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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


10 August 2018

The importance of studying free-ranging dogs, and what we learned about Bali dogs

Marco and Shogun. Credit Marco Adda
Today we are joined by Marco Adda as he describes his recent publication exploring Bali dogs — those living in a free-ranging state and those living in human homes as pets. 

Do you know that free-ranging dogs are one of the most widely distributed carnivore in the world? Or, perhaps I should begin by asking: have you considered, or even ever heard about, free-ranging dogs? In case yes, I can imagine what you are (maybe) thinking: feral dogs. Am I right? Are you picturing dogs living wild and uncontrolled in a “developing country”? Dogs carrying diseases and people avoiding them at all cost?

In some cases, this may be the case, but framing free-ranging dogs this way is not actually correct. In fact, free-ranging dogs, also called Village Dogs (rather than “feral dogs”) do not always carry diseases, they often interact with humans, and they may be wonderful companions too! They also represent an excellent opportunity to study and understand dog-human interactions and dog behaviour.

Most people in places like Europe, North America, and Australia think about dogs as companion animals living with a human family. Thus, when those people happen to spend time in places where free-ranging dogs are present, they often want to adopt dogs and restrict them to their homes. This is what I witnessed in places such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Mexico, among others. And this is what we have been observing in Bali, Indonesia. Bali dogs are shifting from a free-ranging lifestyle to a Westernised style of restricted pet companionship.

Bali dogs are a unique canine population. They have been free-ranging for thousands of years. And you know what? They are not as wild as you may think. While it is true that they often show a high level of independence, they are also recognised as excellent animal companions. In fact, expatriates populating the island of Bali over the last few decades occasionally adopt these village dogs, and then keep them restricted to their houses and backyards as is typical in their home countries and cultures. This new trend has provided us with the unique opportunity to compare the personality traits of dogs according to their lifestyle: either living as human companions, or living as free-ranging dogs. In addition, we have explored the impact of age, sex, and neuter status (demographic variables) on these dogs’ personality traits.

I have been observing Bali dogs since 2012. Bali is not a huge island (5,780 km²), and in 2012 about 300,000 free-ranging dogs were estimated to roam around. When preliminary observations proved novel and exciting, a study was developed in collaboration with the Family Dog Project in 2014. Further observations and questionnaire-collection were planned and carried out over the next few years. Dog “carers/owners” filled out a validated dog behavior and personality questionnaire for their pet companion Bali dog. Caretakers completed the same questionnaire for the free-ranging Bali dogs. In total, we had 75 adult dogs in the study. The questionnaire included many questions about how the dog behaves under different circumstances.

Dogs in the study. Credit: Marco Adda
What we found
Observations and analyses revealed that Bali dogs living as human companions in a typical domestic setting (house, fenced backyard, etc.) are more active, excitable, and aggressive towards animals, and are also more inclined to chase animals or humans than Bali dogs that live free-ranging. Looking closer, females were found to be more excitable and fearful of people. In other words, being restricted within a household could potentially make free-ranging Bali dogs more reactive than those dogs living free-ranging.

These results raise some important considerations. One may assume that a free-ranging dog lives unhappily without a human family. In some instances, this may be the case. But we need to also remember that free-ranging dogs have a lot of freedom that dogs living as pets or companions do not necessarily have. Consider the privilege of deciding daily actions and habits. Free-ranging dogs can display behaviour according to their personality. Their sociality, and in some cases sexual conduct, are not, or are minimally, conditioned by humans.

While we love our pets and we include them as part of our families, we need to remember that, to some degree, we are limiting their freedom and this may impact their behaviour. This study on Bali dogs, then, shows how some dogs, shifting from a free-roaming to a pet/home context, may become more reactive to some solicitations. Does that mean we shouldn't have dogs in our houses? I don't think so. However, we need to remind that when dogs live as restrained "pets", the lack of some freedoms may affect dogs' behavior and even prompt some behavioural issues. Therefore, we may need to adjust something in our human behavior or habits to provide an adequate environment for our dogs.

We know that this study is just preliminary, but we consider these results relevant. They suggest that a change in lifestyle, i.e. being adopted and living in a confined environment, may have negative consequences on some canine personality traits in this population of dogs.

Bali dogs matter

A notable aspect of this study is that our dog population is really unique. Most well-known dog breeds (such as Golden Retrievers or German Shephards) are the result of relatively recent and deliberate human selection. The Bali dogs have not been deliberately selected by humans in this way. Instead, they have roamed the island for at least 3,300 years.

To better grasp the history of Bali dogs, we need to look at the main religion of Bali. The Hindu Bali religion traditionally respects the street dog. Dogs can be seen as sacred creatures or manifestations of spirits. Bali dogs have been allowed to behave as dogs would and roam and reproduce freely on the island. In my ethnographic research around Bali, I gathered stories from the 1970s-1980s describing how large packs of free-ranging dogs (10-25 individuals) would roam the streets. Some dogs were referred to as aggressive and the packs described as scary, and yet dogs were left to roam, consistent with religious traditions. This suggests that Bali dogs have potentially had little behavioural selection, at least until the 1970s-1980s, when the scene dramatically changed due to major economic, environmental, and cultural shifts.

We cannot entirely exclude the possibility that particular dogs may have been eliminated due to their behaviour, or that humans preferred — and therefore selected — some dogs over others. However, Bali dogs have not experienced artificial selection for morphology or behaviour as seen in Western dog breeds. This is something that makes the Bali dog population unique. It is also one of those cases where we can see the flaw in calling a 100-year-old artificially selected breed "pure," while a 3,300-year-old canine population is considered a "non-breed."

And Bali dogs deserve particular attention. Their numbers have declined from some 800,000 individuals in 2008 to no more than 150,000 individuals in 2018. This is a dramatic drop of 81% of the entire population in just the last ten years. The main reasons are the massive culling plans, the dog meat trade, as well as other causes like disease or car accidents. While neutering programs are in place for the welfare of dogs, they also contribute to the decline in numbers. Furthermore, the interbreeding of Bali dogs with international dog breed is also impacting the historical Bali dog population. Finally, studies on the personality of free-ranging dogs are rare, which adds to the value of this research.

Bali dogs and Marco
We would like to thank all the dog “owners” and the caretakers who participated in our study by completing the questionnaires and providing relevant information about companion and free-ranging Bali dogs.

Marco Adda and on Facebook
Family Dog Project and on Facebook


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