By Debby Kay copyright 2016 all rights reserved
It took me a while to fully realize that my plane had just landed in Tibet, a place that was so far from the reality of my everyday life that it almost seemed like a dream. But here I was in this mystical land of ancient customs and spiritualism not to mention some of the tallest mountains in the world.
I was in the city of Lhasa, one of the larger ones in the region. It was a wonderful mixture of old and new architecture and technology. That is something I admire the Chinese doing far better than any other culture I have visited. They seem to have the ability to blend the two seamlessly and retain all the great points of both without compromising either. During my trek around the area visiting monasteries, bazaars and people’s homes I was able to catch a glimpse of the local dogs, a rare sight in the big cities of the rest of China. People do have pets in China but they are a minority and you rarely see a dog on the streets in any of the towns. Here in Lhasa, in a few stores and then on the outskirts of the city proper, you begin to see more dogs. I thought it might be interesting to show a photo journal I took of these dogs and some of the insights I gleaned from our interactions.
The first thing that strikes you is that no dog is on leash. Not in the city or in the more rural areas. It is just not needed.
These guys have had total freedom to make choices from puppyhood and it really shows in their attitude. They don’t pester people, beg, growl, or in any interfere with people. They are just there, minding their own business and observing what is going on or interacting with other dogs. I only saw one dog that belonged to a shop keeper and one other that “monitored” by a single person who seemed to be keeping track of where the dog was as they scurried along the busy bazaar street filled with people. All the other dogs appeared to belong to no one in particular. This is perhaps where the distinction between strays and feral dogs is made. In previous studies I have read on dogs, strays were defined as those dogs who were free roaming but choose to still associate with people whereas feral dogs would have nothing to do with people and choose to keep away.
The dog in this photo which belonged to a shop keeper we visited and bought a painting from, did not need to be told what to do, where to stay or how to behave. He just did all those things on his own and in perfect accord with the comings and goings of people into the shop. Does it make you wonder if what
you are doing to raise and train a perfect canine good citizen is wrong? Just what do these people do differently that makes these dogs such a pleasure to be around. I think the key is in allowing them to be dogs. They are not treated or thought of in any other way. They are respected as being dogs with their own culture, this is something that I saw in the people in Tibet towards other people as well. It was clear that many of the people from very remote parts of the steppes around Lhasa who had made the long pilgrimage to the Sera Monastery we were visiting had never seen a Caucasian before. I was looked at with great curiosity many times. One incident that stands out in my mind was sitting on a bench and having a pilgrim join me. He stared at me for a long while and then finally reached out with his hand to touch me. I smiled at him and took his hand and shook it gently telling him I was pleased to meet him. He was simply excited at the interaction; he did not try to make into anything else. This was the same with the dogs. All the interactions were simple, straightforward and nothing was made beyond what it was. The impact this simple interaction leaves on the dogs is what I saw in the way the dogs reacted round people, in other words with the simpler interactions there was a peaceful and pleasant mellowness in the dog’s behaviors.
Think about how you, your friends, and people in general react to the presence of a dog. There is all this fussing, overly attention bestowing behaviors and certainly a lot of chatting too, every time people get around a dog or puppy. Try taking a young cute service dog in training to a public place to work and you can barely go 5 feet before being swamped by people doting on the poor thing. Is it any wonder dogs begin at an early age to develop excitable behaviors around meeting people? Think about the most common interactions we see on the streets of dogs meeting other dogs walking. The usual reaction I see from people is they get tense, shorten the leash, and in anything but a calming voice, try to reassure the dog that the other dog will not attack them. Is it any wonder where dog on dog aggression comes from?
When watching all the strays around the monastery
however, what you saw instead was dogs sleeping peacefully out of the path of the people, you saw dogs meeting other dogs with no aggression what so ever and you also saw that these dogs recognized certain individuals that would periodically offer them scraps of food. In one case I was observing 5 strays that were napping on one another in a pile when a familiar food source person walked by behind them about 8 feet away. The dog on top of the pile lifted their nose towards the person and in a split second the whole group was up and sitting politely by the old lady who produced a bag of scraps. No one fought for the scrapes either, each dog waited their turn patiently for the bit handed to them. When the bag was empty the dogs disappeared. Not a word was ever spoken by the old woman. In another part of the monastery courtyard I saw a young woman feeding a mom and her pups and again witnessed patience and manners from all.
These dogs knew their place, had rules they followed, and exhibited a great degree of self-control. No one taught them those things, they were able to work it out themselves. It is amazing to me the degree to which dogs can problem solve and learn when they are put in an enriched environment and allowed to make their own decisions. Seeing what these dogs were doing I am more convinced than ever that we often micro-manage our own dogs far too much and don’t allow them to just be dogs and to make dog decisions. I know when the bestselling book Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote came out and he extolled the virtues of dogs having free choices to roam as they choose in his village of Kelly, Wyoming a lot of people were taken aghast. But the more I see how the freedom of choice allows dogs to develop the depth of personality I was seeing in these street dogs of Tibet, the more I am convinced that we are often doing a great injustice to our dogs with the overabundance of restraints we put on them. I realize we can’t let our dogs all roam free here but we can certainly take a hint from these guys and make some adjustments to how we interact and manage our relationship with our canine companions to increase their happiness.
Here are some take always I got from my interactions with the Dogs of Tibet to consider:
- Allow pups to follow you without a lead in as many places as possible while they are growing up. The idea is to have a relationship with the dog that makes the dog want to be with you because you are a cool person to hang with not because he is tethered to you with a line.
- When raising a puppy allow them to make their own choices without you interfering, for example, if they want to crawl over a log and it looks like them might fall off the other side, let them. Don’t say anything, let them experience things on their own.
- Work on the relationship with your dog without bribes such as treats.
- Try not talking so much to your dog, rather watch and learn their body language and learn how they talk to each other without words.
- Quit petting your dog so much, I’m convinced dogs don’t like that as much as people think they do.
- Don’t micromanage your dog or make your dog so dependent on you to make their decisions that it creates an unbalanced relationship
- Install a dog door if you have a fenced yard so your dog can go there when they want. It’s not the same as being able to wander a wider territory but it will help to empower them to think and act in ways you don’t see when the dogs are dependent on the humans for everything including elimination habits.
I still can see the image of the puppy I met who was establishing his own routine and
allowed me to photograph him with nothing more than a glance. He was full of confidence, knew what he wanted and yet was respectful of his co-existence with the humans of the village. He may not of had a fancy collar, soft bed to sleep in, or expensive handcrafted dog food to eat, but this was one happy puppy. Perhaps there is something to what the Buddhists here say about happiness.
 “Population Biology and Ecology of Feral Dogs in Central Italy“: L. Boitano, F. Francisci, P. Ciucci and G. Andreoli; in The Domestic Dog, Editor James Serpell; Cambridge University Press, 1995, 217-244