Before moving to Santiago, I was told about the large number of stray dogs that roam this country. As an American, my first thought was that I was going to see horrible things, like starving and sick animals, dead bodies, or even abused dogs that had nowhere to go. I was happy to be incredibly wrong. All of my fears were unfounded and I quickly saw that these dogs were loved and looked after by an entire population rather than an owner.
As I got to know the city and it’s citizens more, I was fascinated by the culture surrounding the street dogs. In the eight months I lived in Chile, I only saw 2 skinny dogs (not starving) and just one that was terribly sick. There were also some others who had fleas and ticks. While it was hard to see, knowing I couldn’t afford to do anything for them, it is an incredibly low number considering the millions of street dogs that live there.
The first thing that struck me was how smart some of them were! They had all learned when it was safe to cross the street; waiting for the people to start walking first before they stepped into the street. One time I saw a dog take the underground metro. He came down the stairs, ducked under the gate, and stood facing the tracks without losing concentration. When the train pulled up, and the doors opened, he walked right inside like he was headed to the office along with the rest of us. I’v heard the same stories from several other people. Some have also learned how to use the public buses. I heard they did, and finally I saw one ride it all the way down the street, and then get off at his stop.
That being said, there are also some stupid ones as well. For some reason, a few of the dogs love to chase anything that moves, which is most often cars. My friend said she saw one chasing cars and get too close. It was knocked unconscious, and she helped the dog onto the sidewalk. When he fully came to, he went right back to chasing cars. But don’t worry, the drivers are careful not to hit them.
As a whole, the people of Chile love the dogs. Most of the population live in apartments, making it impossible for them to take in the larger dogs, but they take care of them however they can. During winter, people will catch the dogs and put fuzzy jackets on them to keep them warm.
When winter ends and the temperatures start rising, the dogs will be caught again and their jackets will be taken off. In addition, large plastic jugs are cut in half and used as water bowls for the dogs. Not only do they clothe them, they also build dog houses for them. They aren’t able to take them home, but they make sure the dogs have shelter nonetheless.
Everywhere you go, there are dogs going here and there, or sleeping the afternoon away. For the most part, the people and dogs live separate lives, going about their own business. The dogs aren’t overly friendly; they’ve adapted well to living in the streets, knowing where the warmest place to sleep is, or where there’s the most trash.
Sometimes however, you’ll see a dog that has been adopted by a restaurant. Every time I went to a restaurant called California Cantina, there was the same tan dog waiting outside for closing time and leftovers. He would even chase away any other dog that came into the area. It was also easy to tell since these dogs are almost always overweight.
While people may not be openly affectionate, these dogs have the run of the city. There is a popular open market in Santiago called Persa Bio Bio where there are hundreds of shops and people selling everything under the sun. The street dogs are allowed to go wherever they want.
They basically have the run of the city. I’ve seen them in supermarkets and stores. People only halfheartedly chase them out. One time, I was eating dinner at a restaurant with friends, and one strolled in and decided he was going to nap under our table. He didn’t beg for food or anything; I think he just wanted somewhere warm since it was a cold winter night.
They were fun to have around, and some of the sweetest dogs I have ever met. Not once was I growled at, snapped at, or bitten. The worst thing I experienced was being downright ignored by them, which as you can imagine, broke my soul. They love any attention, but if there’s no food involved, they don’t stick around long.
For a few days, I visited San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the northern desert. The dogs were friendly towards people, but fought often amongst themselves. I imagine as it is a smaller place, there is less food to go around. There were dogs fighting in the streets almost every day, but the residents were quick to yell at them to break it up. As a whole, these guys were a lot skinnier, but more skilled at dumpster diving.
While we’re on the subject of San Pedro, my friend and I did have a dog related incident. You can read more about it in my San Pedro blog post, but my friend was bitten repeatedly on her morning run. The interesting thing was that those actually had a home, and had run out of the yard to chase her. If there are any dogs I would warn people against, it’s the ones that are actually owned by people. If you do find yourself being harassed by a dog, stand your ground and act threatening. They will back off, their aggression is just for show.
That being said, I wanted to adopt all of them. There are actually a lot of people who do adopt the dogs off of the street, and they seem to make great pets. They are some of the smartest dogs you’ll see, regardless of breed. Many of them can be walked off of the leash because they know not to run in the street, when to cross the street, and have been socialized well with other street dogs that they are very non aggressive.
When they are able to, the people care for them. Leaving out food, and taking care of the sick ones if they can afford it. I saw several dogs that had obviously had mange in the past, but were recovering, and their hair was growing back. I also found a shy one that had a little bandage around his leg. It looked clean, so I left it on.
I felt like writing about the dogs because of how differently we view stray dogs in the United States. Usually people either head in the opposite direction when they see a stray dog, or try to find it a home, right? None of these are bad things of course, but the mentality is so different. In places like Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru, the dogs have a society of their own. They pass the people on the street without a second glance, and vice versa. I think I’m going to miss the neighborhood street dogs actually, they’re fun to have around. Who wouldn’t want a city full of dogs?