normal, dog behavior. So, even though our dogs grow up to be adults, they are never
1It is important to acknowledge that some restrictions have been put in place for both public safety but also for the safety of dogs. The expanding unban landscape can be a challenging environment for nonhumans to navigate safely, and our knowledge about potential hazards to the health of dogs has increased exponentially over the past 50 years.
independent. They are still restricted by these social rules that largely govern our actions and thus, the actions of our dogs. Companion dogs remain dependent on us for many freedoms that free-roaming dogs have at their disposal.
There are various categories of free-roaming dogs. Some have homes and some do not. Despite this, their ability to roam and behave as they so choose is exponentially greater than the average companion dog. Clearly, one could argue that companion dogs have it pretty great, and I do not disagree. They receive medical care, a highly desirable and reliable diet, a warm and comfortable place to sleep and, of course, humans that love them and keep them safe. We have a lot to offer our companion dogs, and many of you reading this are quite knowledgeable on how to create a fantastic life for your dogs through enrichment, social interaction, and training.
However, street dogs have something that many of our companion dogs do not. Freedom. They can choose when to eat and sleep, and they socialize when and how they want. They can choose their location and their schedule. This is why studying street dogs is so important. An ongoing ethnographic study of street dogs in India by researcher Sindhoor Pangal6 shows us that the way that street dogs choose to spend the majority of their time is resting and sleeping. In other words, they choose to be inactive for the greater part of their day and night. They spend little time doing any vigorous activity. She also found, through observation, the street dogs were not stressed in a way some people might assume. There are a number of potential factors, such as climate or health status, that could play a role in lower activity. However, this is congruent with the evidence that providing more choices can help to reduce stress in dogs and personal control can, arguably, be a primary reinforcer inherently needed to thrive .7,8 In fact, there are several studies examining a variety of species, humans included, which show how personal control can improve mood and quality of life and reduce stress.9,10,11 And on the flipside, we can see how lack of control can cause stress and stress-related behaviors.12
Coming back to focus on dogs specifically, a preliminary study by Corrieri et al. (2018) looking at free-roaming Bali dogs, found a significant behavioral difference between dogs that were owned but free-roaming and those that were kept as companions within the confines of human homes.13 They found that free-roaming Bali dogs were rated as less active, less excitable, less aggressive toward animals, and less inclined to chase animals or humans than Bali dogs living as human companions. This only provides us with a correlation, not causation and one can only assume there are several reasons for these marked differences. Though not an exhaustive list, these could include differences in socialization, an increase in mental stimulation, problem-solving skills and social interactions, more control over their environment, and less human dependency. However, based on the aforementioned evidence, restrictions placed on companion dogs by humans may play a part.
Along with the freedom that free-roaming dogs experience comes continuous mental stimulation, problem-solving, and species-appropriate communication. Many dogs (not all, of course) spend a significant amount of time alone and/or in confinement, with only a few hours of time to
2Much of the research that I have read is focused on research based in India. There are likely a variety of cultural and categorical differences when looking at various free-roaming dog populations in different geographical locations, both cultural and environmental.
walk/explore, socialize, play, and eat. And this is not by choice, but because their caregivers work and have other obligations. I often hear people say that dogs in some European countries seem much better adjusted than dogs in North America (as a sweeping generalization, of course), because dogs are far more integrated into work and leisure activities, and dog-friendly establishments are far more common. This would fit quite well with the concept of freedom, choice and enrichment being important for helping dogs to become socially appropriate in more situations.
It is also important to acknowledge that free-roaming dogs do face challenges, of course, such as living potentially shorter lives because of disease, parasites, and potential environmental hazards as well as the developing and changing ecology.14 They may also be more liable to experience mistreatment or may go hungry for an unfavorable amount of time. Even humans have been shown to negatively impact lifespan in street dogs by way of vehicular fatalities and murder/brutality.15 These issues could very well impact both activity and behavior and, undoubtedly, more research is needed. Regardless, we can learn a lot from the types of behaviors observed in dogs who are largely uninhibited by humans.
Autonomy and the dependent companion dog
Autonomy is the ability to act on one’s own values and interests. Therefore, free-roaming dogs are much more autonomous, by virtue, than our companion dogs. Could this mean improved wellbeing? Perhaps to some degree. Human regulation and control of companion dogs affect their ability to make choices. And though not all choices a dog may make are in their own best interest, it is important to consider how we can increase autonomy and provide more opportunity for our dogs to make their own choices and maintain more control over their selves, when warranted. There is a growing body of evidence to support this, and it is an important part of many behavior modification and training plans—everything from co-operative care, start buttons, and protocols such as Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training 2.0 (BAT 2.0), for example.
I will not go into a detailed philosophical discussion about autonomy in nonhuman animals here; it is a complex topic and there are many things to consider. However, we generally consider fully autonomous humans as having the authority to make choices that suit their needs and wants. To be truly autonomous, one has to be able to reflect on and react accordingly to those reflections in a particular way.16 Whether dogs have the ability to evaluate their preferences in light of values remains unknown. Regardless, this is not necessarily an excuse or invitation for humans to impose their preference of outcomes on another simply because we can. We need to be open to the possibility of autonomy in other animals, except when we can use our human ability of foresight and reflection to help others.
