The management of street dogs has sometimes been controversial in India, particularly in situations where it has involved inhumane methods, poorly managed mass sheltering, relocation and poisoning of dogs. While estimates vary, some studies cite a population of more than 75 million dogs in the country, including both pet and street dogs.

The only legally prescribed way to humanely manage street dog populations is a program known as Animal Birth Control, or ABC. The ABC programs aim to sterilise at least 80% of the dogs to reduce the population in a given community over time. These programs are holistic in nature and involve the capture, transport, sterilisation and return of street dogs to their home communities.

These ABC programs can be incredibly effective in not only reducing dog populations in the long term, but also in mitigating human-dog conflict complaints, and improving the welfare of dogs and communities alike. But they require time, resources and expertise to be successful. Luckily, smartphone technology pioneered by Humane Society International/India (HSI) is transforming the management and operation of street dog programs.

With so many dogs inhabiting the streets of India, it can be challenging to know where to even start. At the basic level, certain questions must be answered:

Do you know how many dogs are in your city or in your neighbourhood?

How many are already sterilised and vaccinated?

If you are already running an ABC program, how can you ensure that street dogs who undergo surgery are returned to the same area in which they were caught?

How do you arrive at an estimate of the percentage of dogs sterilised?

The answers to these questions are critical to determine impact across the range of ABC programs operated throughout India.

Humane Society International/India has been operating mass dog sterilisation and vaccination programs since 2013, working with municipal corporations and communities. It has conducted over 1.75 lakh surgeries and over 2.5 lakh vaccinations in cities such as Hisar, Kodaikanal, Vadodara, Dehradun, Lucknow, Nainital, Mussoorie and more.

Before the start of any project, there must be an understanding of how many dogs are in a specific area. The HSI/India employs a rigorous process for conducting dog population surveys and counting dogs. Dog counting is carried out in two stages, before the start of the program and then during the program, i.e., twice a year. To date, HSI has conducted dog population baseline surveys and estimated dog populations in over 22 Indian cities.

Independent surveys conducted by HSI in South Delhi estimated 1.89 lakh dogs, and in the greater Mumbai area around 95,172. Such surveys were also conducted in other large cities worldwide, as well as entire countries such as Bhutan and Israel.

In project locations where HSI/India works directly, apart from the baseline survey, it conducts biannual index counts to monitor and assess program impact. The most recent surveys, in May-June 2022, found dog sterilization rates of 89% in Mussoorie, 86.4% in Vadodara, 81% in Nainital, 74.9% in Dehradun and 41.2% in Lucknow.

Baseline surveys help to highlight the need for such programs, provide external stakeholders with data and insights, and are ultimately helpful to planning and organizing the resources required for a particular city's programme.

At a population level, the benefits of data collection are clear. But what about individual dogs in this process, and what kinds of data do we collect about them? How do we account for and document everything a dog undergoes to ensure that each one is cared for, regardless of their ownership status?

A question often asked by citizens in the communities in which we are active is, "You can take this dog for sterilization and vaccination, but how can I know you will drop her back right here?"

Such concern is valid and deserves a response. A dog released in an incorrect and unfamiliar location experiences high stress and trauma, and often ends up in fights with existing packs. Moreover, the loss of familiar location means a dog may not know where to find food or water. Not knowing the broader geography, dogs may become sick or malnourished, or be injured in an accident. The emotional trauma for people who care about the individual animals in their communities is high as well.

To overcome these concerns, HSI/India animal care officers, paraveterinary workers and animal handlers respond by making use of an app developed by HSI. "HSIApps" helps identify dogs and the exact locations where they were found.

A simple picture, recording specific details concerning the dog and confirming the location by geotagging, does the job. Four days later, the dog is released back at the exact location where they were caught, and the app shows a successful release.

Dogs caught and released during an ABC program can also be tracked throughout the process with the app using custom tailored workflows. This improves efficiency (lowering the programmatic cost) and benefits the welfare of the dogs in care throughout the sterilisation process. The Android-based mobile app is simple and easy to use in the field. The web app also has data dashboards, record views and reports for monitoring and evaluation purposes.

The app can be used to track the data and measure the progress of capture and sterilisation of dogs (through the process known as catch-neuter-vaccinate-return, or CNVR). It records each dog's GPS location when caught and creates a map to assist with the release of street dogs to their original location. In addition, the app helps track the steps between capture and release (such as pre- and post-op care) and surgical data, and includes a photograph to identify each dog.

In areas of the world where dog transmitted rabies is prevalent, similar technology can be used for implementing and monitoring dog rabies vaccination programs as well. The app creates geo-fencing (a technique that builds virtual geographic boundaries to guide vaccination teams and can be used to restrict vaccination efforts to a desired area), records dog photos and details, records GPS location and produces reports.

Such technology has been utilised in other places to aid rabies eradication efforts, including in the Philippines. Given that rabies continues to be a major public health concern in India, using similar technology could be especially useful for municipalities and NGOs involved in dog vaccination campaigns.

Through the spay and neuter programme mobile app, an organisation that works in multiple locations across India on ABC can provide real-time information showing where dogs are picked up across the city, the gender of the dog and detailed information about their surgery, or even if a dog has died due to a complication.

Relocating a street dog is illegal in India, and the app ensures that the team cannot release a dog in a different area than where they were originally picked up. The release requires the exact GPS location of the dogs, which has been saved in the database during capture.

This ensures that dogs get released at the exact location where they were caught. An added layer of security for most dogs comes from the community. Community members often know the dogs of the area, keep watch and support the release of a dog back to the correct location. This kind of collaboration has built trust and reinforces the willingness of community members to call in about unsterilised dogs, leading to a higher coverage and success rates.

The app also serves to protect the rescue teams from false allegations. People who realise that street dogs in the neighbourhood have been picked up often call in, message or even visit the facility to see if their dogs are there. A quick check in the database against a photo they have shared, or sometimes just the address, helps to confirm the presence or capture of particular dogs. This reassures people that the dog is safe and builds trust in the programme.

The data capabilities of the app also make it easier to share reports with government partners. The app is free to download for any organisation, government or individual involved in dog population and rabies control efforts. Those interested in using it can email HSI, and HSI will first develop a project account and provide a demo and access. There are 64 projects that use the app so far, and an increasing number are international.

Technology not only ensures program effectiveness by monitoring sterilization percentages, it also ensures individual dog welfare. The app allows for course corrections if important locations are being left out in capture work. It helps to determine how many dogs are caught by hand or net. It accounts for the challenges animal care officers face in the field; and helps to contextualise the hard work involved in the capture of even a single dog.

The surgery details help our veterinarians to improve their techniques and efficiency and support those who aspire to become trainers. The app also records dog deaths; this is an extremely low statistic but a key indicator to validate our overall protocols, which include asepsis; post-op care; and temperature control, hygiene and sanitation in kennels.

The use of smartphone technology has already begun to transform the world of street dog management, and for the better. Its potential for advancing and strengthening such programs in India and elsewhere is clear. Its swift adoption and incorporation into existing and new programmes promises to deliver on the goals shared by animal protection advocates, governments and private citizens who care about dogs. It enables the development and spread of sophisticated, effective, sustainable and humane strategies for ensuring the safety and well-being of street dogs worldwide.

Keren Nazareth is the director for the Companion Animals and Engagement program of HSI/India. She has worked on street dog issues in Asia and Africa, resolving stray animal conflicts in communities, and led community-based work in India.