Across Asia, more than 300 million dogs live on the streets. Many battle hunger and disease, and most do not live long enough to see even their first birthday. Governments often struggle to manage dog populations. In the most heartbreaking cases, authorities resort to killing dogs in culling programs to control their populations or to rounding them up and putting them in mass shelters under inadequate conditions, neither of which are humane nor effective.

But one country is setting an example for humane management of street dogs, and this week we’re celebrating its success.

Landlocked high in the Eastern Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan has historically struggled with street dog-related issues such as dog bites and rabies. The Bhutan government sought a humane solution in alignment with its national Buddhist values and reached out to Humane Society International’s team in neighboring India for support and guidance. That was in 2009, and it was the beginning of the creation of a humane, holistic and sustainable model for free-roaming dogs that ensured both the health and welfare of the dogs and a peaceful coexistence between dogs and people. With HSI staff on the ground, a pilot program was launched in Thimphu.

Today, more than 153,000 dogs in Bhutan have been vaccinated and sterilized and more than 31,000 pets who have been registered and micro-chipped. Estimates suggest that the program has achieved nearly 100% sterilization of all street dogs in the country. Given this remarkable outcome, we are celebrating this successful 14-year partnership with the Royal Government of Bhutan which now runs the program independently.

Starting small and staying flexible

The pilot program in Thimphu began in February 2009. In a matter of four months, the program sterilized more than 2,800 dogs.

Heartened by the achievement at this initial scale, HSI staff members expanded the program, training dozens of Bhutanese veterinarians and animal handlers, who in turn went on to train thousands of volunteers and hundreds of government staff. They persisted day in and day out, walking through mountains and hillsides, identifying unsterilized dogs and encouraging residents to bring them to district clinics for sterilizing and vaccination.

Struggling with street dog issues, such as incidents of dog bites and rabies, Bhutan sought a humane solution in alignment with Buddhist values. In 2009, a partnership with HSI began.

Over the first few years, the program grew, expanding from Thimphu to other regions. Many of these areas were geographically challenging: There were towering mountains and terrain that made catching dogs difficult and travel unpredictable. In one case, a landslide between Thimphu and Trashiyangste blocked the road, and our team stayed in and near the car for days until passage was cleared.

Haa and Bhumthang are at such high altitudes that our teams had to change the surgery protocol to ensure the health and safety of the dogs. They worked in some of the most remote locations, out of schools, homes, wherever there was space.

“Such difficulties were balanced out by how welcoming communities were to our teams. Homes and hearts opened upon our arrival,” shared Dr. Piyush Patel, director of the street dog program in India, who was part of one of the first teams that worked in Bhutan. “All the challenges our team faced contributed to a better understanding of the different dynamics of people and street dogs.”

Eventually, the program expanded to cover the full nation, as well as in its aims: Focused initially on sterilizing and vaccinating street dogs, the program grew to include community engagement, responsible pet parenting and legislative reform.

The government also developed its own mobile application called the Veterinary Information System to help track both street and owned dogs. In addition, it amended the Livestock Rules to encourage responsible pet ownership and set up a helpline to offer communities a chance to share concerns, learn more about the program and report on the presence of unsterilized and unvaccinated roaming dogs. Thanks to a massive mobilization of over 11,000 volunteers across the country, the dog management program was a runaway success.

How Bhutan achieved success

As more and more of the management program was locally run, over the past two years, HSI has focused exclusively on supporting a community engagement initiative in Bhutan to increase public awareness of dog welfare and the importance of spaying and neutering. Known as the National Dog Management-Rabies Control Program, this groundbreaking effort is one of the longest and most effective free-roaming dog sterilization and vaccination programs in all of Asia, if not the world.

Open communication and mutual understanding between HSI and the Royal Government of Bhutan was key in establishing this program. Feedback and data from the field on what was working and what wasn’t made it possible for the program to be strategic in how the work progressed. Careful thought into the phases of scaling up of the pilot program allowed for the program leads to learn what was working and be strategic about the best way forward.

Over 14 years, more than 153,000 dogs in Bhutan have been vaccinated and sterilized, and more than 31,000 pets that have been registered and micro-chipped. According to government estimates, the program has achieved nearly 100% sterilization of all street dogs in the country.

In the initial phases, HSI played a more hands-on role and initiated training and capacity building. Simultaneously, the government encouraged young people to take up veterinary studies creating employment in the country for such professionals. Over the course of more than a decade, the HSI/India team trained veterinarians and para vets across the country who began working at different districts. The program gradually transitioned from HSI/India teams doing the work to the newly trained Bhutanese government team members taking the lead.

The last phase introduced a more holistic community engagement strategy. Led by six committed community engagement officers who travelled across Bhutan, this phase focused on cementing relationships between the program and communities nationwide, developing public messaging and information and establishing points of contact.

A positive model for street dog management worldwide

At a time when many countries grapple with the challenges of burgeoning dog populations, Bhutan’s compassionate approach has great potential for replication.

Engaging and empowering local communities in the humane treatment of street dogs was a key element in the successful street dog program in Bhutan.

“From the start, the Royal Government of Bhutan has been committed to this program, which has helped us to constantly improve it,” Keren Nazareth, HSI/India’s senior director of companion animals and engagement, who has worked closely with the Bhutan program since 2015, said. “We congratulate the people of Bhutan for this dog-friendly victory, which also brings enormous benefits to the local communities. It’s a remarkable achievement that we hope shows the way forward for governments across Asia who also face street dog challenges. There is much to be learned from Bhutan including its determination and compassion to creating a more peaceful coexistence for people and dogs alike.”

Congratulations to our HSI team and to the local communities who transformed how street dogs live based on a compassionate and humane vision of how the world can be.

Follow Kitty Block @HSUSKittyBlock.