* if you are watching ‘No Direction Home’ and want to play with the dogs, continue reading
The family compound is set back into several acres of a 70 acre farm off of a residential road. At the front, facing the road, is the family owned store, laundry mat and internet cafe. A private road runs perpendicular to the road and leads back to 6 houses where the family lives. Beyond that are yucca fields, chickens and fish ponds. A pack of 10 dogs maintains the territory, chasing away other dogs and sounding the alarm if unknown people or animals intrude unexpectedly. The dogs are not just pets and friends, they are expected to work.
I came to know the dogs very well during my time, well enough that I’ve considered illustrating a graphic novel from the dog’s point of view. The impetus of the story is a burr that’s been sitting in my saddle for awhile now, going back to a viewing of the animated movie “Up.” The problem I had with “Up”, and its a standard portrayal in art that anthropomorphize dogs, was the explicit portrayal of the dogs as unquestioningly obedient slaves to a human master. In my experience, dogs are not at all subservient to dominant members of a pack, whether canines or homo sapiens, in a way that can be characterized as a master slave relationship.
Nin spends most of her time at the store near the main road. She is a little dog with long black hair and splotches of brown markings on her face and underside.
Nin is the friendliest dog, she is the only dog that maintains friendly relationships with dogs from outside the territory. Several come by to play with her daily. The play dates are tolerated by the pack so long as they take place in neutral territory, usually the open field opposite the main road. Nin likes to steal shoes, she doesn’t chew them up, she just collects them. Most of the time she takes the shoes of her favorite person when she is not around and lays about with them, but sometimes she takes other’s shoes. The first morning here, I awoke to find our shoes missing, I walked to the front of the property searching for them and found Nin with a collection of our shoes scattered about. That this night time theft never occurred again and given Nin’s irrepressible personality, it was hard to dismiss the nagging impression that Nin was hazing us, a dog version of a good old fashioned panty raid.
Nin’s role in the pack was to sound the alarm when other dogs came over to the territory. Much of the time, the other dogs stayed back in the territory. At the sound of Nin’s bark, the middle pack members would run up as reinforcements. After chasing away trouble, the others would often stick around for awhile and Nin would offer to play with them. Although she is generally loved by the others, except Gigi, Nin is not allowed to come back into the rest of the territory for long. If she lingers, one of the others gets on her case until she returns to her post at the store. Any dog that took up Nin’s offers to play had their paws full, her feints, ploys and savvy maneuvers made her, pound for pound, the best fighter of the pack. There is a saying that says its not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters. This saying is a lot like that one about how slow and steady wins the race, its the received wisdom of people who have never been in and actual fight or race. The size of the dog does matter, and Nin loses real fights to bigger dogs by the simple and effective tactic of knocking her down and biting her. Her jaws lack the power to do any real damage to keep them at bay. However, when play fighting, Nin cannot be beat and wears out dogs much larger than her, scoring hit after hit. My favorite Nin tactic was to pretend to allow the other dog to take a break when they grew tired, wait for them to look the other way, then jump at their rear leg.
Tou’s story is something of a hard luck case. When I met him, he was the biggest dog of the pack. He is large, solidly muscled, and full of energy. He has short, rust colored hair that looks reddish orange in the light and a shade of charcoal grey in the dark, his muscled frame and dark coloring cut an intimidating figure. (His name means grey). He has large, pointy, expressive ears that give a good read on his current mode of operation. I was stunned to find out he was only about 7 months old, and he got even thicker and more muscled in the time we stayed there. He was found under an old truck on the farm, the other dogs surrounding him and nipping and barking at him. At the time he was a tiny, half starved puppy who had wandered into the territory. The family rescued him and brought him on, but he took a rough initiation as the others slowly accepted him. Scars covered his heads and neck.
When I met him, he was still something of a lost dog, but generally accepted by all but Popo, the pack leader, which creates more uncertainty than if the omega member, Nin, was the only one that acted standoffish or hostile to Tou. He had food issues. He was also a fast learner, intelligent, helpful and friendly. Tou dug half a drainage ditch for me once, with a few unplanned dog legs, but nonetheless. On several occasions, I saw Tou wade into a foreign pack without any back up and just start cleaning house. When Tou was around the store, foreign dogs stayed a safe distance away from the territory. Because of his size, fearlessness in battle and boundless energy, people often mistook Tou’s enthusiasm for aggression and yelled at him whenever he approached new people or puppies. Tou is very friendly, and unless there was a reason to be aggressive, he is often just curious, but because of his uncertain interactions with dogs and his formidable appearance, people react as though he is giving them a reason to be aggressive. Imagine that every time you tried to say hello to someone, they reacted with nervous and fearful energy, but you just kept trying. That is Tou.
