What’s a behaviorally healthy dog?

What makes a behaviorally healthy companion dog? I’d say the ability to get along well in a world designed for and by humans. And yet most of my dog-geeky friends and colleagues have – just like I do – a dog with a minor behavioral issue or two: insecurity or separation anxiety, overarousal in public, a tendency to bark and lunge at dogs on leash, …

These issues are so common that they seem normal to us. So normal, in fact, that we go out of our way to nip them in the bud: from the day we get a new puppy, we socialize her to dogs and people, and we carefully introduce her to the visual, auditory and tactile stimuli she will encounter in our world. We don’t just expect her to grow up and be behaviorally okay; we actively make an effort to minimize the chance of future behavioral problems. We recognize that we need to invest a lot of time and energy into setting our dogs up for lifelong behavioral success. And that seems pretty normal to us, too. So normal that we don’t consider minor behavioral issues a reason not to breed a particular dog, for example. If his hip scores are perfect and his ring performance is great – who cares that he doesn’t like strange dogs! We avoid potential problems by means of things like leash laws that, as long as people abide by them, keep the leash-aggressive dogs we have bred from biting each other.

San Pedro El Alto Dog

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been immersed in cultures that have different norms of dog ownership. I’ve observed something that fascinates me. The dogs I’ve seen on the sidewalks and ranging free in the streets – and there are a lot of them! – are the most behaviorally healthy population of dogs I’m familiar with. They get along with each other, and they get along with people and farm animals. They are attracted to people, but not to an obnoxious degree. They are moderately active, happily walking with the farm workers into the fields every day, but not pushy and demanding if they miss a day of exercise or attention. They are independent enough to not annoy their owners, but have a degree of handler focus that makes them stick to their people quite naturally when out and about, and curl up next to them when they work in the field rather than taking off – and all that without mat work or tethers, radius or recall training. They are the epitome of what people are looking for in a companion dog – even though their owners certainly haven’t invested a lot of time and energy into consciously socializing them as puppies.

Where do all these dogs come from, and why do they seem so much less aggressive, stressed, hyperactive, insecure, and barky than the average Western companion dog? Who – or what – makes them this way? And what are we doing wrong in Western Europe and North America since our dogs seem to have many more issues?

Maybe the free-roaming dogs I’ve seen here are close to the proto-dogs – to the first dogs who domesticated themselves a long time ago, when people started settling down. I like the theory of domestication put forth by Ray and Lorna Coppinger: dogs developed into dogs because of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The wolves with the shortest flight distance lived to reproduce, because they could eat the most food at the village dump: they got there first when someone threw out food and ate the best bits, and they didn’t waste energy on running away whenever a human looked their way. Tameness was THE selection criterion as far as behavior was concerned – and that’s how the wolf turned into the dog. Not because he was consciously bred by humans, but because he was well adapted to the ecological niche of the village dump. Tame animals got fed (i.e. they fed themselves), hence they survived.

The dogs in my neighborhood today are still very much the result of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The most well adapted ones survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation. The people in my neighborhood absolutely factor into this, but much more indirectly than a breeder would. They don’t select breeding pairs – they simply feed the dogs they like, don’t feed the ones they don’t like, and cull the ones that cause problems.

I can see at least four behavioral criteria that determine whether a dog will live to reproduce and spread her genes in my neighborhood:

1. Attraction to people.
People live closely together around here; farmers often work in groups; children play in the street … Dogs need to get along with people. Threaten or bite someone or their child, and sooner or later, you’ll get culled.
People like dogs who are friendly and tame – those are the ones who get dinner scraps, and those are the ones who’ll pass their genes down to the next generation. However, be too much of an attention seeker and annoy your people, chew up their shoes and disrupt their workday, and you won’t get fed, and might get culled if you take it too far. The result: most dogs in my neighborhood are neutral if ignored, and friendly and curious when invited to interact.

2. Dog-Dog Sociability.
The free roaming dogs here tend to get along well with each other. I haven’t seen a fight – neither here in Guatemala nor in Thailand. Conflicts are resolved through body language alone. They are social: I’ve seen them play with each other, and I’ve seen them roam in small groups of friends.

