Desert Dogs: a social media success story

Please note: this is an old article. To contact Desert Dogs, please scroll down to the updated links in the bottom of the post

Here is a great social media case story that shows how simple yet effective social media marketing can be.

First the problem that the clever social media marketing strategy helps to solve, far away in a corner of the Central Desert of Australia:

 
The dog plague

Camp dogs are both an integral part of life in outback Australia and, in many remote townships, a problem of plague proportions.

 
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Aboriginal people used to travel and hunt with Dingos. Dingos can find their own food and, just like wolves, produce just one litter of puppies per pack per year (only the alpha couple breeds) and thereby keep their populations in check.

Then domestic dogs of European origin replaced the Dingos as aboriginals’ companion dogs. Domestic dogs are needy and dependent and, unlike the Dingos, breed prolifically. As a result, many remote townships suffer from overwhelming numbers of dogs. The camp dogs roam in packs and are often starved, sickly and aggressive due to malnutrition, fierce competition for resources and lack of veterinary care. Sometimes they even eat people.

Aboriginal families have to deal with as many as 20 dogs per household and typically have little knowledge about feeding, animal health (or human health for that matter) and breeding control. Vet visits are rare. Parasites can transmit to their human companions and cause skin infections, chronic sores and internal infections. While the dogs are in principle considered family members and valued as companions and guards, their sheer number make them a pest and in some cases a danger.

Authorities’ attempts to cope with the dog problem range from shooting sprees (didn’t go down well with the dogs’ owners) to ad-hoc incident-responses (shoot offending dogs and some of their mates), to a 2-dogs-per-household policy which has proven difficult to enforce.

The only cure that seems to work is humane dog control programmes where vets, in understanding with the locals, come out in the communities and de-sex, micro-chip and worm all the camp dogs. However, the programmes rely on funding from outsiders; the communities have neither vets nor money.

 
The Desert Dogs project

Desert Dogs‘ is a non-profit organisation which works with the camp dog situation in Yuendumu, an aboriginal village 293 km Northwest of Alice Springs.

In Yuendumu, the dog situation was the usual out-of-control story until seven years ago when Gloria Morales, assistant manager of the Warlukurlangu Artists aboriginal arts collective, started the Desert Dog project in cooperation with vet Dr Honey Nelson and supported by RSPCA Alice Springs. The project works to reduce and control dog numbers in Yuendumu and, ultimately, improve the health and welfare of both dogs and people based on the ‘healthy dogs = healthy people’ principle.

The Desert Dog programme has gradually halved the dog population in Yuendumu by de-sexing great numbers of dogs, euthanising unwanted and hopeless dogs, and exporting puppies to Sydney. The camp dog are also treated for parasites, diseases and injuries, and the programme has greatly improved the health and well being of the dog population.

People from Yuendumu and nearby local communities bring abandoned and sick puppies to Gloria, who fosters the rescued puppies on her property with her own 20 camp dogs until they are strong enough to endure the flight to Sydney.

 

The puppies, which are fostered by Gloria ‘The Dog Lady’ have had a wonderful puppyhood. Some pups have been with Gloria since they were only a week old and have learned ‘doggy manners’ as they have to share with 20 other dogs. They are given excellent food, wonderful walks in the bush (including swimming in billabongs) and this means that they don’t have the tragic issues of many city dogs which have been abused. All the desert dogs get on with other dogs, avoid trouble and have learned to be submissive. They ignore cats and other animals and like children and as they are crossbreeds they are very healthy due to hybrid vigour.

(From Desert Dogs’ website)

 

Desert dog's driving force Gloria, playing with her dogs at the waterhole

Gloria and her dogs

Gloria and helpers walking her dogs

Walkie

 
From camp dogs to city dogs via Facebook

Then Roz and Wayne, Desert Dogs’ foster care family in Sydney, take over. They regularly travel to Yuendumu (one at the time) to select puppies and accompany them to Sydney in batches of six each time. A new batch is picked when a prior batch is sold.

The puppies are de-sexed, vaccinated, and worm treated after they arrive in their new foster home in Wollongong, Sydney. Their first time as suburban animals are spent roaming the garden, playing with the kids and big dogs and wrestling with the puppy-loving cat while Roz takes hundreds of photos and videos and upload them to Desert Dog’s Facebook page.

 

Puppies playing with road stopper in yard

Happy, healthy former camp dog puppies destined for a life as city dogs in Sydney

Members of the current batch of Desert Dog puppies in Sydney, immersed in happy play while they wait for their new homes.

 
Puppy profiles are posted on the major pet rehoming match-maker website Pet Rescue with vivid descriptions of the puppies’ personalities, and shared on Desert Dogs’ Facebook page.

 

Puppy profile page on Pet Rescue

Puppy profile on Pet Rescue

 
People who have ‘liked’ Desert Dogs’ Facebook page see new puppy listings and updates in their facebook feed and can comment and ask questions about the puppies. They may visit the Facebook page and see more photos and updates, or share the listings and photos with their Facebook friends (maybe just to say ‘Look isn’t this puppy cute’… and thereby give the puppy potential viral reach).

