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With humans around, dogs on the street tend to be friendlier

Read time: 4 mins
28 Jun 2020
With humans around, dogs on the street tend to be friendlier

Researchers show how free-ranging dogs modify their behaviour and personalities based on our presence in urban areas.

When we started building cities, about ten thousand years ago, little did we think about the creatures that shared the space with us! Like it or not, our bustling cities are home to a few species of birds, insects, reptiles and mammals, who have successfully adapted to cope with the madness around. Studies have shown that lizards, birds and moths have all devised innovative strategies to live in our cities. So, how can ‘man’s (and woman’s) best friend’, the dogs that co-evolved with humans, be far behind? Now, a new study presents some insights into how humans influence the personality and behaviour of free-ranging dogs in cities. 

Free-ranging dogs, or ‘street dogs’ as they are called in India, are a naturally evolved population of dogs. They live in their natural habitat—the streets of our cities—scavenging for food. About 80% of the world’s dogs are free-ranging dogs. In their study, researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata (IISER Kolkata), have explored how the behavioural traits of these change based on human movement in urban areas. The study, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, was funded by the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB).

“In India and other countries, free-ranging dogs interact with humans, who have a dynamic love-hate relationship with these dogs. Thus, the two species influence each other on a day to day basis,” says Prof Anindita Bhadra.

She is an Associate Professor at IISER Kolkata and the Principal Investigator of the ‘Dog Lab’—the country’s only lab that studies the behaviour and ecology of natural populations of dogs.

“Dogs are a result of co-evolution with humans, who first domesticated their wolf-like ancestors. We have played a critical role in their evolution, and hence, share a unique relationship not seen with other domesticated animals,” she adds.

The researchers embarked on an experiment to analyse how ‘friendly’ or sociable dogs were in different parts of nine cities in India, with a varying movement of people. They divided these areas into three categories—low, intermediate and high human flux zones—based on how many people moved around at a given time. Busy areas like markets and bus stations were classified as ‘high human flux zones’. In contrast, residential areas, where people movement is minimal, were called ‘low human flux zones’. Areas with shops, eateries and restaurants within residential areas were considered ‘intermediate’ zones.

In each of these areas, an experimenter, who was unknown to the dogs, first called out to a solitary dog and then offered some biscuits. The researchers recorded the interactions on video and later analysed how these dogs reacted to the experimenter’s presence. They also noted the time the dogs took to approach the experimenter—a sign of social interaction.

The study found that in high and intermediate human flux zones, where the movement of people was reasonable, the dogs were socialised to the presence of humans. Many of them approached the experimenter, especially when biscuits were offered, wagging their tails with a relaxed body posture. However, in low human flux zones, most dogs hesitated to approach the experimenter. Instead, they were anxious or fearful.“In the low flux zones, dogs encounter not only fewer people on an average but also fewer strangers. Hence, they would not learn to accept food from or approach unknown humans, making them shyer,” explains Prof Bhadra.

“Our study is the first attempt to understand the behavioural influence of humans on one of the personality traits of dogs. It portrays behavioural adaptations of dogs with striking variations in responses to humans,” says Dr Debottam Bhattacharjee, the lead author of the study.

Free-ranging dogs are an integral part of our cities, as it is their natural habitat too. What cues do these findings provide for us to co-exist with dogs? “We think that exposure level to unknown humans is vital for the learning of socialisation in the dogs, especially in their early age,” opines Prof Bhadra. The findings also have implications on how we can redesign our city where other inhabitants also thrive.

“Open spaces like parks, preferably with some resting places, watering holes and feeding sites within a large area, can help different groups of dogs co-exist without converting public spaces into war zones,” she signs off.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.