A Better Dog-Human Understanding

Jul 14, 2022 | Animal Behavior, BARKS from the Guild

By Susan Nilson

Marco Adda and the free-ranging dogs of Bali

Independent canine behavior researcher Marco Adda found that free-ranging dogs in Bali may not be as wild as they appear Photo © Marco Adda


Marco Adda is a freelance dog behavior consultant, independent researcher, dog-human facilitator (or dog trainer if you prefer), animal advocate, and educator who is passionate about all things canine.

He describes himself as a “globetrotter who moves through different continents” but is now considering settling in one place to set up his own canine center offering several programs of education, training, research, animal assisted intervention, and community activities around dogs, humans and other animals.

In 2012, Adda initiated preliminary observations of Bali street dogs (BSD). The observations proved “novel and exciting,” he says, so, in 2014, he brought them to the attention of Prof. Ádám Miklósi and Enikő Kubinyi at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, Hungary.

Together with Luca Corrieri (also from the university’s ethology department), a study was developed with further observations and questionnaire collection planned and carried out over the next few years. Owners and caretakers filled out a validated personality questionnaire for 75 adult dogs; caretakers observed and occasionally fed the free-ranging dogs for at least two years before filling out the questionnaires.

“The results were intriguing,” says Adda. “Free-ranging dogs in Bali may not be as wild as they appear. The research reveals that living in human homes affects the personality of some Bali dogs, making them more excitable in comparison to free-ranging dogs.”


The Context

BARKS: Why Bali? How easy/difficult is it to find free-ranging populations of dogs to study?

Marco Adda: Free-ranging dogs are importantly present in many places around the world, including Indonesia, India, Mexico, Romania, Russia, and Italy among others.

However, Bali dogs represent a unique canine population, for it has remained isolated due to its geographical condition. That makes this dog population unique.

Most well-known dog breeds (such as Golden retrievers or German shepherds) are the result of relatively recent and deliberate human selection. Conversely, the Bali dogs have not been deliberately selected by humans in this way and have roamed the island for at least 3,300 years. That makes them a unique canine population that deserves both attention and protection.

Moreover, the number of free-ranging Bali dogs in the last 10 years has dropped about 90 percent, from some 800,000 in 2008 to some 150,000 in 2018. All of that makes of Bali dogs exciting to study from a genetic, behavioral and ecological perspective.


Guard Dogs vs. Pet Dogs

BARKS: Would you say the BSD has a symbiotic relationship with the human residents of Bali or do the two exist independently of one another? If the former, what benefits does each provide the other? In relation to this, can you discuss further the BSD’s tendency towards guarding? What sort of area/territory do they cover and are they tolerant of “intruders”?

MA: Bali dogs have been historically valued as guard dogs. They are very alert and smart, and early warners. Although some individuals move a lot, Bali dogs cover a small free-ranging area, for they tend to associate with a house, a household or a village consistently based on what was observed with other free-ranging/village dogs populations.

The interaction of free-ranging Bali dogs with the local human community is ambivalent. There are two extremes; namely, nowadays some Balinese treat dogs in a very similar way to how dogs are treated in a typical “western” house. Conversely, some locals consider Bali dogs pests and keep them away from their households.

In between those two extremes there are other approaches. For example, locals may be tolerant over dogs and let them free-roam around their houses, sometimes throwing leftovers at them and feeding them. This human behavior is typically reciprocated by free-ranging dogs being very good at guarding the house.

They bark and alert people if someone unfamiliar comes around. This results in a mutual exchange of support between human and dogs, as it was in the early domestication of canines.

BARKS: For those BSDs who find themselves adopted and kept as pet dogs, how well do they adapt?

MA: Bali dogs are known to be very adaptable and resilient. They are used to coping with continuous and various solicitations while they live free-range on the streets and the beaches of Bali. Plus, they easily adapt to new living conditions, as in the case of a house, when they happen to be adopted and restricted.


Free ranging Bali dogs running on the beach - credit Marco Adda

Free-ranging Bali dogs play on the beach: the dogs have the privilege of choosing their daily actions and displaying behaviors according to their personalities Photo © Marco Adda


The Study

BARKS: Can you discuss the conclusions in the study that the free-ranging dogs were less active, excitable and aggressive towards other dogs/animals than pet dogs, and speculate on the reasons for this?

