They Studied Street Dogs Versus Pet Dogs and These Were the Stunning Findings

street dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Bali is home to an estimated 150,000 to 160,000 endemic street dogs, who roam freely on the island
  • Recently an influx of expatriates from Europe, the U.S., Japan and elsewhere have “adopted” Bali dogs and turned them into pets, restricting them to their homes and backyards
  • This has allowed researchers to compare the behavior of the free-roaming dogs with that of the “pet” dogs, giving clues as to how a dog’s environment affects its behavior and personality traits
  • Free-ranging dogs were generally less active and excitable, less aggressive toward animals (including other dogs), and were less inclined to chase animals and people compared to companion dogs
  • It’s possible that keeping dogs as pets in a confined or restricted environment has a negative effect on their personality and behavior

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Bali is home to an estimated 150,000 to 160,000 street dogs, who roam freely on the island. The dogs are thought to be relatives of ancient Asian breeds like the chow chow and Australian dingo, which reached the island while it was still connected to the mainland by a bridge of land.

Sea levels eventually rose, turning Bali into an island about 10,000 years ago, and leaving it with an endemic breed of dogs that have populated the island for at least 3,000 years.

Bali street dogs (BSDs), as they've come to be known, now represent a unique opportunity to study the behaviors of free-roaming dogs in comparison to those kept as pets. Due to rabies fears, Bali has limited the number of dogs allowed onto the island, which means the population of street dogs has remained largely isolated.

Traditionally, the free-roaming dogs lived alongside Balinese people yet retained their independence, scavenging for food from waste sources or ceremonial offerings left behind in temples.1

While Balinese people have long-tolerated the dogs and integrated them into their daily lives, more recently an influx of expatriates from Europe, the U.S., Japan and elsewhere have "adopted" Bali dogs and turned them into pets, restricting them to their homes and backyards.

For the first time, this has allowed researchers to compare the behavior of the free-roaming dogs with that of the "pet" dogs, giving clues as to how a dog's environment affects its behavior and personality traits.

Caretakers Enlisted to Record Street Dogs' Personalities

In a study published in PLOS One, researchers asked owners of companion dogs and caretakers of street dogs to fill out a 75-question dog personality assessment. Companion dogs were classified as those who live in the resident's house and backyard, and take walks using a leash. They were considered to be fully dependent on humans.2

The free-ranging dogs, on the other hand, live fully free-roaming or may have one or more caretakers who provide occasional food, medical care or shelter. Still, they are free to roam, are not restricted and are independent from their caretakers. In the study, the caretakers were people involved with dog welfare organizations who cared for dogs who happened to roam near where they lived or traveled to areas with free-ranging dogs in order to provide them care.

This allowed the caretakers to become familiar with individual dogs, such that they observed them in a variety of behaviors including scavenging, feeding, socializing and playing, similar to the companion dog owners.

A surprising fact for those living in the U.S. is that close to 80 percent of the dogs in the world are free-ranging — not pets. And while it's known that such street dogs can typically become socialized to humans and even adopted into companions, little was known about their behavior, especially as it compares to more domesticated canines — until now.3

Bali Street Dogs Are Better Behaved Than Their 'Pet' Counterparts

After tallying the assessments for 105 Bali dogs, which asked participants to respond to statements such as, "The dog comes immediately when called" or "Dog behaves aggressively when a person (e.g., visitor, delivery person) approaches the house or yard," some revealing observations were noted.

Specifically, free-ranging dogs were generally less active and excitable, less aggressive toward animals (including other dogs), and were less inclined to chase animals and people compared to companion dogs.

While it's possible that free-ranging dogs scored less aggressively because aggressive street dogs tend to die earlier due to conflicts, it's also possible that environmental factors are to blame. For instance, companion dogs may be more aggressive toward other animals because they have less experience with them or because they're being held in a more restricted environment.

"Free-ranging dogs could generally behave more calmly, due to a confidence derived from their continuous experience of the street environment, cars and traffic, and exposure to other dogs, animals and humans," the researchers explained.4 On the other hand, for pet dogs, "higher control of the dogs' behavior including some punishment, may also contribute to increased activity, excitability and aggression in companion dogs." The researchers continued:5

"It is possible, although further investigations should confirm, that a change in lifestyle, i.e. being adopted, and living in a confined environment has negative consequences on some canine personality traits, especially on activity/excitability, aggression toward animals, and prey drive, and the less challenging experience of confined living relaxes the behavior of companion dogs in comparison to free-ranging individuals."

Are You to Blame for Your Dog's Bad Behavior?

The findings, though preliminary due to the small sample size of dogs used, are in line with what many pet owners in the U.S. see on a daily basis: a dog that acts out or otherwise behaves badly because he's not allowed to be a dog. What free-ranging dogs lack in terms of food security and safety is made up for via daily physical exercise and mental stimulation. That is, they enjoy independence and an ability to choose their activities that is often not offered to companion animals.

This isn't to say that your dog wouldn't enjoy the opportunity to romp through the woods, follow a trail or venture beyond the fence line in your backyard. This is why, if you keep your dog cooped up indoors without an outlet for physical exercise and mental stimulation multiple times a day, you can be virtually guaranteed that behavioral problems or "undesirable" personality traits will develop.

"[I]t must be considered that the lifestyle of so many of our dogs around the world who live in homes without the independence that free-ranging dogs have may be in environments that make it hard for them to behave as we might like," writes Karen B. London, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist, for The Bark.6

A happy medium is possible, however, one that gives your dog the advantages of being a pet (like regular food, affection, protection and shelter) along with the ability to have some independence, as enjoyed by free-roaming dogs.

You can achieve this by engaging your dog in mentally stimulating nose work and scent work and physically demanding activities, like playing Frisbee or fetch, several times a day. All dogs have an immense exercise requirement that is rarely met. This is the first step in achieving mental wellbeing with these natural athletes we keep in our houses.

Also, respect her boundaries when she does (and doesn't) want to be pet and even offer her choices in what foods to eat. Most of all, pay attention to your dog's emotional state and subtle body language and respond accordingly. By listening to your dog, you're helping to empower her, giving her a tiny taste of the independence retained by her ancestors and, in so doing, hopefully improving her behavior, and your relationship.

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