What is the Indian Pariah?

To understand Indian street dogs, we should view their past and present

Posted Aug 09, 2012

Occasionally, a news article comes along that underscores many of the problems inherent in the currently popular theory that the dog is a sniveling, dump-diving, garbage-eating whiner of a wolf who domesticated himself by chowing down on human garbage and excrement. Because the dumps were near human villages; only the tamest, most obsequious wolves would be allowed to partake, and over time they became juvenilized versions of the wolf who loved garbage. From that population somehow came the dogs we have today.

The latest truncated version of the “groveling self-domesticating dog” appears in a long story by Gardiner Harris on New Delhi street dogs in the August 7, 2012, New York Times. Most of the dogs are said to be Indian pariahs; technically free-roaming, ownerless dogs who according to the article are rabid, disease-ridden, garbage-eating, snarling, teeth-snapping threats to bite every man, woman and child in the city. Numbering in the millions throughout India, their virtues appear non-existent.  The reasons poor people like them are obscure.

Peter Savolainen of Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology, a leading evolutionary geneticist is quoted as saying the Indian pariahs are “primitive” dogs, like the Australian dingo. Their forebears moved into India from southern China thousands of years ago, according to his genetic analyses.

To pick up the story from the beginning, the reporter turns to John Bradshaw, director of Anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, who tells him, that for thousands of years, dogs’ relationship with humans was similar to that of pilot fish with sharks. “Dogs essentially started out as scavengers,” Bradshaw said, “They evolved to hang around people rather than to be useful to them.”

Working with his sources, Harris then says that while that scavenging dog to garbage generating human relationship has ”largely disappeared in the developed world, it remains the dominant one in India, where strays survive on the ubiquitous mounds of garbage.”

He then adds without elaboration that “some [street dogs] are fed and collared by residents who value them as guards and companions, albeit distant ones.”  That relationship would seem key to understanding Indian dogs, but it is not pursued.

Despite its apparent balance, the view of Indian dogs as little more than dump-diving, teeth-gnashing threats to public health and safety is deeply flawed. It merits comment because in order to deal with the problems these dogs present, and the difficulties they have surviving in the supercity that is New Delhi, it is necessary to understand them as dogs.

It is misleading to call the Indian pariah dog a “primitive” or “ancient” breed. Geneticists began using the terms several years ago to refer to types or breeds of dogs who seemed not to have mixed with any type other than their own for thousands of years. They were deemed living relicts of the earliest dogs, unrefined  and fundamentally unmanageable compared with the more refined and biddable European dogs.

But in a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Greger Larson, an archaeologist at the University of Durham, England, and an international team of geneticists and archaeologists determined that these breeds were not ancient or primitive; rather, they were distinct because they had not crossbred with other dogs, due to geographic isolation.

The scavenger model of dog domestication posits that dump-diving wolves self-selected for tameness and non-aggression toward humans. Frequently and fervently invoked—it is easy—this model has always seemed to me to lack factual support. For example, by all indications, early humans did value non-aggression in dogs. Certainly, the obsequious creature the self-domesticating model presents as the early dog appears the antithesis of the snarling, biting animal portrayed in this story. Generations of wolves have fed on dumps in the Negev Desert and in Italy without showing an inclination to become dogs or even to mix with dogs feeding on the same dumps. 

It is far more plausible, based on what is known of human and wolf behavior, to assume that Paleohunters were following wolves or following ravens or some other bird following wolves to game.  The hunters would step in to complete a kill or steal a fresh wolf kill. In turn, the wolves would try to steal it back. Wolves are known to follow human hunters, too, in hope of running down a wounded animal or scavenging what was left behind.

In any event, the midden heaps of Paleohunters can hardly be compared to garbage dumps, even those in the developing world. There was also more food available on the hoof around hunting and gathering camps than modern cities or even agricultural villages. Evidence suggests that dogs continued to bring down deer and even young elk when they could find them. 

Socialized wolves who became dogs were valued because of their multiple talents and abilities.  The earliest dogs are found in hunting camps amid evidence that they may have carried loads and helped on the hunt. They doubtless were useful guards and early warning systems, not unlike the roles they still play for parts of Indian society.

What appears most important in the transformation of wolf to dog was extension of the early socialization period which allowed the dog to bond closely with humans—and other species, for that matter. That extended socialization period also appears to involve increased ability to be attentive to and read human signals.

The theory of the sniveling self-domesticated dog draws nearly all of its support from a long-running experiment with silver foxes intended to show that by selectively breeding fur farm foxes for tameness toward people alone, you end up with doglike foxes in appearance and behavior. I have elsewhere critiqued the fur-fox theory. While it remains popular in some quarters, the theory’s limitations have become increasingly apparent. 

Foxes are easily tamed, by all accounts ease of taming of individuals does not translate into creation of a large breeding population of doglike foxes. Moreover, foxes are not dogs, and argument by analogy does not count as scientific proof. 

The relationship of dogs and humans is ancient and complex, overlain with layers of culture, based on similar social structures and needs. When the relationship works, when it is allowed to flourish, it is a wonder to behold. But when it breaks down, it becomes increasingly depressing and dysfunctional. 

Rebuilding must start with seeing clearly what it was, what it is, and what it might become—and that is no easy task in a society as large, complex, and contradictory as India.