Learning from 'freedom dogs' & easing the overseas dog into his new life

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Group of street dogs

After a short trip to Athens to visit some volunteers who care for 'street/dump/village' dogs, I was fascinated to watch some of the dogs' interactions with other dogs, people and resources (food, water, resting places in the shade, human affection)

I am beginning to match these experiences with my own experience of rehoming a Greek street dog and seeing a few Southern European & Eastern European dogs being rehomed into the UK, and looking at how and why their new guardians remark on their behaviour apparently changing after being adopted.

Homeless dog benefits - freedom, choice and the space to move away and around

There aren't many benefits to being a homeless dog, but a couple of them, I believe, are their freedom to make choices and to be in control. 

In terms of resources, I saw little conflict. The weekly food was laid out in a line or in piles and the dogs ate side by side without any scuffles, surprisingly. I can't explain why this would be the case - perhaps they are fed throughout the week regularly by other people and feel comfortable with each other, having habituated or been conditioned to eating that way, or perhaps they are so focussed on gobbling as much as they can, they ignore the other dogs around them, doing the same. I did meet one dog whose habit is to lay on his pile of food whilst eating it, but again no aggressive displays over food. All the dogs I met, who were pleased to see humans, were happy to share the attention & affection.  And wow did some love human affection, craved it even.

I didn't see any dog-to-dog aggression from the dogs living outside. Of course, this is just because I did not see it, and I am fully aware of dogs being attacked by other dogs, particularly, I was told, over territory. For example on the hillside where I was staying, there were three groups of dogs who lived in different areas down the hill, and they never now strayed into each others areas because fights had broken out in the past. However, what I saw were dogs who, in the main, got on with each other or tolerated each other in their existing groups. By this I mean, either existing comfortably side by side, or being very close (related dogs).

I saw only a small amount of dog-to-human tension - completely fear-related, as I noticed 'early warning 'signals (freezing, lip licking, whale eye and so on) went unnoticed. In the main, I believe this stemmed from the warmth which some kind Greeks show towards the local street dogs, wanting to cuddle and fuss the dogs and of course some needed handling and checking over for illness/injury. In the main, the dogs I met were extremely friendly towards humans and loved the fuss on them, and if the attention got to much, they freed themselves and bounced out of the way - resiliently and confidently. The dogs who were extremely fearful of humans never came close at all. They were on the fringes, watching us and not reacting at their chosen safe distance. A sad sight of course because these will be the dogs who will suffer the most ultimately. Perhaps they were once confident, but who had been the target of abuse. Conversely, the dogs who were confident and friendly gained access to the choicest food and benefited from medication, yet this also made them vulnerable targets for abuse. A dreadful conflict - but that is a different story.

So in the main, I saw dogs who were free to make choices, by being untethered and relaxed in the presence of other dogs and people, and living in large areas where they had the advantage of space.

Rehoming a street dog to live in our world

I have attended a few fundraising events for overseas dogs and we have clients with overseas dogs. In the main, the reactivity issue we see is aggression which developed since arriving into the UK, mostly towards other dogs. These dogs did not use aggression to communicate their discomfort or needs in their original environment. Why did they develop it here? I believe it is because a lot of their freedom, choice and control have been removed and the available space they have to live in has reduced, by default.

Obviously, overseas dogs now find themselves on collars and leads or long lines (for relationship building & recall training) for the first time. They also have to learn to live in a house perhaps with other housemate dogs, be contained by walls and fences, eat maybe higher value food which is worth guarding, and they may get exciting toys they have never had before and so on.

I believe we can transition street dogs in such a way as to maintain and nurture their amazing ability to avoid conflict, and preserve their excellent social skills. A few ideas and tips could be:

  • Consider not using a retractable lead because it applies a constant pull backwards. No matter if you think the pull is only slight, it is a big deal to a dog who has never been constrained by such equipment
  • Consider using a long line instead and learning long lining skills. When you've honed these skills, you will feel connected to your dog in a differerent way
  • Think about clipping the lead or long line onto a harness and not the collar - thus removing pressure from the neck and allowing the dog to communicate properly with other dogs. A dog who is pulling forwards, taut on a collar can look odd and threatening. Why not do your dog and other dogs a favour by learning good lead skills and learning how to keep a slack line?
  • Consider intensive recall and relationship-building exercises and games, so you can allow your dog off lead where it is safe to do so, giving them the freedom they enjoy - as well as having a great bond with you
  • We believe guardians of adopted dogs should make it an absolute imperative to learn about dog body language. By being able to read when and if your dog is feeling uncomfortable or theatened, you will be able to help them by giving them some distance, to a safe spot away from whatever is bothering them, and then take steps to help them with the novel things they may never have experienced before. This avoids the problem excalating which could result in extremely fearful or aggressive responses
  • Be aware of how your dog feels about being petted and fussed over by you and other people, now he has less choice and control in the matter. Some overseas dogs can become handshy due to rougher handling during the transportation process
  • Feed your dogs in clearly defined areas so that it reduces the occurence of squabbles over high value food, should you live in a multidog household and provide them with as much space in the house as is possible, especially giving them designated sleeping areas, perhaps in separate rooms. Also watch out for signs of tension over toys, special resting areas, chews and human affection (resource guarding) and look to help the dogs see each other's presence in a positive light

If you have other tips you would like to share on settling in overseas dogs, please do comment below. Be aware that there may be a learning curve for your dog in many other aspects of his new life as well - yet he may also surprise you with his resilience and adaptability. If your dog isn't coping well with the transition, seek assistance from a humane, force-free trainer/behaviour counsellor. Remember, these incredible dogs have usually been through so much, let us not put them through more stress when they arrive and try to settle in the UK. Allow them to flourish, maintain their choices and sense of control - and enjoy the love and fun of a safe home at the same time. 

"Honour the street dog!"

Blog entry by Deborah Campbell. I am aware I have labelled dogs as confident, fearful, friendly throughout this article despite the recent 'unlabelling' campaigns. To clarify, I mean confident, fearful, friendly in those situations. 

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