Our dog Charley was rescued from the campo when she was three months old. The campo is the rural area outside town where cows, chickens, and pigs roam freely and people farm plots that resemble junkyards and live in rectangular, cinder block houses with few windows and dirt floors.
The gringa who saved Charley is named Jennifer. Jennifer was out for a hike and noticed a small, scrawny, and desperate puppy begging at a roadside taco stand - Mexico’s equivalent of fast food. She asked the plump, middle-aged campesina flipping tortillas on the comal, where the puppy lived and was directed up the road.
Jennifer gathered Charley into her arms and after a few minutes’ walk, emerged into a dusty compound strewn with rusted machine parts and deteriorating cardboard boxes full of empty beer bottles. She found Charley’s mother, miserable and hungry, chained to a stake in the middle of the yard. Two other mangy puppies scavenged the dirt nearby looking for anything to eat.
Jennifer was certain that if she left the dogs in these conditions they would end up no better than dead. She offered the campesino presiding over this motley crew - who looked barely able to feed himself - 100 pesos for the lot (US$5) and led her new dependents to the car.
R and I never contemplated owning a dog when we lived in Alexandria. But as we prepared to move to San Miguel, R began looking at the several social media groups related to town and came across Jennifer’s posts offering Charley, and her mother and brothers, for adoption.
When the kids were younger R and I used to offer them ice cream if they behaved - probably the oldest parenting tactic in the book. We haven’t outgrown the habit. To minimize their complaints about moving to San Miguel, we used the lure of getting a puppy.
The kids still fall for this subtle form of bribery, and barely 48 hours after arriving in town, we were at Jennifer’s house playing with the now healthy family. Regular meals, a warm and safe household ruled by loving handling and playtime, and several visits to the veterinarian, meant mom and her puppies were adorable.
All the pups had redeeming qualities, but we liked Charley’s toughness. Even though both her brothers were bigger than she was, she never backed down from a wrestling match and always held her own.
We shortly realized, however, that a puppy is not like an ice cream cone. It’s not gone in five minutes, and being responsible for a puppy was more time and money spent than any of us imagined. We had training sessions to teach her not to pee on the rug or poop in the shower. We took her to the vet for shots and to make sure she wouldn’t be adding to the dog population with her own litter. And we did the rounds with other puppy owners to make sure she had friends to play with. Basically, we treated her like our own child - except we made her sleep in a cage each night.
Over a year has passed since we got Charley. To say she is living the life would be an understatement. She gets morning playtime with other dogs. She eats kibble mixed with chicken hearts, chicken livers, and ground pork that we buy at the butcher shop. R and I would be comfortable feeding this stuff to the kids for dinner.
After her morning run she sleeps all day wherever she damn well pleases - moving from the sunny patio, to our bed, to J’s bed, to under the bed, and back to the patio, at will. She gets afternoon love from the kids and another run before dinner. She goes to bed with a “Kong” (basically, a dog pacifier) slicked with homemade peanut butter. She never has to brush her teeth.
And although we have those moments of doubt where we wonder if we are doing all that we can do to keep Charley a fully engaged and happy dog, we know that even if we aren’t, she’s a lot better off than she would be if Jennifer had just walked away when she’d first seen her.
Roof dogs, Nose dogs, and Door dogs
Dogs will randomly turn up at Charley’s morning playgroup. They’ll wander in without a collar and run around with the other dogs, and sometimes follow us home. Later in the day we might see the same dog in the market or sunning in the plaza or just walking purposefully down the sidewalk like it is trying to keep an appointment.
Some of these dogs are homeless - “street dogs” in the parlance - and look the part: scrawny, unkempt, and begging for change. Others, though, are robust, with collars (sometimes with a bit of rope still hanging from the clip), and groomed, shiny coats, which lends to the idea that their owners let them wander for the day (or they have chewed through their leash and escaped).
Other dogs are locked in their houses - barking at us from behind thick wooden doors - or left in the garage and able to stick their noses in the gap and bark Beethoven’s Fifth.
Some dogs have free range on their roof - hence roof dogs - to rain down a hail of barked warnings at passerby, who are often left to wonder if the roof dog is smart enough not to jump in a fit of rage, or perhaps in a bid for freedom.
Charley knows where the roof dogs, door dogs, and nose dogs are. On our walk to the park she’ll act appropriately - running past the barking roof dogs, sniffing at the doors that hide other dogs, and ignoring wandering dogs that she knows won’t play with her, or worse, will growl at her.
