The Behavior of Turkish Street Dogs

In our visits to several locations in Turkey, we saw many dogs on the loose on the streets. 

 The Behavior of Turkish Street Dogs






People referred to them in various ways – street dogs, feral dogs or strays.  But what did those terms mean, and how did these dogs compare to the free-roaming dogs we’ve seen in Brazil and the Caribbean? Are free roaming dogs around the world similar in behavior and social organization or are there differences? 

Few of the Turkish dogs we saw were in groups but in Central and South America we’ve seen groups of 3 to12 dogs walking, resting or eating together. We only saw one group of dogs in Turkey and that was a group walking on the street in Istanbul that you see in the photo below.  All the other dogs we saw as individuals or rarely, pairs.

group-turk-dogs (There are 5 dogs in this photo, though they all may not be easily visible in the small version of the picture)







In addition to the differences, we also saw similarities between Turkish and Central and South American free-ranging dogs.  We found some dogs to be friendly, either tolerating approach and contact by us, or in a few cases actually approached us and solicited attention -as in the picture below. Other dogs were quite wary, moving away when we tried to get close.

friendlly-turk-dog (This was a VERY friendly dog and probably would have stood there for hours as long as Suzanne was petting her)









The terms street dog, stray, unowned, feral, neighborhood and village dog are frequently used without definition leading to considerable confusion.  A recent review paper by Boitani, Ciucci and Ortolani (2007) described the ecology and behavior of free-roaming dogs and sheds some light on use of these terms. The authors argue there are only three kinds of free-roaming dogs.  Feral dogs are those that are independent of human control and live apart from people. People don’t intentionally provide food, shelter or other needs of the animals, but the dogs often take advantage of municipal dumps where human garbage provides a food supply and shelter.  

The other two kinds of free ranging dogs are owned dogs allowed to roam and uncontrolled, unowned dogs that live among people.

 The Behavior of Turkish Street Dogs (Free roaming dog, wearing a collar, apparently owned but we could not identify a specific owner)





The latter group has been labeled neighborhood/village dogs.  The term stray is becoming less popular among scientists studying free-ranging dogs because it doesn’t differentiate among the three groups. The distinction between owned and neighborhood dogs is often blurred, and dogs can go from owned to unowned to owned again (depending on the definition of “ownership”) while living on the streets. Neighborhood and owned dogs often scavenge for food and accept handouts from willing people.  Neighborhood dogs can become feral, although the reverse is rarely seen.

The behavior of neighborhood and owned dogs often differs substantially from feral dogs.  Feral dogs attempt to avoid human contact and are usually fearful of people, even though they live in garbage dump areas and on the periphery of human habitations. Feral dogs also form groups of 2-6 individuals that are mostly unrelated to each other but stable in membership.  Feral groups will actively defend territories against other dogs. Neighborhood dogs are often seen singly or in pairs, as they tend to live off of more dispersed food sources such as garbage from homes and businesses. They don’t form stable groups but assemble in groups when a female is in heat or when they find a rich food source or safe resting area.  Neighborhood dogs vary in their friendliness to people, some being quite social while others are wary. These differences between groups have been seen in different areas and cultures around the world.

So what were the dogs we saw in Turkey?  Most likely, neighborhood dogs and perhaps some owned dogs running at large.   

owned-atlarge-dog (We saw the owner let the dog off leash, and then retrieve him after his romp in the flowers)





Why the difference between the single Turkish dogs and the groups of dogs we saw in Brazil and the Caribbean?  The Caribbean/Brazilian dogs were likely neighborhood dogs as well. While the Turkish dogs were seen in cities with good sanitation, the Brazilian and Caribbean dogs were in small villages with larger refuse areas very close by.  Our hypothesis is these dogs were drawn together because of the more concentrated food sources.

The Boitani et al. article and discussion helps put our relationship with dogs in a broader perspective.  They remind us, as also pointed out by Dr. Ray Coppinger, that neighborhood/village dogs were probably our first and oldest way of living with dogs and that even today, there are probably more dogs living this way around the world than dogs living as owned, non-roaming dogs. The American perception that dogs live with families and don’t roam freely is probably the exception, not the rule.

Boitani, L., Ciucci, P. & Ortolani, A. (2007). Behaviour and social ecology of free-ranging dogs.  In Jensen, P. (Ed.) The Behavioural Biology of Dogs. Cambridge, MA: CAB International, pp. 147-165.  

Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L.,2001.  Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behavior, and evolution. Scribner, NY, 352pp.


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