Street dogs are an everyday sight in India. Like a secret network that spreads itself out over a city, they have their territories and areas of influence; as you wander down any given street you’ll see a variety of dogs dotting the area. Wander down the street often enough, and you’ll get to know these dogs and their usual haunts, their personalities, and witness natural free dog behaviour that we don’t often get to see in a land of sweater-clad Chihuahuas and full-service dog spas.
These dogs’ lives are nothing like the lives of Western dogs. They are not seen here as “man’s best friend”, not by a mile. In the West, if you reach down to pick up a stick, they’ll get all happy and excited because they expect you to throw it for them to chase. In India, they’ll take off in fear because they expect you to try to hit them with it, or throw a rock at them. Of course there are locals with dogs that they care for and are part of the family, even if they roam freely. Occasionally, rarely, you’ll even see a purebred (there’s actually a HUSKY, would you believe?) and now and then you’ll see someone walking a dog on a leash, which is a dangerous task as the feral dogs come up growling to challenge it. But mostly dogs are seen as pests, not pets.
I’m a dog person, if that isn’t obvious. I had an awesome Corgi named Dexter for close to 15 years. He died three years ago and I haven’t gotten another dog, as I knew travel was on the horizon for me. But sometimes in Vancouver I get a little silly about greeting other people’s dogs just because I haven’t been meeting my “dog quota”, and it’s almost like a relief to spend quality time with a canine.
Here in India, that quota is being well met, because I cannot help but make friends with dogs here. If a dog has friendly body language and a bit of curiousity, I’ll be their buddy. The more they wag at me, the more I wag back. This is very much me.
So in our local ‘hood, there seem to be three dogs who are the main stars of the territory. I’ve given them names because I can’t help myself; it’s funny when I run into other people who know the dogs, but have given them different names, and we share what we call each of them.
First, there’s Rorschach.
I named him this for the ink blots on his back. He’s an unneutered male who’s got an easy manner, a hearty bark and a ballsy swagger. He seemed like kind of an obnoxious dude-bro at first, but he’s gradually redeemed himself.
Next, there’s Missy.
I started calling her this just because she seemed like such a “little miss”. She’s a sweet little girl who is unusually vocal for a street dog, and will bound up to you to greet you, whining and singing.
Then there’s some yellowish dog who is totally standoffish and has a really annoying bark, especially at 3 AM. I haven’t given him a name. I don’t really like him very much.
The first time I saw Missy, she seemed to be new to the neighbourhood, and was very obviously in heat. Rorschach was harassing her to a degree that should have spawned a whole new #metoo campaign, following her around with his nose glued to her tail, making a move whenever he could, despite her occasional yaps and snarls to push him away. My heart went out to her.
We’d see her around the area after that, and while both she and Rorschach would come up for pats, he would usually growl and snarl at her as if we were a precious resource that he had to protect from her. He’d lunge at her and she’d cringe and yelp and back off. And yet she’d still follow him around, like the classic case of the girl who can’t bring herself to leave the abusive boyfriend.
I told him he was an asshole. I also told him that whenever he would wake us up with his big bark multiple times a night.
Missy’s “life change”
The building across the road from us has a few other Western women in it. One of them, a Montreal woman, took a special interest in Missy, feeding her regularly and bringing her to the animal sanctuary to be spayed. The sanctuary here is a truly amazing place; they do their best to save animals who’ve been hit by rickshaws, lost all their fur to mange, or whatever else is needed. If an animal is dying, they provide a sort of hospice and caring attention. And they have a program in place to control the dog population humanely through sterilization, and eliminate rabies.
So Missy vanished for a week, and came back with a little notch in her ear to inform people that she’d been spayed. Sorry, Rorschach. You’re not going to be getting lucky with this little lady any time soon.
It seemed like Missy started to thrive around this time. Some of it is that she just knows how to win people over, since she’s so utterly sweet and submissive. Rorschach gradually stopped being such a jerk to her. And, well, perhaps their dynamic changed once sex was no longer an option? I’ll leave any further interpretation as an exercise to the reader.
Unfortunately, then she broke her left foreleg. We have no way of knowing how, but it’s likely she was hit by a scooter or rickshaw. We just saw her one day limping and unable to put any weight on it. I thought maybe she’d only gotten a thorn in her paw or something, but the Montreal woman whisked her off to the sanctuary, and it turned out she had a fracture. They put a splint on her and told the woman to try to keep her resting for two days.
Well, you try keeping a feral street dog indoors for two days and see how that goes. Missy howled and howled and screamed and scrabbled at the door if anyone came near, until the neighbours freaked out at the woman and she had to let her out. Missy managed to get herself out of the splint within a day, and we’d see her occasionally, running or trotting with a noticeable limp, but still full of joyful greeting. Given the choice, she chose freedom and pain over confined comfort.