MA: It seems that Bali dogs, shifting from a free-ranging lifestyle to a pet-restricted lifestyle, become more excitable and in some cases more aggressive. At the core of such a shift, there is the new environment. Namely, the house and the people or other animals present in their new family.

Another essential component may be the lack of exposure to other free-ranging dogs, as it would be on the street. This latter element may translate into a lower exposure to social communication with conspecifics.



BARKS: Can you summarize the study’s findings in terms of aggression – how did the two groups of dogs differ regarding aggressive behavior towards other dogs and towards humans (familiar vs unfamiliar)? Which group of dogs was more active and why? Which group of dogs were found to be more excitable?

MA: Observations first and analyses later revealed that Bali dogs living as human companions, that is, restricted in a typical domestic setting (house, fenced backyard, etc.), are more active, excitable, and aggressive towards animals, and are also more inclined to chase animals or humans than Bali dogs that live free-ranging.

Looking closer, we see that females were found to be more excitable and fearful of people. In other words, being restricted within a household could potentially make free-ranging Bali dogs more reactive than those dogs living free-ranging. Thus, these results raise some important considerations. We may assume that a free-ranging dog lives unhappily without a human family. In some instances, this may be the case.

But we also need to remember that free-ranging dogs have a lot of freedom that dogs living as companions, say pets, do not necessarily have. Free-ranging dogs have the privilege of deciding their daily actions and habits and displaying behaviors according to their personalities. Their sociality, and in some cases sexual conduct, are not, or are just minimally, conditioned by humans.


Bali Dogs Study Sample - Photo Credit Marco Adda

A sample of the dogs who participated in the study comparing behavior and personality traits in the companion and free-ranging dogs of Bali Photos © Marco Adda


BARKS: How was aggressive behavior broken down within the groups (e.g. male vs. female, young vs. old etc.)? What are the reasons for this, in your opinion? If aggressive behavior was observed, what were the contexts? How were conflicts resolved? Do the free-ranging dogs fight or do they settle their differences in other ways (appeasement, affiliation, withdrawal etc.)?

MA: Bali dogs display a huge array of behaviors. Because they are very adaptable and exposed to other free-ranging dogs, they also have great and well-developed communication skills, which allow good interaction among all the free-ranging dogs.

They typically do not fight, unless there is a critical reason involved, as may happen during the mating period or during street feeding that some organizations or individuals occasionally carry out.


Fearful Females

BARKS: Why do you think females were found to be more fearful (in both groups)?

MA: Preliminary observations suggested that females may also be more aggressive than males with dogs of the same gender. That can be the counterpart of female fearfulness. However, this aspect would deserve further investigation.

BARKS: Which group of dogs was more playful and why? What differences were noted between the two groups based on the type of play and duration of play?

MA: The play is not a specific aspect we have investigated in this study, and it is unquestionably something we’d like to examine for it reveals essential aspects of dogs behavior. (See video Free-Ranging Bali Dogs Playing)

BARKS: In what contexts was the dogs’ behavior observed? How was this broken down within the groups (e.g. male vs. female, young vs. old)? What are the reasons for this, in your opinion?

MA: Dogs were observed in two contexts. Free-roaming dogs were observed in streets and beaches, and pet dogs were observed in the houses where they live. Information about age and gender, among others, were collected for each dog. In the stage of statistical analysis, all the information has been organized and analyzed according to the models chosen for the study.


Tolerant of Humans

BARKS: Were the free-ranging dogs friendly? Were they responsive to humans? To training? Did they seek out human attention/petting or did they prefer to keep their distance?

MA: Every dog has an individual response to humans, to other dogs and situations. Bali dogs are typically affable or tolerant of other dogs and people. That applies particularly in those areas where not just the local human community lives, but is also present in an international community of residents or tourists.

Conversely, in more remote areas, with fewer people in general and fewer expats, Bali dogs have been observed to behave more cautiously, discretely, and with a lower degree of interaction and confidence with humans.

Responses to human presence were personal for every dog. Thus, some dogs were more social with humans, some dogs less. However, none of the dogs showed aggression towards the people involved in the study, not the free-ranging nor the pets.


Map of Bali and Research Areas - Authors Burmesedays, Peter Fitzgerald, Marco Adda [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0])

Map of Bali showing the research areas for the study Graphic © Burmesedays, Peter Fitzgerald & Marco Adda


BARKS: In general, do you consider that the free-ranging dogs were at ease with each other and enjoyed each other’s company, or was it more a case of they were tolerant of each other, or even stressed in the presence of other dogs, or certain individuals? Do specific individuals form bonds/friendships?

