What we’ve seen from my previous post about the symbiotic domestication of cats is the obvious fact that animals have been kept around and bred for different purposes. This can be the case within species as well, and what I’ve seen particularly exemplified with dogs around the world. I’ve seen them used as fashion accessories and status symbols, herders and hunters, companions - basically the gamut.

My time in Hungary was spent more with children than animals, but that didn’t prevent me from trying to engage with the dogs of the village. This was at times difficult, because dogs in rural Hungary are not thought of as the fluffy, cuddly, beings we let inhabit our beds at night; instead, they are taught to be aggressive and possessive, often kept in crates or fenced for the majority of their lives.

The view from home in Hungary.

This attitude is not ubiquitous around Hungary. Indeed, during my weekends in Budapest, I’d see a man walking a soft white dog in a harness and letting it sniff at spots on the road. In the villages, though, suspicion permeates even though crime rates are actually quite low (an indicator: I often left my basement bedroom door unlocked, and nothing happened even while we lived across the street from a man who’d been arrested several times).

Thus every almost every house had a dog standing sentry - the most popular breeds being pitbulls and other large dogs reputed to be aggressive. My presence passing any fence almost always caused a ruckus, but there were some dogs I managed to win over.

I’d start by just talking to them. A quick warning on this: don’t overestimate your charisma here, because some dogs will only bark harder. In that case, cut your losses and move on quickly. But those I took by surprise stopped and looked at me. I’d continue talking and slowly approach, extending my hand to make contact. And it worked.

The thing about guard dogs is that they often don’t receive a lot of training or affection, and my attention went a long way toward building a positive relationship. They’d recognize me later and stick their noses through the links for me.

The differences between city and country.

This culture of dogs as defense made the community generally view dogs with trepidation. Once, my supervisors and I snuck away from a training into the village, with the intention of meeting a man and his truffle-hunting dogs. The dogs clamored to see us, and I knelt down in greeting, amidst warnings of, “Those dogs are dangerous. Don’t get too close.” Had these warnings come from the owner himself, I would have heeded them. As it was, the dogs rolled on their backs for attention and presented me with licks. Likewise, my supervisors’ hyperactive vizsla calmed for a few minutes while I stroked him.

The reality is, sometimes it is hard to travel and see how animals live in other places - as I know it can be for visitors to the United States (my mind always goes to our factory farms, or how we eat beef, or pork while certain religions and countries condemn the killing of cows or pigs). It’s harder at times when I realize that, though dogs around the world may have different functions, they often react the same to loving attention and an offer of companionship. We’re learning a lot more about animal psychology and how to maximize camaraderie. It’s different and innovative, and, of course, innovation takes time to catch on.

So my question for you is, how have you changed training methods for your animals over the years? What have you learned about animal behavior?

I was listening to a podcast a while ago about the domestication of the cat: apparently the cat and the human arrived at this relationship through a symbiotic development. Cats hung around human places, took care of the various pests, and reaped rewards - so they stuck it out, and became what we have today.

I saw this relationship exemplified perfectly when I lived with my host family in Nepal - two cats existed alongside my family, acting as pets, but also as feral creatures that came, went, and hunted as they pleased. In other ways, too, these cats acted as the charming troublemakers, little menaces that scrapped, stole, and lazed around like oafs.

A pixelated view of our eating area.

They were one black and one with mottled brown and grey stripes, one the parent and the other the rebellious child. They often showed up around dinner time - when we sat on woven stools around an open fire, my family eating with their hands and I with a large spoon - mewling loudly. They’d chase fist-sized spiders around the terrace, and sneak up behind the large pots of extra food. I distinctly remember a time the brown and grey cat - more the rascal than the other - snagged a few licks from the serving spoon before getting shooed away. Another time it sunk its teeth into the plastic handle of a bag of bagels and attempted to drag them away between its legs. Lastly, at one point, my host brother became so frustrated with the cat’s shenanigans, he plunked one of the hollow stools over it until the meal was cooked.

Animal discipline around the world truly deserves its own post.

