Dogs follow human cues even without training; could this be the key to solving India's rabies problem?
Every year, 20,000 people in India lose their lives to rabies, the highest rate globally.
You may be proud when your dog can fetch, roll-over, play dead, sit, bolt, stay, bark and stop eating on command. It is a testament to the long hours you spent teaching him/her the tricks and the deep, interspecies bond you share, right?
Well, a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata says there's more to it than that. They designed an experiment to study if stray dogs with no prior behavioural training responded to directional clues such as pointing: it turned out that 80% of the dogs who approached the experimenters chose correctly when pointed in the direction of hidden food.
These findings suggest that free-range dogs pick up on human cues, or are born with them, even as they view them from a distance. The researchers published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology on 17 January.
In India, the coexistence of strays and humans is fraught with tension. In some streets, we lay out bedding and food for dogs, while in other places strays are chased away and even culled. Stories of mass killings and poisonings are reported with regularity. While these practices are often inhumane and excessive, there is a serious public health angle to it. Rabies is a deadly virus that is spread most often from the bite of an infected dog: there is no cure once symptoms appear and death is inevitable. Every year, 20,000 people in India lose their lives to rabies, the highest rate globally.
The researchers said that studying the behaviour of stray dogs may assist rabies interventions and offer more humane alternatives.
With 160 stray dogs chosen randomly, in the first stage of the experiment, the researchers "familiarized" the dogs to plastic bowls with food in them. This is because strays are not used to eating out of bowls and don’t associate them with food. After successful familiarization, an experimenter placed two bowls one metre apart and covered them, one had some raw chicken and the other one was empty. Another experimenter, who was not aware of which bowl contained the food and unfamiliar with the dog, stood in the middle of the bowls and pointed at one.
It turned out that half the dogs did not come towards the experimenter at all. This may be because they had had unpleasant experiences with humans previously. Of the dogs that did, 80% went in the direction the experimenter pointed. They were allowed to have the chicken if they were lucky enough to get the right bowl. Interestingly, if it turned out that it was the wrong bowl the first time, they were less likely to follow the pointing cue again.
While further research needs to be done, this study is suggestive of the capability of street dogs to innately follow human cues. Given that human-canine conflict is a common issue on Indian streets, understanding how our behaviour affects them and how they respond to us could lay the foundation for more harmonious co-existence.
For more information, read our article on Rabies: Symptoms and Causes.
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