12 Behaviors of Former Stray Dogs (And How to Fix Them)

Adopting a former stray dog can be a very rewarding experience, but it's not without its challenges. Discover several behaviors you may notice when adopting a former stray dog and how to overcome them.

12 Behaviors of Former Stray Dogs (And How to Fix Them)

Adopting a former stray dog can be a very rewarding experience, but it's not without its challenges. Discover several behaviors you may notice when adopting a former stray dog and how to overcome them.

Formerly stray dogs can give lots of unconditional love.

leosanches via Getty Images

Congrats on Adopting a Former Stray Dog!

Adopting a formerly stray dog can be a very rewarding experience. However, it's rather normal to encounter some challenges.

Going from wandering around outside to living in a home, can be quite a drastic change and it's not unusual for these dogs to struggle.

Habituating to being in a new environment, and around new people, is not easy.

Depending on your stray dog's past history, the challenges you may face may vary, but in general, some challenges are more common than others.

What Are Stray Dogs?

The exact definition of "stray dog" is subject to controversy. Interpretation of when a dog is considered to be a stray tends to vary from one country and another and can be subject to local and national regulations.

The following are some possible classifications according to a report that may fall under the umbrella term of "stray."

Feral: a dog with no owners or caretakers. Possibly, such dogs were under a certain degree of human care but have since become "wild." They are often found on the outskirts of urban/rural areas.

Such dogs are not socialized and are not used to human handling. Feral dogs have poor survival rates, aren't very successful in reproducing, and depend on scavenging.

Abandoned: these dogs were once cared for by an owner, but the owner no longer provides resources. Other members of the community may feed the dog. These dogs may survive by scavenging but may not be able to survive at all if nobody provides food or shelter.

Owner not controlled: dogs who are entirely free to roam and are are sort of "latch-key" dogs. The community or neighborhood takes care of them, and they depend on humans for resources. They may or may not be sterilized. These dogs are able to successfully reproduce and rear their young.

Will Your Stray Dog Show Problematic Behaviors?

Not necessarily. Many people rescue former stray dogs, and they don't encounter any particularly challenging problems, especially when adopted from a young age. However, even when they do, the challenges can be overcome.

For instance, according to statistics from a Turkish study, most former street dogs showed some degree of fearful behavior when first introduced to their new homes, but most adapted well to life as companion animals.

According to a 2020 British study, 97.4% of owners were satisfied or extremely satisfied after adopting a former street dog rescued from the streets of Romania.

What kind of behaviors may you expect in your newly adopted stray dog? Below are several examples.

Some "semi-free," yet well-cared-for dogs I have been closely observing on a small Aegadian island.

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What Are Some Behaviors Seen in Former Stray Dogs?

Depending on your formerly stray dog's experiences and genetics, you may face different challenges. In general, these are some common behavior problems you may encounter.

It's important to consider though that these aren't really "behavior problems" after all. These are likely natural behaviors the dogs have carried out for a good part of their lives to adapt to their environment and increase their chances for survival.

How deeply ingrained these behaviors are may vary based on how long your former stray dog has been wandering around.

Street dogs will have more established habits compared to dogs who have been recently abandoned and, therefore, straying for a shorter period of time.

1. Fearful Behaviors

Stray dogs may have a history of poor socialization, neglect and even mistreatment or abuse.

This may cause them to react fearfully to people, other dogs, sudden movements and noises in the home (like the vacuum) that they are not familiar with.

If your rescue dog is fearful, here are eight ways to help a rescue dog who is scared of everything.

2. Roaming and Wandering

Former stray dogs used to wander and roam for a good part of their day. If they manage to escape, they may play hard to catch.

The desire to wander or roam can be strong, especially if these dogs have a long history of rehearsing these behaviors.

Rescues may put an emphasis on perspective owners having a fenced yard since a lack of fence may cause wandering, which puts the dog at risk of predators or getting hit by a car.

Rescues are strict on this, as all they hear day-in-day-out is about dogs who manage to escape and end up becoming strays.

