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Obeying ‘His Master’s Voice’—How do stray dogs understand us and respond?

If you have ever had a dog as a pet, it is easy to observe how sensitive they are and how well they respond to us. Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), which have coevolved with humans for thousands of years, are known to have social skills and can display situation-specific responses. Is it hard to imagine a trained pet fetch a ball? While pets can be trained to understand us, what about the stray dogs that outnumber pets in the world? In a recent study, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata, have discovered that these dogs too understand our intentions and respond to them accordingly.

“Dogs, being the first domesticated animal, have spent a considerably long period of time with humans. Thus, exploring the dog-human interaction paradigm is specifically helpful to analyse the underlying dynamics of their domestication process”, says Prof Anindita Bhadra from IISER Kolkata, who leads the Dog Lab there.

Since most available studies on dog behaviour are on pet dogs, Prof Bhadra and her group have been focusing on free-ranging dogs, for nearly a decade, to understand how they are different from their pet counterparts. 

In the current study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the researchers have tried to explore how free-ranging dogs learn, from and about us, by analysing their day-to-day interactions with humans. While pet dogs follow most cues of their caretakers and understand their intentions owing to their dependency and positive interactions with humans, it is not as simple with strays.

“The interaction between free-ranging dogs and humans are complex and dynamic. Despite their partial dependency, their actions are not controlled by humans, making them different than the pets. Hence, they need to understand and decipher human intentions clearly, resulting in their behavioural plasticity”, explains Prof Bhadra.

The researchers studied 120 random adult dogs in different areas of the state of West Bengal for the study. They used different social cues, both friendly ones and those that look threatening, and provided food, to understand how these dogs interact with humans who were familiar and unfamiliar to them. They observed that when they approached the dogs with friendly and neutral cues, many responded with friendly gestures like gazing and wagging their tail without being afraid. These responses indicate an affiliative relationship they had established with the experimenter as long as they were close to him/her. However, when the researchers used low and high threatening signals, the dogs were afraid and anxious and hesitated to approach humans.

The researchers also provided food to these dogs during the two types of social signals. When they had friendly and neutral cues, they observed that the dogs approached faster and ate the food calmly. However, in response to threatening cues, the dogs were quick yet hesitant to approach food, and those who approached, ate it faster to avoid conflicts with the humans.

The findings of the study provide some insights into why dogs are one of the most successful species to share space with humans around the globe. The key lies in identifying our social cues and responding accordingly. “Free-ranging dogs live in human-dominated environments and heavily depend on humans for food. To avoid negative human impact and maximise the success of getting food, dogs need to identify reliable humans”, explains Dr Bhadra, adding that adult free-ranging dogs adjust some of their behaviour based on how reliable they think the unfamiliar human is. 

In today’s world, where there is an increase of dog-human conflicts, and both parties suffer by the actions of the other, studies like this are eye openers for those ignorant of how smart dogs really are.

“This study tells us that dogs understand humans much better than we understand them. Dogs don't respond to our aggression with aggression but tend to avoid conflict. Therefore, instead of beating the dogs, a simple threatening gesture can be enough to drive them away. This response simply indicates that dogs can be easily befriended, and with a little effort, we can easily avoid conflicts with them”, signs off Prof Bhadra.