Stray Buddy

A bleak ending for habitual biters?

An exclusive interview with Ms. Geeta Seshamani, vice-president of Friendicoes Seca

Simba, one of the most anxious dogs in our colony, had lost faith in people due to negative experiences. She was pushed over the edge of her nerves and had started to show problematic behaviour by snapping and attacking passers-by.

Earlier this year, she was rehabilitated in an NGO called All Creatures Great and Small against a monthly donation by compassionate residents. Purpose was for the dog to slowly gain trust in people again. At the animal rescue sanctuary, Simba had been in a friendly and caring environment for about 2.5 months and her behaviour was fine there. When she came back to our colony, she was also not showing any problematic behaviour for about six months. That was a big achievement!

Unfortunately, residents in the same area had not dealt with their own fear and thus continued their hostility towards community dogs in our block. The same triggers remained present in the environment and soon enough the rehabilitated dog again restarted its fear biting.

When I discussed this situation with the vice-president of Friendicoes Seca, a renowned animal welfare organisation in New Delhi, Ms Geeta Seshamani responded as follows:

“Of course this is a major problem. For about three decades now, we sterilise, vaccinate, and deworm stray dogs and we find that they behave perfectly and beautifully at the shelter. Sometimes, after we return a dog and put it back in its own area, within a short time we get a complaint that it is either chasing a scooter or a bicycle or biting people from behind. The request is often to relocate the dog, which we of course refuse to do each time [because that is illegal and will only cause more issues both for the dog as well as for citizens]. 

So let’s say a community dog has bitten several people and to save its life – because everyone is up in arms and ready to beat up the dog – we bring it back to the shelter in the hope we can retrain and rehabilitate it. We keep it for a while and it is perfectly docile, we don’t find it doing anything anti-social, we do not even find it is aggressive at any point of time. The dog knows it is going to get fed, it is basically left to its own devices, it does its own thing. It is in an enclosure, it knows where it is supposed to be and because of that certainty, because of that predictability, the dog does not need to react and does not react with either fear or aggression, nor is passive aggressive. 

Once the dog goes back again to its own area, sure enough all the same triggers are present; either a shopkeeper who beats, or too much traffic or busses rushing by it. It doesn’t have quiet, it doesn’t have peace, it doesn’t have a specific spot of its own. Maybe nobody hits it and maybe nobody treats it cruelly but people disturb it all the time. Slowly its nerves get tangled up again and it goes back to nipping or biting what he sees as threats to his peaceful being.

So do you think retraining and rehabilitation does not work?

“Every time when people ask for retraining and rehabilitation, they are focusing on the dog. The dog should go somewhere where it can be trained. But can you train the people around the dog? Can you change its environment? Can you make sure that there is less traffic? Can you make sure that it has a place to retreat to? Can you make sure that nobody will disturb it and that not too many people go around it or interact with it in a way that triggers the dog? The answer is “no”… you cannot. 

Evidently, there are certain dogs that just cannot do well on the street. And that is where we as NGOs have a problem, because how many dogs can we house at our respective shelters? 

So in terms of coming up with a theoretical framework, the Stray Buddy approach is beautiful. It is perfectly fine. Those are all the things we would ideally like to do. But there are going to be exceptions to the rule and the exception is going to be this, that there are certain dogs that don’t do well in certain environments. They require those triggers to be removed or reduced which make them into biting, passive-aggressive dogs.

And if you cannot change that environment, then the dog should be given a more peaceful environment, which usually ends up being a shelter situation [because people generally are not keen to adopt Indies or desi-dogs from the street]. And of course in a city the size of Delhi, you can’t send many of such dogs to a shelter because there is just not enough space. 

At this point I should tell you that this is a matter which has been discussed in innumerable Society for Stray Canine Birth Control meetings, innumerable Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) meetings, innumerable NGO meetings. What do we do with certain dogs like this? By themselves they are very lovable, they generally react very well to people, they can behave extremely well. They are healthy, they might be young, not aged, so you don’t want to put them down. 

So what is the solution for such animals?

The horrendous solution that Municipal Corporations always come up with is dog pounds; they may construct a 100 kennel facility and just dump in about 300 dogs, which is a life of utter misery for the animal. This is why I am saying that if you carry this type of logic to its final end, the final end is going to be very bleak. It is going to be the suggestion for a place to hold such dogs. 

However, we have worked very hard to get rid of dog pounds. They are a nightmare. They get misused. They become a place where animals that are not even aggressive get stuck for life because a neighbour doesn’t get along with a neighbour or a powerful man doesn’t want to hear barking at night to disturb his sleep and animals then get thrown into dog pounds for the strangest of reasons. So we don’t want dog pounds. 

I have spent 40 years trying to come up with a solution as to how this could end so that it is good for the dog… and I haven’t been able to come up with a solution. So we just go case by case. Wherever possible I send some dogs off to our various shelters or shelters at other NGOs [such as All Creatures Great and Small]. Can’t come up with anything better. 

But as far as the underpinnings of such programs goes, Stray Buddy has worked it out beautifully.”

Next, Ms. Geeta gave me a few tips to handle the case of Simba, the anxious dog in our colony that had turned into a habitual fear-biter:

It would be very interesting if you could analyse which factors trigger this dog to bite. Sometimes a dog is old and has eye problems. When dogs develop cataract etc. they become very snappy. 

So first of all, I always ask if it is an old dog, or is it a stray bitch who has got puppies, or any other factors related to the dog. And after that it would be good if you could observe and analyse the environment of the dog; where does this dog sleep? What does it get disturbed by? At which hours of the day does it show the problematic behaviour? Are there a lot of strangers coming down its lane at about that time?

Together we concluded that it would be best to train some local volunteers such as feeders and caregivers with good observation skills to help assess these kinds of situations.

Often however, feeders and caregivers are in conflict with their neighbours, partially due to misconceptions such as “feeding is the cause of all dog menace”. Neighbours will not be inclined to listen to them. Outsiders could help observe and analyse the dogs and their situation more objectively. They could also talk with the neighbours and suggest changes to avoid or reduce the triggers for the undesired behaviour of the dog.

An NGO that has actually applied such a positive behaviour change approach in a methodical manner in a colony in Gurugram (Delhi NCT, Haryana), is Wildlife SOS. The Animal Welfare Board of India in 2016 recommended Wildlife SOS’ so-called “operant conditioning and positive reinforcement techniques” as a way to mitigate stray dog conflict in residential colonies. I requested Wildlife SOS to collaborate with the RWA in our colony as well. I had a few conversations about this with the CEO and the Special Projects Director. In one of Stray Buddy’s next blogs I will explain how their approach works exactly and what the success factors are.

The ending for habitual biters may not be that bleak after all… there are certainly ways for people to learn to coexist with man’s best friend!

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