A study on the activity budget of free ranging dogs

Lives of Streeties is an ongoing study that I am conducting on the street dogs of Bangalore, India. Streeties is a term of endearment that Bangaloreans use to refer to the dogs that roam free on the streets of the city.

I spent most of 2015 flying back and forth from India to the US (that’s more than a 24hr long flight most times and once my layover alone was 22 hrs!). I was flying to the US for my second stint of education with Turid Rugaas who lives in Norway, but happened to be teaching in North Carolina that year. Turid is a canine behaviour expert, a recipient of the King's Badge of Honour by the Norwegian King, HM Harald VII for her contributions to the field of canine behaviour, the author of the bestseller, “On Talking Terms with Dogs” and the person credited with coining the term “Calming Signals”, to describe several signals dogs use as part of their communication with each other and with us.

This whole 'Lives of Streeties' started when Turid challenged us in class on our understanding of how much physical exercise versus mental stimulation do dogs need. I began to wonder, if we lived in a world where humans were not involved in planning of their day, and they had free will, what these numbers would look like. Other animals in the wild seem to have the necessary inherent information on what is optimal physical movement. But observing wild dogs (Cuon alpinus and Lycaon pictus) would not answer the question for our domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). I needed a population of free ranging domestic dogs and I just happen to live in India where we have no dearth at all of such dogs. I had a range of populations to pick from, since India has several different types of free ranging dog populations - feral dogs, village dogs, stray pet dogs, urban street dogs and of course wild dogs too (Cuon Alpinus). To me urban street dogs, "streeties" looked most interesting because, unlike their village and beach counter parts, streeties live in urban environments and streeties have more European breeds mixed in them, making their behaviour of most relevance to me, in my capacity of a Behaviour Consultant in urban India and in the context of my own dogs.

The first version of my study involved a failed attempt at trying to trail a street dog for 24 hours. Street dogs are notoriously good at shaking off a tail! In the second version of my study, I picked a time slice out of a day and recorded the activities of all dogs I saw during that time slice. This exercise was repeated to represent all 24 hours of a day. It was done during different seasons over two years to ensure we represented data from summer, winter, spring and monsoon.

​​I ended up with more than 700 observations and need a way to break that data down to make sense of it. As a first step, I grouped all the activities of a dog into two simple categories - asleep Vs awake. 45% were asleep. I am going to guess that number is somewhat less than the actual figures because sleeping streeties are hard to spot. May of them disappear into drains, under cars, up into homes or offices and down into parking basements. That means a single activity dominates close to or more than half of all activities a streety engages in.

What were the 55% of the remaining awake dogs up to? 33% were not even on their feet. That means, about a third of the awake dogs were just lying or sitting down and watching the world go by.

Of the remaining dogs that were on their feet, almost 40% were not moving. They were just standing and watching! It seems like "watching" is a popular bit part of the lives of these dogs.

If you look at all that dogs do in a day, about a half is spent in sleeping, roughly a third is spent in watching and slightly over a fifth is spent in moving. When I say moving, I mean walking, trotting, running, playing, pooping, peeing, foraging, eating, scratching etc...

When we think of street dogs, we conjure up images of them leading highly active lives involving lots of car chasing, playing, fighting, and generally strutting around. So these numbers were not what I had expected. But another independent study conducted by a research institute in Kolkota, India, reveals the similar numbers.

In order to make sense of these numbers, we first need to look at some additional considerations:

Do streeties need to sleep more to conserve energy for when they are awake?

Based on the observations, it is unlikely that streeties are expending more energy than our pet dogs. When awake, their activities are not high intensity chasing activities. Instead, they seem to mostly be lazily walking around, looking for things to do or going from one familiar feeding spot to the next (most of the street dogs I studied seemed to have found human “friends” who fed them outside their homes or shops).

Do streeties need more sleep more due to stress?

