Istanbul’s dogs wander the streets and have a long history in the city. And they’re as friendly as street dogs come.

Istanbul is filled with countless wonders, but perhaps the most surprising thing I saw there were the large number of street dogs. More surprising still: they were all extraordinarily well-behaved.

I initially noticed the dogs on my walk from the train to my hotel, which was just down the hill from the Hagia Sophia. And I was nervous; the first dog I saw was a large lab and I’ve had some negative run-ins with street dogs in other countries.

But then… the dog just walked by me, as if it had been well-trained and on a leash. It was the first of many such moments, and by the end of my trip it seemed natural.

It turns out the dogs are a deeply engrained part of Istanbul’s culture. Back in 2012, the Christian Science Monitor wrote that “street animals have been a part of Turkish culture for generations, and many Istanbul residents believe they have as much right to inhabit the streets as people.”

Nevertheless, the dogs have been a point of contention in the past. In 1910, for example, the city officials rounded up tens of thousands of the dogs and dropped them off on a deserted island where they starved.

More recently, the dogs have become a point of conflict between some who, according to the Monitor, believe “street animals are seen as legitimate denizens of the city” and others who want a more globalized, gentrified city.

There has been controversy in recent years over plans to send the dogs to forested areas on Istanbul’s outskirts.

It’s hard to find reliable numbers (or much information at all in English) on Istanbul’s street dogs, but most estimates that I’ve seen put them at between 100,000 and 150,000 strong. 

During my visit, which was mostly but not entirely in central parts of Istanbul, I saw hundreds of dogs at least. They all tended to be larger, apparently mixed breeds, and very docile. Unlike, say, the dogs people walk in my Los Angeles neighborhood, none of Istanbul’s dogs ever barked at passers by. In fact for the most part they just laid on the grass and sidewalks while people walked by.

The only time I saw any of the dogs barking was when taxis drove by; often a pack of dogs would emerge and chase the cars, barking violently. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I have no idea what it was.

The city’s dogs are all generally rounded up, tagged — you can see the tags on their ears if you look closely — and spayed and neutered. In some areas, people feed and groom the dogs. Some of them even become well-known, such as Nazli, a dog featured in the Monitor story.

Related reading:

17 pictures of cats in ancient ruins

There is a mosque in Istanbul that welcomes cats, including a mother and her kittens

Turkey 101: Helpful tips for your arrival in Istanbul

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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