Working with dogs across cultures

Photo from a Northern Dogs veterinary clinic in Northern Quebec.

Over the past number of years, there has been an increased interest in working on dog issues in Indigenous communities. Individuals and organizations have different reasons for getting involved in this work: concern for the dogs, perhaps their work in the communities is negatively impacted by dog issues, or someone might have a valuable skill they want to share.

For some, working in First Nations communities starts with a phone call or an email that outlines the conditions in which dogs are living and most often, the problem is described as “too many dogs” or “too many stray dogs”. This is where we, as an external organization, often jump in to provide services based on that assumption. We tend to have a couple of common go-tos that we offer to communities. One is dog removal, whether invited in by the Band or by individual owners. The second is spaying/neutering. With too many dogs - too many stray dogs – both of these options seem like viable solutions.

But our common go-to interventions are often put into play without a true understanding of the communities, the people, the dogs, or the problems. This is true in many Indigenous communities across Canada, whether rural or urban, remote or not.  

As members of our own communities and cultures, we understand and are comfortable with our norms and common practices – the ones we see work in our communities - and it’s difficult to see beyond these.  We see our tools as someone else’s solution.

Check out Living in a Good Way with Dogs, IFAW’s education pack developed by and for First Nations communities

But what’s interesting is that when you go into another culture, things are different. Often described as ‘stray dogs’, roaming dogs are one of those norms that exist in many communities, but not our own. Dogs can be found running, playing or lounging around the community and because of this they are correctly known as “free roaming dogs”. This says nothing about whether they are owned or not – it simply means that they aren’t contained in yards or by fences, they aren’t in the house or in a crate.

In many remote communities, big dogs live outside, whereas we see smaller dogs like chihuahuas and shihtzus, spending more time inside. The great thing about being a free roaming dog is that you’re able to meet your own needs if you’re not adequately provided for by your person. You can find food, shelter, water, friends, and fun! However, at the end of the day, these free roaming dogs know where they live and they can be found there. 

It’s this free roaming lifestyle that strikes us when we first start our work in communities and it’s also this free roaming lifestyle that communities are pushing back on. Just as we often jump in with a couple of strategies, communities also have a couple of strategies that they commonly use to deal with dog problems. One is tying, which often leads to poor animal welfare and potential human safety issues (bites) as bored, lonely, hungry dogs sit on tie-outs 24/7. Another is dog removal, either lethal or via NGOs. While these interventions may seem to work for the short term, they often lead to similar cycles whereby there’s no lasting change in the communities. 

Oftentimes, because we have tools and resources, we see ourselves as problem solvers, rather than partners.

But the time has come for true partnerships in our work.

We can listen better, find our place in each community’s needs, and work in true partnership with communities leading their own way. This, more than tools, will lead us to lasting change for both dogs and people.


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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