Paws for thought

Updated on Jul 12, 2011 04:33 PM IST

In conversation with Rajashree Khalap,a dog lover and animal enthusiast who has come up with the first comprehensive website dedicated to the Indian Pariah Dog.

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HT Image
Hindustan Times | ByLina Choudhury-Mahajan, Mumbai

When and how did you get started with the research on Pariahs?

When I was growing up, I always wondered why street dogs were considered mongrels, when they all looked similar to each other. In those days there wasn’t as much mongrelisation (mixing of INDogs and other breeds) as there is now. In Indian languages, these dogs are called desi kutta but desi means native, not mongrel.Then I read about Pariah dogs in a couple of dog books.

They described Pariahs as an intermediate breed between the dog's wild ancestors and modern breeds.I saw the Australian Dingos in the zoo in Sydney and realised how similar they were to our desi dogs. But the final inspiration was my dog Lalee, whom I adopted in 2001. I contacted scientists and researchers and enthusiasts of aboriginal breeds in other countries and in India for information. In 2007, I started a blog for native dog enthusiasts and owners.

What have been the most startling revelations of your research?

I think I’ve found the most interesting information in the field of archaeozoology.I read a description of the Pariah-type skull found in Mohenjo-daro in an article by Sewell and Guha (1931). Thanks to the Deccan College Archaeozoology Laboratory, I read about dog remains found in ancient sites around India including Mesolithic, Harappan and Chalcolithic sites. Many of these dogs are believed to have been scavengers at the settlements while some are believed to have been pets.

Drawings of dogs in prehistoric rock art including at Bhimbetka, are another interesting discovery. They usually show a dog of medium size with erect ears and curved tail, which is undoubtedly a representation of the original Pariah-type dogs. A really surprising recent revelation has been that many INDogs and INDog-mixes enjoy cold climates. People from Canada, Finland, UK, USA, Denmark and Switzerland who have adopted these dogs often report that their pets enjoy snow.

How have INDogs evolved over the years?

Like all aboriginal breeds, INDogs are believed to have retained the characteristics and appearance of the original domestic dog. There has been no mass extermination of native dogs around India and mongrelisation has been mostly restricted to large urban centres. So, the majority of INDogs have probably remained exactly like their ancestors of several thousand years ago.

How have humans influenced the INDog’s behaviour/traits?

Although there has been no direct selection for any trait, there have been indirect pressures from human communities that have shaped aboriginal dog behaviour.For instance, attacks on people or livestock would have resulted in the offending dogs being killed, so those traits would have by and large been removed from the breeding population.My observation of dogs in villages in India is that they tend to be wary of strangers, and they do not attack people, livestock or poultry.In fact, these dogs are commonly used as livestock guardians by tribal communities.

With urbanisation, a lot has changed for dogs living in villages as well. They are no longer employed as watchdogs for farms. The former village dogs now find themselves living in the midst of very dense human populations, evading traffic, scrounging in large garbage dumps, sometimes near slaughter-shops and markets.How their traits change depends on two things: how they are treated by humans of the area, and what breeds, if any, they get mongrelised with.

What about other Indian breeds?

They aren’t my area of interest as I’m more enthusiastic about natural aboriginal breeds, but there are many Indian pure breeds, as many as 45 according to some enthusiasts.

Why is it that most people want to adopt pedigrees?

Although the British empire crumbled away many decades ago, people in poor third world countries still hold the colonial belief that European breeds are superior to native ones.You’ll find the same mindset in many countries of Asia and Africa. Dogs are something you are seen with, a fashion accessory, so having an expensive dog is also a status symbol, like having an expensive foreign car or wearing an expensive brand.There is also a delusion dating from the 19th century, that rigid artificial selection improves an animal. By that criterion, a dog is considered inferior unless it has traits exaggerated by human selection!

How many dogs do you have at home?

I have kept four over the years, one INDog and the others mixed. We lost our beloved Lalee two months ago. We now have one INDog-mix, Kimaya.

Traits of an INDOG

They seem to have a high-order intelligence, necessary for surviving by one’s wits.They are highly alert and trainable, but get bored with repetitive commands that may seem meaningless to them.They tend to be independent and may be aloof with strangers, though they are devoted to their owners and human families.The basic appearance includes a wedge-shaped head, usually upright ears, medium build and weight, a short coat.

They have a curved tail, a feature that is remarked on even in the ancient story collection the Panchatantra! They don’t have much odour.They have a single breeding cycle in the year, and research indicates that it is seasonal.An interesting fact is that Pariah breeds across continents share many of these traits.

Research on the Indian native dog

The first people to research such dogs in detail were Dr Rudolfina Menzel and her husband, who studied the pariah dogs of Israel in the ‘40s. Similar dogs have been documented in the US, Ghana and South Africa.In India,environmentalist M Krishnan was a fan of these dogs and wrote an article ‘The Pariah’ in 1944. Major WV Soman wrote a chapter on them in his 1963 book, The Indian Dog.Colonel Gautam Das has documented them; one of his articles is in the INDog site.It was Gautam Das who coined the name.

The cultural conservationist Bulu Imam has documented in detail the aboriginal/pariah-type dogs kept by the Santhal tribe in Jharkhand. He calls the dog the Santhal Hound.In 2003, Colonel Das and Bulu Imam were interviewed for a National Geographic documentary called Search for the First Dog, that featured aboriginal dogs from several countries including India.The documentary was aired in India again last year.Elizabeth and John Oppenheimer published a paper on Indian pariah dog behaviour in 1975.In 2009, under Cornell University’s Village Dog Genetic Diversity Project,village dogs and urban street dogs were sampled across India.

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