Dogs are domesticated social animals, but more than other domesticated animals, companion dogs live inside human homes as part of a human family.

Street dogs were companion animals that have returned to living on the fringes of human society.

Feral dogs have lost their bonds with human kind, becoming truly wild & self-sufficient.

Their success as a species has hinged on their abilities to interact socially not only with their own kind but with humans.

Street Dogs

Street dogs live on the fringes of human civilization where they are adept scavengers.  Their social structures are fluid and flexible.  They prefer solitary or small group scavenging as large groups of dogs would be maladaptive to living on the streets of humans – we would simply have eradicated them.  Neither do they hunt, but instead collaborate with humans.  They might resource guard if resources are scarce, but they are adept at non-violent exchanges in their symbiotic relationship with humans.    The avoidance of conflict by using sophisticated social skills means avoidance of injury and potential infection and thus contributes to their survival. These dogs may be rounded up into pounds and subsequently adopted back into human society as companion animals.

Feral dogs

Feral dogs, in contrast,  avoid humans as they have not socialised to them.  Unlike wolves though they are generally not known to assist their parents in the raising of other offspring, and paternal care is not the norm.   Like street dogs they often move about as individuals or small groups but form part of larger groups that defend territories from other dogs.  Groups form of 5 – 10 dogs and their dependent offspring, membership remains stable outside of breeding season, however, highly cooperative wolf pack type social structures have not been seen with Feral dogs.   

Dingoes are descended from domestic dogs over hundreds of not thousands of generations and again tend to adopt a pack of about 10 (  Feeding of young by all pack adults is seen with Dingoes, indicating high levels of social cooperation in the group.

But here’s the thing … the term ‘feral dog’ implies that the dog has descended from domesticated dogs, not defined though is the number of generations removed from domestication, it could be a single generation or thousands.   The number of generations may be significant in allowing the evolution of highly functioning social structures seen in wild dogs, such as all of the pack feeding the young, which tends to arise in truly wild dogs such as African Wild Dogs where the natural pack size is about 10 ( Truly feral or wild dog’s do not need rescuing and re-homing into human society.

Companion Dogs

Companion dogs, in contrast, live in multispecies families and have a multispecies social structure where interactions with humans take precedence over interaction with other dogs.  Companion dogs are totally reliant upon their humans and require effective leadership and guidance to successfully negotiate our human world.   In return they receive food, shelter, affection and veterinary care.  It is a power imbalanced relationship.  However, it is their ability to bond with their caregivers, to give and receive attention and affection which gives them such a precious place in our homes and in our lives.  Communication problems exist in these social groups because each in the human-dog dyad uses primarily different modes of communication; humans are primarily verbal whereas dogs primarily use olfactory and visual communication. 

What is means for us

In each context dogs seek to use their social skills to avoid conflict and to collaborate for the benefit of themselves and their social group which remains small and stable.  Canine behaviour management needs to be couched in this context of social skills and collaboration.  There is no place in canine behaviour management for dominance theories of linear hierarchy.

Instead we need to understand canine communication and emotion to better understand our dogs, their communication and emotional world.  We need to be using visual signalling rather than verbal cues to help our dogs and avoid miscommunications.   Collaborative games such as fetching a toy, searching & retrieving or even playing tuggy help dogs and owners to learn to work together, following simple rules to achieve a common goal.  Defending territories, defence of one’s family and guarding scarce resources may also usefully be understood as natural behaviours which are just maladapted to living in a mixed species family group.

Social group size is important in canine management.  In street dog groups as well as feral groups, the natural group size is low.  A companion dog living with a human family may have a sufficient social group.  Introducing such a dog to daily doggy day care or pack walks where they have access to a large number of ever changing other dogs in addition to their main social group may be stressful.  For dogs socialised to become companion animals their ability to form stable and helpful social structures with larger numbers of other dogs may not be present.