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Who is at the centre of a dog’s world? It’s humans more than dogs!

Read time: 4 mins
Who is at the centre of a dog’s world? It’s humans more than dogs!

[Image Credits: Dr. Debottam Bhattacharjee]

Humans and dogs have co-evolved for thousands of years. In this journey, the dogs seem to have outsmarted us in developing innovative ways to communicate with us. They use their specially-evolved ‘puppy eyes’ to melt our hearts or know when to keep off from potentially harmful humans. Much of this nuanced communication is visible among ‘stray’ dogs or free-ranging dogs, which make up nearly 80% of the world’s dogs. Very commonly found in rural, semi-urban, and urban areas of developing countries like India, they provide a perfect opportunity to study human-dog relationships.

Studies have found that dogs tend to be friendlier in areas with frequent human activity. But what about their interaction with individuals of their kind in these areas? Do humans play a role here? A recent study from the Dog Lab at Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata has delved into the social interactions of dogs amongst themselves and with humans. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, was funded by the Science and Engineering Board, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

Typical urban neighbourhoods provide an easily accessible playground for studying dog-human interactions. In such an atmosphere, dogs depend heavily on humans for food, sometimes begging from them and at other times scavenging through the garbage. The researchers studied many groups of dogs in different areas of Bengaluru in Karnataka and Raiganj in West Bengal. They divided these areas into two categories—those with medium human activity, like residential areas, and those with high human activity, like markets or railway stations. Then, they carefully observed how the dogs in chosen groups interacted with humans and amongst themselves—a tedious exercise that lasted for over a year. They observed twelve dog groups spread across locations, and each group for a total of 48 hours.

The researchers analysed their observations to study different kinds of dog-human interactions. Dogs initiate positive interactions towards humans, including gazing or licking while wagging their tails, begging while standing or sitting close to a human. Humans reciprocate in the form of petting, providing food, and calling dogs in a friendly manner. On the other hand, dogs can initiate negative interactions like barking, chasing, snarling, growling, and biting. Humans, on their part, threaten dogs by various means, shoo them away, or even beat them.

The study found that in areas of high human activity, dogs interact more with humans than with each other.

“This high level of interaction with humans more than their own kind seems to be unique to dogs,” says Prof Anindita Bhadra, who is the founder of the Dog Lab at IISER Kolkata and a co-author of the study. As a species, dogs are not very active. Even amongst their activities, interactions take up a tiny fraction of time. “Since humans are a source of food and friendliness for dogs, it leads to more dog-human interactions,” she adds.

By carefully analysing the data, the researchers found that humans initiated a majority of the adverse interactions that took place between the two species. On the other hand, dogs initiated a larger chunk of the positive interactions that occurred. Among human-initiated interactions, negative ones like beating or stone-pelting were similar in number to positive ones like petting or providing food.

[Image Credits: Prof. Anindita Bhadra]

Rabies, a virus-borne disease carried by dogs and contracted to humans by dog-bites, accounts for a significant number of human deaths in the country. For example, in 20 years in the city of Mumbai alone, 429 individuals bitten by free-ranging dogs died by rabies, while 1.3 million people were injured. The current study sheds light on how to reduce dog-human conflicts in Indian streets and co-exist with dogs, which belong to cities as much as we do.

“A great reduction in such conflict can be achieved simply by not interacting negatively with unfamiliar dogs,” shares Dr Debottam Bhattacharjee, the lead author of the study. The onus is not on dogs, but on humans, feels Prof Bhadra. “We need to understand that as a species, we have a deep impact on another species simply by co-existing with them. Hence, we should behave more responsibly with dogs,” she asserts.

The current study is the first to assess direct human interaction with free-ranging dogs on Indian streets. Having found that dog-initiated interactions could vary with the number of humans in their locality, the members of the Dog Lab at IISER Kolkata are now on a quest to understand why. They are collecting faecal and saliva samples of free-ranging dogs in different regions to measure their stress levels, via analysis of their hormones.

“Different experiences of the dogs in these regions might explain the differential behaviour,” signs off Dr Bhattacharjee.

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