We sometimes use a variable standard of competency with dogs that permits them to make some choices but not others. For example, a person may allow choice when there is low risk to safety, but not allow choice when it comes to a major health-altering or hazardous decision.17,18 It is a matter of what is best overall. That makes our task of evaluating risk and benefit an ongoing analysis. We can easily increase some autonomy by paying closer attention to our dog’s desires, even when they are in conflict with our own, and evaluating whether our action is harmful or respectful of our dog’s decision. This might be reflected in the routes we take on a walk, allowing dogs to opt out of activities that are less enjoyable or cause stress, and allowing more freedom of choice when playing, training and budgeting their time. For example, if my dog decides it is a good time to sleep but a walk is on my agenda, I may need to alter my own plans. She prefers certain hikes over others, so we head there for our walk, even if it is out of my way.
I am not sure direct behavioral comparisons can necessarily be drawn between street dogs and companion dogs, at least not with our limited scholarly resources on the subject. There are a lot of confounding variables and there is very little research in this area. However, I would suggest that there are certainly behavior “problems” that an average companion dog may be more prone to experience based primarily on their lifestyle and the impact of humans. These are things that free-roaming dogs may not experience at all, or in the same way, due to lifestyle, environmental, and even health differences. Some of these behavior issues in companion dogs might include:
- Separation anxiety-related behaviors
- Isolation distress
- Confinement issues
- Boredom-related behaviors
- Increased potential for reactivity (as suggested by Corrieri et al., 2018) based on lack of personal and environmental control due to leashes, fences, and other physical barriers or restrictions
- Hyperarousal with a variety of root causes
- Decreased problem-solving skills
- Perhaps even an increase in serious bites to people or other dogs
- Increased fear of novel items or situations
- Lack of impulse control, which may or may not lead to intra-household conflicts
- Less developed dog-dog social skills
I am not suggesting that we humans create these problems (though sometimes we do exacerbate them, even inadvertently). I am saying that the natural differences in lifestyle and human influence suggest that there may be an impact on behavior.
Even though free-roaming dogs have a lot of challenges, there are likely some advantages, too. Having the ability to choose and control their own life and their own environment, something that is not as available to our companion dogs, particularly those in urban areas, may reduce some of the above-mentioned behavior issues. I am not saying that is necessarily bad to have dogs living a more human-centred lifestyle, but that we just need to be more considerate, cognizant, and creative in providing options and opportunities. We can influence good choices through positive reinforcement of desired behaviors, and that is good training.
Improving the wellbeing of canine companions by changing the paradigm
The way that we think about our dogs is partially a socially constructed one. It is a mixture of our experiences and existing knowledge and how society has framed “the dog.” In order to start thinking about how we can make our own dogs, and clients’ dogs, happier and healthier, we also need to consider how much we are influenced by these factors. When society shifts its concept of how a dog should behave, and how that might fit into our human-centred priorities, as a whole, we can begin to shift how we think of dogs and their role in society. As consultants and trainers and caregivers and dog lovers, we know that one size does not fit all. So, fitting inside the box and staying there is not an option if we want to consider wellbeing. Studying free-roaming dogs can start to shift social perspectives of companion dogs within societies and force us to consider their dog-specific wants and needs instead of our own.
Some things that we can do in everyday life to increase opportunities for companion dogs to have greater control over their own lives, might be:
- In the right climate, leaving the door open, or installing a dog door so that your dog has free access to the yard/outdoor space.
- Offering opportunities to choose routes on walks, how fast or slow the walk will be, when to stop, sniff, or observe, and when that walk might begin and end.
- Only engaging in physical contact when it’s solicited by your dog or when asked/cued by the caregiver or handler.
- Creating a safe space where the dog will be undeniably undisturbed.
- Creating more off-leash time, and/or using a longer, less inhibiting leash. For some dogs this might be improved with the increase in private rentable off-leash areas and more dog-friendly hiking locales.
- Allowing greater opportunity for scavenging and/or burying food items.
- Teaching start buttons and incorporating cooperative care.
- Free-feeding, which is not always a viable or even rational option but could be a consideration for some dogs.
- More options and more opportunity for enrichment and free access to that enrichment.
- Creating more dog-appropriate public outdoor spaces aside from dog parks.
Though companion dogs and free-roaming or “street” dogs live in different environmental niches, looking at dogs that are uninhibited by human influence may reveal some important similarities or differences. As we learn and gather more anthrozoological and behavioral data, we may find that we have a lot to learn and a lot to gain. Studies of street dogs can also tell us about the process of domestication and evolution as well as adaptation of dogs within different environments and even how and why humans may impact dog behavior. And this research, in turn, may apply to improving the wellbeing of our companion dogs, shifting the paradigm, and creating a more species-sensitive society—a dream I think all dog lovers share.
Thank you to Maria Alomajan for your thoughtful input and for reviewing my various drafts. You have so many great resources to offer. Thank you also to Jessica Benoit, my lifelong mentor. And thank you to my PhD supervisor, Dr. Nik Taylor, for always providing me with such useful and supportive and encouraging feedback, as you have with this paper.
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Erin is a PhD candidate in human-animal studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand (researching, yes, the dog-human relationship). She is a CDBC, IAABC-ADT, CPDT-KA, CANZ accredited behaviour consultant and the creator/owner of Merit Dog Project. She also works for the IAABC as the Education Initiative Lead and Science Editor for this journal and as a committee member for the APDTNZ.