New Tricks for Old Dogs

The Netherlands no longer has an active stray dog population. It achieved this through policy change alone. What can India learn from this?

No matter which part of India you are in, you’re bound to spot a stray dog (or seven) at every corner. Usually friendly, hungry and hardy, stray dogs sometimes also roam in packs and exhibit vicious behaviour. According to the New York Times, India is the country with the largest stray dog population in the world, and also leads the world in deadly rabies cases. Unlike a lot of countries, Indian laws forbid the killing of healthy stray dogs as a means to control their population. While this is a great policy in terms of its humanitarian nature, it does nothing to curb the numbers of dogs on the street.

There are several NGOs in metropolitan cities that work around the clock to vaccinate strays against rabies and other contagious diseases, to spay or neuter young dogs so that they cannot have puppies, and to medically treat dogs who are ill or injured. They are also required to put these dogs back where they were found after treatment, as it is illegal to displace a dog in India. However, due to lack of public awareness and the sheer volume of dogs on the streets, they are only able to make a small dent in the population of strays. Moreover, it does not help that Indian dog owners are breed-obsessed, and are reluctant to adopt indies or former strays. Maybe we’ve been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to dealing with the issue.

How did The Netherlands reduce the stray dog population through policy alone?

The government in the Netherlands seem to love dogs just as much as its Indian counterparts — killing them is not an acceptable way to reduce their population. That being said, they are far more serious about reducing the numbers of homeless dogs who could potentially become diseased, feral, or violent as a consequence of their circumstances.

Pet abuse laws in Holland have marked similarities to child abuse laws. Those who are found guilty of animal abuse or abandonment can be charged fines of up to 18,000 euros (that’s nearly 14.3 lakh rupees!) and possible imprisonment. Awareness about these laws, as well as consciously promoting dog adoption over shopping, was one of the biggest steps that the Netherlands consciously took to change people’s attitudes about treating dogs flippantly.

While laws and awareness can go a long way, what people understand best is the language of money. The government of Holland offers free neutering to reduce breeding of strays. This initiative helps stop more strays from reproducing. It also improves temperament, and tends to make dogs far less aggressive, and thus more adoptable. People who buy dogs rather than adopting them are charged really high taxes (astronomical would be an understatement) on each such transaction. This also improves the chances for older (but equally cuddly) dogs that usually lose to puppies in the adoption process.

Despite all of this, because we are an undeniably terrible species, there are still inevitably some dogs who end up being abandoned. There are currently around two hundred dog shelters in the Netherlands, all of which are no-kill. Whenever someone sees a stray dog, they can call the Netherlands Animal Control, and can rest assured that the animal will be rescued and taken care of until it is adopted by a forever family.

How can India prevent itself from going to the dogs?

India’s Constitution says that every Indian should “have compassion for living creatures.” Respect for animals (no, it’s not just restricted to the cow) seems intrinsic to our policies — we are pro-life when it comes to rescuing and rehabilitating stray dogs, as well as taking steps to curb their population. There is no clear long-term vision on how to reduce the numbers of dogs on the roads. However, if we take a little inspiration from the Netherlands, the Indian government can easily take a few steps in the right direction.

Firstly, the government should run awareness programmes to encourage adoption, especially of indie dogs. It has long been documented that indies are friendly, intelligent, healthy, and suited to the weather here (unlike that Siberian Husky in your building that’s panting away in its air-conditioned room). However, due to the stigma surrounding them, even people who do adopt dogs decide to get Labradors, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and other breeds. There should also be tax benefits and healthcare provisions for those who adopt rather than buy dogs.

Secondly, the law against animal abuse and abandonment needs to be stronger. Though cruelty to most animals is punishable, the fine amounts are negligible, and it is not a non-bailable offence. Tightening the noose on those who abandon and mistreat pet dogs will also help hugely in curbing the number of strays. Additionally, breeders in India get away with literal murder — “puppy farms”, as they are called, are huge centres of profit. Mother dogs are raped repeatedly, are not given enough healing time between litters, and are dumped unceremoniously when they are past puppy-bearing age. Puppies themselves are sold off before they are completely weaned, and are often a product of incest. The consistent animal abuse that is the dog-breeding industry in India needs to be dealt with harshly if we want to make sure that every dog has its day.