Over the past few weeks, she and Rorschach seem to have become… actual friends. More often than not, you’ll spot them together. You hardly ever see street dogs playing in India; food is hard enough to come by, there’s a lot of competition and not much space. A typical street dog doesn’t waste energy on boisterous play. Now they’re both getting more than sufficient food and attention from at least three of us seasonal Westerners (that I know of!), and there’s lots of open areas to romp, safely away from traffic and other dogs’ territorial jealousy.
Here they are, having a grand old time:
The day after this video, though, Missy couldn’t use her left foreleg. I don’t know if it was from this wildly enthusiastic play or something later in the day, but it looked like she was back to square one. She moved more slowly and cautiously, maybe finally understanding that rest and stillness would be better for her. She’s been doing much better the past few days – and of course has gone right back to playing and jumping. She will probably be in this pattern of healing, re-injury, healing, re-injury for some time. She will likely have a limp her whole life, like many street dogs.
Rorschach’s deep personal introspection
Okay, I know I have a slight tendency to anthropomorphize, but I really want to say that Rorschach has gone through a period of personal growth and self-discovery. Because damn it, ridiculous as it sounds, that is what it looks like from here. Seeing how he and Missy get along now is already heart-warming. But he’s also taken what seems like more of a genuine interest in human company. He seems to have learned from Missy’s example, and is more likely to whine and “talk” on greeting us. I don’t know if he picked it up from her or just that he’s warmed up enough to people to do it himself, but meeting them both now is this crazy canine chorus.
He or Missy have occasionally followed me up to the main road, even to the ashram. They get noticeably jumpier once they’re out of their own territory, looking around for unfamiliar dogs, having tense exchanges, but they seem to enjoy being part of the pack. The ashram dogs are lovely, and characters in their own right, but they are still dogs. They know they’ve got a good gig and they’re not going to let just anyone muscle in.
The other day, Matthew and I decided to go for a walk in a nature park west of the ashram. Rorschach greeted us on our way out of the building, nudged us for pats, and decided YOU GUYS R COOL I’M COMIN’ WID YOU. He kept company with us like any pet dog would off-leash – sauntering ahead, wandering off to sniff things, checking to make sure we’re coming along, joining us for a pat and reconnection then wandering ahead again. Other street dogs would come up and he’d either dart through their territory nervously or give them a solid growl, depending on how they approached. A guard near the children’s park started to give him a smack with a stick but we waved him off. We got to the nature park and wandered and sat here and there, and Rorschach would go off and explore and then come back and find us again, then sit and hang out for a while. In a way, it was like the joy of having a dog without any of the responsibility; he could find his own way home if he wanted to, despite the crazy Indian traffic. And best of all, we didn’t have to pick up his crap! We were out for a few hours, and he stayed with us the whole time. He was relaxed and happy and excited to be somewhere safe he could explore – with friends. I was touched.
I haven’t even given him food all that often – he just seemed to enjoy being around us, having a connection with humans, sharing presence. It made me aware of how dogs have been co-existing with humans for thousands and thousands of years – and when the circumstances are right, there is an innate pull in them to be in our company, to be recognized and included.
On the way back we lost sight of him when a couple of street dogs rushed him as he went through their territory, and he bolted home. But the next day he and Missy greeted me with bounding and boundless enthusiasm as ever.
When I went to the ashram later, Rorschach was already hanging out near the front. We greeted each other happily, and then he stuck to me like glue, knowing he was out of his safe zone. I couldn’t go into the hall because I knew he’d follow me and I didn’t want him to get in trouble with other humans. He had a few growling standoffs with the ashram dogs – sometimes he tried hiding behind my legs for protection, which I did not accept – I’m sorry, bud, but I am NOT getting in the middle of your scuffle! But they seemed to resolve peacefully, and he ended up sleeping on my feet as we sat together outside. Then another Westerner from our neighbourhood passed by and he leapt for joy and started following HER around – she’s evidently been feeding him routinely! So he headed off with one of his other human buddies, and I went about my meditation.
The saga continues
I did warn Rorschach that if he hangs out at the ashram a lot, he WILL lose his balls. All the dogs there are neutered. I suspect it’d be worth it for such a good home, but not having balls myself, I can’t really speak to it. Still, it’s certainly not up to us humans if he can live there; dog politics decide who stays and who goes.
I don’t know what the years will bring Missy and Rorschach, and I’m trying to be realistic. Right now, their world is easy sunshine; food and friends are plentiful. But all us seasonal types will head off over the next few months, and by the end of March it’ll be quiet here, and hot and dry. Things won’t be as easy. When I left Buddy Dog back at our old place two years ago, he was happy and healthy and I hoped good things for him, but as I wrote before, he clearly had been abused and hurt by the time I came back. I have to let go of any idea of their futures.
Whatever happens, at least Rorschach and Missy have an experience of the potential connection they can have with humans. They’re good at making friends! Fingers crossed that they weather the summer well here and it’s another land o’ plenty for them when the season starts again in the fall.