MA: Free-ranging Bali dogs bond typically in groups of two or three individuals, although sometimes we can observe lone dogs or groups of up to five-six dogs.

Within their group, dogs get along peacefully and as a family. Some moments of tension may occur due to resource guarding. Some growling may present, but rarely that has been observed to escalate, for every dog seems to be aware of their social status within a group.

During those hours when they are very active, dogs move around and may come cross other groups or dogs. Their typical behavior is very cautious, yet calm and respectful of each other. They apply many strategies to avoid conflict.

For example, they slow their pace, turning the head and moving slowly when a new conspecific approaches and allowing others to sniff their scent. That was typically observed for different groups of dogs meeting around buffer zones, namely, zones that now “belong” to those dogs.


Canine Body Language

In case of some dogs approaching the gate/area of a house to which one or some free-ranging dogs associate, then the situation may become agitated. The dogs living around that house/area may respond more energetically to the presence of the stranger dog/s, and consistently engage in the guarding skills mentioned above.

In general, though, dogs tolerate each other, or, in some cases, they bond with new individuals and shift into playing. During those interactions, dogs may bark or growl too, but that typically remains a warning and doesn’t turn into a threat.

The essential aspect to highlight here is that dogs are continuously exposed to each other, are free to apply all the needed strategies to avoid conflict, and ultimately tolerate each other, socialize or even play.

In other words, they can freely express all the array of natural behavior that allows optimal communication among them. That is what pet-companion Bali dogs may lack, due to their more restricted life and reduced exposure to other dogs and the environment.

That could be a significant cause of their increased reactivity and aggressive towards certain stimuli, as we have shown in our study.

Moreover, pet-companion Bali dogs are conditioned by the presence of their humans when they interact with other dogs. That, to some degree, may also be seen (case by case) as a possible cause of increased reactivity in pet-companion Bali dogs towards other dogs.


Activity vs. Rest

BARKS: How do the free-ranging dogs spend their time over a, say, 24-hour period? How does this differ from the pet dogs in the study?

MA: Free-ranging dogs are most active at dusk and sunset. Their busy time last about two hours for each of these periods. In those moments they roam around their area, scavenge, interact with some people, or play with their conspecifics.

The rest of the day, consistently with the hot tropical weather, they tend to rest and search for shade. Occasionally they are active during hot hours too. At night they may roam a bit around, but, generally, they are resting. In some periods, though, they become very intense at night. That occurs cyclically.


Other Considerations

BARKS: What sort of groupings did the free-ranging dogs adhere to? Were there specific groups and if so, what was the breakdown of the groups? If not, and the groupings were more fluid, can you describe a little bit about the interactions between different dogs or groups? What effect does being adopted have on their welfare and behavior, in your opinion, based on what you observed?

MA: It is essential to point out here that in the case of free-ranging dogs, adoption does not necessarily mean restriction. Indeed, often it is not the case.

A dog can be adopted by a person or by a few people and maintain his/her free-ranging status. That is typical in contexts such as India and Bali among others. In that case, we speak of a non-restricted (and free-ranging) pet (or companion), where “pet” indicates the dog has been adopted, but “free-ranging” indicated the dog is not restricted to the house of a person.

That said, the answer to the initial question depends on two main aspects, namely, in which condition a dog was before being adopted, and which perspective we want to use to look at things.

Let’s make the case of a dog that is in poor condition, not well-fed, injured, non-vaccinated, and under some sort of threat; that dog would receive an immediate and essential benefit from being adopted. That from an animal welfare perspective represents a significant improvement.

Conversely, in the case of a free-ranging dog that is in optimal condition, and is entirely and well-integrated in his/her natural setting, is well-fed, likely vaccinated already, and maybe also associates with some houses and people; for this dog to be adopted it may be a benefit, but to be restricted is not, for the dog will lose the natural setting where he/she is used to roaming.

That may have a substantial effect on his/her behavior and, in this sense, decreases the dog’s welfare.


Natural Lifestyle

BARKS: How do the findings from this study compare to those of other free-ranging dog populations (e.g. Pangal’s study of free-ranging dogs in India)?

