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Personality Traits of Companion and Free-Ranging Bali Dogs

New research shows free-ranging dogs are less active, excitable, and aggressive

Free-ranging dogs are one of the most widely distributed carnivores in the world, yet scientists are only just beginning to study their behavior. They are often considered as antagonists to local wildlife, or perceived as pests when occupying a human-dominated landscape, which is also the case of the free-ranging dogs of Bali, Indonesia, a unique population of Canidae (members of the dog family). New research reported in an essay by Luca Corrieri, Marco Adda, Ádám Miklósi, and Enikő Kubinyi titled "Companion and free-ranging Bali dogs: Environmental links with personality traits in an endemic dog population of South East Asia" shows that free-ranging dogs in Bali may not be as wild as they appear and that living in human homes affects the personality of some Bali dogs making them more excitable in comparison to free-ranging dogs. This essay is available online so here are some snippets to whet your appetite for more.

Courtesy of Marco Adda
Source: Courtesy of Marco Adda

Bali dogs have been free-ranging for thousands of years. While they often show a high level of arousal, they are also recognized as excellent companion animals ("pets"). In fact, expatriates populating the island over the last few decades occasionally adopt Bali dogs and keep them restricted to their houses and backyards, as is typical in modern western cultures. The tendency to adopt dogs has provided researchers with the unique opportunity to compare the personality traits of dogs according to their lifestyle, namely, living as human companions and living as free-ranging animals. In addition, the researchers also explored the impact of demographic variables (such as age, sex, and neutered status) on the dog’s personality. To conduct their study, owners and caretakers filled out a validated personality questionnaire for 75 adult dogs (60 free-ranging and 15 companion dogs). Caretakers observed and occasionally fed the free-ranging dogs for at least two years before filling out the questionnaires.

One main feature of this study is the targeting of a dog population that in the past has not gone through artificial selection for morphology or behavior, in contrast to the Western dog population. They write, "The fact that in recent years some of the Bali dogs have been adopted by expatriates and live a 'Western' lifestyle allowed us to uncover a few potential differences between the personality of free-ranging and companion dogs, without the confounding effects of breed differences.”

Comparisons of the behavior and personalities of free-ranging and companion dogs

The researchers found that free-ranging Bali dogs were less active, excitable and aggressive towards animals, and were also less inclined to chase animals or humans than Bali dogs living as human companions in a typical domestic setting (house/fenced backyard, etc.). Among free-ranging dogs, females were found to be more excitable. Females in the whole sample were also more fearful of people.

Similarly, in Bangalore, India, in one study of street dogs—called “streeties” by the locals, Sindhoor Pangal observed: “I found the dogs that I studied to not seem stressed at all. They showed no signs of elevated stress levels in their body language. When approached, all of them were relaxed, cautiously curious (like most street dogs) and very friendly once they realized I was no threat. When awake, they seemed to spend most of their time perched on an elevated surface if they could find one, and just watching the world go by.” Please also see "Nuances of social interaction in free ranging dogs for a video of 'Streeties.'"

Although further investigations are needed, the results of this preliminary study suggest that a change in lifestyle -- being adopted and living in a confined environment -- has negative consequences on some canine personality traits, such as activity/excitability, aggression towards animals, and prey drive. In an essay called "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us" I further discuss the stress that even homed dogs can experience. Psychology Today writer Dr. Jessica Pierce also provides an extensive discussion about this in her excellent book called Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. And in her book, Love Is All You Need, Jennifer Arnold notes that dogs live in an environment that “makes it impossible for them to alleviate their own stress and anxiety.” (p. 4) According to Arnold, “In modern society, there is no way for our dogs to keep themselves safe, and thus we are unable to afford them the freedom to meet their own needs. Instead, they must depend on our benevolence for survival.”

Think about it: We teach dogs that they can’t pee or poop wherever they want. To eliminate, they must get our attention and ask for permission to go outside the house. When we go outside, we often restrain dogs with a leash or fence them within yards or parks. Dogs eat what and when we feed them, and they are scolded if they eat what or when we say they shouldn’t. Dogs play with the toys we give them, and they get in trouble for turning our shoes and furniture into toys. Most of the time, our schedule and relationships determine who dogs play with and who their friends will be.

The study of Bali dogs deserves particular attention considering that the population has declined from some 800,000 individuals in 2008 to no more than 150,000 individuals in 2018, a dramatic drop of 81% of the entire Bali dog population in the last ten years. Moreover, studies on the personality of free-ranging dogs are rare, which makes this study unique.

I look forward to writing more on comparisons between free-ranging and homed dogs living elsewhere because it's not always clear how behavior and personalities might vary in dogs living different lifestyles, and some of the results such as there being less aggression, excitability, and stress among free-ranging dogs were surprising. However, as noted above, it's well known that homed dogs often live stressful lives that can influence their personalities. Research on the personalities of free-ranging dogs is rare, which makes the studies of dogs on Bali and dogs in India novel and very important. Please say tuned for more on these sorts of research projects.

Parts of this essay were written with the help of Marco Adda.


Pangal, Sindhoor. Lives of Streeties: A Study on the Activity Budget of Free-ranging Dogs. IAABC Journal, Winter 2017.

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