How dogs learn to cope

The question of how dogs learn to cope with fear became relevant to me when my dog Nishi met with a horrific accident and as a result developed a fear of dogs, making her dog-reactive. I will spare you details of what exactly happened, but my quest for answers led me to two significant pitstops – Turid Rugaas in Norway and the streeties (the free ranging dogs of my city).

Turid got me to take a step back from obsessing about how I could change Nishi’s behaviour to learning to see what Nishi - the individual - was capable of

Turid got me to take a step back from obsessing about how I could change Nishi’s behaviour to learning to see what Nishi - the individual - was capable of. When I did that, I got to see that not only did she already have the tools to cope with her fear, but over the years, I saw her go from a dog reactive dog, to a dog who became exceptionally good at convincing other dog-reactive and dog-wary dogs to befriend her.


Streeties exhibit the cognitive ability of dogs

Then there were the streeties. Observing streeties led me to a very interesting realization. Fear is a big part of all our lives, humans and non-human animals. It is critical for survival. Traumatic experiences are a reality of most of our lives, more so in the lives of free ranging urban animals, particularly streeties. While most streeties are excellent at peacefully resolving conflicts with each other, there still are the occasional fights and they are also subject to human inflicted abuse and accidents. But what streeties do not have is the luxury of allowing their fear or fear induced reactivity to dictate their social interactions. For a hyper social species like a dog, their social interaction with both dogs and humans is critical for their survival and so they have to find a way to cope. It is not uncommon to see streeties with clear signs of past abuse and trauma being incorrigibly friendly. Dogs that know how to do this are the ones who are the fittest to survive on the streets of India. And thus, knowing how to cope with fear is an essential part of their ethogram. They do not need humans to teach them how to do it.


How are streeties coping with fear, what are the tools they have, what is their motivation and what prevents our dogs from using the same?

At BHARCS, our motto is “Learning to learn from dogs”, which means we observe free ranging dogs to help us understand more about the behaviour of dogs. So obviously, the question on our minds was, how are streeties coping with fear, what are the tools they have, what is their motivation and what prevents our dogs from using the same. Seeing streeties do this so well, we were convinced that the tools are part of the ethogram of all dogs (and we are guessing of all human and non-human animals). Their hyper sociability provides the internal motivation, which too is hard wired. So, then where’s the rub? What’s missing or what is different in the lives of pet dogs? We identified three things :

  1. State of mind of the dog : Free ranging dogs that show ability to cope well are in general a lot calmer and far less adrenalized than pet dogs.

  2. True agency and free will : Being free ranging means that a dog gets to move away from triggers and approach only when they feel ready for it, at the pace that is right for them. They get to back out of the exercise at any time with no external influences or biases. No one egging them or pushing them. No pressure in the form or rewards or punishments.

  3. No interference : We have noticed that when streeties are trying to figure out how to deal with something scary or new, interference from humans or other individuals almost always impacts them significantly. In some situations that are not fear-related and but to do with cautious exploration of novel objects or situations, dogs do seem to take social cues from other individuals (dogs and humans) and this can have a expedient effect on them habituating to something novel. But if they are dealing with fear, then it just makes it hard for them to focus with interference and puts a spanner in the works. It can even so far as making the fear worse or having them develop new fears. But a side effect of having true agency is that a streety can pick the situation based on his/her needs in a given situation and avoid working in an environment that is unfit for the task at hand. A dog that needs social input from other individuals may chose to work in an environment that has other dogs he/she trusts and a dog that does not need interference may choose to work when there is low probability of other individuals.

Being free ranging means that a dog gets to move away from triggers and approach only when they feel ready for it, at the pace that is right for them. A side effect of having true agency is that a streety can pick the situation based on his/her needs in a given situation and avoid working in an environment that is unfit for the task at hand.

A close examination of the second and third point tells us something about how are pet dogs are in a very different situation. Our presence means that we are not only likely to interfere, even when we intend not to, but also influence their pace and process heavily.


Dogs are extremely sensitive to our facial expression, tone, body language and even the tension on the leash. Our latest ongoing studies on streeties show us that extremely subtle aspects of the body language influences a dog’s response. Something as subtle as a shift in weight, a smile,