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Megan’s Musings: Learning from Belize Dogs

miaMe and Mia at the Pickled Parrot

I have to say it. Belize really is un-belizeable. I had the privilege of spending 10 days there in January and had a wonderful holiday. I loved the heat, the people, the scenery and especially loved watching the many dogs roaming the streets, hanging out freely in the restaurants and running along with the children. Having lived in Indonesia when I was young and spending time there as an adult, I have been fascinated with the behaviour of these local dogs for many years. I am always impressed with how they live within these communities and have enjoyed watching how their roles have evolved over the years. Nowadays, dogs are on collars, walk on leash or off leash beside their owners, live in houses and there are even grooming and daycare/training shops. It’s exceptional to see how their relationship with humans has developed and I enjoyed watching how integrated they are in the community. In today’s post, I am going to share some of what I learned from watching them and what we can apply to our dogs in the urban environment.

Their life is good
We assume that because these dogs don’t lounge on couches all day, eat high quality meals that are fed to them by us, don’t get out on neighbourhood walks with us and don’t have a basket full of interactive toys, that they are unhappy. We have this idea that the life we provide for them is the best, but every time I watch these dogs, I question if that is true. I watch dogs roam around all day, explore, nap in the shade, romp in the water and run around playing with the children. They are free to do what they want and they have active lives full of enrichment all around them. We did see the odd dog who was in need of vet care and only one who was scared. But otherwise, they were very happy and healthy dogs.

They are well-socialized
We did see many puppies and only saw one tied up. Otherwise they were running with the big dogs, playing with the children, watching the world or being carried around. They are easily socialized as they are part of the community, are out exploring and being exposed to everything around them. It happens naturally and it powerful. They don’t sit alone in a house all day with limited exposure. Instead they are out in the real world all the time and the world just becomes normal for them, not an occasional thing. These dogs become so socialized that they live amongst, and for the most part ignore, people, other dogs, children, cats, chickens, cars and everything else. They learn where they are welcome and where not to go and I have always been fascinated to watch how they navigate traffic. We could learn a lot from this and it has really got me thinking about how we can do better for our dogs in urban cities. We must keep them safe, but perhaps we need to look at making socialization more natural. Stay tuned on what we implement in our programs to help our puppies be even more successful in our busy human world.

mexico dogA Mexican dog enjoying a back massage

They are well-behaved
We did not see one that had behaviour concerns that were preventing them from living amongst the community. I did not ask much about this and would love to go back and learn more. What happens if they do have serious concerns? I imagine most don’t survive if they pose a safety risk, but I’d be curious to know how many actually do have concerns. We did meet one dog who as we were walking towards the dock was lying nearby, a man just told us not to say hello as he would bite. We did not, walked right by him and he did not even react. Perfect. How great would it be for our dogs here if they could trust that we would actually listen and not force ourselves on them? This dog was obviously well-loved and they respected his request to not have strangers pet him. It was not viewed as a bad thing. It was just the way he was.

There was no jumping, very minimal barking, they ran alongside their owners off-leash and waited patiently outside stores for them when they could not go in. It was beautiful and exactly what our relationships should be like. They don’t jump because not one person approaches them with over-the-top hellos. In fact, most people just walk by and ignore them. It was only the tourists that I saw that felt the need to say hello to the dogs. The locals treat them as we treat people; perhaps just a smile and nod as they passed them by. When we did hear barking, no one did a thing. Nothing. No response, no yelling and no trying to shush them. And the dogs would just settle on their own and go on their way. This is exactly why these dogs follow along and stay happily with their family. They accept them as dogs and let them be. It is amazing to see and it just seems so natural.

mia2Mia keeping Kris working fetch duty

They are loved
The biggest take-away for me was that these dogs are so loved. They were running with children, being embraced while watching the world go by with their family on the porch, playing fetch and just living life as dogs doing dog things. I would often watch them happily trotting alongside their humans, snuggling in for the occasional embrace or pet and thoroughly enjoying their time following their owner to see what the next adventure would bring. They are family and they are their dogs. I have no doubt there are some sad stories, but overall I feel like these dogs have a very good life. I often overheard tourists commenting on them and feeling sorry for the dogs and listened in on a rescue group talk about how many dogs they were pulling and sending to cities all over North America. It may have been just a limited view, but I am not sure that pulling the dogs from this environment and into our cities is making the right choice for the dog. Perhaps there are other ways we can help. These dogs are loved and they are part of the community.

The best part? I did not see one dog corrected or punished. Not one. I am sure it happens, but I did not see aversive tools and people take a different approach to how they work with them. There was no yelling, they let them be dogs and it seems to really work. My first day back, I was out only to drive to Fish Creek Park and saw five people walking along, their dogs attached to them with a leash and continually correcting them as the dog walked along. No attempt at training. No understanding of how unnatural this was for the dog. Just punishment and frustration. It is no wonder we see the behaviour problems that we have here. We have evolved our relationship and brought dogs into the home as part of the family and then we can’t even spend the time to train them and punish them for being dogs. We need to do better for them. Let’s learn from Belize.