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What I Learned from Watching Dogs in Peru

I was hesitant to go to Peru. I try to avoid third world countries because it pains me to see so much poverty when I can't do anything about it. Seeing the way animals are treated is hard, too, and you can't blame people for not taking top-notch care of their animals when they as humans aren't getting their needs met, either.

Last year my brother and his wife spent some time in Peru and decided to create a foundation to do something about all of the social and economic problems they observed there. The foundation is called Peru Hope. Among the many issues the foundation is addressing, the need for better animal care is on the list, and I am the one who gets to head that operation. So, I felt it was my duty to make the trip to Peru, observe the needs of the animals, talk with a local vet, and brainstorm ideas.

I knew there would be a lot of street dogs in Peru, and I hoped it wouldn't make me too depressed to see them. They wander the streets scavenging for food, nap on the side of the road, and no one gives them much attention. The people and the dogs live side-by-side, but neither seems bothered by the other. Dogs wander into restaurants, parks, public events and no one is shooing them away, but no one is petting them either. In fact, I brought a bunch of dog treats with me to hand out and when I would offer a treat to a dog, they were usually hesitant to take it from my hand, so I would just toss it to them.

There were a few who weren't scared and would let me pet them, but for the most part, they kept to themselves. Most of them looked well-fed, although there were some skinny ones that I would fatten up if I could. There were some that looked like they needed medical attention for skin issues and some mamas who needed to get fixed so they don't produce more babies. These are the issues I hope to address through the foundation in the future.

Something the Peru dogs did have in abundance that many dogs in the States don't have is their freedom. I only saw a few who were leashed to a human. Most were free to wander wherever they wanted and surprisingly, they didn't bother each other or anyone else. They seemed much calmer than the dogs here and definitely more street savvy! If we had dogs wandering around here off-leash the way they do in Peru, we would no doubt have a lot of upset people and dog fights! I have a theory about why that is and it has to do with freedom.

I'm convinced that all living creatures are happier when they have their freedom. Of course, for our protection, we are not all free to do exactly what we want to do at any given time. We have social rules, but as long as we stay within reasonable boundaries, we are free to make the majority of our life's choices. Animals that are kept in cages or even in homes don't get to make a lot of choices for themselves. Their caregiver decides when and what they eat, when they get out for exercise and socialization, when they get treats, attention and medical treatment.

If this is a dog that has a lot of pent up energy and only gets out for one hour a day to run around, it's no wonder that dog is jumping on people when they come over, bouncing off the walls, running off when they do get some freedom, barking at everything, etc. That dog needs a lot more freedom to run, play, sniff, and chase. For some dogs, it could take several hours for them to expend enough energy that they are calm in the house. Older dogs may only need a few minutes. If our dogs had the freedom to run and play as often as they wanted, I feel certain that would eliminate a lot of the behavior problems we see with dogs in the city. Of course, that is also very difficult to do when you don't live on a property with a ton of land. So, how can we give our dogs a little more freedom and help them be a little calmer and easier to handle?

My favorite remedy is off-leash hiking. I can absolutely tell a difference in my dog's behavior after a good long hike. They are getting old enough now that it doesn't even need to be that long. Sometimes a half hour of wandering and running around a school yard is plenty. Giving them the chance to be off-leash, though, so I am not micro-managing their every move is key to calming down their little brains. If you have observed a dog off-leash they aren't running the whole time. Sometimes they walk, stop and sniff something, pee, get the zoomies, chase something, walk, pee, sniff, repeat. The key is that they are making all of these tiny decisions on their own. They have the freedom to decide which plants to pee on, what ground to sniff, what dog to engage with, how fast to walk or run, etc. This is excellent not just for their physical well-being, but for their mental health as well.

If you can't take your dog off-leash, you can try a long line. They come in a variety of lengths so that your dog can feel like they have more freedom, but you still have control if necessary. I use a 30 foot line with my dog when we are walking around a park or an area that's not safe for him to be completely free. I can control how much line I give him and he gets a little more freedom to wander. Even if you are taking your dog on a leashed walk, you can give them the freedom to stop when they want to, sniff as long as they want to, go faster or slower if they want to, and even let them decide which turns to take if it's safe to do so.

I think if we could give our dogs more freedom, more exercise and more choices, they would be much easier to handle and probably much calmer, like the dogs I saw in Peru. I hope that in the near future, we will be able to provide the Peruvian dogs with medical treatments, vaccines, and food; things that our dogs have in abundance. Hopefully, by doing so, we can meet more of our dog's needs and benefit all of the dogs in our care.

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