The Healing Power of Asia’s Stray Dogs

by Alison Preece
Contributor

It’s dusk, my favorite time to run. The sweet spot between the blistering heat of the day and the shroud of night. I run in tight loops, my pink-and-white sneakers padding on the asphalt down each street, swiveling back once I reach another dead end, the squeak of my shoes echoing off the wooden homes and thatch-roofed animal pens.

I wave at local children. Few people in this neighborhood speak English, and my Indonesian tops out at ordering fried rice. So we wave, and holler “hallo!” to each other. I love seeing the children, harmless and sweet as they are. 

The dogs, however, are another story. As far as I can tell, the ones claimed by people are more guard dogs then pets. They pound against their fences as I run past, howling furiously if I come too close.

And some of them aren’t behind fences. Many without tags, mutts of all shapes and sizes, they stand alone or in groups. They look like strays to me, but that doesn’t mean they don’t own these streets. 

I round a corner, and a sandy-haired mutt runs toward me, growling, shoulders hunched. His bark is so strong and sharp, I can feel it in my temples, and a pounding panic grows in my heart. 

I wasn’t supposed to be doing this alone. Two months ago, I was running on beaches in Thailand with my boyfriend by my side, barefoot, trusting our feet to the soft give of wet sand. We had quit our jobs and left everything behind to embark on a new life together. We were in foreign lands in every sense, but we had a home in each other.

After our runs, we would buy skewered chicken and long slices of mango from the street vendors, and sit on the curb to eat. Thai street dogs, furry and gentle, would approach us, sitting docilely by our sides. They never growled or begged, and we would place scraps of food at their feet that they would happily, politely, gobble up. They seemed like part of the welcoming committee, embracing my partner and me as warmly as sunshine.

But the partnership ruptured, and things don’t seem so friendly anymore. I’m carrying the dream-built-for-two on my lonesome, and the weight of it gets to me. The exotic adventure has morphed into a perilous journey in an unknown land. 

The sandy-haired mutt keeps barking at me, staring me down, blocking my way. I want to dash away, to cower, but I know that will only bolster his behavior. 

Instead, I stand my ground. I plant my feet and try to steady my breathing. He keeps barking but, miraculously, does not come closer. I slowly start walking away, facing him with a steady, downward motion of my hand, calming myself with thoughts of the sweet-natured Sheltie I grew up with. As I circle back around the bend and the barking slows and stops. I heave a sigh of relief.

shutterstock_335427047

Fear is a funny thing. It’s a biological response meant to keep us safe. But sometimes it gets tied up with other tough emotions like sadness, guilt, and sorrow, and it becomes bigger than it ought to be. It’s not irrational to be afraid of stray dogs who haven’t learned to socialized with humans, of course. But fear shouldn’t stop us from doing what we love, either. 

Lucky for me, less time running meant more time at the beach, and Bali is a mighty fine place to sit on the sand. As the sea salt and sunshine worked its magic on my slumping heart, I started to encounter a different “breed” of street dog. 

Unfurling on Sanur beach one Tuesday afternoon, digging into a tattered copy of an old Edith Wharton novel, I noticed a shaggy Labrador-type dog sauntering over to me. My stomach twisted at first, and I got ready to gather my things and relocate. But she was moving slowly, quietly; coming straight at me but not in a threatening way. Besides, her eyes seemed kind. And as I glanced around at the locals, I got a couple smiles. I decided to stay put.

The pooch walked right over and parked herself on the edge of my sarong. It occurred to me she might want my snack, so I offered her my half-eaten apple. She sniffed it but was uninterested. Her seated position lazed down into a lounge on her side, and she looked up at me. 

This was not a look of “get out, this is my space, you don’t belong here.” This was a look that was much more familiar to me, even though it felt like ages since I’d seen it last. Her look said, “I’ll be sweet to you if you’re sweet to me.” It said, “My heart is full of love and I’d like to share that with you, if you’re up for it.” And above all it said, “What else is there in life, really, besides belly rubs and sunshine?”

I scratched behind her ears, tentatively at first, but who can resist the happy submission of a friendly dog? Then, she lay on her back, pressed against my leg, and I swept my fingers through her fur like we were old chums. 

People say misery loves company, but I think the best companions actually surface when we’re feeling good. As me and my Lab got cozy, a black, mid-sized mutt wandered over to join us. He demanded neither attention nor food, although I certainly gave him a fair share of pets. He just wanted, I think, to be near us. The three of us basked in the Balinese sun as the waves rose and fell. 

When it was time for me to leave, I stood slowly, half expecting my new friends to rise and walk with me. I was reminded of the dogs I encountered a few weeks before in Sa Pa, a mountain town in northern Vietnam renowned for its hiking. 

As I trekked among Sa Pa’s green hills and rolling rice paddies, I would often find myself accompanied by local dogs—lean, untagged pooches who seemed to belong to no one and everyone, cared for but not tied down. They would trot out from the fields, give me a cursory sniff, then hike alongside me for a stretch, their rich coats shinning in the sun. These Vietnamese mountain dogs, too, seemed to want nothing from me, and I fancied them guardians or hosts, proudly showing me around their homeland with their long, furry tails ever wagging. Although I was on my own at the time, the break-up was not yet a sure thing, and I felt more “solo” than “alone.” Reflecting on this, I realized that perhaps my own state of mind was affecting my experiences with the stray dogs of South East Asia. 

The Bali beach dogs didn’t follow me home. They licked my hands and sent me on my way, content to stay curled in the sand. 

The next day, I went for a run. I avoided certain dead ends, a simple solution that changed the whole experience. Laughing children were the only ones that chased me. The guard dogs kept barking, but I didn’t mind. Given the right circumstances, I bet sunshine and belly rubs would soften them right up, too.