I’ve had several opportunities to observe unowned “street dogs” in different habitats, from Indian reservations to beaches to foreign countries. Years ago I went on a school-organized trip with my son’s middle-school class to Italy; watching the famed stray dogs who live in the ruins of Pompeii was the highlight of my trip!
Almost everywhere there is a persistently high population of street dogs, “reservation dogs,” or “sato dogs,” there are organizations devoted to helping them, ranging from capture/vaccination/spay/neuter programs to adoption programs. And this is great, because the threats to the lives of stray dogs are many:
- Parvovirus and distemper kills many unvaccinated street dogs.
- Many suffer terribly from fleas and/or mange.
- Long-term suffering from ticks and tick-borne disease, and from giardia and/or coccidia may also shorten the dogs’ lives.
- If they haven’t been captured and spayed/neutered at some point, they will unavoidably add to the population of homeless dogs. Females may suffer during breeding season, unable to escape being bred by numerous males, and from birthing/feeding more puppies than her body can maintain. Males may suffer from fights brought on by the proximity of a female in season, and from wandering farther afield than they normally would, in search of the scent of a female in season.
- Being hit by cars is far too common.
- In rural areas, many stray dogs meet their ends as they hunt for food and end up getting shot by farmers or ranchers.
On the other hand, I sometimes consider that some of these free-roaming dogs may be happier than some owned dogs who have regular health care, food, and warmth. There are a great many owned dogs who suffer from the helplessness of being locked up in a tiny cage or crate, dependent on a human’s schedule to eliminate when they need to, or for meeting other basic needs. Many dogs are subjected to lives of relative emotional and mental poverty, spending huge chunks of each day in social isolation and deprivation.
“Street dogs” can satisfy their curiosity about anything that catches their eyes or ears, investigating at will. They can exercise when they want, as much as they want. They usually develop relationships with other dogs, staying in a loose “family” group with other dogs they trust.
But it’s undeniable that their lives tend to be short, much shorter than owned dogs. There are just so many hazards.
In recent years, a great many groups have begun to import street dogs from other countries into the U.S., in hopes of finding adopters here. While this undoubtedly saves lives, I can’t tell you how many reports I’ve heard from trainers who have been called upon to help the families who have adopted former street dogs from Puerto Rico or Russia, or brought home by soft-hearted soldiers in the Middle East. Sometimes these dogs have a really rough time adapting to the typical lifestyle of an owned dog in America: being walked on leash everywhere, having no freedom to roam, perhaps being an only dog, and spending a lot of time alone.
There is no way to know what’s best for any individual. But I must say, when a stray adolescent dog on an Indian reservation recently approached me, all of the above went through my mind. If I had been closer to home or had any room in my car, I would have been seriously tempted to “rescue” him – but what if he already had a loving family, and was merely given the freedom to wander?