Lola the adopted Sri Lankan street dog

Education

From the street to the sofa: Can roaming dogs adapt to pet life?

Soharni TennekoonPosted by Soharni Tennekoon, 10 December 2020

If you’ve ever ‘owned’ a street dog you’ll be familiar with their doe eyes, curly helicopter tails, no-nonsense short coats, Baby Yoda-esque ears and HUGE capacity for love.

I use air-quotes here because, what does it mean to own a street dog? Can you truly ever own something that has, for generations, marched to the tune of their own drum? Where independence and resourcefulness is hardwired into them; where the inclination to roam is wound into their genetic makeup; where freedom is life?

The thing about street dogs is they’re domesticated, but self-bred. Naturally selected. Humans rarely have a hand in what character traits or physical attributes are passed down. The street dogs of today are vastly a product of generations of the most resourceful, most resilient, most adaptable. Do they need the streets to be who they are?

You can take a dog out of the street, but can you take the street out of the dog?

Unlike wild animals, street dogs depend on humans for resources – and revel in our company. Studies at IISERKOL India have shown that the majority of free-roaming dogs prefer human-dog over dog-dog interactions. (Truth be told I too prefer human-dog interactions over my own species but I am probably not in the majority here.) We’ve coevolved for tens of thousands of years, making the human-dog bond a mighty special one. Dogs actively seek out human company – that’s why you might find a gregarious four-legged friend briefly accompanying you on a walk. Sociability is key to survival in humans and in dogs.

We first met Lola (the dog in the header image) in rural Sigiriya in 2014, as a sociable yet heavily pregnant, underweight adult village dog with a visibly damaged left hind leg. She was begging for food scraps and whatever attention you’d throw her way – a distressing sight for the iciest heart. According to a kindly local who’d been feeding her, she’d grown up around a remote village (close to where we were staying), and had already birthed several litters. And the injured leg? She’d been shot in a trap gun set for wild boar, shattering her back leg.

Mouse the Sri Lankan ex-street dog
Mouse, another of Soharni’s ex-street dogs

Despite this high-octane, exclusively rural, free-roaming life, Lola adapted to a comparably vanilla life in Colombo surprisingly fast. There were teething issues, naturally – like her initial reluctance to step inside our house, choosing to give birth in a dirt patch at the back of our garden, and her desperate bids to escape the property. I was racked with guilt that she could no longer wander whenever she pleased, but the danger herein lay maniacal Colombo traffic right outside our gate. This was something she wasn’t used to navigating, as somewhat of a country bumpkin. Weirdly enough, she took to leash-walking with the ease of a prizewinning show dog.

Before we knew it, Lola was sleeping indoors, graduating to the couch, where she now reigns supreme. At the ripe old age of 11 (the vet’s guesstimate), she is Queen of the Couch Potatoes. She needs padded bedding for her old bones. She no longer begs for attention, she demands it, with a confidant, “Awoowoo” and incessant pawing. The muscles in her gammy hindleg have wasted away, making walking difficult, especially when it rains and her arthritis flares up. She now struggles on our daily 1.5km walks. What would life have been for her back in rural Sigiriya at this stage of life, having to walk miles for food, no vet care, shelter, or cuddles-on-tap? I think she has a pretty sweet life with us, but I wish I could ask her.

Could adaptability mean adoptability?

It’s a big decision, taking in a street dog, but is it ours to make? There’s no way we can ever gauge; we can’t just hand them a questionnaire. It’s likely not a one-size-fits-all kinda answer – dogs are individuals with distinct personalities, likes and dislikes. But there are times where it’s a clear choice; George, our third rescue, languished in the Colombo municipal pound for most of his young life, in the most horrific conditions. Life for a CMC pound dog is no life to speak of (and is a big elephant in the room).

But when I brought George home, his emotional plasticity gobsmacked me; he was a survivor of an inhumane system, but so was his capacity to love. He is sunshine in sentient form, fluent in many love languages.

While there is scant scientific data on whether street dogs make good house pets (something I’m currently researching via Ceylon Street Dog Project), when asked anecdotally, most street dog adopters will heartily vouch for them. For their loyalty, affection, resilience, keen intellect, capacity for forgiveness, sheer goofiness, physical hardiness, eagerness to please, and more.

George, Sri Lankan ex-street dog
George the ex-street dog making himself at home

What are the challenges of ‘owning’ a street dog?

Many report that one of the biggest challenges of having an ex-street dog as a pet is meeting their high energy levels – which makes sense considering stamina is crucial to surviving on the street. To say they enjoy long sunset walks is an understatement. Mouse, my second adoption, and a very odd fish, is built like an aerodynamic greyhound. Functions like one too; so long as she gets 45mins to walk, run, sprint, sniff, and pee on every lamppost, she’s set for her daily exercise quota. Then it’s back to Extreme Sleeping on the couch.

Interestingly, a Bangalore study showed that free-roaming dogs napped throughout the day with a few short bursts of roaming. Most of their activity/socialising occurred at night. Being highly adapted to their environment means they’ve figured out how to be energy efficient, swerve the hottest parts of the day, and avoid getting in the way of busy humans.

Using my dogs as a case study, I can attest that they do a LOT of snoozing during the day, (interspersed with periods of garden patrol/ barking at errant leaves/birds/squirrels). But as house pets, they also sleep like champions at night. It’s where they do the bulk of their sleeping. They snore loudly and unapologetically.

So what does this say about their behaviour when taken off the streets and onto your couch? That they’re adaptable, once their basic needs are met. A skill they’ve evolved living on the streets, on their wits.

Adapt, or die tryin’.

Soharni is co-founder of cool Colombo café Black Cat . She also runs research project Ceylon Street Dog Project

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