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Woof! A solitary surprise - Survey in Bengal finds city dogs straying from pack instinct

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By G.S. MUDUR
  • Published 21.11.10
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New Delhi, Nov. 20: Doggone it! Dogs in cities may not be pack animals after all.

A preliminary study of stray dogs in Bengal has observed dogs living as solitary creatures and appears to challenge a long-standing belief among animal behaviour scientists that dogs are exclusively pack animals.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Mohanpur who tracked stray dogs in several locations in Salt Lake, Kalyani and Bankura have observed dogs departing from classical pack behaviour expected of canines.

Studies in the past from other countries primarily based on observations of wolves and wild dogs have suggested that dogs go around in close-knit packs in search of food and protect territory in groups. Animal behaviour researchers have believed that one reason why dogs make great pets is that they have a “pack instinct” — and consider their masters or mistresses leaders of the pack.

But IISER fellow Anindita Bhadra and her students who are studying stray dogs in urban areas have observed that about half of the dogs at each of the three sites appeared to be searching for food on their own — and not in packs.

“These dogs still form groups and show pack behaviour when defending territory, but they seem to go looking for food on their own,” said Bhadra, who presented these findings at a recent symposium on animal behaviour organised by the IISER. The research data is not large enough yet for the findings to be communicated for formal publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The dogs observed in these urban areas, she said, appear to be adapting themselves to solitary scavenging, veering away from pack hunting possibly because being in a pack might make it difficult for dogs to find food.

“Imagine a pack of six dogs coming towards you, begging for food. You would either run or shoo them away. But if a single dog approaches you with a soulful look and begs for food, you are more likely to oblige,” she told The Telegraph.

Bhadra cautioned that these were preliminary observations and would need to be corroborated through larger studies at more sites. But the observations suggest that dogs in urban areas can veer away from pack behaviour when it is helpful to do so.

Scientists who were not associated with the study have also cautioned that the volume of observations is still low. The IISER team studied stray dogs at 10 locations each in Salt Lake and Bankura, and eight locations in Kalyani. Each site had four to 10 dogs per acre.

“I would not draw conclusions from this small set of observations,” said Vijay Sharma, an evolutionary biologist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore. “But this study is looking at an important aspect of biology — how might the interaction of dogs with humans influence their adaptive behaviour?”