Canadian Northern Dogs: learning a little something from our four feral friends

Since 2002, each year IFAW’s Northern Dogs Project takes a team of vets and educators to remote and underserved Canadian communities. As well as providing clinics for much needed veterinary services, the team works with community members to create stable, healthy dog populations. 

Katniss letting me touch her for the first time.This past June, our Northern Dogs team once again made the long journey north to help the dogs in several remote communities in James Bay, Quebec.

This year, part of the work involved four feral pups and their mother who made the long journey back home with us to be socialized and put into forever homes.

These four ferals have taught us all a little something about the different needs and lifestyles of dogs. 

When they first arrived, they were put into a large pen where they could experience human presence from afar.  What I mean by this is that as well as receiving meals, people had volunteered to walk past the pen and throw treats in to the pups. 

This was intended to create the understanding that people are good – when one comes by, food magically falls into the pen. 


The plan was to acclimatize the pups this way and when they were feeling more comfortable around people, put them into foster homes to learn what their new kind of life would be like --  living inside, being near people, not having to fight for food, getting used to stairs and slippery floors, walking on a leash, etc. 

Katniss chilling.But pups always have different ideas, especially ones who have been making their own living for four months.  In the brief time that we had spent rounding them up in the community, I had noticed that there were -- broadly speaking – two pups who had strong personalities and two who were softer, more docile.   

In their pen together, the strongest of the bunch started scrapping almost immediately with his litter mates over food, particularly the smallest one.  Food guarding and food grabbing are common responses of dogs and pups who have not been fed adequately or often enough.  To stay alive, you push for the food when you find it.  And push he did. 

We couldn’t leave them in the pen scrapping amongst each other for every morsel of food so it was decided that we would remove the antagonist (Kazz) and the little female (Katniss) at the bottom of the family hierarchy.  That way he couldn’t bully her and she could gain confidence. 

Kazz had a difficult time adjusting to life in a home that included close contact with people.  Having missed important socialization periods while living on the street, he was afraid of everything… people, the resident dogs and the cats.  Katniss, however, took a different approach. 

For safety and security, she immediately attached herself to one of the resident dogs, following him around, looking to him for cues, becoming accustomed to the fosterers and to living in a house all through his interactions and behaviours. 

Within a relatively short time, Katniss’ foster family could touch her.  Following her new leader, she gained confidence by watching him and would then replicate the behaviour when she was comfortable. 

For now, Katniss continues to come out of her shell when and where she is comfortable, which is mostly in her own home with her own dog and people family.  She is happy to accept pats from her people and will even warm up to strangers if given the chance. 

Overall, she is learning to trust and she will make a special companion for a special family who is willing to understand where she came from, how far she has come and how much farther she will come in their home.  Kazz also continues to come out of his shell, albeit at his own pace. 

He continues to be wary of people but he now loves the resident dogs and follows them everywhere.   

The remaining siblings have now been separated into their own pens to prepare them for foster homes. While these four pups are going through their own transitions, they are teaching everyone around them about patience and perseverance.


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Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Kate Nattrass Atema, Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Program Director, Community Animal Welfare
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters