Happy Looking Free Dog Running Down a Country Road

Are Free-Roaming Dogs Happier than Household Pets?

Last updated on February 18th, 2023 at 06:03 pm

Most of us who love our dogs, try to give them as much freedom as possible. But we may wonder if free-roaming dogs are actually happier than our household pets. For those of us who are city dwellers, we usually have to contend with leash laws which means Fido cannot just roam around freely. So, we purchase leashes with long retractable leads and take our best buddies to doggie daycare, dog parks, beaches, or other areas where dogs can run off-leash.

If your pooch is lucky, he may have his very own colossal yard or farm to run around in. But most pets have an average-sized backyard, deck, or patio as their primary outdoor space. Because modern-day pets have a lot of restrictions and constraints on their freedom, we may wonder about our dog’s happiness compared to a dog who can run around freely.

Despite the allure of the idea that free-roaming dogs may have a more exciting and adventurous life in the rough, they actually have to fight and work hard to survive. No one is filling up their bowl twice a day with kibbles. They are subjected to predators, disease, and harsh weather. Therefore, despite their freedom, free-roaming dogs take life seriously and are very unlikely to feel the same happiness and contentment as our furry family pals. Let’s take a closer look into the lives of some of the more free dogs of the world.

Measuring Canine Happiness

First of all, dogs do not have the same sense of personal freedom as humans. So, to determine if free-roaming dogs are happier, we need to consider their quality of life. Dogs live very much in the present and like all living beings, they seek comfort, warmth, companionship, food, and stimulation. When a dog’s needs are mostly met, he is probably pretty content. But a domestic dog who is confined to a cage and isolated from others can feel great anguish and fear. Likewise, a stray who is roaming about freely but starving may feel anxious, weak, and stressed.

Therefore, dogs probably do not equate their situations to personal freedom. Rather, they are more likely to have feelings of contentment and the absence of fear and stress when their needs are met. The reality, however, is that the majority of free-roaming dogs lead a challenging life. Therefore, it is unlikely that they are happier than many household dogs due to the harsh conditions of their daily lives.

What Are Free-Roaming Dogs?

According to Wikipedia, of the 900 million dogs who live on this planet (about 44 dogs for every human), only about 20% are considered to be owned pets who live as part of a household. The rest are dogs who have free range and are not restrained. Free-roaming dogs fall into three main categories: wild dogs, feral dogs and strays, and unrestrained owned dogs.

Wild Dogs

Wild dogs in most cases are becoming a threatened species. Their territory is increasingly becoming encroached upon by humans. As a result, their access to natural prey and other resources is more limited as human communities expand into rural areas. Additionally, they are often targeted and killed by humans who see them as a threat to domestic farm animals or to humans themselves who fear their packs. Wild dogs face many challenges each day, which creates a lot of stress and anguish for these free-roaming dogs–unlike the happiness and contentment of being a pampered pet.

Wild dogs such as the African Wild Dog and Indian Dholes have never been domesticated and do not make good pets. A debate exists regarding whether or not the Australian Dingoes are still considered to be wild dogs. Many have become domesticated and there are a lot of Dingo mixed breed dogs.

Dogs who live in the wild often do not live beyond the age of five due to the many dangers they face. Starvation is another huge issue when their natural habitat has been intruded upon. Organizations such as the worldwildlife.org work hard and collect donations to help preserve Wild African dogs by creating sanctuaries and protected habitats for these beautiful creatures, so they can live together in peace.

Feral Dogs and Strays

four stray dogs in a city park
Group of stray homeless dogs on a city street

Feral dogs have never been owned, whereas strays have usually been someone’s pet at one time. However, some ferals can become domestic pets and some strays can live with feral dogs. Pups who are born to a stray dog are considered feral since they never lived in a human home.

These dogs are not considered to be wild dogs, as they can be domesticated and make great family pets. Strays are generally dogs who have been lost, abandoned, or displaced due to a natural or human-made disaster. They will often join into packs with other strays or ferals for companionship and safety in numbers.

