The last member of the Burari Bhatias, who were found hanging at their home three weeks ago, dropped dead last weekend. Tommy, the seven-year-old dog, had been kept out of the family’s bizarre rituals by being tied up on the terrace in advance. At the time, dog experts had said that he might have saved the family if he’d been with them, by alerting neighbours with continuous barking or perhaps even interfering with the proceedings. “He is a pitbull-Indian mixed breed and these dogs are very loyal to their families,” said Sanjay Mohapatra, who runs an animal shelter in Noida and took Tommy in when he was found abandoned.
The dog was rather aggressive (needing a muzzle) and unwell (running the high fever, and suffering from a skin infection) when he began living at the shelter. With time, his physical health improved and his aggression decreased, but he stayed depressed. That was to be expected. He’d spent many years with the family, and no doubt understood that something was wrong. But exactly how depressed he became clear only when he gave up and died. The doctors say it was shocking, leading to a cardiac arrest. I believe he died of a broken heart.
He wouldn’t be the first. Last November, a dog, who was abandoned at Palonegro airport in Colombia, spent a month wandering around the terminal hoping to be reunited with her owner. When her aunt turned out to be in vain, she stopped eating, sank into depression and died. From movies, books and our own experiences, we know that dogs mourn their owners’ passing. Some wail plaintively near their beds; others keep vigil at the door. And those are in the case of a single owner. Imagine the plight of a dog whose universe—the 11 persons he loves and lives with—is destroyed in one fell swoop. How does he recover from that?
If there was proof needed that Tommy may have stood in the way of the Bhatias’ death (if he wasn’t tied elsewhere), it came this week from Learning & Behavior. The scientific journal carries a report of a recent study that shows dogs rush to help their owners when they hear them crying. Prior studies have found dogs to be responsive to human suffering. This is the first to show them actually doing something about it.
For the experiment, the researchers put dogs of various breeds and sizes on one side of a clear door and their owners on the other. The latter was then asked to wail and shout ‘Help’ or to hum Twinkle, twinkle little star. The outcome? Many dogs pushed open the door, but the ones who heard their owner wailing did so thrice as fast as the others.
The dogs’ stress levels were measured during the exercise. The dogs who pushed through the door to ‘rescue’ their owners showed less stress, meaning they were upset by the crying, but not too upset to take action. As for the dogs who didn’t push open the door, it wasn’t because they didn’t care—indeed, they cared too much. Their stress levels showed them to be too troubled by the crying to do anything about it. Wonder which category Tommy would have fallen into.