Can Street Dogs Become Good Pets?

From free-ranging dog to new home. It sounds like a fairy-tale, but how does it work out?

A scruffy, happy dog peeks out from a kennel outside
Photo: Yanaskaya /

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A recent survey by Yasemin Salgiri Demirbas (Ankara University) et al investigates how well free-roaming urban dogs fit into a family home once they are adopted. The results show the dogs adapt well to their new homes. 

The scientists say, “Every year in Turkey, thousands of free-ranging dogs are brought to dog shelters. These dogs are mongrel dogs with stray origins.” There is often a bias against adopting dogs that have been stray in case they have behaviour problems, and they can spend a long time waiting for a home. The researchers wanted to know if people’s misgivings are well-founded.

75 homes that had adopted a free-ranging dog completed the survey. Some dogs came from a shelter or vet, but others were picked up on the street. This, they explain, “may be because of the pattern where in developing countries such as Turkey people encounter free-ranging dogs in everyday life, so they do not need to put any extra effort to adopt these dogs.” There was no difference in behaviour of the dogs who came directly from the street rather than via another source.

Most of the dogs were acquired as puppies; 40% under 3 months old and 21% between 3 and 6 months at the time of adoption. 

First, the good news. Most homes reported no difficulties with house-training or leash-training. And although 75% of the dogs were said to show fear at first, 69% became more confident and easy-going over time. Common things the dogs were afraid of were sudden noise, thunder, vacuum cleaners, and sudden movements (things many dogs from other sources are also afraid of). 

The most common behaviour problem reported was hyper-attachment to the owner (59%), such as following the owner around the house or wanting to be in constant contact. Some dogs were like this from the beginning, and others developed it over time. 

The authors say 
“This finding is not surprising because it is known that dogs adopted from animal shelters or through rescue routes are more likely to exhibit separation-related problems.”

Differences in terminology make comparisons tricky, and it’s worth noting that separation anxiety and hyper-attachment are not synonymous (Sherman and Mills 2008). In Linda Lord et al’s (2008) study, problem behaviour when left alone was reported in 16% of shelter dogs one month after adoption. Following the owner round the house was reported in 65% of pet dogs by Emily Blackwell et al (2008) (and most of these dogs came from a breeder).

Another common behaviour problem reported at the time of adoption was destructiveness (32%), which declined over time to 13%. 32% of dogs were said to stray. Although aggression was not common initially, it increased in the period following adoption, suggesting some dogs initially inhibited this behaviour in their new home. At the time of the survey, 12.5% of the dogs were said to show aggression. Of these, most were aggressive to cats (which might be considered predation) or towards other dogs.

A few of the dogs were kept on a chain. Although many had access to at least some of the house, 39% were not allowed inside. The scientists say more research is needed on animal welfare and to find out whether these dogs are treated the same as other pet dogs.

There’s an interesting finding in terms of how owners perceive the human-canine relationship. Only 4% of the owners said the relationship should be based on dominance and force. However (64%) “stated that the owner should be a leader in a hierarchical order when interacting with his or her dog. They, however, reported that the hierarchical order should not be based on dominance.” More research is needed on how people understand the human-canine relationship.

The authors say, 
“one may assume that urban free-ranging dogs have a rather shy and fearful character in comparison to their conspecifics. Such dogs may have the tendency to display fearful behaviour in novel situations. They may, on the other hand, show considerable improvement when living in a stable family environment.”

It’s possible that people whose dogs did not do well did not complete the survey, so it may not show a full picture. The finding that dogs improve over time in their new home ties in with Frank McMillan et al’s similar finding for adult dogs re-homed from commercial breeding establishments

The scientists conclude that urban free-ranging dogs adapt well to their new homes. This will be reassuring to anyone thinking of adopting a similar dog. It’s especially good news given that some of these families quite literally picked a dog from the street, without going via an organization that temperament tests the dogs or provides ongoing behavioural support. 

If you're adopting a street dog, check out my post with tips on bringing home a rescue dog. And whatever kind of dog you have, rescue dog or pedigree, you will find plenty of tips on how to care for them in my award-winning book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

Have you ever adopted a shelter dog or free-ranging dog?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Blackwell, E., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 3 (5), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008
Salgirli Demirbas, Y., Emre, B., & Kockaya, M. (2014). Integration ability of urban free-ranging dogs into adoptive families' environment Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (5), 222-227 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2014.04.006  
Lord, L., Reider, L., Herron, M., & Graszak, K. (2008). Health and behavior problems in dogs and cats one week and one month after adoption from animal shelters Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233 (11), 1715-1722 DOI: 10.2460/javma.233.11.1715  
McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135 (1-2), 86-94 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.09.006
Sherman, B., & Mills, D. (2008). Canine Anxieties and Phobias: An Update on Separation Anxiety and Noise Aversions Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 38 (5), 1081-1106 DOI: 10.1016/j.cvsm.2008.04.012

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