In many areas of Europe, Asia, Russia, Central America, and on some islands, stray and feral dogs are considered a problem. A large number of packs can be threatening to humans and even deadly. Strays are attracted to large urban areas where they can scavage for food. Additionally, they often bring diseases into communities such as rabies.

Several animal welfare organizations have sprung up to humanely deal with these large packs of dogs. They provide shelter, neutering, medical, and adoption services as an alternative to being shot, poisoned, or trapped by concerned residents. Tanya Hawkes wrote a great article for medium.com, Free-roaming dogs: A canine utopia or a desperate life? She describes how much a dog’s life and luck can change pending his relationship with and proximity to various human communities.

Unrestrained, Owned Dogs

Unrestrained dogs usually live in rural and village areas. They are not confined to a house or yard. Some small villages and communities provide food and care for a group of dogs who may or may not be individually owned. They come and go as they please and are considered to be part of the community.

Other unrestrained dogs usually live in rural areas where leash laws do not exist. Many farms and ranches have working dogs who help herd farm animals and also protect the property from strangers or animals who might prey on chickens and livestock. They are usually well-fed and cared for. They may sleep in the barn or in the farmhouse and are usually considered to be part of the family.

The Good Old Days Before Leash Laws

White dog with brown ears running happily along a path
This dog reminds me of my dog Skipper running happily home for dinner


When I was a kid growing up in Iowa, we had a great terrier mixed breed named Skipper. Skipper was a medium-sized, smooth-hair white dog with floppy ears. He loved everyone, and everyone loved Skipper! He often joined us when we played in the yard and was a fun playmate. Skipper was loyal, true-blue, and very patient. Each night he sat in my bedroom as I told him about my exciting adventures of the day. He even listened to my periodic grievances and tales of woe. He was such an understanding and compassionate dog!

Skipper also liked to roam around the neighborhood and would sometimes be gone for hours at a time. In those days (now I date myself) there were no leash laws in our small city of Des Moines. Dogs could come and go as they pleased. Somehow, Skipper always knew when it was time for dinner and came trotting back home every night by 5pm.

One day, Mom noticed that Skipper had been gone for at least two days, which was not like him. When he finally came running back home he seemed unusually happy and excited. It wasn’t until many weeks later that Mom realized why. She discovered that the neighbor’s little female dog down the street had a litter of puppies, and they all looked a lot like Skipper!

Leash Laws

Alas, as the city grew so did the packs of dogs who started hanging out together. The packs were sometimes aggressive, people got bit, and some ended up needing rabies shots. My mother witnessed a neighbor lady who was knocked down and injured by a pack of running dogs, as she walked home from a local store.

So, the appropriate laws were enacted. Dogs were required to be confined to a fenced area or on a leash. All dogs were required to have rabies vaccinations. and it was highly recommended that dogs be neutered to reduce aggressiveness and unwanted pups.

Leash laws now exist in most urban areas. As communities have mushroomed so has pet ownership. Over 70% of households now own some type of pet with dogs being the most popular. According to Statista.com, 69 million U.S. households now own at least one dog. That’s a lot of dogs!

Not only do leash laws protect people, but they also protect dogs. Solo dogs can also come under attack by a group of dogs. And with today’s bustling traffic and busy streets, getting hit by a car is a huge risk for a dog in just about any urban area.

Farms, Ranches, and Working Dogs

Border Collie on a ranch herding sheep
Purebred border collie herding a flock of sheep on a summer day.

I think the happiest free-roaming dogs are working dogs! They have a purpose, have a lot of freedom, get a lot of exercise, and are well cared for. The best of all worlds! Cattle dogs, border collies, shepherds, and other similar dogs thrive in these environments. They often put in a full day guarding the farm and herding the cows and sheep prior to a hearty dinner and a long, solid night of sleep.

