Phoebe Sutherland rushed last week to capture a stray dog that nipped an elder in her community of Moose Cree First Nation.
It was the latest instance of issues springing from a growing population of dogs on the island at the southern tip of James Bay after veterinary services that used to spay and neuter canines paused visits during the pandemic.
While those visits have gradually resumed, there are many dogs, such as huskies, Labradors, German shepherds and wolf-dog hybrids, to get to, Sutherland said.
"We had an elder startled, scared, barked at and nipped. She was pretty shaken up," said Sutherland, an animal control officer in the community. "I captured him, but there's still a lot of dogs that are loose."
Sutherland, the owner of an animal rescue on another Ontario First Nation and two animal rescues that take in dogs from northern areas say stray dogs are a significant issue in some remote communities – a situation that's adding to pressure on animal shelters, which are seeing demand for adoptions drop at the same time.
Tammy Dickson, who owns Wunnumin Animal Rescue on her fly-in community located 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., said she regularly visits neighbouring First Nations to help manage loose dogs and has noticed their populations increasing after the pause on vet visits during the pandemic.
"You see dogs everywhere. There's constant barking," said Dickson, 41. "Now it's mating season, so it's gotten a lot more dangerous."
She said children in the First Nations she works in have been scared they will get chased or bitten by the strays during walks to school.
An animal rescue organization in Sudbury, Ont., recently took in half a trailer of dogs that a network of volunteers brought over from remote communities.
"We're still spinning since the delivery because we were already over capacity. We've already taken in so many litters," said Jill Pessot, who has been operating the organization called Petsave for 23 years.
"I had to convert cat rooms to dog rooms because we had no kennels left."
Animal shelters like hers are under immense pressure, she said, particularly since requests for pet adoptions have dropped as more people return to offices or go back to work full time following the height of the pandemic and don't have the capacity to fully care for their animals.
"We have this mass overpopulation crisis," she said.
"During the pandemic, we used to be able to post a puppy and it would have 10 applications (for adoptions) within two days. Now we post a puppy and we're lucky if we get four applications in two weeks."
Some people are also surrendering dogs with behavioural issues that end up staying in shelters for an extended period of time, Pessot added.
"People went back to the office and didn't put in the time or commitment they should have on the training part, so there's a lot of anti-social dogs," she said.
Lindsay Gillanders, a spokesperson for Manitoba Underdogs Rescue, a dog fostering program, said her organization has been getting more calls from members of some First Nations in the Prairies about issues with dogs.
"People are calling us saying, 'We found this dog that was hit by a car,' 'We found these puppies that were starving,'" she said.
"We've had to partner with other organizations because we just don't have the foster home capacity. We're really struggling."
As temperatures drop, animals rescues are also getting calls for dogs found frozen, she said.
Gillanders said her organization used to travel to remote communities with vets to spay and neuter dogs but wasn't able to do that when the pandemic hit. While that work has gradually begun again, there are many canines to attend to, she said.
"It's just going to get worse if we can't get the problem back under control," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 3, 2023.
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press