"There were some research papers," she says, "but that's not something the public is going to search out when they're looking for information about spay and neuter clinics."
The videos, which were created in the summer of 2014, came about through a partnership of First Nations people from the Battle River Treaty 6 area, representatives from the Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre, the Canine Action Project (CAP) and WCVM researchers.
Three years before the videos' creation, Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre began a partnership with CAP, a non-profit organization, to introduce a dog population management program to the six communities in the region. Components of this program include spay-neuter services as well as pet wellness services such as deworming and vaccinations for dogs and cats.
The partnership grew to include the WCVM's Zoonotic Parasite Research Unit whose members provide valuable information for treatment decisions. The WCVM team can identify what parasites are present in the area and determine how common they are in animals.
McKenzie became involved as a volunteer at a 2014 clinic and subsequently worked on the digital storytelling project as part of her summer research job with WCVM associate professor Dr. Emily Jenkins and PhD student Janna Schurer.
"Any time you can get youth involved, that's everything."
McKenzie explains that they wanted to assess whether the clinics were making a difference in dog numbers. "And we wanted to talk about how the community perceived dogs and what they thought about the intervention that was done at the clinics."
Group members chose the medium of digital storytelling because it would allow a lot of interaction between participants and researchers. As well, they could share the end product with other communities that were experiencing similar problems with their dog populations.
Heather Beatch, director of the Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre, worked with the spay-neuter clinics as well as the digital storytelling project. She says the videos were a good choice because First Nations people have a strong history of communicating through storytelling.
The project also attracted a lot of the community's young people who are savvy with digital cameras and keen to use them. "Any time you can get youth involved, that's everything."
Each participant was given a disposable camera, tips for framing high-quality photos and a journal to record thoughts. After identifying four prevailing themes, participants explored these topics using photographs and ideas from their journals. Audio recordings were done in a storytelling circle and individual phone interviews.
Once the videos were completed, participants received DVD copies and links to the videos online.
These videos will be shown at schools in the region. The hope is that they will help to inform others who are striving to manage dog populations in rural communities.
For example, a participant in one of the videos talks about how he thought that spaying and neutering pets was "taking something from those dogs that we had no business taking from them."
But after a spay-neuter clinic was held, the man noticed that dogs in his community were much calmer. After visiting a couple of the clinics, he also gained more knowledge about how diseases can be controlled through vaccinations and deworming.
"I learnt a lot about what was happening, and I think it's all good."
Non-First Nations people can also learn a great deal from the videos — such as the age-old story of how the dog beat the horse in a race to see who would be the guardian of the humans. They may know that First Nations people have used dogs for hunting, trapping and pulling sleds, but they may not realize that dogs are believed to keep away evil spirits and that the animals can sense if ice on a river or lake is too thin to be safe.
McKenzie says she's learned a lot about people's different perspectives on dogs. She also recognizes that managing dog populations isn't something that can be done by organizing a couple of spay-neuter clinics.
"Talking to the people that came to the digital storytelling workshops, it's really obvious that you need the support and the trust of the community to have any lasting impact."
She adds that making these videos gave her more insight about dog owners who have a completely different experience with dogs than her own.
"I think [as a future veterinarian], it will help me relate better to my clients and help build more trusting relationships. It's important to remember that just because the dogs don't live inside as lap dogs like my dog doesn't mean the people there don't love them and [that their dogs] are not considered important members of the community."
McKenzie says veterinarians can play a role in helping First Nations communities deal with dog over-population by volunteering to work at a spay-neuter clinic. The number of veterinarians who volunteer usually determines how many dogs can be spayed or neutered during a weekend clinic. Veterinary students are also a big help during the clinics.
At a final meeting, the digital storytelling participants talked about the program. Many said they liked having the opportunity to tell their stories, knowing that someone was listening and valued their opinions.
McKenzie says it's too soon to say if the videos have helped the people to address the problem of dog over-population, "but I would hope they would just help people to have more open minds."
Beatch believes the video series has helped to give First Nations people a real voice in the discussions about managing their community's dog population. "I think [the videos] speak for themselves."
To view the digital stories, visit the WCVM YouTube channel or click on the following links:
Shirley Byers is a writer and editor from Kelvington, Saskatchewan. She freelances for a variety of North American magazines and newspapers.