But a different breed like a Pug or French Bulldog would not be very happy chasing sheep all day or sleeping in the barn. They would much prefer a warm lap, breakfast in bed, and long naps. So, again, happiness for a dog may not be so much related to being free-roaming as it is to having their particular needs met. And even today’s farm dogs have restrictions and may be confined to their fenced-in properties for their own safety,

Benny, Charlotte, and Georgia

I have a friend who lives nearby on a farm with a huge spread of land, which is entirely fenced. It is any dog’s dream! It is like having their very own, private dog park! Her dog, Benny, is a large working mixed breed who loves to run all around the property barking and guarding their farm. But he is not allowed to be outside after dark due to the threat of coyotes and mountain lions. And the fence protects him from getting hit by a car on the road that runs in front of their lot.

I took my two dogs over for a visit because we assumed they would love to run around and play with Benny who is extremely friendly and playful. My dogs, Charlotte and Georgia, are a Pug/Cattle Dog mix so, I never know for sure which part of their DNA will emerge. Turns out, they didn’t really want to play with Benny–he had too much exuberance for them (they are 9 and smaller and he is 2 and lanky). They were thrilled to run around freely for a while, but after several minutes they came back to the porch swing where we were sitting and tried to sit on my lap. Go figure!

Red and Whiskey

Georgia’s and Charlotte’s Auntie Jayne had a wonderful uncle in Indiana where she grew up. Jayne’s Uncle Owen valued every one of his farm animals and ensured they were well cared for. With the help of his large shepherd, Red, he kept a close eye on each animal in his charge.

Red could come and go as he pleased, and back in those days, fencing was less critical in this more isolated rural area. He was treated like one of the family; was fed daily; and if he wandered off for too long, Uncle Owen would go looking for him. But Red always came back.

Yet, even then, life as a free-roaming dog was not without risk. Uncle Owen also had another dog, Whiskey, who only had three legs. Uncle Owen had found him one day wandering around with a badly injured leg. He rushed him to a vet who, unfortunately, had to remove the injured leg. It was assumed that Whiskey got too close to some farm equipment like a combine machine and got his leg caught.

Fortunately for Whiskey, Uncle Owen adopted him when he could not locate his owner. Over time, he healed and did quite well running around on his three other legs. He loved everyone and seemed very happy running around the farm despite his handicap. Jayne said Whiskey was the sweetest dog she ever met, and she attributes that to the kindness and caring nature of her dear Uncle Owen.

The Brutal Truth About Free-Roaming Dogs

In our opinion, all dogs are “rescues”.  Most dogs do not do well in our world without helpful human intervention. Whether they are strays on the streets, living at shelters, rescued from dire situations, or for sale from breeders or pet stores, they need us!

Deanna Euritt, Dog Tales

Unfortunately, I doubt that most free-roaming dogs are happier than household pets. Of course, there are probably exceptions. Some wild dogs or unrestrained dogs may be able to live pretty well.

However, most free-roaming dogs have a tough life. Strays and ferals in countries like Russia and other areas of the world are viewed as a threat. They are hunted down, poisoned, shot at, or locked up in animal control shelters that are more like prisons. They are often euthanized due to the overpopulation of dogs in those areas. Not all areas of the world have the same concern for canine welfare as do some countries such as the United States.

Wild dogs are being forced out of their natural habitats like other wild animals due to the increasing expansion of human communities. Many juvenile wild dogs never make it to adulthood due to the hardships they face.

Humans and animals do not always mix well. It is understandable why dogs can be seen as a threat to people in some areas. Therefore, we need to do all we can to help by supporting the increasing number of nonprofit organizations that work to place street dogs in humane shelters, provide veterinary care, and offer neutering services. We can also help support organizations like worldwildlife.org that create wildlife sanctuaries and protected habitats for some of the wild dogs of the world. If you want to help, please check out this website which lists 45 great global dog rescue organizations.

Final Thoughts

You can see our full mission statement on the Dog Tales Welcome page, but in short, “In our opinion, all dogs are “rescues”.  Most dogs do not do well in our world without helpful human intervention. Whether they are strays on the streets, living at shelters, rescued from dire situations, or for sale from breeders or pet stores, they need us!

Brown and black dog playing with toys in their home.
Charlotte and Georgia were rescued twice. Now safe in their forever home.
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