3. Being a scavenger rather than a hunter.
People around here have farm animals, especially chickens and horses, and the dogs are indifferent to them. It’s unlikely the people in my neighborhood have the time or energy to train a dog who kills chickens or chases horses. This is not a rich population with a lot of spare time to train dogs – it’s easier to get rid of a dog who doesn’t fit into the community. Benevolent indifference towards farm animals is positively selected for.

4. Moderate activity and moderate loyalty.
Everyone here walks. And everyone who walks walks with their dogs. Men, women, children – usually, their dogs aren’t far. People will occasionally call out to their dogs, but mostly just let them roam around them. Dogs who aren’t interested in joining their people on errands will likely not get thrown a tortilla for lunch.

In a nutshell: the typical free-roaming dog here knows his people and sticks with them – but is independent enough to not be annoying. He enjoys exercise enough to walk a few miles every day, but doesn’t require more than that. He doesn’t chase critters and farm animals, and he is good with people and good with other dogs.

I’d say this describes the ideal companion dog – the kind of dog most people would love to have by their side! And maybe this is exactly the kind of animal we started out with when we began to artificially select and develop different breeds of dogs. But somewhere down the line, we lost elements of sociability and mental balance. Maybe part of the reason is that looks got more important, and behavior less important. Maybe sociability just didn’t seem as important anymore when dogs started to be kept inside the house and walked on leashes: as long as we control and micromanage our dogs, it doesn’t matter much if they like other dogs or people! Maybe developing breeds for particular purposes made us zoom in on one or two particular traits and neglect others, equally important ones. Maybe some desired qualities got lost through inbreeding. I don’t know – but I’m deeply fascinated by the dogs I’ve met around here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have observed a similar (or very different!) population of free-roaming dogs in a different part of the world!

Please note: these are my subjective thoughts and observations. Are things really the way they seem to me? I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. I’m not trying to say that breeding dogs according to breed club standards is wrong, either – not at all. I like purebred dogs. But these dogs, the free-roaming ones in my neighborhood? I’m very fond of them, too.

17 thoughts on “What’s a behaviorally healthy dog?

  1. Marie says:

    Unlike the societies you ‘re visiting individual dogs have great value to people and hence people put up with a lot of “bad” behavior. In a more laise faire society the same behavior is a death sentance. So you might go through several dogs before you find the right balance and that is normal for them.

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      I’m not surprised that taking adult dogs out of their familiar environment and lifestyle turned out to be difficult for these dogs. Once the socialization window has closed, it’s hard to adapt to a different kind of life.

      What I’d be really interested in is a comparison between the sociability and mental stability of purebred puppies and puppies from a litter of free-ranging dogs. Say I take 20 pet-line Labs and Goldens, and 20 puppies from the street, and place them with a typical North American or Western European household at the age of 8 weeks. How would the two populations of dogs compare to each other at the age of 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, etc? Which group would have more behavioral issues? Which group would be better suited as family pets?

      • Stasha says:

        I work with a shelter in Singapore and the dogs we rescue are primarily free-range landrace dogs– much like the ones you have encountered in Thailand, but with one key difference. Our free-range dogs are found in non-urban parts of the country (near factories, construction sites, forests etc.)– you rarely find free-ranging dogs near schools, housing estates and around the city.

        In the past, the government orchestrated a comprehensive stray-dog culling programme. Dogs that were friendly were caught and culled first, leaving the ones who were more afraid of humans and therefore more likely to avoid trappers to repopulate. Domestication happened in the opposite direction, producing dogs that were even more skittish and even more averse to humans. My organisation rescues many free-ranging puppies between 8 to 12 weeks; in spite of growing up in a foster environment, many puppies develop strong startle responses, phobias, and problems adapting to life in urban environments probably because they are the outcome of many generations of selection for human-avoidant traits.

      • jimmypinkpaws says:

        I think India’s free-roaming dog populations are similar to the ones in your article, they all seem to be behaviorally sound. However, I think they are now cullying most of the dogs but I wonder if this will result to some similar issues in the long-term that Stasha mentioned about free-range dogs in Singapore. Love your article by the way!

      • Chrissi Schranz says:

        Thank you, Jimmy! It’ll be interesting to see the effects of culling on the Indian dog population! I’d love to hear about the changes you observe!

