When stray dogs attack, animal welfare activists are quick to blame the victims. Sure, victims often deliberately or unwittingly provoke strays, but they may also be paying the price for someone else’s crime, in a country where animal cruelty is par for the course and perpetrators often record themselves in the act of mauling strays.

This makes the task of discussing dog behaviour, particularly aggression, harder. Aggression isn’t limited to strays – many pure-bred dogs can be neurotic too. Trespassing on territory, dominance, and predatory pursuit are all possible causes of aggression in dogs. When the mental health is added to the mix, the consequences can be serious.

I saw Burru’s mugshot on a friend’s Facebook page when I was looking to adopt a puppy. We had lost a cherished dog and the other mutts seemed despondent. I tried hard to cheer them up but they resolutely moped. After two months, I decided that maybe a new puppy would revive their spirits.

I spoke to a woman who claimed that the puppy was a “mixed breed” – he had some German Shepherd blood in him. I said I didn’t care what blood he had, as long as it was a dog’s. My partner and I drove to the city to pick him up. Even though the nearest village has plenty of strays, the local veterinarians close to where we live have more experience treating cows and buffaloes than dogs. Bad experiences had left me fearful that a puppy from the village might carry communicable fatal diseases. I preferred to safeguard the health of my other dogs.

Image credit: Animals/Maxpixel [Licensed under CC BY CC0]
Image credit: Animals/Maxpixel [Licensed under CC BY CC0]

The playful two-month-old was called Murphy. Later, I guessed from his milk teeth that he was probably closer to three months old. His history wasn’t clear – he had been born in the stairwell of a residential complex, and was fed all kinds of food by vendors and residents. A couple adopted him, but when the wife became pregnant, they didn’t want Murphy anymore – so the lady I adopted him from took him in. She too was eight months pregnant at the time, and had 10 other dogs to look after. She couldn’t care for Murphy as well.

His vaccinations were up-to-date, and I learned his feeding times and diet. On the way home, as he puked his guts out from motion sickness, we changed his name. He became Burru, after a cryptozoological beast from Arunachal Pradesh.

Over the following months, various neuroses reared their heads. He snarled if I touched his feeding bowl and growled if our eyes met. When well-fed, he was a sweet-natured cuddle muffin who howled along to music. He grew less possessive of his bowl when I touched it and fed him treats. Tasks like giving deworming pills and clipping claws were no big deal with other dogs, but involved days of preparation with Burru.

We vaccinate our dogs ourselves, and when it was time to give Burru his shots, the sight of the syringe unleashed a beast. I worried about getting bitten and I muzzled him. The second time, he bared his teeth when he saw the muzzle. He was small enough to be trussed up for the shot, but I knew this could not go on.

Behavioural issues

I had never faced this before with other puppies I rescued off the streets. I instinctively tried to neutralise whatever triggered Burru’s aggression: I played silly games with his muzzle. I snapped it on like a rhino horn on another dog and set it on Burru’s head like a birthday hat. We played every day and he allowed it to sit on his head for longer and longer. Weeks later, I snapped it on his mouth for a second and whipped it away. He was startled. We played this game for several days until he began to think it was a toy. A year later, when his shots were due, he wore his muzzle without a fuss.

When Burru turned six months old, we neutered him, just as we did our other dogs. But this did nothing to dampen his aggression. His behaviour bothers the other dogs, although we have all lived together for four years now. Even his body language – hackles raised, growling and snarling while bowing and wagging his tail – confuses them and me. They stay aloof, not responding to what must seem like aggression, even if it’s an invitation to play. If he approaches too close, their bodies become rigid and they avert their heads in a typically submissive posture. When they gambol together, he interrupts them with intimidating snarls. He has no idea how to play.

I scoured for research studies that might offer solutions. Papers analysed the propensity for aggression by breed, but were of little use to me because Burru is a mongrel.

Shelters in the West perform assessment tests before people adopt dogs from them. Dogs that pass the test also sometimes go on to show aggressive behaviours after adoption. One study from Northern Ireland reported that aggression was the most common reason for owners to return their newly adopted dogs, while suggesting that behaviour therapy could help dogs overcome these problems. If I had to drive more than 30 kilometres to see a vet, where was I going to find a therapist?

“I’ve had to euthanise many young dogs because of behavioural issues,” said Aniruddha Belsare, a veterinarian who used to practice in Pune and Lonavala. Problem behaviours included “excessive aggression, self-inflicted injuries often leading to exuberant wounds and lick granulomas and aggression directed towards other dogs, resulting in frequent and severe injuries. Almost always, the owners were truly kind but helpless – and would have resorted to abandoning the pet far, far away from home”.

Priyadarshini Govind, a veterinarian in Chennai, said, “Often, they don’t have the patience, and the pup gets abandoned or sent to someone’s ‘farm house’.”

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Two dog owners I know were proud of their dogs’ aggressive behaviour, extolling instances when they bit people. They probably thought their dogs were great watchdogs, not recognising the stress that drove them to attack. One desperate dog owner tried an unconventional method to calm his dog – he brought a Reiki therapist home, but had to rush the latter to hospital after the dog attacked him.

A friend suggested I ought to have adopted Burru when he was a two-month-old – something in that extra month hard-wired his personality in a particular way. But it’s hard to judge the age of a puppy of uncertain origin. Burru looked like a two-month-old when we adopted him – perhaps poor diet had stunted his growth.

Without expert help, I blunder along trying my best to calm Burru down. He hates the cane I carry with me when I walk the dogs. I never beat them with it, just tap their noses when they get that intense look before chasing some poor wild creature like a hare or francolin. The touch forces them to pay attention to my command to stay. But Burru reacts to it with rage, chewing on it with a ferocity that scares me. Could he randomly fly off the handle and attack me?

So now, we play with the staff. I raise it over my head and tap the ground near him, closer and closer. But the process of desensitising him to the stick hasn’t been as successful as the muzzle. Despite the games, he still doesn’t trust the cane. I can only guess why – maybe someone beat him with one when he was young, before I found him. I wonder when he will get over his fears.

If more than four years of love and affection cannot erase the few months of trauma Burru suffered, what must the mental health of street dogs that live at the mercy of passersby be like? Owners or trainers can work with pets to help them overcome their fears, but who would work with street dogs? Is this even practical, considering the amount of time it takes to nurture each dog? In an ideal world, everyone would care for dogs with affection, and all dogs would be well-behaved darlings. But reality, as they say, bites.

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