Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dog Days: Sharing Sustainable Animal Management Ideas for Healthy First Nation Communities

By Dr. Sally L. Cleland, DVM (ret)

The scenic and sacred Wanuskewin Hertiage Park ( was the venue for Saskatchewan’s first gathering called “Dog Days: Sharing Sustainable Animal Management Ideas for Healthy First Nation Communities.” Wanuskewin (Wah-nus-KAY-win - Cree for “living in harmony” or “seeking peace of mind”) was the perfect setting to bring together about 50 people representing diverse roles from a multitude of FN Communities across Saskatchewan, members of several health regions and government agencies and veterinarians and other experts with a dedicated focus on dog population control, dog bite prevention, animal and human health issues.

This was a two day conference with a treasure chest of speakers addressing a list of topics spanning current trends in zoonotic parasites detected in certain FN Community (dogs), animal population control, Dog Tales/history of FN people and dogs and much more.  A real treat was having guests from Australia who work for the Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC). Geoff Irwin and Sophie Constable gave engaging presentations on the “dog situation” in Indigenous Communities particularly in the Northern Territories of the country and in so many ways parallel the situation and circumstances we see here in Saskatchewan’s FN Communities.  AMRRIC strives to assist the people sustaining on their own their dog populations and health as well as they  continually lobby government for support of their programs, animal clinics, health surveillance, etc..  For information on their objectives and priorities, including their educational strategies and resources, check out

We learned a great deal about the traditional relationship between FN people and dogs, their roles in community life and ceremony.   In addition, we learned of the First Nations Alberta Technical Services Advisory Group (TSAG) which is a not-for-profit organization that provides technical services and training for Alberta First Nations in the Treaty 6, Treaty 7 and Treaty 8 areas. Their goal is to assist First Nation Communities in achieving and maintaining high standards in technology and services.     

TSAG has also collaborated with the Alberta Spay/Neuter Task Force (  The Task Force is comprised of veterinarians, animal health technicians and often hundreds of volunteers. The overall objective is to provide high volume, high quality spay and neuter clinics and education for Alberta’s First Nations by invitation. The volunteer-based group works within the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association by-laws by applying for a Temporary Veterinary Facility license for each clinic. These clinics can be held in community halls, school gyms, etc. They must be repeated to be effective and have the ability to set up a MASH type surgical unit to spay and neuter up to 200 animals over one weekend.  Normally the animals  (both cats and dogs) are vaccinated, dewormed and are tattooed at the same time.  (In Saskatchewan, there is a smaller group of veterinarians and animal health technicians who call themselves the Remote Spay and Neuter Program or Team North providing a similar service on a smaller basis with very little financial support to date).  Here is a short Global News Edmonton news clip about a recent clinic in the Hobbema Reserve (approximately 70 kilometres south of the City of Edmonton)

I am pleased to announce that an organization called The Healthy Aboriginal Network ( is currently working on a comic book about dog bites in FN Communities.  This BC non-profit organization creates comic books on health and social issues for youth thereby promoting health, literacy and wellness.  Here is a link to a You Tube video featuring a draft version of the dog bite comic that was recently used in focus groups comprised of FN children ages 8-12 which was shared at Dog Days. When ready, the comic book will have national distribution.

And I delivered my “A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention” which I believe was well received as quite a few people from various FN Communities approached me about possibly coming to their community to present this concept to their leaders and decision-makers including the FN Community of Pelican Narrows which has the highest incidence of dog bites in the province (111 reported dog bite incidents in 2011).
While in one newsletter article I can’t relay all the information and ideas shared nor all the concerns expressed, obstacles identified (funding be the primary one particularly pertaining to dog population control), I do want to mention one point that was of great interest to me.  Prior to my presentation, several other speakers, not knowing of my relationship with Doggone Safe or on the details of my presentation, made comments that “Be a Tree” or Be a Rock” are inadequate measures to take if surrounded by a pack of dogs who may be intent on attacking!!  My concern is two-fold.  Firstly, these various people who made such comments, DID NOT offer an alternative except to say that these situations would not occur if the dog population was controlled and if people were more responsible pet owners.  Not sure how that helps anyone in the moment of being among a pack of hungry, aggressive, unmanaged dogs.  Secondly, it seemed to me that these people did not understand the “science” of what Be a Tree “says” to a dog (s) in terms of body language i.e “I am not a threat.”  “I am not going to hurt you.” “You don’t have to worry about me.”  So, at the end of my presentation, (which does not usually include a huge focus on Be a Tree and only briefly do I mention the importance of being able to “read” dog body language giving a few examples from the Teacher’s Kit), I said that while several people had commented derogatorily about Be A Tree in this type of scenario, I felt I needed to say something positive and encouraging about Be a Tree and explain why it is effective – which I did.  I also emphasized that I could not with 100% certainty guarantee that if you were in the middle of a pack of dogs growling, with their fur raised and teeth bared that by “being a tree” they would not get bitten or attacked BUT I did say that I believed whole-heartedly that if they ran away, they would excite the dogs further, would never be able to out run the dogs and could quite possibly elevate and escalate the attack.  My professional opinion was that by being quiet, being immobile, by being a tree was their best chance to “calm the waters”, de-escalate the tension and minimize the chance of an attack.  Further, if they were attacked, the protection of their own head/neck/face as in Be a Rock, was the best “defence” at that point.

I would really be interested in comments and input from the Doggone Safe Newsletter readers about the usefulness of Be a Tree in this case and/or if there is a better safety strategy to use when there are multiple dogs. 

If there was only one thing I could share from this conference, is that there is a great deal of work to do in not only the educational aspects of preventing dog bites but in the ongoing and urgent need in our FN Communities to help address the dog population issue – the need for collaboration is paramount and by addressing the issue of dog bites, dog population and dog health, we also address many issues pertaining to human health.  Time perhaps for a National Conference on this topic? 

Final thought from Chief Dan George:
If you talk to animals they will talk with you
     And you will know each other.
If you do not talk to them you will not know them,
     And what you do not know you will fear.
What one fears one destroys.

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