It seems at this point that that whole symbiotic relationship thing I mentioned earlier is less than extant for these cats, but they did do their part. Aside from keeping the spiders and crickets in check, they also curbed the mouse population. In countries such as Nepal, nature and home are not as separated as we keep them in the United States. My home in particular was a concrete behemoth with no inner architecture; the bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen were situated outside, and though we had windows, not all of them were completely covered with glass. As such, nature worked its way in and filled my room with spiders, mosquitos, and even lizards.

The view from the top floor. A cat might often be found lounging on the tarp-turned-roof.

The cats did their jobs, keeping the mice out of the kitchen so our food remained uncontaminated. They ate the leftovers the family didn’t want to go to waste - and at times offered themselves to me when I couldn’t eat something because of a food allergy.

In time, I won them over - something I’ve never been able to do with my cat at home. My host family laughed at me at first because of my unrequited attempts to pet especially the brown and black cat. But - they were also happiest for me when that cat finally climbed into my lap during evening tea.

I have so many fond memories of the people and animals I met while in Nepal. These cats occupy some of my favorites.

I’d love to hear about some of the wacky pets you’ve met along the way. What is a story that stands out?


Cecilia meets two friends in Dingle.

The quintessential Irish animal (for us foreigners, at least) may be the sheep. With it comes the image of the quintessential Irish sheepdog, roaming in green pastures at the heels of a shepherd in an earth-toned sweater. To round out the picture, we must give the shepherd a set of khaki pants and a cabbie hat.

While it’s true that Ireland’s fauna does not get much more complicated than a sheep - and cows, for added measure - Ireland does have a distinct culture when it comes to dog ownership.

For example, our American notion of leashes and harnesses can be thrown out right now. Fences? Feh, a mere suggestion of a boundary rather than a hard line. Whereas in the United States we like to keep our animals close and under control, pets in Ireland often roam freely.

Let’s alter the image: instead of a pasture think of a city with low-rise buildings and each door painted vibrantly and distinctively (side note: I was informed by a friend the doors are painted as such in Ireland due to heavy drinking in older times. Similarly to the painted white stumps in Portland, you needed to know what you were knocking on). We’re at the intersection where Western Avenue becomes the city center and pedestrians wait in layers for the light to turn - and there’s a loose dog underfoot. He’s small, about ankle-height, minding his own business and plodding in swooping arcs after an efficiently-moving owner. If he goes too far astray, a word or whistle returns him to the intended path.

So there’s the city. Dogs in the more agricultural areas could have even more liberty to roam at will. Here we are in Dingle wandering the green cliffs and scrabbling over centuries-old bouldered fences to touch, just touch, really, one small pat, a cow. While cows in Ireland could render their own post, the focus now is the lone dog cresting a nearby hill, and who stops to greet us. This scene repeated itself on our way to climb Carrauntoohil when a dog appeared on the road and followed us to the trailhead. In both of these instances the dogs had homes, but they could come and go at will.

Looking down on the town of Dingle.

We commented often while there how well behaved the dogs are. I think there are a few reasons for this. One is that Ireland has no sizeable predators - Ireland’s move from forested lands to agriculture has a lot to do with that. Thus the freewheeling cats and dogs have significantly less to worry about than the coyotes we get in our neighborhoods. There is also the obvious historical usage of dogs for herding, hunting, and agricultural work, which means dogs had to be at a certain level of training and independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is still at play today. Finally, small dogs reign supreme in Ireland, and therefore there’s less risk associated with them.

Let me reiterate: larger dogs aren’t as popular, and are even perceived as dangerous. The few labs, retrievers, and German Shepherds that I saw were leashed and even affixed with muzzles. To drive the point further home, there was a time I was set to meet a friend who warned me repeatedly about his very large dog. When I met the dog, it turned out to be a normally-sized yellow lab. Even more striking, every local we came across that day commented in shock on the size of the dog. In Ireland, you’re more likely to see Jack Russell Terriers, papillons, and other small, shaggy, dogs.

A final note on something those of us Americans found humorous - I swear I saw more children on leashes than dogs.

To finish: do you have a big dog or a small dog? How much freedom does it have?


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