In the US, “Beware of Dog” signs warn that a dog will bark at you, perhaps loudly and aggressively. In Mexico, “Cuidado el Perro” signs mean that the dog will eat your dog and then demand your ATM card.
One dog we walk past in the morning barks and growls so viciously on its leash that its owner carries a stick that he uses to knock it on the head - gently - as we hurry past. He smiles at us and reassures us that “todo esta bien.” Everything’s okay. I don’t think so!
In the afternoon Charley gets walked in a nearby vacant lot. The lot comes complete with weeds, broken bottles, and wind blown Doritos packaging. What sets it apart from the stereotypical vacant lot is that it has a nice view of the former mill pond. The local kids play in the gravel of the lot, set fire to the weeds, and sometimes kick a soccer ball around.
One particular brother and sister pair is especially dirty. Their house abuts the vacant lot (I use the term “house” loosely as their living space consists of a square, stone structure which might be the kitchen, and an adjacent enclosed area made out of what appears to be black plastic bags.)
One time I saw the man of the house, whom I assume to be the kids’ father, passed out on the stone steps leading to the door. On garbage days I see him and a woman (the mother?) rifling through the bags that get piled on the corner searching for plastic bottles and aluminum cans to sell to the recycling plant. Recently I saw him exiting his house early in the morning carrying a drill. He’s a jack of all trades.
The family keeps a dog named Huarache. A huarache is a type of shoe worn by campesinos and I wonder if the dog got its name because of the growths it has on its hind legs.
Huarache is a free range dog - left to wander the streets all day. He’s a friendly dog, and sometimes he’ll come out of his house and visit with Charley on her afternoon walks in the lot. This involves a lot of innocent butt-sniffing.
We’ll often see Huarache strolling the side walks around town. It’s not unusual to see him several kilometers from his house on the butcher block - the street with lots of butcher shops where we get our meat - or hanging out in the central plaza with a pack of street dogs.
If the street dogs aren’t dozing on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun, they can be an intimidating lot - barking ferociously at passerby. So, in that sense, Huarache is like the kid next door. He was such a nice boy, until . . .
I’ll always call Huarache’s name when I see him wandering the streets. He’ll stop and turn his head towards me, but we don’t have the kind of relationship where he’ll come over and let me pet him. But he’s always ready to give Charley’s ass a good sniff and then lift his leg to take a pee. That counts for something, I guess.
Seeing dead dogs along the side of the road is not uncommon in Mexico. It’s not quite as common as seeing a dead squirrel in the road in suburban New Jersey or an armadillo on its back with its short, stubby legs pointed towards the sky in Arkansas. But, it’s not unusual to see two or three splayed out on those long stretches of narrow road that connect the towns and villages. Sometimes they have white powder thrown over them - which I assume is lime- as they lay baking in the sun in their final resting place on the shoulder of the road.
I’ve been unfortunate enough to see two live dogs become dead dogs. The first time was in Ecuador in 2008. We were driving at high speed in a taxi on a long, flat stretch of road and the dog came straight into our path. It was following its people across the blacktop as they ran to greet someone getting off a bus. The taxi driver had plenty of time to slow down or maneuver around the dog, but didn’t veer off course at all, and didn’t even take his foot off the gas pedal after he ran it down. Instead, he looked at me sitting horrified in the passenger seat and shrugged his shoulders.
The second time I saw a dog get hit by a car was recently. I was driving my family and in-laws to a weekend getaway at the butterfly reserve in Michoacan state. As is our habit on these type trips, we were cruising the local libramiento (free road) rather than the cuota (toll road) and had to slow down as we passed from the vast acreage of undeveloped scrub land that makes up most of Central Mexico, to the series of topes (speed bumps) that signifies a village ahead.
As I eased our vehicle over the first tope leading into town, I could see a puppy and its mother playing in the road in front of me. The mother moved to the side as I inched forward, but the puppy got confused and rather than follow its mother, made a move into the opposite lane of traffic, which hadn’t slowed down as much as I had. I had a front row seat as the puppy’s head bounced off the driver’s side tire of the oncoming SUV and it crumpled to the pavement - dead instantly.
How quickly things can change.
I wonder if Charley didn’t learn just a little bit from her few months in the campo - and if dogs retain languages learned in their youth as easily as children do. I wonder this because sometimes I will say something in English to Charley, like “come here” or “leave it”, and she’ll look at me like I’m the dumbest motherfucker on earth. Then I’ll say the same thing in Spanish and she’ll respond immediately.
R and I like to say that we have the best behaved dog - she listens 100% of the time. When she wants to.
It’s a dog’s life.