A secure fence is an ideal solution, and a lack of one may be a deal-breaker for many rescues. If you're planning to erect a fence, make sure it is tall enough and that there are no gaps.

If you have a gate, here are some tips on how to prevent your dog from escaping through the gaps of a gate.

While a fence is important, some over-filled shelters may be okay with some alternate options. After all, dogs in homes without fences may be walked more which is a win-win.

Here is a guide on ways to keep a dog outside without a fence.

3. Urine Marking

Stray dogs use urine markings as a way to communicate with other dogs. When other dogs stumble on another's urine, they learn several things about the dog who left the "pee-mail."

The strategic placement of urine on vertical surfaces is not just casual.

Vertical surfaces are at the perfect nose level for other dogs to detect, and odors linger for longer on vertical surfaces compared to horizontal ones.

4. Lack of Housetraining

Former stray dogs are used to going potty whenever they feel like it, although they may have a natural instinct not to soil the areas where they eat, drink or sleep.

It may take some time to establish a good potty routine and teach them where we want them to go. Make sure to take your former stray dog on frequent potty breaks.

Here is a helpful guide: how to train your dog to go potty in one spot. You may also find this helpful: how to train your new dog how to go potty on command.

5. Scavenging for Food

Stray dogs may scavenge for food, and therefore it may come naturally for them to raid the trash can or steal food off a counter.

They may eat very rapidly, and some may act possessive over food if other dogs or animals come near them.

It helps to invest in dog-proof indoor trash cans and use baby gates to keep the dog out of the kitchen and dining room table.

6. Predation

Former stray dogs may be predisposed to hunting down small critters.

This can be particularly seen with certain dog breeds, such as small terriers and sighthounds.

Erecting a fence to keep these critters out is the only sure way to stop this.

Extra caution is needed if there are cats, rabbits or other small pets sharing the household. Sighthounds can sometimes pose a danger to even small dogs. Be aware of the phenomenon of predatory drift.

7. Barking Excessively

The barking may be excessive, especially at night or in response to unusual sights and sounds.

The barking can be more pronounced during the first weeks as the dog needs to habituate to his new environment.

If you can identify what sound your dog struggles with the most, the "hear that" method can help teach your dog better coping skills.

8. Resource Guarding

Since stray dogs may be competing with other dogs over resources such as food or sleeping areas, they may negatively react to other dogs or people getting into "their space."

Cases of resource guarding in dogs should be brought to a dog trainer/dog behavior specialist's attention, considering the risks and importance of working on the issue in the correct way.

A good place to start is reading the popular dog book: "Mine" by Patricia McConnell. I recommend this book to all folks who deal with cases of resource guarding, of course, along with behavior modification under the guidance of a professional.

9. Destructive Behavior

Former stray dogs may have never lived in a home. If by chance they have, they may never have received any training or may have forgotten how to behave appropriately in one.

Anxious dogs may engage in destructive behaviors as a way to cope with their stress. A good percentage of former stray dogs suffer from separation anxiety, and therefore, it's important to rule out this differential.

Of course, boredom and lack of exercise may trigger destructive behavior too.

It's important to spend as much time at home with your new dog as possible. Keeping a new dog in the house alone for the first days or weeks can be a recipe for disaster, considering the tendency for destructive behaviors.

If you must leave, have a friend or pet sitter swing by.

As you get your new dog gradually used to being left alone, the use of technology can help a great deal. I like to use the Furbo camera with foster dogs or dogs with separation anxiety as it allows me to carefully monitor the dog, talk to him and even toss him treats. This helps me gauge how the dog is doing with short absences and when it's time to raise the criteria.

Leaving your dog with something long-lasting to chew on, like a stuffed frozen Kong or a bully stick, can help keep him occupied for a little while rather than destroying stuff.

10. Challenges With Being Confined

Being closed in a home may cause former stray dogs to feel trapped. This may lead to anxiety, pacing, whining and being asked to be let out of the door.

Special care is needed, especially during the first weeks or months, as the dog doesn't know that this is his new permanent home.

Just opening the door slightly can cause your new rescue to slip out quickly, and if you don't have a fence, the consequences can be disastrous!

