What Do Dogs Want? Social Choices and Varied Breeding for Better Welfare

A comparison with village dogs highlights some of the ways that pet dogs’ lives could be improved.

Pet dogs, like this brown Poodle on a bed, have good lives, but compared to village dogs there could still be some improvement
Photo: Lim Tiaw Leong/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

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Do pet dogs have it all? They get to lounge about for most of the day, their meals are provided for them, and they can have endless pets from their humans. But are there ways that we could improve the welfare of pet dogs?   

A team of scientists has investigated this question by comparing pet dogs to village dogs in a paper in press in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. After all, dogs existed as village dogs for centuries before any pet dogs came along, so the researchers say “the comparison may serve as a good basis for assessing the effects of the ‘petification’ of dogs.” 

Dr. Iben Meyer and Prof. Peter Sandøe (Dept of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, University of Copenhagen), two of the authors of the paper, told me,

“In order to improve the welfare of companion dogs, it’s first crucial to recognize that they actually often suffer welfare-related problems. Of course, modern companion dogs enjoy many privileges by living with humans in modern urban or suburban environments. However, they also have to pay a price for this. Human preferences for specific dog “looks" can lead to serious health problems. Human demands for dogs to fit in with busy lifestyles, and expectations of dogs’ social skills, can lead to a number of actual or perceived behavioural problems. 

“Our hope with this paper is to inspire guardians to take a fresh look at the dogs in front of them, and to consider: what are the needs and limitations of a species that, for much of the time it evolved, was not bred according to human tastes, but rather was adapted to a lifestyle not that different from that enjoyed by modern village dogs?”


Comparing village dogs to pet dogs

The scientists reviewed the literature to compare the lives of village dogs with pet dogs in the Global North. They say they are not trying to romanticize the lives of village dogs. In fact, pet dogs have many advantages, not least of which is good veterinary care. Pet dogs live considerably longer than village dogs, many of which die as puppies and overall typically only live to 3-4 years. Another advantage for pet dogs is access to good food and more security. 

But village dogs have much more freedom in terms of what they do and where they go. 

The scientists focus on two ways in which pet dogs may have compromised welfare compared to village dogs: the effects of breeding, and the social demands we put on pet dogs.

Breeding issues

Village dogs can mate with other dogs as they wish. In general village dogs are medium-sized and look very similar, but they actually have a lot of genetic diversity. 

In contrast, most pet dogs are bred through human choice. Breeding pedigrees is something that really took off in Victorian times. When breeding decisions are made largely based on looks it can have serious health consequences. Although pet dogs have a much wider range of appearances, there is much less genetic diversity. 

Brachycephalic dogs (those with flat faces) are a prime example of health issues associated with breeding. Dogs like this, such as French Bulldogs and Pugs, can have a range of serious problems including Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS). Yet people are often drawn to these breeds for emotional reasons.  

Social factors

Village dogs have a wide range of different interactions with people, both positive and negative, and these may vary a lot depending where they live. They are typically well socialized to people and other dogs as puppies.

Pet dogs’ social lives are controlled by their guardians. We have high expectations, including that dogs should be okay being left home alone for parts of the day. It’s estimated that between 5 and 30% of pet dogs have separation-related issues, although it’s possible that many guardians are unaware of their dog’s distress. Signs include destruction around the exits, vocalizing, and elimination while the guardian is out. 

The scientists also mention that the pandemic may have made this issue worse, with there being a time when puppies could not be easily socialized. And with more people working from home, many pet dogs have not got used to being home alone.

Pet dogs are expected to always be friendly. As a social species, many pet dogs are missing out on opportunities to interact with other dogs. Many people do not socialize their puppy enough, may not give them enough chances to be sociable with other puppies or dogs, or conversely may encourage their puppy to interact with unfriendly dogs causing them to have a bad experience. Village dogs have much more choice in interactions as they have the freedom to go away, and they also have the chance to spend a lot of time with other dogs.

Lack of choice also affects interactions in the home, where pet dogs are often expected to be hugged and kissed, interactions that are too full-on for many dogs. Ultimately, if pet dogs are in a situation where they growl or bite, they may be euthanized. 

Pet dog welfare

The results of the current study highlight two important welfare issues for pet dogs. By being aware of these issues, and paying attention to pet dogs’ social needs, people can improve their dog’s welfare. 

Recognizing that dogs are social creatures who need company, and that they need to have a choice in interactions, will make a big difference to the dog in your home.

The scientists say the idea of pedigrees is not an issue, but more care needs to be taken when choosing dogs to breed in order to increase the genetic diversity. Something called optimal contribution selection can be used to get the balance right, but it requires breeders to work together. 

The paper is timely as there is increased interest in animal welfare for pet dogs. For example, people’s assessments of dog welfare depend on the dog’s role, but they tend to put the welfare of their own pet as higher than that of other pet dogs (Cobb, 2020). And in A Dog’s World, Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff consider what life would be like for dogs if people were no longer around (look out for an interview with Pierce and Bekoff coming soon on this blog).

The comparison between pet dogs and village dogs is an interesting one and shows that although our pooches have many advantages in life, there are several ways in which welfare could be improved. Pet dogs may not have it all, after all. 

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

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Cobb, M. L., Lill, A., & Bennett, P. C. (2020). Not all dogs are equal: Perception of canine welfare varies with context. Animal Welfare, 29(1), 27-35.

Meyer, I., Forkman, B., Fredholm, M., Glanville, C., Guldbrandtsen, B., Ruiz Izaguirre, E., Palmer, C. and Sandøe, P. (2022) Pampered pets or poor bastards? The welfare of dogs kept as companion animals, Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2022.105640  

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