“Lives of Streeties” is an ongoing study that I am conducting on the street dogs of Bangalore, India. Streeties is a term of endearment that Bangaloreans use to refer to the dogs that roam free on the streets of the city.
The whole thing started when a question was raised in class “How much exercise do dogs need?” We figured that studying free ranging animals in their natural habitat yields such answers. After all, animals in the wild do not need to be told what the optimal exercise is for them. They just know. But observing wild dogs (Cuon alpinus & Lycaon pictus) would not answer the question for our domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). That’s when I realized that studying the street dogs of urban India would be a close approximation of studying free ranging dogs in an urban habitat (dense & busy environment), which has now come to become the natural habitat for many of our domestic dogs.
Thus started the first version of my study where I tried to, as inconspicuously as possible, follow a few dogs. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle could not have been more painfully thrown in my face as it was during this effort. Street dogs are acutely aware of humans and if one lingers around them for too long without obvious reasons, the dogs get highly suspicious. They pull of the most remarkable disappearing acts that would shame Houdini. And rightly so, considering they are highly adapted to living among humans and cautious-curiosity is their hallmark. Given my limited resources (close range camera and lack of tracking devices), I had to find another low cost way of approaching this.
The second version of my studied replied on a different approach. I figured that if I picked a time slice and recorded the activity snapshot of several dogs during that time slice and averaged it over several observation sessions, I would arrive at reasonable conclusions. It was rightly pointed out to me that dogs might have completely different behaviour patterns during different times of day. Extending that further, dogs could also display very disparate behaviours in different weather conditions, temperature and traffic conditions. So I spread my time slices across the entire day.
Each day I would set out at an hour mark and walk a 45 minute walk, recording all the dogs I saw along the way. Of course, given my close range camera, I had to get fairly close to the dogs, causing them to alter their behaviour. So I was careful to record the activity they were engaged in before I interfered. Not easy!
I ended up with a hundreds and hundreds of videos, which turned out to be a huge compilation of the various activities they were engaged in. Thus the study expanded in scope. But now, the information was hard to process, but I did create an activity cloud out of it. The activity cloud is quite revealing in itself. Sleeping and sleeping-curled-up by far was the largest activity that appeared in all my sightings. Resting, foraging and standing were the next most prominent activities. Walking and trotting came next. Followed by a host of other activities like barking, grooming, begging, stretching, scratching, playing, pooping, peeing, rolling and getting pet by people. Here is the cloud from one point in the study. It will be updated periodically with the new data that comes in.
But, it is relatively hard to draw conclusions from such a vast list. So I decided to bucket the activities into 3 sets of buckets. It was then easy to graph these and I got 3 corresponding graphs to analyze. The buckets look a little like this:
The resulting graphs had some interesting things to reveal. In the first you will notice that one single activity predominates the daily activity chart – Snoozing! It’s a staggering 40% of the activity profile of dogs. The second graph that examines how many of the dogs are on their feet is more pronounced with close to 60% of the profile being representing dogs not on their feet or inactive dogs. But it’s the final graph that came as a shocker to me, which revealed that less than quarter of the activity profile actually included movement of some sort. Bear in mind that this movement includes walking, trotting, foraging and a host of other activities like begging, pooping, peeing, being pet and rolling.
As a side note, another independent study conducted by a research institute in Kolkota reveal the exact same numbers when it comes to percentage of inactive dogs.
The big take away from here for me is that dogs chose not to be very active. They seem to need relatively low movement than what I had imagined they would engage in. When we think of street dogs, we conjure up images of them leading highly active lives involving lots of car chasing, playing, fighting and generally strutting around. On the contrary, they seemed to prefer one activity over all else – sleeping.
I then decided to examine how this activity profile changed during the span of a day. I graphed the same buckets across the day. Some interesting patterns emerged.
When I examined how much dogs slept across a day, the graph did bounce about a bit during the day. But after night fall, there was a clear skew towards awake dogs.
A very similar skew was noticeable when looking at number of dogs on their feet. Though this data was more spikey, dogs on their feet spike more after dark.
When observing moving dogs, the trend is far more acute. Notice the pronounced spikes during the night and wee hours of the morning.
There are missing hours in these graphs due to heavy unseasonal rains that skewed the data. They will be filled-in in the months to come and the graphs will be updated.
There are many reasons for this pattern, I suppose. It could mean dogs prefer the dark or lower temperatures or lower human and vehicular traffic. I suspect that it’s a combination at play. But the take away at this point is that there is pronounced increase in dog activity after nightfall and the wee hours of the morning, under these study conditions.
This study posed a lot of challenges for me. The lack of better equipment that allowed me to stay father away from the dogs, did interfere with the study. Night time data collection was hard due to the limitations of my equipment and the safety concerns for women in my city. My husband was a lifesaver during these times, graciously accompanying me during the wee hours of the night. And availability of tracking devices that don’t get stolen of dogs would have aided in a lot more detailed information on the movement of dogs.
At this point, one thing is clear to me. This study is promising enough for me to continue it at least till I double the amount of data I have. The distinctive patterns it exposes tells me that this is definitely a viable way to study a lot more about our dogs and their “natural” behaviour. I don’t believe study of dogs in captivity is as revealing as studying free ranging dogs. The access I have to these free ranging dogs gives me hope that this is the first of many more studies. I eagerly look forward to collaborations with canine behaviour enthusiasts from around the world in flagging off several more studies. As a gesture towards this end, I have uploaded and made public all the video recordings that were part of my study this far. Here is a sample of the nature of the videos. I hope you enjoy it and reach out to me for collaborations of any nature. Thanks for showing interest in this pet project of mine. You can donate towards this project to help it scale. Click here to donate