Adopting a Street Dog – article by Behaviourist Denise Nuttall, B.Sc (Hons) Applied Animal Behaviour, M.Res (dist).
What behaviours can I expect from my street dog?
If you are considering getting a street dog, you may want to know whether or not street dogs are the same as a rescue dog. Many people are drawn to the idea they can rescue a dog who has endured significant hardship to give them a perfect life, but what does this look like for the dog? Most street dogs are nothing like our domestic dogs or your typical rescue dog who has experienced living in a family home. If you are considering adopting a street dog, there is some important information that you need to consider before making a decision. Can you offer this dog what she actually needs as opposed to what your heart says she needs?
What is a street dog?
Let us first define what I mean by “street dog”. For the purpose of this article, a street dog is a dog that has lived, or was born on the streets in a foreign country. Or a puppy that was born from a street dog that was removed from the streets whilst pregnant and placed in a rescue centre compound to give birth.
What behaviours can I expect from a street dog?
Street dogs are very different from domestic rescue dogs. The main reason for this is that a genuine street dog has had no education about how to live with humans. Some are really feral and avoid humans. Street dogs would have had to survive on the streets, find their own food, defend their own territory, and keep themselves safe. In some of these countries humans would be considered very dangerous to street dogs because of a low tolerance for them. Some of these dogs may be living with permanent emotional scars from their experiences surviving on the streets.
But, you ask, surely these typical behaviours don’t apply to the puppies born from street dogs in the rescue centre? Well, yes actually, they do. We must not forget that behaviour traits can be inherited and the puppies may be genetically programmed to have the skills required to survive on the streets. These puppies are likely to be predisposed to being fearful of humans, resource guarding and territorial as well as being very creative in escaping difficult situations and finding food resources, no matter how challenging they are to find. Furthermore, these puppies born of street dogs in captivity usually stay in kennels until old enough to be exported, missing their entire socialisation window. Given the genetic history, early socialisation would be the best chance of coping in close human society, but this often isn’t possible. These inherited skills combined with inadequate socialisation don’t necessarily make for a particularly welcome houseguest and can lead to a great deal of conflict and frustration for the owner as well as for the dog.
How does a street dog differ from a typical domesticated dog?
Our domesticated dogs have evolved to live in our family homes over many generations, so many natural canine behaviours have been diluted. For example, most domestic dogs don’t hide foods or dig shelters because, for generations, they haven’t needed to. Most domestic dogs’ activity patterns are synchronised with human activity patterns. For example sleeping at night and waking when we awaken. But a street dog will cache food and likes to dig the earth to keep warm, or cool. For a street dog it is a normal to defend resources, to protect their territories, and to find their own food after spending many hours searching and hunting. Domesticated dogs do these behaviours far less as they were born into captivity and have not needed to exhibit these behaviours for generations. Street dogs are crepuscular animals preferring to be more active at dusk and dawn – the very time we want to be resting. They will Interact freely with their social groups and they have exquisite canine communication skills unlike our typical domesticated dogs who often lack social skills with other dogs due to insufficient early experience and generations of restricted social opportunities with conspecifics.
Street dogs tend to be highly predatory. Whilst some domestic breeds can be predatory, it’s far more frequent in street dogs. Predation is not modifiable with training as it’s instinctive. This behaviour often results in street dogs not going off lead, further reducing their quality of life with a heavy toll on their emotional state.
Street dogs are free to do what they want to do, when they want to do it, where they want to do it, and how they want to do it. Domestic dogs are mostly raised to follow human rules and boundaries. Which life would you prefer to live?
Are all street dogs strays?
Some street dogs are not actually “strays”, they are owned by people who don’t make them wear collars. These dogs roam away from their homes during the day whilst their owners work and come back in evening when their owners return just dropping in for food and night time shelter. These dogs lead highly enriched lives and are very happy. Some of these owned dogs have been taken off the street by well meaning rescue organisations. Can you imagine how that would feel being removed from everything you know; the people you love, the safety of your home taken away, put into a kennel with strange dogs and then shipped in a vehicle for many hours with other terrified dogs? At the end of an arduous and scary journey, you emerge in an unfamiliar place with strange people. You don’t understand the culture, rules (as you’ve never lived by any), you don’t understand the language and you don’t understand your own species. These enormous uncontrolled changes have a profound effect on these dogs, leaving many with long term trauma.
Living with a street dog, the challenge.
The biggest problem is that we expect street dogs to live by the same rules as our domesticated dogs. Some of the street dogs are feral but we still expect them to be sociable, not to guard their (or our) things or bite our visitors whilst they enter our homes. We don’t want them marking their territories in our homes (for example, urinating on curtains and furniture) and we don’t want them to wake us up early. We want to offer them all our love and cuddles even though the dog may not feel safe near a human. These ideals exert huge pressure on a street dog. It is also very stressful for their owners if they don’t know what to expect.
Can street dogs successfully become family dogs?
There is a great deal that can be done to help them to be able to “conform” to the way we want our dogs to live and many do adapt. It will usually take many years and a heap of patience to achieve some degree of “ normality”. This can be achieved by giving them their own safe space away from humans so they can retreat if they want to. Accept that they are not really domesticated and will need a high degree of freedom. We can, to some degree, reproduce this by engaging in “ free work”. We should use positive reinforcement and shaping behaviours ( rewarding them for behaviours they offer but you have not prompted). Reproduce the kind of enrichment they enjoy, such as: foraging, climbing, swimming, denning, hunting games such as an adapted flirt pole game ( just use rope to tow the toy “ animal”, not the pole as most are frightened of sticks). Some great resources for enrichment for dogs can be found on this Facebook Group. There will need to be compromises. If you have a predatory street dog, she will always be predatory, nothing will change this desire. Don’t then introduce a cat, or have chickens running loose in your garden as they won’t be there for very long. Don’t expect your street dogs to understand your rules or comply with them easily. Street dogs can find restrictions extremely frustrating and, yes, even depressing. Frustration can lead to aggression. Street dogs may not be shy about using aggression as this is how they survive to get resources they need. Aggression is a natural canine behaviour. Our domestic dogs are educated from a young age, so that they don’t need to use aggression. Responsible breeders will only breed from breeding stock that are not aggressive, so the risks of aggression should be lower in domestic dogs.
Don’t get a street dog if you don’t have a huge amount of space at home where they can retreat and a large garden for them to be free. You will need to check carefully that they cannot get out as they are excellent escape artists. If you have small pets that your street dog might encounter then you will need to exercise great care to keep them separate. Don’t get a street dog if you live on a corner plot or have a pathway bordering it as this is likely to activate territorial aggression as a street dog will try to keep everything away from her territory, which will increase her stress.
Please give careful consideration to how you will meet your street dog’s needs. Many of these dogs are simply unable to live successfully in full domesticity. The environment they live in should, as far as possible, replicate the environment they came from. For example, a city street dog will adapt to traffic, however, a country or coastal street dog will find living in a town extremely difficult. Be prepared to live with the dog you have adopted rather than attempt to change the dog to fit your world as this is rarely successful. If you have a dog who is fearful of people, and you are a gregarious household, then this dog is not for you. You will not change her to fit in with your world, you are more likely to find your social life shrinking as people fear visiting a family with a reactive dog.
Hopefully this article has given you the information you need so that you are better informed when making a decision to adopt a foreign street dog.