Does City Living “Stress Dogs Out”?


It may be harder to be a dog today than at most any other time throughout the 15,000 years dogs have lived with humans.   If that sounds like a surprising statement, let us tell you about a recent experience that led us to arrive at that opinion.

We visited Suzanne’s cousin and his family, who live in a small town in south central, rural South Dakota.  Most of our visit was spent at Jack’s cabin on the Missouri river, on a small bay that includes 5 other cabins at the end of a dirt road.  The closest town of maybe 1000 people is about 15 miles away.

As families arrived at their respective cabins for the weekend and piled out of their cars, out jumped dogs as well.  Not too surprising in this rural area with a high population of hunters, all the dogs were Labradors – Coral, our Irish setter was the odd breed out!

What struck us immediately was the freedom these dogs were privileged to have.  None were on leash, yet all stayed close to their owners’ cabins; only occasionally going “next door” to visit their doggie neighbors.  When they did, they were well received by both dogs and people alike.

The dogs could run down to the river for a swim at will, roll in dead fish (highly discouraged by their owners when observed!), sniff and pee wherever and play with each other when they wanted.   You can see Coral being a dog of leisure – relaxing on a hammock at the cabin.

Most of the dogs stayed outside by themselves without wandering off when their owners would go boating; some dogs slept inside, some did not.
We can hear the arguments already about it not being safe to leave dogs home alone outside, unconfined, but what we observed over three days is dogs sleeping in sheltered areas near the cabins, just waiting for their humans to return.  Not one of them took off over the hills or got themselves into trouble.

When we took a walk up the road with Coral (on leash, as we knew from past experience her capacity to take off over the hills in search of birds), Jack’s dog Skip followed right along with us.  Even though he was off leash he never wandered out of sight, preferring instead to stay with his newly formed social group.

We saw no aggression among the dogs – they ignored each other more than anything else.  And when Coral got a little grumpy at their exuberance (she was tethered on a long line under our supervision) instead of escalating, every dog just walked away from her.

It made us think that this sort of lifestyle for dogs is reminiscent of the early village dogs (that still exist in other countries) that chose to “hang out” at human settlements.   The “cabin dogs” lives are definitely an “upgrade”, because they all were in great physical condition, had good quality regular meals and veterinary care, comfortable beds, toys and lots of human social time.

The contrast that struck us was how more restricted Coral’s life is as a city dog.  And she has much more freedom and we believe a better quality of life than many pet dogs.  Like many dogs, she’s rarely off leash except in her own back yard.  And there was no comparison between the low key, low density interactions among the “cabin dogs” and the high density, intenseness of doggie day cares and dog parks.

It’s pretty amazing when you stop to think about it, that dogs have been able to adapt to less space, higher densities, and less freedom than their ancestors or even their country counterparts.  But those adaptations come with a price – dogs have fewer opportunities to express their normal behavior and to do the things we have selected them to do for thousands of years. All of this creates more stress for our dogs.  We think there are lessons to be learned here, and the first one that occurred to us is that we need to facilitate opportunities for dogs to just be dogs.

1 Comment

  • Marguerite Flett, DVM

    Reply Reply

    Hi Suzanne,
    What a great example of how happy dogs can be when we let them “be dogs.”
    Thanks for your measured insight again.

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