Roz continues to upload heaps of new photos and videos of the puppies throughout their time in foster care and update about their whereabouts and personalities.

Potential puppy adopters can study a puppy they have in mind on countless pictures and build an imaginary relationship to it before they even meet the dog… a virtual connection which may pave the way for a real relationship.

 

Adopted pup's picture and comments on Desert Dog's facebook page

‘Bobo’ on Facebook

 
Keep in touch

The page also helps the foster carers to stay in touch and see what become of the dogs they sell, in photo updates posted on the wall by the desert dog buyers. While the photos easily can be send via email instead, the public updates give potential buyers an idea about how Desert Dog puppies may look like as adults and that their new families are happy with them (of course, unhappy owners most likely won’t post updates…).

I suppose the online interaction also gives the foster carer a gut feeling of potential buyers before they make real life contact as well as feedback and ideas about what works and what doesn’t.

All in all, the Facebook page serves as an active online community around the Desert Dogs and their story. It is much more than just a marketing strategy; however it is a very effective marketing strategy.

 
Integrated online presence

Desert Dog’s online presence is integrated in various ways. Puppy listings on Pet Rescue are shared on the Facebook page, and the website has a social plugin which automatically publishes all Facebook posts directly on the website; so they are shared there as well.

 

Desert Dogs' Facebook Page

Desert Dogs’ Facebook Page

 

Desert Dogs' website

Desert Dogs’ website

 
Desert Dogs’ website tells the great story of the dogs with flair and passion, but it doesn’t stand alone. Desert Dogs has profiles on various dog-rescue websites such as Pet Rescue and Ozdoggy, and there are a great deal of articles about camp dogs and interviews with Gloria Morales on the web which also refer to the Desert Dogs.

Here is an interview with the ABC where Gloria tells about how aboriginal paintings without dog hair and paw marks in them are most likely fakes.

 

Well fed camp dog laying on aboriginal paintings

Artist companion camp dog

 
And the bottom line

You would be forgiven to think that camp dog puppies of plague-like origin from a remote aboriginal community would be a hard sell in Sydney, but not so. Roz and her family has rehomed more than 100 puppies during the past year alone plus some older dogs; and the speed at which newly arrived puppies are taken is impressive.

I think this is a great lesson in how effective social media can be – even for a tiny organisation situated in a remote & poor corner of a mighty desert.

 
 
Desert Dogs links. Updated September 2015

The photos in this post are from Desert Dog’s website and Facebook page, Crikey’s blog and ABC news.

 

Update: Desert Dogs does no longer have a foster carer in Sydney, and does not appear to operate any longer.

Update September 2014: Desert Dogs does again rehome dogs to the Sydney/New South Wales area, and has a foster carer near New South Wales

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6 thoughts on “Desert Dogs: a social media success story

  1. Karen

    I rehomed a desert dog from 2009. Since then she has killed my cat, attacked my Rottweiler & yesterday attacked my kelpie unprovoked requiring 10 stitches. This dog has some kind of aggression, does not like cats contrary to what I have read. The older she gets the worse it is. My dogs are exercised 4 times a week & eat premium dog food. They are not unloved abused or neglected. Please take her back & ill pay the airfare the last six and a half years have been hell! Also never received a call back from PAWS when I rang begging for help after she attacked my kelpie & my mother nearly lost her fingers trying to separate them.

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    1. Anna Post author

      Hi karen.

      I am sorry to hear about your problems with your dog. I don’t work for Desert Dogs so I can’t take the dog, I’m just a blogger. Try to contact Gloria Morales down in NT via Desert Dog’s contact page.. If you’re willing to pay the airfare to return the dog then I imagine she’ll willingly take the dog back, albeit of course the transport would need to be coordinated with her plans, as Alice Springs is still a 4 hours drive from Yuendumu. (I’m presuming that’s where your dog is from?)

      It isn’t the first Desert Dogs I have heard of with aggression issues, so it might be a regular thing, although I’ve also heard of many that have adjusted well to pet life (at least that is my impression). Desert Dogs was actually kicked off the Pet Rescue website precisely because of issues with an aggressive puppy that the then foster carer in Sydney refused to take back (the owner didn’t offer to fly the dog back to NT though, as far as I know). I’ve also heard of another that ended up with another rescue because it had aggression issues and the same foster carer refused to take it back.

