Even Stray Dogs Can Understand Human Gestures: Study
Fri, September 30, 2022

Even Stray Dogs Can Understand Human Gestures: Study

About 36% of the world’s rabies deaths happen in India each year and most of the victims are children who come in contact with infected dogs. / Photo by Andrey via Wikimedia Commons


Humans and dogs are so good at living together. The canine’s special chemistry with humans goes back thousands of years ago. It is a kind of evolutionary relationship, wherein dogs have learned to become highly attentive to their owners. They have also become readers of human body language and use the direction of their owner’s gaze to locate certain things. But is this ability to read human gestures innate in all dogs or only learned through domestication and training? A new study published in the Frontiers in Psychology said the answer is the former. It suggested that the innate ability to understand human gestures exist even in unrestrained stray dogs.


Studying Stray Dogs in India

The authors studied stray dogs in several regions in India, where an estimated 35 million of the animals live. Coexistence between humans and canines has not always been peaceful in the country. About 36% of the world’s rabies deaths happen in India each year and most of the victims are children who come in contact with infected dogs. People in India are known to attack street dogs and dogs also attack humans. Study co-author Anindita Bhadra, who is also an animal behaviorist, said that it is important to gain a better understanding of the dogs’ behavior to manage the street dogs’ problems of the country.

This led Bhadra and her team to find out whether stray dogs understand human gestures even if they have not undergone certain training as domesticated dogs do. Equipped with two food bowls, one empty but was rubbed with raw chicken for dogs to smell while the other contained chicken, an experimenter would approach a stray and put the bowls on the ground. He would then point to one of the two bowls, which were covered with cardboard. Of around 160 adult stray dogs, about 50% of them refused to get close to the bowls. The researchers speculated that it could be because the dogs have a history of negative interactions with humans.

Yet, of the strays that approached the bowls, 80% of them went to the bowl that the experimenter specifically pointed. It did not matter whether the experimenter pointed to the bowl repeatedly or briefly. The authors believe that unstrained stray dogs are also capable of following point cues from people.

Bhadra went on to say that it was “amazing” that strays could follow a complex human gesture as abstract as momentary pointing to an object. This only means that dogs are innately observing the humans that they are meeting for the first time and they are using such an understanding to make a decision. In the same way, the experiment also showed the adaptability and intelligence of the dogs.

Dogs’ Personality

The team, however, highlighted that the shier the animal is, the more anxious it would be in participating with the experiment. This is why future studies are required to determine exactly how the personality of dogs affects their ability to understand human gestures.

Domesticated dogs, on the other hand, are highly receptive to human gestures and commands. History shows that canines were domesticated thousands of years ago that made them possibly the oldest domesticated animal in the world. Humans also began breeding canines with the most useful and desirable traits so that they can function as their workers and companions. As the years went by, more domesticated dogs became receptive to their owners.

One of the friendliest dog breeds is the beagle, which is generally described as outgoing and happy-go-lucky. Beagles love to be around people and other groups of dogs too and they are not wary of strangers. Another friendly breed is the Bearded Collie, which is a fluffy and cute dog that is naturally lively and affectionate. They can become aggressive but this happens very rarely. Boston terriers are known for their lively energy. They love to cuddle and play with almost anyone.

In India, the population of pet dogs between 2014 and 2023 (estimated) was detailed by database company Statista: 12.58 million (2014), 19.41 million (2018), and 21.42 million (2019). It also forecasted that the total population of dogs in the country will reach 31.41 million by 2023.

Annually, Indian pet parents spend 1,000 rupees (US$14.02) on mattresses, 1,000 rupees onboarding/domestic help, and 3,000 rupees (US$42.07) on vaccinations.

Rabies in India

Yet, despair and regret were also seen on the faces of parents who brought their children infected with the rabies virus. Delhi-based Maharishi Valmiki Infectious Disease Hospital’s senior doctor Rajendra Singh mentioned via the World Health Organization that most families come from far places in India and they don’t even know that rabies is 100% fatal. As provided by Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, 22,026 people in India died because of rabies, down to 21,012 in 1995. Here are the data in the years that follow: 17,980 (2000), 15,109 (2003), 12,617 (2005), 8,947 (2008), 7,050 (2010), 5,332 (2013), and 4,378 (2016).

One of the reasons why India has a great number of stray dogs is garbage. Strays rely on garbage to survive. Countries where garbage is cleaned regularly and kept in safe bins have a lesser number of strays.

The world, not just India, is not yet rabies-free, and the rabies virus is a vicious killer. There are also high cases of rabies in India because instead of immediately washing the wound and seeking vaccination, some rely on local remedies, spices, or herbs. These things though do not help in eliminating rabies.

Aside from having a clean surrounding, having a full course of vaccinations after being bitten by a dog, a new approach is to understand the behaviors of dogs toward humans. If we base it on the findings of Bhadra and colleagues, it could be that dogs are also just defending themselves from what they perceive is a threat from humans or because humans are trespassing in their territory. Even a pleasant dog can also attack a person if it is in pain, but before biting, it will first show signs of anxiety.