Keren Nazareth is living her dream. Growing up in Gujarat—a state in western India—her first pet was a street dog, and all her subsequent pets have been street dogs or adopted from litters that would have ended up on the streets. Now, as senior director of the street dog program for Humane Society International/India, she gets to work on their behalf.
“I’ve been wanting to do this since I was probably 6 years old, or as long as I can remember,” says Nazareth, now 41.
Street dogs are plentiful in India—some estimates put their population as high as 70 million—and they present a variety of health and safety challenges. The dogs frequently lead short and brutal lives beset by health problems such as malnutrition, infectious diseases and injuries caused by collisions with vehicles. Most puppies die before they reach the age of 12 months.
Street dogs also pose a threat to human health. India accounts for almost 70% of the world’s rabies cases in humans, and the prevalence of the disease causes people to fear free-roaming dogs, notes Piyush Patel, a veterinarian and senior manager for HSI/India. Big-city residents who get bitten by dogs can likely get the post-bite vaccine, Patel adds, but that option might not be available to residents of smaller towns or villages where medical resources are less accessible.
Conflicts between humans and street dogs are heightened by people’s perceptions of the dogs and misunderstandings about their behavior. “The view is that they’re not appealing,” Nazareth says, noting that people worry about the dogs having ticks, parasites or open wounds—which often prompts people to either run from street dogs or shoo them away. Dogs who have a friendly interaction with one human might think it’s OK to jump on the next person passing by, Nazareth says, and that can sow fear and confusion.
“People don’t understand dogs,” Nazareth says, “therefore they fear them, and therefore they teach their children to fear them.”
Addressing the issues
Since its start in 2013, HSI/India’s street dog program has been working to humanely manage the street dog population, improve dog health and engage the community to reduce human-dog conflicts.
Trained HSI teams work with local governments, catching dogs, performing humane and high-quality spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinating the dogs against rabies, and returning them.
The program also staffs community engagement teams that hit the streets, conducting online and in-person meetings, doing surveys, addressing community complaints about dogs and holding workshops on dog behavior.
Nazareth notes that compiling data on the public and dogs “is a big part of the way we operate.” A monitoring, impact, evaluation and assessment team, for example, does comprehensive surveys to determine how many dogs in a given area need to be sterilized—a process that’s similar to knowing how many people are in your family before you go grocery shopping, says Katherine Polak, a veterinarian and HSI vice president for companion animals and engagement. Accurate data leads to effective program planning.
HSI even developed its own app to help collect data on dogs who come in for spay/neuter surgeries, each of whom receive a GPS tag. Returning these dogs to their exact home location following spay/neuter surgery is vital for their survival. If a dog isn’t returned to within about 50 feet of the spot where they were picked up, the software won’t allow the dog to be released in the system.
Our community engagement teams work to understand what the dog issues are, to try to prevent dog bites, prevent rabies and to work to ensure a peaceful coexistence.
Katherine Polak, Humane society international
Real-time data is available to government officials or program donors who want to know how many dogs are being spayed/neutered, where they came from, their age and the male/female breakdown.
The program’s guiding principle is that street dog issues won’t be solved by sterilization alone.
“For years, we’ve been spaying dogs, doing the surgery, but this is a people issue also at the end of the day,” Polak says. “Our community engagement teams work to understand what the dog issues are, to try to prevent dog bites, prevent rabies, and to work to ensure a peaceful coexistence.”
Victory in Vadodara
The HSI/India street dog teams focused on three locations in the northern part of the country in 2022—the cities of Lucknow and Vadodara, and the state of Uttarakhand—completing just under 30,000 dog sterilizations and vaccinations in the region.
The program achieved a milestone in late 2022 in Vadodara, a city of around 2.3 million people. HSI/India began working with the local government in 2017, and by 2022 the program had sterilized and rabies vaccinated over 24,000 dogs. This brought the sterilization rate to 86% of the city’s canine population. For the first time in the history of India’s street dog management efforts, HSI/India handed a sterilization program over to the local government—“a huge step,” Nazareth says.
With the number of unsterilized dogs dropping, Nazareth says, the government agreed to end the contract for spay/neuter and vaccination work with HSI/India, but requested that community engagement efforts continue in Vadodara. Community volunteers who spoke at the handoff ceremony last September praised the program for helping transform the city’s human-dog relationships.
Nazareth says the volunteers acknowledged that they initially took a confrontational approach if they saw, for example, someone hitting a street dog to shoo him or her away. But the program stresses educating members of the community about dog behavior through nonconfrontational conversations. After absorbing that message, Nazareth says, the volunteers realized that by arguing with their neighbors, they were likely harming the dogs.
As a volunteer named Chanchal put it at the ceremony, “I have realized that when I fight with people, the dog is the one that is affected most because of this, not me, and there is no change. Now I try talking to people and convince them what they can do differently.”
Promoting peace, love and understanding
Nazareth has noticed a trend over the years of more residents of India desiring spotless, orderly environments—and street dogs don’t fit that image. On top of that, human population growth in Indian cities has increased sharply, reducing the spaces where street dogs can roam peacefully. The changes have produced more conflict.
“Dogs are loved and hated here,” she says. “We have the lovers, and we have the people who are just completely anti-dog.” Nazareth and her HSI/India colleagues saw both attitudes as they started picking up street dogs for spay/neuter and returning them. Based on previous bad experiences with other initiatives, some dog lovers initially resisted the program, worrying that the dogs would never come back, Nazareth recalls. Other people, she adds, said, “Oh, great, you’ve come to pick up this dog. Don’t bring it back.”
“We started realizing that until we start talking to communities, we won’t be doing anything for that dog,” Nazareth says, “because a person who might want to harm the dog would still want to harm the dog if the dog had come back, despite being vaccinated, despite being sterilized, despite being rather harmless.”
HSI/India staff say they see the program changing residents’ hearts and minds. Some have even made a 180-degree turn, starting as complainants who couldn’t stand street dogs but switching to caretakers looking after their welfare. “We find that with time and with a patient approach, people do get it,” says Vrushti Mawani, the program’s senior manager of community engagement. “They get that they need to look at their own behavior to be safer around dogs, and that dogs have as much right to the streets as they do.”
The HSI/India team helped residents see how Diwali—the annual “festival of lights” celebrated widely across India—could become safer for street dogs. Mawani notes that Diwali celebrations often feature the overt cruelty of revelers throwing firecrackers at dogs, as well as the more subtle harm caused by holding festivities in spaces typically occupied by street dogs.