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At the Dog Lab

The Dog Lab at IISER Kolkata studies the behavioural ecology of free-ranging dogs through meticulous observations and field experiments. My research at the Dog Lab involved analysis of patterns in the general behavioural repertoire of Indian free-ranging dogs, with emphasis on natural history, linguistics and its implications in the cognition and general activities of these animals.

Image by Akshay Madan

How to study nuanced continuous behavioural displays of animals?

At the base of all animal behaviour studies lies an ethogram - a descriptive list of all behaviours, of the concerned model system. My training phase at the Dog Lab included ad-libitum observations of stray dogs and learning how to make an ethogram from it. During my research at the lab I re-structured the ethogram, broke down complex displays into simpler units and added behaviours to the existing ist. The full ethogram of Indian free-ranging dogs has been included in one of my publications.

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Is the dog-human relationship all hunky-dory?

Dr. Debottam Bhattcharjee from the Dog Lab has extensively studied multiple adaptations of dogs for living with humans. I was a part of one his studies asking the simple question - "Do dogs follow human pointing gestures?". While one may think that dogs may benefit greatly if they could follow when a human pointed at food, the negative experiences this may have caused is also worth pondering upon. The study showed that pups readily trusted humans and followed human pointing, the juveniles not so much and with age came the decision became very selective. Adult dogs only trusted humans and following their pointing gesture if they were already familiar with the human, through previous trials and if they had received food after having followed them previously.

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What determines the variations in activity level patterns of dogs over the course of the day?

One of my first projects at the Dog Lab included compiling a 24-hour time activity budget of Indian stray dogs and performing an analytical study to determine the driving factors. My research showed that the activity levels of these animals varied with the time of the day, with 9 AM to 10.30 PM being the most active window. Different age groups of dogs - juveniles (<6 months old) and adults (>6 months old), were found to show varying activity levels within this window. However, seasonal variations or the location of the dog did not seem affect the activity levels. 
The study has been accepted for publication in Acta Ethologica.

Lazy Dog

Do these activity level patterns differ for sterilized dogs?

I compared the variation in activity levels of sterilised and non-sterilised dogs. The test group of sterilised dogs was a small population on the IISER Kolkata campus itself. Results from this study are under analysis and the draft is in preparation.

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Can we use patterns in the general behaviour of dogs to make probabilistic predictions?

Statistical and mathematical tools can help us extract information from seemingly random behavioural displays. My study showed that the set of general behavioural data that I used to compute a 24-hour time-activity budget, which helps us determine proportional relationships between two variables - the frequency of the behaviours and the assigned rank (the most frequent behaviour being assigned 1). 

Image by Patrick Hendry

Are there parallels between dog behaviour and human languages?

Animals communicate through a range of behavioural displays - gestures, vocalizations, movements, gazes, mating rituals among others. For Indian free-ranging dogs, my study showed that the whole behavioural repertoire of dogs had similar statistical features like languages. For example, 80% of our data set was made up of only 20% of their behaviours - this fits well with the linguistic analogy where 80% of any book is usually made up of only 20% of its words.

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How do dogs differentiate between options with different number of units?

A counting ability would be beneficial to these street-living animals for many decision-making situations tey might find themselves in. Examples include - choosing between food packages when there's only enough time to go for one of the two, deciding whether to get into a fight with another dog group depending upon the number of members in the group, etc. In my study, using food-choices, I found that while dogs may not necessarily be counting units, they definitely make a quantity based discrimination among provided options. In doing so, they preferentially use their strong sense of smell and exercise a selective decision (as opposed to making a random choice) only when the provided options are rewarding enough.

Image by Jesse Schoff

Does the lack of a typical language sytem have anything to do with this?

Animals, pre-verbal children and some tribal communities living in Amazonian rainforests are examples of systems which do not have a typical language system. Just like we found in dogs, they are also known to distinguish between options by quantity-sense instead of number-sense. Scientific literature says that since they do not have "words" for specifying numerals, it is convenient for them to distinguish things as 'less or more' instead of 'few or many'.

Dog Lab, IISER Kolkata

To find out more about the lab, it's various research projects and vacancies, check out the website. This official website of the dog lab was designed by me using a googlesites template.

Get in touch with the lab through Dr. Anindita Bhadra who leads the lab. She is an associate professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER Kolkata.

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