India’s street dogs are inherently not aggressive and will only bite if provoked. Indeed, many are fearful of humans and sadly, the dogs’ fears are well founded. One of the shopkeepers in our colony aggressively targeted a young black and brown dog, who is called Simba by youth. When a teenager saw this happening and asked the man not to raise and use a stick to hit the community dog, the boy was shouted at and called such bad names that he reached home crying. Let’s look at the circumstances under which this incident happened.

Due to COVID-19, everyone has been fully home-bound for a couple of months. Even after the full lockdown period, people generally spend more time in and around their house than before the pandemic. As a result, they seem to be more concerned about what happens in their own neighbourhood. Some people now look at their community through a magnifying glass and meticulously notice what is going on in their colony. Feeling powerless and anxious with regards to COVID-19 and being restricted to a confined space for months, some tend to worry and complain more than usual about their dislikes. One such “nuisance” or even “menace” in their view are the stray dogs. Some disturbed people take out their tension and discomfort on community animals. This is not only morally and ethically unacceptable but also against the law.

In our colony, we observed that hostile behaviour by certain individuals against the stray dogs increased in the past one-and-half year. At the same time, the perception of residents is that dog biting incidents have increased in our society in the COVID-year. How do these two things relate?

People are often seen carrying sticks or picking up stones to threaten dogs, some people purposely try to punish and correct what they perceive as bad behaviour by hurting or scaring strays. As an example, one of the guards in our colony recently witnessed a man using a large stick to threaten the community dogs. He was recognised as the same person who had hit one young stray dog in the colony earlier so badly that the dog had to be taken to a vet and was not able to use his leg properly for months – possibly resulting in a permanent limp. Another incident was witnessed in our colony in which a resident used a sling from its rooftop to chase away strays downstairs with stones.

Such violence is a criminal offense under section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and sections 428 and 429 of the Indian Penal Code. But apart from being illegal and morally / ethically incorrect, hostility by residents, house helps, workers, delivery persons or others towards dogs also endangers the safety of other people as it may end up overloading an already overactive ‘fight or flight’ response, which could escalate the dog’s aggression.

Violence by humans will naturally cause an adverse change in the dog’s behaviour, such as increased alertness, disturbed barking, sleeping on top of cars to be able to look out for danger, undesired chasing of motorcycles, growling, snapping and ultimately even biting. People who are just passing through the colony may get scared or in the worst case even hurt by animals that have been pushed to the edge of their nerves. Their fellow humans are to blame for provoking the dog initially.

Simba’s case clearly demonstrates how human provocation changes a dog’s behaviour for the worst – and how regaining trust of the same dog can in turn positively influence its behaviour:

During the past COVID-19 year, Simba had become so anxious and insecure that she started to bite people. Not only those who were provoking her but even people who innocently walked or drove by on a motorcycle. Several people complained that this dog was biting without reason.

It should be noted here again that dogs are not wired to bite humans without reason. They have accompanied humans and paid services to them for tens of thousands of years and are dependent on the people they live with. They understand that we are important for their survival and well-being.

If we investigate the psychology of dogs, there is always a reason for their aggressiveness. We need to stop viewing dog attacks as an offensive behaviour and instead see it as a cry for help. Only if we manage to take away the underlying cause, the dog’s behaviour can change for the better. Simba became a nervous dog, possibly due to negative experiences in her early days. It is known that several residents in her part of the colony are unfriendly and hostile towards strays. Targeting dogs with items thrown from a balcony was witnessed when Simba grew up there. No wonder she lost faith in humans!

This negative spiral can only be broken by halting animal cruelty and hostile behaviour of residents, as one of the root causes of aggressive dog behaviour. As pleaded by Ms. Sindhoor Pangal, a behaviour consultant and canine ethologist: “Stop being angry at such animals and opt for compassion and empathy.”

To de-escalate Simba’s situation and break her reactive habit pattern, we requested an NGO to take the dog in for a paid boarding period. The NGO had been cooperative in the past years by sterilising strays from our colony and taking care of old and sick dogs. They agreed to rehabilitate Simba on the condition that this period should be used to inform and educate residents about how to avoid stray dog confrontations and how to live in harmony with community dogs in the society. Educational materials were created by members of the stray dog management group. These resources are now freely downloadable on the Stray Buddy website.

Simba appeared to be friendly towards staff in the NGO. Two members of the stray dog management group visited her in the NGO and spent time with her there. She was freely moving around the animal rescue sanctuary among people and other dogs. After a couple of months, she was returned back to the colony. Her behaviour is now being observed regularly by members of the stray dog management group.

A sweet young girl has become closely befriended with Simba. She still barks but there have not been any complaints of biting incidents since she returned. We are hopeful that Simba will slowly regain trust in human beings – as long as she is not faced again with hostile behaviour of people towards her…


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