Tou is also the closest to Nin and was the only dog I saw that let Nin win in their play fights, as well as the only one that could match Nin’s endurance. The other dogs keep playing until they tire, then they run away to rest. Tou lays down on his back and lets Nin chew on his neck while he plays at fighting from his back. Tou runs or cowers nervously at Popo’s approach, acting more submissive than even lowly Nin. This fear apparently stretched back to Tou’s days as a half starved puppy when Popo picked Tou up in his massive jaws and slammed him down.
Tou is almost comically sensitive to genuine aggression from any source, but in play aggression he dominates the action. This makes for an amusing cycle where another dog, tired of losing their play contests to Tou, gets serious about it and Tou backs down, running away with a cry and going to sit alone under a truck by himself for awhile.
Shampu and Turian are sisters with opposing personalities. Both are white with splashes of brown and black. Shampoo has a permanent black eye that gives her a mischievous look, which suits her behavior. She is also a frequent source of trouble. Something told me that if anything tragic were to befall Nin, Shampu was the next in line for the front.
Gigi is a little black dog with a terrier’s look and temper. She was small, but her rock hard, sausage like body and tenacity made her one of the better fighters in the pack. She had white coloring on her chest that looked almost like a perfect “1”.
Popo is the leader. He has a tawny, yellowish fur that looks like a lion. I didn’t see much of Popo, he lived apart from the pack and remained aloof to them. He would take one or two sojourns every day, head held high up on his thick neck, but he didn’t care much to be pet or played with by anyone. When any dog in the pack let out a cry for any reason, Popo would show up within a few seconds to make sure everything was OK, then he’d return to his haunt. Gigi had the most amusing reactions to Popo’s presence. Gigi would follow him at the ready to do enforce whatever law he may decide to lay down. Popo was not as big as Tou with the exception of his massive jaws.
Bobo is a stocky female that I referred to as Popo’s wife. Bobo was always with Popo or Nin, the other females didn’t mess around with her much. Bobo’s back was covered in hard scabs from her constant chewing, I think she had some kind of skin condition. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Popo.
There are also two toy poodles, but boring.
Seua was another hard luck case. Seua means tiger, and true to the name, Seua had white-ochre colored fur with black markings that look like tiger stripes. Seua came to us a month after we arrived with a sister puppy. The night I met Seua, they lay together behind a barrel in the semi-dark. I could not see them well, Seua lay with his head atop his sisters back. Both were motionless, Seua let out small growls as Turian and Shampu tried to crowd around. I didn’t linger or pet them, I thought they were anxious about the situation, so I moved to get the other dogs away to let the puppies get settled. The next morning, I awoke and went outside to greet the dogs; Turian, Shampu, Gigi and Tou. I noticed Seua walking in the next yard, but did not look directly at him or call to him because I did not want the other dogs to notice him. They had a habit of biting any unfamiliar dogs this far into their territory. After a few minutes, I looked back and Seua sat atop a small pile of Bamboo. He looked at me, laying motionless. As soon as I saw him staring at me, an interpretative message blinked into my head, “HELP.” I walked over to get a look, it was then that I saw something was very wrong. I soon found out that Seua’s sister had died in the night, both were refugees from a friend of the aunt’s. They had lived a hard life from the start, Seua had just barely survived starvation and sickness, as well as the fierce bite on his back that Shampu or Turian added the night after I found him, his sibling had not been so lucky. I carried Seua over to the aunt’s house. He was emaciated and severely dehydrated, his skin had no elasticity to it at all. I helped force water and egg white into him, then we made a small bed with old clothes and cardboard for him to rest in. The next day, he improved a bit. I sat with him and picked ticks and fleas off him. The insides of his ears were caked in dirt and grease, I found 5 ticks inside of one ear. I cleaned his ears with my hands and tweezers, afraid to give him a bath until his health improved. From this point on, Seua adored Ann and I and followed us wherever we went, he followed me more often because I tend to move around a lot, but I think he favored Ann as he’d growl at other dogs that drew near her. As his health improved, we gave him a couple of flea baths, then de-wormed him. I have come to believe that Seua was a natural fighter, he had to fight harder than most people will ever know to survive the first 3 months of his life. I think back to his first night, too sick and weak to move, growling at dogs many times his size while his sister lay down to die. One of my happier moments during the stay was the night Seua chased a bug, he had begun putting on weight and growing. It was the first time in several weeks that he exhibited behavior resembling a puppy’s antics. One of the sadder moments came several weeks after this. As I said, sometimes the size of the fight in the dog is irrelevant. One night I noticed Seua was not feeling well and talked to Ann about what we could do. Nothing, really, but keep an eye on him. The next morning, Seua took ill and died, likely of distemper. The portrait above is from a few days after we first found him and believed he had made it. I have no idea what got him, Ann thinks another dog or snake bit him again and injured something inside critically. I wonder if it was me, about a week before this, I had a nasty stomach illness that took me out of commission for about 5 days. Maybe he just never came back all the way. Seua was dealt a pretty bad hand. I hope that for at least a few days or weeks, he knew life without suffering. At least he died with clean ears.