By Subhashini Krishnan | Illustration by Pratiksha Sail

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Dogs got personality. Personality goes a long way’. – Quentin Tarantino

When it comes to dogs in India, their typically-friendly personality seems to be rapidly evolving into something far more concerning. Dogs have replaced the usual ‘cat on the wall’ – a term for those who remain neutral in a war – and have broken down the metaphorical wall between species that are naturally selected (wild) and those that are artificially selected (domestic). It appears that dogs are no longer restricted to solely one of these categories. They are rapidly colonizing both domains, to the increasing alarm of conservationists. 

In a future where both human and dog populations are going to increase, it is important to understand the effects of free-ranging dogs on wildlife, especially when discussing threats to biodiversity. As one of the earliest animals to be domesticated, the grey wolf has been identified as the closest wild canid relative of the present-day domestic dog.

In his book ‘Man meets Dog’, Konrad Lorenz states, “The fidelity of a dog is a precious gift demanding no less binding moral responsibilities than the friendship of a human being. The bond with a true dog is as lasting as the ties of this earth can ever be, a fact which should be noted by anyone who decides to acquire a canine friend.” Such statements on human – dog friendship exist alongside popular idioms like, “Dog-eat-Dog,” indicating ruthless and fierce competition amidst people to succeed at all costs. In this confusing medley of contrasting feelings towards dogs, we fail to see that these ‘domesticated predators’ have important ecological roles as members of the food web in the ecosystems where they live. Dogs also frequently interact, mostly in a negative manner, with the local wildlife of a region1,2.

So, how did the dog evolve into one of the most successful mammals in the history of nature?

Free-roaming dogs attack a nilgai (Image: Nandakumar MN/BBC News)

First, it is important to look at one category of domestic dog that differs from your regular household pooch – free-ranging dogs. Free-ranging dogs are defined as those dogs that are not under human supervision, whose activities are not restricted or modified by human activities, and who are sustained both by human food resources and wild prey. These dogs are the most abundant terrestrial carnivorous animal on the planet. India has the highest number of free-ranging dogs in the world3. Along with negative encounters and conflicts with human beings and livestock, they have been identified as a critical threat to wildlife conservation efforts4. In many countries, domestic and feral dogs roam freely, which increases the number of encounters they have with wildlife2.  Not only do they directly injure or kill wildlife, but they also pass on diseases to them due to close contact5.

In India, there have been a few studies and numerous anecdotes looking at the direct effects of dogs on wildlife, some of which include: a negative impact on the population of black-necked cranes in the high altitude Ladakh region; predation on Indian gazelle (chinkara) in the Thar landscape; and a number of anecdotal attacks on prey species like blackbuck, spotted deer, wild ass, etc. across multiple ecosystems.

As a part of my M.Sc. dissertation study, I looked at the interaction between free-ranging dogs and wildlife in the village of Hanle inside Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, Ladakh. The study took place in the winter months of December – April, due to which I did not witness many interactions of free-ranging dogs and migratory birds that arrive in the summer. However, I noted maximum interactions of these dogs with red foxes and Tibetan wolves, two of the top mammal predators in the Ladakh region.

Apart from documenting inter-species interactions, I made a few interesting behavioural observations about free-ranging dogs in that landscape. Many of the dogs formed groups that behaved much like a pack, coordinating chases after prey and sharing their food. In one such group, allosuckling was observed, wherein two lactating mothers equally fed milk to all the pups in that group. Free-ranging dog groups observed in other parts of the world are generally known to have fission-fusion group dynamics, where they sometimes form groups for convenience and sometimes move around individually. However, the observation of these pack-like groups in Ladakh landscape seems to indicate that these so-called “domestic” dogs are behaving more like their wild ancestors!

It is high time we understand that threats to biodiversity conservation are also tied intimately to economic, social, and political values of people as well! Many instances of dogs threatening humans are being noticed around the world, which will hopefully bring in fresh perspectives on this issue. Landscape-level studies with a better scale of understanding the problem at hand will help to draw wholesome, data-driven action plans to manage free-ranging dogs in India.

India already has plenty of wild canids; do we really want to add man’s best friend to that list? 


  1. Butler JRA, Du Toit JT, Bingham J. 2004. Free-ranging domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) as predators and prey in rural Zimbabwe: threats of competition and disease to large wild carnivores. Biological Conservation 115: 369-378.
  2. Vanak AT, Gompper ME. 2009. Dogs Canis familiaris as carnivores: their role and function in intraguild competition. Mammal Review 39: 265-283.
  3. Gompper ME (Ed.). 2014. Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation. Oxford University Press.
  4. Ritchie, E. G., Dickman, C. R., Letnic, M., Vanak, A. T., & Gommper, M. 2014. Dogs as predators and trophic regulators. Free-ranging dogs and wildlife conservation, 55-68.
  5. Home C, Bhatnagar YV, Vanak AT. 2017. Canine Conundrum: domestic dogs as an invasive species and their impacts on wildlife in India. Animal Conservation 21: 275-282.

About the Author:

Subhashini Krishnan has an M.Sc. in Wildlife Science. Always ready to answer the call of the wild, she is interested in grasslands, canids, and pastoralists. Her perfect day involves a good cup of coffee followed by tracking paw prints and howls in the wilderness.

About the Artist:

Pratiksha Sail is a researcher and wildlife illustrator. She is keen about natural history, conservation and writing.