Does City Living Stress Dogs Out?

dog enrichment

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. 

In future articles we’re going to explore the idea of “fitting in” versus belonging when it comes to social interactions with our dogs, and how can we best provide for  species typical behaviors  that are normal and perhaps necessary for dogs.


  • Evelyn Haskins

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    OH, Yes! I LOVE to be able to see dogs being dogs instead of being always on leash or confined.

    I have felt for a long time that ‘off-leash areas’ should be just that. Places for people to walk with their dogs off-leash.

    We are lucky here (Coffs Harbour, Australia) to have some large (acreage) off-leash parks, and long off-leash (but not safe-surf) beaches for our dogs. The only dogs that interact with others are those that come together. Otherwise it is each dog with his/her human. The dogs get to run at their own speed, and investigate any smells that interest them — but NOT play with other dogs. Dogs from homes with small or no yards can get to chase balls.

    I feel horrified by the thought of small fenced areas where people take their dogs to PLAY with other dogs!

  • Suzanne and Dan

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    We were lucky enough to lecture in Coff’s Harbour back in 2004 for the Australian APDT. Beautiful place and welcoming people. One of most fondest memories.
    I have to say, it was fun watching the “cabin dogs” be dogs. Obviously this idea has to come with limits – there are still quite a few normal dog behaviors that aren’t OK in today’s society – we don’t want to harken back to the Elizabeth Marshall Thomas book of years ago watching dogs run free in neighborhoods. California has dog beaches as well and they are similar to dog parks in that you see the good the bad and the ugly, but probably more good because of the bigger expanse of space.

  • Great observations on your part! Perhaps you are familiar with Ted Kerasote and his book “Merle’s Door” where he makes some of these same points. Ted and Merle lived just outside Jackson Hole, WY where dogs had the freedom to “be dogs” and he believed this to be the reason that Merle and others like him were such exceptional representations of their species.

    My dogs come with me to your wonderful state for a week of hiking each year. While I try to grasp the serenity of the Rockies, my girls are smelling elk scat and we all go home happy.

    Dog Parks and other off-leash activities such as agility, rally, dock diving, and lure coursing have increased in popularity of late. Maybe people are catching on!

  • Suzanne and Dan

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    A good friend and colleague of ours also pointed out Kerasote’s book in a private email to us. We haven’t read it yet, but looks like we need to.
    Glad you enjoy vacationing in our beautiful state with your canine friends.
    We feel guilty whenever we hike in dog-off leash approved areas and don’t let our Coral off leash – she’s never not come back, but having her out of sight for 5 minutes or more freaks us out – our problem, not hers. The “cabin dogs” certainly weren’t always in sight of their owners, yet as we said, nothing bad happened. It’s a trade off for sure!
    Thanks for your comment

  • Whitney

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    I love that you brought this up! My dogs happen to be city dogs but have regular access to the country life through visits to my mom’s house or camping at the lake. I really see the difference in my dogs when they are running free verses on leash in the city. While they generally do well in any situation and are happy and well adjust they are extra relaxed and happy while out in the country being free well dogs! The always stay fairly close even in their wandering and my Boxer who is leash reactive while in townis perfectly calm and collected around the other dogs who are out there. Establishing a good recall and then giving your dog’s plenty of oppprtunity to just be relaxed is so beneficial and a great stress reliever for them.

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