MA: This study offers another piece of the puzzle in understanding dogs in their natural lifestyle and is complementary to those other (not so many) studies targeting free-ranging dogs. Additionally, this seems to be the first study aimed at examining the personality of free-ranging dogs.

The point is that it is very hard to study the personality and behavior of dogs in a context so mutable as the streets and beaches. Thus, our study offers an exceptional opportunity to investigate and understand dog behavior and human-dog interaction in such a specific and natural context.

BARKS: Were the dogs in the study all intact? What about the dogs that had been adopted, is it the practice in Bali to spay/neuter pet dogs? In other words, was there a difference between the two groups and, if so, what impact might that have had on behavior? I am thinking about research (Duffy & Serpell; Farhoody & Zink) into the behavioral effects of spaying/neutering that suggests spayed/neutered dogs display an increase in aggressive and fearful behavior as well as anxiety and excitability compared to intact dogs.

MA: The majority of dogs involved in the study were spayed/neutered, including 12 out of 15 free-ranging Bali dogs, and 36 out of 60 companion Bali dogs. The activity of animal welfare organizations and individuals explains the high number of neutered free-ranging dogs.

In the domestic context, expats adopting Bali dogs commonly practice spaying/neutering of their dogs. Our study does not target specifically the effect of neutering on the behavior of dogs, and more data should be collected to investigate this specific regard.


Animal Welfare

This question touches a sensitive topic, though. It relates on the one hand to an animal welfare perspective, that is, limiting uncontrolled pregnancies. On the other hand, it links to a conservation issue, that is, reducing pregnancies also affects the preservation of Bali dogs.

Additionally, in Bali, it appears to be the predominant belief that the practice of spaying/neutering can be used as a means to prevent or treat behavior problems. Observations of Bali dogs do not align with these beliefs, however, for dogs appear to be less reactive in their intact and free-ranging status, consistently with what we found in our study. Also, unfavorable health effects of gonadectomy are known.

Thus, other means of preventing unwanted breeding for Bali dogs should be explored, and the practice of spaying/neutering dogs to address behavior should be reviewed. For all of these reasons and, in particular in Bali, spaying/neutering remains a controversial practice and a topic that needs further consideration.


Improving the Relationship between Dogs and People

BARKS: What would you say are the most significant findings from this study and how can we, as professional canine trainers and behavior consultants, apply this to our knowledge of and dealings with dogs in general?

MA: As professionals, we need to deal with both dogs and people. We are facilitators. I believe our mission is to improve the relationships of dogs and humans in many different cultural and geographic contexts, and under so many different conditions. This study helps further in understanding that the environment, i.e. both the place and the behavior of people, may affect dogs’ personalities.

Thus, as professionals, and in addition to what we do already to help dogs understand humans (i.e. traditional dog training), we may want to increase our efforts in assisting humans to recognize and be aware of their own human behaviors. For it is by adjusting human behavior that we can better influence dogs’ behavior and improve the whole relationship.


Study Article Reference

Corrieri, L., Adda, M., Miklósi, Á., & Kubinyi, E. (2018). Companion and free-ranging Bali dogs: Environmental links with personality traits in an endemic dog population of South East Asia. PLOS ONE 13 (6) e0197354



Adda, M. (2018, June 10). Free-Ranging Bali Dogs Playing 6AM.XX.SEPT2015 (IMG 3021) [Video File]
Adda, Marco: marcoadda.com
Duffy, D.L., & Serpell, J.A. (2006). Non-reproductive effects of spaying and neutering on behavior in dogs. Proceedings of the Third International Symposium on Non-surgical Contraceptive Methods for Pet Population Control
Farhoody, P., & Zink, M.C. (2010). Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris). Masters thesis submitted to and accepted by Hunter College
Kay, N. (2016). The Street Dogs of Ecuador
Pangal, Sindhoor – Lives of Streeties: livesofstreeties.com


This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, January 2019, pp.34-38



Susan Nilson BA (Hons) DipCABT PCBC-A is editor of BARKS from the Guild and a Reuters-trained journalist with over 10 years’ experience in print journalism in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. She also studied feline behavior under the tutelage of Prof. Peter Neville at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) in the United Kingdom and completed her diploma in companion animal behavior and training with COAPE in 2005. She is also an accredited professional canine behavior consultant through the Pet Professional Accreditation Board. In 2018, she co-authored Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the Bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People.