  2. Emma says:

    Great article and observations! I live in ex-soviet country and here aggression is more common as a behavoural trait than in some other areas. I know that there has been a selection for aggression in dogs in our history. People wanted dogs that could protect them and so even rough collies and st bernards were trained for protection. People also earned living with their dogs by patroling territories and assuring that anything wouldn’t get stolen. Everybody from my childhood wished for a good and even vicious guard dog, nobody wanted to have a “sissy” and I think this has affected the gene pool a lot. On the other hand novadays people have very different expectations and now want dogs that are easy to travel with. I think the dogs haven’t yet gotten that memo and there is a huge clash between what the dogs are like genetically and what is now expected of them. This is very interesting topic and needs more research!

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      This is fascinating, Emma! It will be really interesting to see if and how the dogs in your neighborhood change over the next decades! And I agree – free roaming dog populations around the world would make a great research topic.

  3. dtermijn says:

    My English isn’t the best but just like to give a replay to your article. It is a interesting read and I ask myself many times the same question and for me it is if many purebreds are so complex and even don’t know how to be a dog. Saying this I realize that for each of us a dog has a other value with traits and function we prefer and that is why we have created so many breeds. Each of them is a dog and does doggy things but I also think the inherited traits and selection by us humans are overrule mainly their behavior. I wonder what are really their needs and what would dog’s prefer if you could ask them and they would answer. I believe we make it also so difficult because of ego and selection that we see in many dog’s so less relax and stable behavior. Above read gives me the impression of less stress and healthy/balanced neurotransmitter system. Hope I make some sense. What I also like to share is that Dr. Anindita Bhadra did also some study and gives lectures about free-ranging dogs.

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Lots of good questions, Dtermijn! There’s still so much we (or, at least, I) don’t know! I’d love to see more studies about both the genetics and the behavior of free ranging dogs, and how they compare to purebreds. Check out the books by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger if you aren’t familiar with them – I think they have done the most research on these topics so far!

      • dtermijn says:

        Thank you for mention about their books, I have read What is a Dog. In the matter of domestication I must be honest I prefer the book from Mark Derr. But I’m always eager to learn and read about other theories,studies and research. I wasn’t there so I have no proof and must educate myself through some good readings about this topic.

      • Chrissi Schranz says:

        The way the research is presented in this interview, I don’t agree with the conclusions the researcher draws from her experiments. It makes sense that a dog who isn’t familiar with you would rather take food from the ground than from your hand. This works well, so they have no reason to change their behavior in later encounters. When the researchers made an active effort to win the dogs’ trust, they would eventually choose food from their hand. Otherwise, they kept choosing the food from the street. All of this is logical. But I doubt it means that dogs became pets because they were being petted and NOT because of the food. Maybe the petting didn’t hurt – but that doesn’t mean it was the primary reason. You would have to use only petting (and no food at all) to look into this. I also find the usage of the word “love” problematic in a scientific context.

  4. Daniëlle Termijn says:

    Thank very much for your last reply and sharing your insight with me. I believe because the language barrier she use love but that is only my guess. Affection would be maybe a better word. It’s not a easy theory but I’ll do think that humans and wolf-wolf-dogs must have had a certain way of affection, respect for each other, to create a bond what was more than only about hunting techniques/skills etc. To go back to this research and the street dogs maybe some prefer more the compagnion from the human also without the food as a source, just the compagnion for the compagnion and that could be developed further. It’s a interesting subject.

  5. Alisa says:

    Really fascinating topic! I lived in Malawi, Africa for 3 years and volunteered at a shelter there for most of that time. While most of the dogs that were at the shelter fit those criteria you listed, they were almost all dogs left behind from people who moved houses or puppies brought in at a really young age. The dogs I encountered out on the streets were not aggressive, but were very shy. They did not like to approach people and I think this is because many Malawians do not like dogs. Dogs are used for security and many people have stories of being bit or chased. People will throw rocks at the dogs or kick at them if they get too close. The street dogs were also very shy around my own dogs and were really skittish. I saw fights break out among street dogs pretty often, usually over some scrap of food from a trash pile. So perhaps it is better for the dogs to maintain some space from the humans and vice versa and this is why the free range dogs are more cautions.

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Thank you for sharing your observations, Alisa! What I found particularly interesting about them is that you have seen a lot of fights among the street dogs. This happens very rarely here on the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala. I wonder whether the resources (food) were scarce in Malawi, while here there is more to go around.

      The way the dogs you observed behaved around people makes sense, given that many people didn’t like dogs!

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