A recent article by one of my favorite writers on pet health and behavior, Dr. Karen Becker, recounted a new study comparing the personality and behavior of pet dogs on the island of Bali to that of their free-roaming counterparts. The study is interesting in a number of ways.
First, Bali has been an island for about 10,000 years, and home to a closed, interbreeding native dog population that is at least 3,000 years old â far older than any modern purebred, and therefore as genetically consistent as any other breed.
These native dogs (Bali street dogs, or BSDs) have traditionally lived independently alongside the Balinese people, scavenging or receiving irregular handouts from humans, loosely integrated into their communities. Lately, an influx of European, American and Japanese expatriates living in Bali have taken to “adopting” some of these BSDs, turning them into pets, restricting them to their property, providing medical care, neutering, food and training as is customary in their home countries. This situation seemed perfect for a study of the effects on dogs’ personality and behavior of being kept as pets, as opposed to the free-roaming lifestyle.
The study data revealed that adoption, a change to a confined and restricted environment, results in greater excitability, aggression and territorial behavior. In the world as a whole, it is thought that about 80 percent of dogs are free-ranging “street dogs” â not pets. While these dogs, everywhere, frequently live in close proximity to humans, even developing utilitarian and companionable relationships with their human neighbors, not much was known about their behavior as compared with more domesticated, owned and claimed canines â until this first study.
It’s important to note â and the study fails to explicitly do so â that factors such as parasite loads, low quality nutrition and near-constant reproduction surely affect qualities such as “calmness” and lower activity and excitability levels, lower aggression toward other dogs, less inclination to chase animals and people â desirable qualities the BSDs had over the pets. The ages when the street dogs were adopted (also not noted) would be significant, too, as adults having survived the health and intelligence challenges of puppyhood and having acquired “street smarts,” who then were adopted and showed behavioral changes would indicate different conclusions than those adopted as puppies. But the study looked at dogs adopted from the BSD population, not second or third generations. The researchers stated: “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 âŚ in comparison to free-ranging individuals.”
Dr. Becker goes further, concurring with other observers, that dogs often act out and behave badly because they’re not allowed to be dogs. “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.” She goes on to suggest that a good balance can be reached by pet owners engaging their dogs in mentally and physically stimulating activities, like nosework, agility and fetch games.
I certainly agree as to the benefits of exercise and mentally stimulating games â for our dogs, and for us, too. But this is a far cry from any semblance of independence, and the self-discipline and confidence that all beings acquire from its exercise â whether successful or not. Is it, in fact, simply a requirement that all living things occupy an environment that provides scope for a necessary level of independent action in which choices can be freely made and consequences accepted, according to the capacities of species and individuals? If so, it suggests we do some deep thinking about our out-sized assumption of control over the environments needed by our fellow beings to be themselves â even those closest to us. Even us. It may be that the consequences to ourselves, however disguised as “our” conquest of Nature, actually frustrate and distort a fundamental aspect of our own nature.
Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs.