Dogs have lived alongside humans for more than 30,000 years. Evidence shows they can pick up emotional information from people and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Researchers in Austria say pet dogs can mirror the anxiety and negativity of owners. Source: Dogs mirror owners’ personalities by Helen Briggs, 9 February 2017.

Based on my own observations, I am convinced that this holds true for stray dogs as well. Especially for strays who permanently reside in a particular neighbourhood, also called “community dogs”. Daily interactions between canine and human residents are reflected in the behaviour and mental state of these dogs. If we go by the basic concept of what a mirror does, Ms. Manjiri Latey (animal communicator) explains in an interview with Pet Fed on July 24, 2020:

“A mirror reflects what is shown; if you have a smudge on your face, it is a pointless exercise to wipe the mirror because the smudge won’t disappear unless you wipe it off your face. The mirror is only reflecting, nothing else.

With animals and nature around us, we are literally like glass; you can put as many layers around you as you want, but animals can see right through us fully. Their senses are much more refined than ours. When it comes to certain behavioural aspects of animals, this works in the same way as the mirror. The human is the source and the animal basically says: “what you think that is happening with me is actually not me, it is you.”

Now if I come to know that the animal is mirroring me, maybe for anxiety, or for guarding my personal space or anything else, and I don’t quite like what I see in the animal, I may realise that I need to change that in myself. We know that our inner work has started when we see the shift in the behaviour of the animal. Irrespective of who and what you are, if you have good intentions, the animals will be kind to you.”

I have observed this reflection of people’s behaviour by strays in my own colony, but also in other communities. For example, within the boundary walls of a particular gated community in Delhi, in some areas dogs are relaxed, calm and not even bothered by anyone passing by, whereas around the corner in the same colony, another set of dogs may be nervously barking at everyone passing through their territory.

In our colony, about five community dogs residing in one of the lanes are always on edge and quickly agitated. Residents in that area have been witnessed bothering the strays for many years. Puppies were born and children were told not to feed and interact with them. When they did make a bed for the mother dog and her pups, one of the neighbours was seen throwing items from the balcony at the dogs downstairs. A resident one day was seen rushing down from his apartment to chase this group of community dogs. They had been barking and growling at other strays that had entered their territory. His wife came down and was overheard saying: “Next time you should bring the bigger stick and hit them on their head”.

Naturally, in that lane, dogs do not feel safe. They are notorious for sitting on top of cars, especially at night, looking out for danger. Residents have put up spike beds on their bonnets and dickeys to avoid the dogs from jumping on top of their cars. At night, this lane looks pretty hostile, unfriendly and uninviting due to these spikes. The community dogs in that area of our colony bark a lot and regularly chase motorcycles. They have been known to snap at delivery boys and even at innocent passersby. They are hyper-alert and constantly anxious, often engaging in fear barking, especially after sunset.

Fear-barking is high pitched, and comes in long series. You will very clearly be able to hear the fear, even hysteria, in the dog’s voice. Sometimes the series of barks ends in a howl — a call for help. Unfortunately, says Ms. Rugaas who is a Scandinavian dog behaviour expert, fear barking is the kind of vocalization people punish most often and most severely, perhaps because the sound is so penetrating. It also makes the situation worse. Imagine yourself being punished for communicating fear.

Source: If We Knew What They Were Saying, Their Barking Wouldn’t Be So Irritating, Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, November 2, 2016

An older gentleman in the infamous lane in our colony clearly got irritated by the dogs’ fear-barking. He was witnessed at several occasions chasing the community dogs with a large stick, trying to hit them and if that didn’t work, he banged his stick hard on the floor near the car where a dog was hiding to scare it away with that loud sound. This was around Diwali festival time, when firecrackers disturb animals at large and strays tend to become nervous and frightened due to these loud noises anyway. His aim was probably to stop the fear-barking, but needless to say, his behaviour did not really calm them down; the dogs actually became more fearful, louder and unfortunately, several biting incidents occurred in that area around Diwali!

Dogs mirror human fear and hostility by humans and become fearful and hostile in return.

People who are hostile towards these animals, using sticks or stones to threaten and keep strays at a distance, should be warned by Instagram videos going viral, in which dogs retaliate the pain inflicted upon them. More often though, dogs tend to run away in that very instance because they will not take the risk of getting beaten up by a stick or hurt by a stone. However, the dog may start to mistrust human beings in general as it associates them with danger and pain inflicted. Therefore, the dog may increase its fear-barking, start to growl, chase and occasionally attack people walking or driving through its territory on (motor)cycles innocently. Those people will be completely taken by surprise. A dog bite victim may not have carried a stick nor threatened the biting dog in any way and rightfully does not understand what he/she did wrong to the dog. The only logical explanation I can think of would be that these dogs seem to practice the norm: “before you may hurt me, I’ll hurt you”. And honestly, they probably just mirror people who did the same to them…

The solution, to both the fear and the barking, growling or snapping it evokes, largely lies in the hands of those who provoke the dogs. Once they realise that they are actually looking in the mirror, residents may be educated and requested to avoid or reduce whatever behvaviour makes the dog afraid, to such an extent that it doesn’t feel the need to start vocalizing. Punishing, chasing and threatening or even hitting with sticks or stones will not desensitize the dogs; it will only serve to sensitize and agitate them further. Instead, while remaining calm, residents can teach their community dogs a better strategy for managing their fear than barking. Instead of throwing stones, they could throw a few biscuits every time they pass by these dogs.

For example, one lady who was charged at by a dog in the infamous lane came back for several days in a row with a boiled egg for the dog. Now that dog is happy to see her whenever she passes through its territory. Another neighbour started to carry the leftover chicken bones of his tandoor-meals to befriend the community strays that were earlier barking at him. He walks around the colony comfortably and confidently now – without even carrying a stick! Youth in our colony created posters “call my name and I’ll wag my tail” and “give me treats and I’ll be your friend”. See earlier blog. You may download these poster templates freely from Stray Buddy and customise them for your own community dogs.

The mirror-theory also explains why it is important not to scream or shout loudly but talk and behave soothingly to and with both pet and stray dogs. Don’t speak harshly or in an unnerved fashion, especially when they are already upset. Of course, this is a difficult message to convey to residents who do not feel empathy towards these furry creatures. However, unless they decide to be the change they want to see, the dogs will continue to shout back loud and clear:

“I am only reflecting your inner state of being!”


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