Dogs may be man’s best friend, but that's hardly the term that many people would choose to employ when describing the mangy mongrels that roam the streets. However, these stray dogs may not deserve their reputation as trouble-makers, according to research published recently.

“Though dogs in India have lived outside of human homes for centuries, and have also been used for hunting, they have not undergone the usual domestication process to become exclusively pets as in most developed countries,” observe Anindita Bhadra of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata and two of her students in a Current Science paper.

The free-ranging dogs lived singly or in small groups on the street, relying on garbage and scraps of food people provide. Consequently, these animals were efficient scavengers and removed a large part of the rubbish that humans dumped.

For their research published in Current Science, Dr. Bhadra and her students walked the roads at IISER Kolkata's Mohanpur campus and the township of Kalyani in West Bengal as well as at the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bangalore, taking note of the dogs they came across. These surveys, done over three years, recorded 1,941 dog sightings.

The street dogs were lazing about much of the time. They spent only a small part of the day in active interactions with each other or with humans. Of the interactions recorded by the researchers, close to 85 per cent were with other dogs.

“We were quite surprised at the extremely low levels of aggressiveness” displayed by the street dogs, Dr. Bhadra told this correspondent. There was little of such behaviour even between animals and none at all towards humans.

Of the 32 interactions seen between dogs and humans, about half involved gestures of submission from the former, such as tail-wagging and begging for food, according to the paper. “Thus, this analysis does not support the general notion of free-ranging dogs being aggressive, unfriendly animals that are a constant source of nuisance to people on the streets of India.”

While it was true that many street dogs were rabid and dog bites do occur, “these are not regular incidents as perceived by some,” the researchers remarked. “We would like to argue that the solution to dog-human conflict is not culling, but efficient management of garbage and rabies in the country, and a positive attitude towards the animals that are otherwise known to be man’s best friend.”

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