      Our own desert dog is dog aggressive towards dogs she doesn’t know, so we can’t let her off leash on walks (except far away on bush walks). She was dog-friendly as a puppy, the aggression emerged gradually after we moved to this suburb. There’s a constant “soundscape” of canine hostility here – angrily barking dogs in backyards, sometimes also erratic dogs being walked on leash (or without!), and that scenery may have worried our dogs and caused their dog-aggressive attitude (they both became aggressive after we moved here, influencing each other). Additionally, I think she’s bored… The dogs get plenty of walks (every day, often several walks a day), but I don’t think that quite cuts it, I suspect she needs stronger challenges, like advanced training (e.g. scent work or herding), we’ll look into that when we can afford it. The dogs are great with each other and she’s great with other dog-friends too (just not strangers), and great in many ways – has a lovely personality, smart, intuitive, complex and soulful. We’re overall very happy with her, but the aggressive tendencies is a stress factor. (We’d still chose her though, were we to go through it all again).

      I’d love to survey Desert Dog owners/buyers systematically and develop a profile of typical success stories and problem stories, and try to identify key factors in regard to successful placements. Here under matching / household types et.c, advertising, training, and selecting the dogs that can go to pet homes in the city – I have the feeling not every camp dog is a suitable pet candidate. However, it isn’t really any of my business since I’m not associated with the project in any way, I’m just curious and like to investigate things … So it is more like a fantasy idea.

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      1. Karen

        Thanx for reading my rant Anna. I’m going to do what you suggest & try to contact Gloria. I have honestly tried my best which unfortunately just doesn’t seem to be good enough. My family do not want to euthanise her but keeping her separated seems cruel & its stressful. I believe she is a dingo x which no one mentioned at the time. We have given her so many chances. I worry next time she “kicks off” there may be a fatality instead of just stitches. I can’t take her to a shelter as she couldn’t cope being locked up & chances of being rehomed are slim as she walks with a bit of a limp (I spent $5000 on cruciate surgery about a year after we got her).
        Stressful times and I’m running out of money & options

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        1. Anna Post author

          You are welcome, I hope it will work out. Dog aggression on walkies can be stressful, but I can’t even start to imagine how stressful it must be to struggle to protect ones own pets from each other within the household… and that she killed your cat, that’s sad.

          No one can tell much about what’s in any of the dogs since they’re all puppies of free roaming & freely breeding parents, so if there’s dingo in her it is unlikely that anyone would have known. Due to the locations and free roaming canine lifestyles in the communities, it seems likely that some may be dingo Xs. Since wild canines are known to be very xenophobic in nature (they only accept and interact with their own family members, except when leaving their family to look for a mate), it is possible that dingoes and their hybrids may have both higher prey drive and a stronger tendency to stranger aggression compared to most domestic dogs.

          Your dog attacking other dogs that she lives with, unprovoked, sounds unusual though. I wonder if there’s some hidden trigger, such as pain (or another strong stressor that’s being overlooked). You mention that she’s had an operation for cruciate ligament tear*, maybe she’s having pain and then snaps when stress/pain accumulates and becomes to much? (not that I think speculation solves your problem)

          Re. aggressive camp dogs, I’ve sometimes speculated whether some of the remote animal control programmes may unintentionally select for (AKA “breed”) difficult dogs in the long term. What I mean is the type of mobile animal control programmes where a team of vets spends a short period of time in each community, and try to desex as many dogs as they can before they move on. As I recall, the ideal they operate with is to desex around 70% of the dogs (100% is totally unrealistic). I imagine the (say, hypothetically) 30% of the dogs they don’t get hold of to desex, would tend to be the less friendly and trusting, more wary and suspicious kind of dogs with a strong “fight or flight” response. The next generation of puppies would then be puppies of those 30% only, because all the friendly dogs were desexed. The vet team then later comes back and do a new desexing round. Again, of the new generation all the easiest to get to, friendliest, most accessible dogs are desexed, and the hardest dogs are the ones that get to breed the next generation. And so on and so on, continually filtering the friendliest and easiest dogs out of the gene pool, leaving the reproductive scene to only the most difficult dogs. That would be like “breeding” for “flight or fight” kind of traits, precisely what you don’t want in a pet dog. If pups from such generations are rescued & rehomed as city pets where their primary job is to be friendly and harmless and interact with lots of different people and animals, then the scene may be set for some difficult social problems for some of them.

          However, it is all just speculation. I’ve never been involved or visited the communities, it is all just logical reasoning based on sporadic information, so there is likely to be lots of factors I’m not factoring in because I know nothing about them.

          Whatever the explanation may be, it sounds like a dangerous and stressful situation, so all the best luck with getting the situation solved!

          *I presume that’s what you meant

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          1. Karen

            Hi Anna
            Gloria is going to take her back so she will go back to NT on Friday. I hope she’ll be happy there and settle in quickly. Even though she’s caused complete & utter chaos in our lives we still love her and want what’s best for. I shouldn’t assign human emotions to animals but worry she will feel as though she’s been abandoned. I really have no other choice though. The last few days has been a nightmare for us all.
            Regards
            Karen

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          2. Anna Post author

            That is great news:-) I hope it all works out well.

            Abandonment isn’t particularly a human emotion, but it isn’t a given she’ll feel abandoned… maybe she’ll feel like she is coming home, since she is going back to where she came from!

            All the best.

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