If being closed in a home isn't enough, consider that placing a former stray dog in a crate or small pen may cause sheer panic, to the point of dogs showing signs of real confinement phobias.

Despite what you may have heard, dogs don't have a denning instinct that will make them automatically love their crate.

It will take time and lots of patience to get them habituated to a crate, and some may still struggle no matter what.

11. Challenges With Being Handled

Former stray dogs are often neglected and may have never received any grooming or medical attention.

It will take some time and lots of patience to get them used to having baths, having their nails trimmed and seeing the vet for routine care.

Special caution is needed when handling former stray dogs as they may be fearful of being touched in certain ways, and a scared dog who is restrained may bite.

If your new dog is uncomfortable with certain procedures or scared of going to the vet, it may be worth finding a veterinary clinic that is fear-free certified to reduce stress.

12. Challenges With Being Walked on a Leash

Walking former strays on leashes, especially if they have never worn a collar and leash before, can cause confusion or frustration.

They may stop walking and scratch at their collars, and they may startle and buck when they reach the end of their leash.

These dogs benefit from being given some time to get used to wearing a collar and leash. Here is a guide on getting dogs used to wearing a leash and collar:

Make sure that the collar or harness you are using fits well and that it is escape-proof. I like to use martingale-style collars, particularly for sighthounds, as these tighten when the dog pulls.

When using a front-attaching harness, I like to clip the leash to both the harness's front ring and the collar's ring (which has ID tags).

Avoid using a flexi lead (retractable leash), especially with large, energetic dogs who pull. Here's what happened to me once using this type of leash: the dangers of retractable leashes.

Some Extra Tips

These extra tips can help make the transition from stray dog to companion a little smoother.

  • Take your dog to the vet to ensure he is healthy and whether he needs to be dewormed, vaccinated and treated for parasites. If your dog is anxious, look for a fear-free vet clinic.
  • Give your dog time to get used to his new surroundings before inviting over family and friends to meet your new companion.
  • Keep noises at a minimum and avoid making sudden movements.
  • Use calming aids to prevent stress. Examples are DAP sprays and diffusers, treats with l-theanine, and calming CDs crafted for dogs.
  • Keep your new dog on an established routine. Dogs find routines reassuring, as they like to know what to expect.
  • Use positive training methods. Discover more about the best training method according to research.
  • Help your dog learn to trust you. Do this by being calm and becoming a source of good things such as food, play, attention and positive interactions.
  • Don't be surprised if your former stray dog doesn't know how to play. Stray dogs may have focused mostly on survival, leaving little space for play. However, with time, most stray dogs eventually learn to enjoy play.

The Bottom Line

As seen, adopting a former stray dog can lead to several challenges. You may need to work with a professional dog trainer or behavior specialist to address any concerning behaviors.

With patience, training, and consistency, your formerly stray dog may learn the ABCs of living in a home and enjoy all the perks that come with having one.

In the meanwhile, you'll be granted with loads of unconditional love and years of loyal companionship!


  • Baria, P.; Westgarth, C.; Buckley, L. ISAE session: South/East/Southeast Asia ‘Unseen’ adoptions: UK owner satisfaction and experiences of rescue and adoption processes of imported Romanian dogs 2020, Conference Paper. In Proceedings of theInternational Society for Applied Ethology Global Meeting, Bangalore, India, 6–7 August 2020
  • Stray Animal Control Practices (Europe) An investigation of stray dog and cat population control practices across Europe By Louisa Tasker, MSc, BSc (Hons.)
  • Salgirli Demirbas, Y., Emre, B., & Kockaya, M. (2014). Integration ability of urban free-ranging dogs into adoptive families' environment Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research
  • Lord, L., Reider, L., Herron, M., & Graszak, K. (2008). Health and behavior problems in dogs and cats one week and one month after adoption from animal shelters Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
  • McMillan, F., Duffy, D., & Serpell, J. (2011). Mental health of dogs formerly used as ‘breeding stock’ in commercial breeding establishments Applied Animal Behaviour Science

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

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