While one might imagine that the life of a streety is very stressful, the streeties in my studies showed no known signs of elevated stress levels. I Interestingly, they also did not seem to exhibit "problem behaviours", often reported in pet dogs like jumping on people, adult dogs nipping people, eating non-edible objects, destruction, excessive barking etc...In fact, across the entire city, specifically Bangalore, most streeties are relaxed, calm, cautiously curious, highly intelligent, resourceful and very friendly once they realise a human is friendly.

Are all the streeties under nourished, perhaps rendering them too tired to move?

While this can be true for some of the streeties, it's not true of all of them. Particularly in Bangalore, there are many people who care for these dogs. A few years ago, I wrote an article on how far people of this city are willing to go to care for these dogs. Most streeties manage to find themselves such regular feeders and are fed well enough. It's not uncommon to find obese streeties too (especially the ones that are close to coffee shops and cakes shops). My study specifically included mostly healthy streeties.

Would breed not matter? Are streeties not very different from Western pet dog breeds?

India does have it's collection of aboriginal dogs as well as native breeds. But our streeties are neither. I once saw a streety looking like a Great Swiss Sennenhund. I could not believe what I was seeing, till a few days later I noticed that a house close by had a Sennenhund as a pet dog. If you have not guessed whta happened, the pet dog clearly was not being supervised carefully and the gang of streeties outside may not have been sterilised. You get the rest of the picture. European breeds have been brought into India for more than five centuries now and our streeties are a heady mix of breeds from all over the world, not different from a mixed breed dog one may adopt in North America.

Would the weather of India make a difference?

We did see some possible weather related temperature and weather related patterns. There was a clear increase in activity during early hours of the day and later in the evening. This could be because dogs prefer the dark, or lower temperatures, or lower human and vehicular traffic. They are, after all, supposed to be crepuscular and that in itself could be an explanation, but I suspect that a combination of these factors is at play. The study was done across different seasons too, with mercuries ranging from 19 degree Celsius to 32 degrees. Activity did reduced slightly but surely when it was hotter. Torrential rains, obviously brought all activity to a halt, but also keep most dogs awake through all of it. But despite these clearly distinguishable patterns, it was not enough change to suggest that further drop in temperature would result in very drastically different results.

My Conclusion

A quick google search on a dog's need for sleep suggests that it is over 12 hours a day. Many experts argue that the number is in fact much more than that. My study on streeties suggests, left unto themselves, dogs do sleep a lot, which also seems consistent with my understanding of the lifestyles of most predators and several scavengers too.

However, as humans, we don't seem to be as fond of sleeping as the rest of the animal kingdom. It is believed that humans need roughly 8 hours of sleep and most of us in cities sleep far less than that. Sleeping long hours is often associated with lethargy, boredom and depression in humans, which perhaps explains why pet parents often worry about similar things in dogs if they sleep 14 to 16 hours a day. It then translates to guilt and efforts to keep the dog awake and more "active".

When it comes to physical activity, I see our pet dogs being engaged in far more activities than street dogs. However, when it comes to mental activity, the scale flips drastically. Thought this study above did not set out to quality "mental stimulation", a cursory observation shows a streeies life includes a lot of "mental stimulation" in the form of having to look for food, dealing with friends and foes, having to dodge traffic, a myriad of smells, sights and sounds and so much else. Our pet dogs at best learn to do repetitive trained physical tasks like sitting and rolling, not much left to smell after we clean out our homes with domex, not much to work out in terms of complex social relationships with other dogs or finding food or any other challenge really. When one watches a street dog in India cross the chaotic streets of India, one gets to really see the brain power of a dog. The tricks we train at home seem far too..."non-cerebral" and remind of a quote from one of my favourite books, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy :

"I have a brain the size of the planet and you make me do this?

Take you down to the bridge? You call this job satisfaction?" *

-- Marvin the paranoid android

About the Author

Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist and educator in Bangalore, India. She is the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe(PDTE) and the founder of BHARCS, a premier canine education academy and Bangalore Hundeskole, a consultation service for holistic canine care. Sindhoor also studies free ranging dogs in India and while she wears many hats, being mommy to two amazing dogs – Nishi and Tiggy, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.

* Rephrased slightly to add context

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