"Dog catcher" has pooches' best interests at heart

by Jennifer Nault

On any given day, you might find her lurking beneath foreboding places, coaxing something out from spaces most people tend to avoid – under parked pick-up trucks or inside rotting, abandoned sheds. You can spot her braving the cold Alberta winters to perform her work - after all, exposure to the elements is the very concern that calls her to First Nations communities (Tsuu T’ina and Siksika reserves) to care for the seemingly countless stray dogs wandering the land.

Judith Samson-French, BSc(Agr)’81, aka “the dog catcher”, is an Alberta-based veterinarian and the head of the Dogs with No Names (DWNN) initiative. She and her team of veterinary assistants travel to First Nations communities to provide care to dogs left to roam freely around the reserves, often without adequate food, water and shelter. She is passionate about resolving the problem of dog overpopulation, on land just a stone’s throw away from her hospital (Banded Peak Veterinary Hospital) in the heart of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

At the Banded Peak Veterinary Hospital, domesticated dogs come through the doors – some pulled in with all their owners’ might – fluffy and clean, their owners willing to pay whatever is necessary to keep their animals in good health. These dogs are loved. They know the comfort of warm homes, and expect nothing less than an endless supply of kibble and treats. Just beyond the hospital’s doors, out on the frontier, the wild dogs that roam the area endure far more unpredictable circumstances, and may suffer exposure to illness, attacks, deadly weather and starvation.

Still, Samson-French is not convinced the life of a wild dog is necessarily grim. “The native people have been demonized by the media because of the wild dog problem, and that’s not right. They simply have a different cultural approach to animal ownership on the reserves – the dogs are free roaming. In many respects, [the dogs] have a good life and lots of land to roam around on.”

Overpopulation, however, can become a problem and the prospects for newborn pups are especially fraught in the harsh winter months. “If they give birth in the coldest months of the winter, they will be forced to give birth under someone’s deck and it is almost impossible for them to find enough water to lactate during these months," says Samson-French. "The mother is forced to go out and wander the land in search great quantities of snow, just trying to get enough water to lactate and feed her pups. No matter how frail her condition, the mother will never abandon her pups. Unfortunately, many will die over the winter if they are born at that time – including the mom.” Through DWNN, Samson-French has undertaken a trial project that involves implanting contraceptives in stray dogs on the Tsuu T’ina and Siksika reserves, thus preventing pregnancy – and preventing the potential births of more than 100,000 wild dogs. It is a win-win solution, for those living on the reserves and for the wild dogs.

Samson-French was named the Canadian Veterinary
Medical Association’s “Humane Veterinarian of 2013.″

“The contraceptive implant is the best solution to the wild dog population problem,” says Samson-French.

It is a simple procedure, with one unavoidable hitch. Before the procedure can be performed, the dogs must be captured. Dog catching is nothing like it is portrayed in cartoons: the burly, uniformed dolt with his oversized net continuously outwitted by his mark. “Really, it takes experience – these are dogs that have never been held by humans, and we’ve discovered that some are truly feral dogs and not at all socialized. Some of them are born like wolves in dens – these ones will never be caught.”

In Tsuu T’ina alone, there are between one-and-a-half and two dogs per household, which adds up to about 1,000 dogs for 600 houses. “The main problem for these dogs is that every eight months or so, the females will have a litter; they are geared to that cycle."

Judith’s experience as a dog catcher is tried and true. “We’ve learned some unexpected things, such as the fact that it is actually harder to catch dogs without a litter on the ground. Moms with pups are more trusting than we thought they would be.” Much like the wild dogs, Judith and her team roam the land, tracking dogs, pulling pups out of dens, out from under decks, counting them and distributing food. “It takes us about two or three attempts to catch them usually. They get familiar with the sight of the van and us.”

Some rules: Never put your hand on their head, don’t move toward them sideways, never look directly in the eyes and only pat them on the sides of their body. “Some will actually try to snuggle in and yet others will try to wiggle away – you just never know how a dog will react,” she says.

One reaction Judith is sure will never happen: “I have never had a dog come out at us in an aggressive posture to bite us – never.”

DWNN has, so far, distributed 60,000 pounds of dog food over the past five years. The goal is to give out 100,000 pounds. “People in the reserves have welcomed this program with open arms and have been 100 per cent on board.”

Her approach to solving the dog overpopulation problem caught the interest of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs. In 2010, she was invited to present her research at their symposium in Dallas, Texas. More recently, her passion has extended to the wild horse problem in Alberta, and she has been forcefully speaking out against the annual culls of wild horses, maintaining that for these animals, as with the wild dogs, contraceptive implants are the solution.

“This [Alberta] is a rich province, and we have access to contraception – it’s become a political problem, because, in my opinion, the science is not good, the numbers are not available, and the horses are being crowded out by cattle ranching. The wild horses are on Crown Land, which should be open and unrestricted. The ‘kill solution’ is not a solution. We’re dealing with some very outspoken, traditional ranchers who feel threatened about their way of life – it’s a cowboy mentality. The movement to protect the wild horses is growing in momentum, it came out of nowhere. And people are waking up – not just environmentalists – everyone.”

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