Pet Dogs, Rescues and Street Dogs

The first male dog I’ve owned is a fine specimen: it is generally agreed that he is handsome and loving, albeit dumb as a box of rocks.

I enjoy him for other reasons as well. He moves with the laziness of a breeze on a hot summer day, crowds with his snuggling, and performs tricks for treats - up to a point. He’ll play dead for us, but refuses to army crawl unless it’s for a really good treat. Food and his ball are his deities, while he appreciates walks so long as he doesn’t have to go too far.

All in all, he’s as stereotypical as a dog can get. However, while I do often say dogs are similar around the world, they do often behave differently. I’m thinking particularly of the difference between stray dogs and pets, and more specifically, between intact males and those sans testicles. And it can be quite a difference.

Dog socialization on the streets is interesting to watch. They often hang out in troublesome packs, wandering together in search of food or shade - or chasing after whichever female seems vulnerable that day. I’ve read - in my quick research on the subject - that there are three types of dogs you might see on the street: the first is the true stray, unattached to any kind of person or place, and that often wanders alone. The second is the kind I’ve become familiar with: dogs that don’t technically have owners but that remain attached to a set of streets and are enough of a repeated sight for people to take care of them more. These are neighborhood dogs. And the last is the type of dog that I’ve written about before: dogs with owners who simply have a lot of freedom.

In fact, I’ve been reading the psychology between street and domesticated dogs are completely different, at least in some studies on the subject so far. Some of it is obvious, especially to those of you who have rescued strays; I’ve written before about my little gremlin, who we love dearly, but who also came with a specific set of challenges. She desperately wanted human affection but couldn’t trust it. She guarded her food and bit anyone she deemed as a threat to anything she had or wanted. It took years of patience and kindness to win her over, but she’ll always be a little wary and guarded in some ways.

There’s another difference I didn’t realize could be related to her having been a stray until I read about it. Our male dog, as I said, has learned how to do tricks, up to the point where either his pride or salivary desires take over. Cora, the gremlin, will only sit and lie down; over the years, we have finally gotten her to an approximation of playing dead, but nowhere near to the levels of dramatization performed by our male dog. It’s not that she’s a dumb dog; she’s had to be quite resourceful in her years on this planet. But - it’s because apparently domesticated dogs and stray dogs have completely different abilities in reading human social cues.

To an extent, this seems obvious. Clearly, our rescue has a harder time reading whether there is an intent to harm, in contrast to our male, who trusts everyone. This is trauma-related. But at an even deeper level, I found this cool article on dogs being able to understand the human act of pointing. Domesticated dogs understood what pointing meant, and in general, there was a shared understanding of certain expectations. You do a trick, you get a treat. It’s easy to understand (relatively) what the trick is and how the human is teaching it to you. Strays, on the other hand, were much less responsive to pointing.

So a lightbulb has gone off for me in regards to our rescue and why she doesn’t follow our conventions. It seems there are a lot more unacknowledged differences, but they haven’t been studied as much, or the results of such studies aren’t as accessible to the average layperson (thanks, Google Scholar).

Then, of course, there’s what I actually see on the street. There are some generalizations I can make, but who knows if they’re backed by science. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen a lot of dogs wandering around in packs wherever I go. Often, this is a bunch of male dogs after one female dog - my generalization here is that, while I’ve been abroad, I’ve noticed that it’s very frequently the female street dogs who try to attach themselves to people, and often, desperately, to any person who crosses their path. On occasion, male dogs would approach and allow themselves to be petted, but often it would be in the wake of a female dog. In the town where I volunteered in Cuba, there was one female dog in particular always getting hounded by the males. Usually the tourists would try to find ways to defend her, but there was only so much we could do, and every time she’d have to accept her with submissive passivity. I get that it’s the way of the world, but it seems like an awful type of life.

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