A Dogs Life (in Bhutan)

“I hear in America you treat your dogs like babies,” inquired a Bhutanese as we stared at the 6 stray dogs contentedly hangin’ on top of the two foot high cement center divide of the busy street we were trying to cross.

“Do you mean babies in Bhutan, or babies in the US?” I chuckled. Seeing that the joke was lost, I explained, “The human babies in Bhutan have more freedom to roam than do the dogs in the US.”

I went on to share that the way we treat our dogs is dependent on the individual dog owner and a reflection on that persons view of the dog/human relationship. But that for all dog owners, strict laws are in place as to how American dogs can participate in public.  As we walked, frequently maneuvering around sleeping or moving stray dogs, I thought of the plethora of dog experiences we generated (and paid a lot of money for) in the US in order to anthropomorphize our dogs—which was in stark contrast to ones dog experience in Bhutan. And I explained:

We have dog parks, movies about dog parks, an abundance of vets as well as vet specialists and vet universities, emergency rooms for dogs, dog shows, movies about dog shows, huge chain stores as well as online stores devoted to pet supplies, a massive market for dog food that ‘feeds’ the belief that we should NEVER give dogs people food, small niche dog boutiques, dog birthday parties, dog outings, dog costumes, festivals and parades, dog whisperers, TV shows on dog whisperers, dog training classes (for all ages of dogs), dog therapists, dog breeders, dog groomers, do it yourself dog bath stations, running races for dogs and owners, dog sitters, dog walkers, doggie day and night care, and government officials who mandate and regularly enforce that we follow all the dog laws and rules, inclusive of picking up our dog poop with special plastic bags designed just for such an endeavor.

In Bhutan, dogs are as visually prevalent but much louder than, prayer flags, Chortens or people

Center divide dogs in downtown Thimphu spend their day sleeping in the middle of traffic.

walking with mala beads quietly chanting prayers. But few people have a dog as a personal pet. Which is why meeting the dogs of Sakteng during Expedition Bhutan was quite odd. In the far east of the country, Sakteng is remote. It takes two days of walking on trail from the nearest road to get to the village. And as we witnessed, they were the last region in the country to get electricity to their area (completed in March of 2012). The people of Sakteng dress differently, they wear a distinct hat made of boiled yak hair, their houses are that of ancient Bhutan, and they push Ara (rice wine) like no other village in the country. But they breed and sell a small white dog that resembles a medium length haired Maltese. They pamper these dogs, hike with them and keep them clean and groomed. If Sakteng is an exception in all it is socially, their dog relationships followed suit.

This is a Sakteng puppy and the only time I’ve willfully cuddled a dog in Bhutan (during Expedition Bhutan). Staying away from them is a tough job…

Because for the rest of the country the social evolution of dogs is that they tend to roam free, choosing their own packs, territory and people, at will. Since the majority of Bhutanese dogs are as mellow as the people, this system can work. But because until fairly recently dogs were not neutered, and because in Buddhist belief one does not euthanize any being, the vast numbers generated caused the odds to lean in the direction of trouble.

Increase in rabies, disgruntled tourists and safety concerns from parents caused the people to seek a solution that worked. In 2009 with help from the Bhutan Foundation (who was also an excellent resource for Expedition Bhutan) introduced the Ministry of Agriculture of the Royal Government of Bhutan to Humane Society International. Together they brought in vets from India to train Bhutanese vets, generate awareness programs in all of the 21regions of the country, as well as start the process of neutering 50,000 stray dogs over a several year period. By the Fall of 2011, they have neutered over 30,000 dogs and are on the way to hitting their long term goal. But puppies are still prevalent.

As per some personal accounts I’ve read, and despite their Buddhist beliefs, some locals have taken it upon themselves to gather and destroy puppies and adult dogs when the population in an area is too great and a dangerous strain is put on the village. The dogs here in Thimphu, for the most part, look as healthy as stray dogs might be. But as we roamed the remote parts of the country during our Expedition we came upon many more in rural areas that had skin disorders, open wounds, legs that didn’t work and lots more gravely unsightly ailments.

Buddhist believe that if you take a life you are preventing that being from living out its karma in its present form. So the unhealthy dogs suffer, and the people take care of them.

The dogs here pick a hood. Then guard it. There are Chorten dogs, downtown dogs, stadium dogs,

Dechenphu Temple dogs, cats and chickens…

monastery dogs, pizza shop dogs and an oddly large number of center divide and round-about dogs that will sleep all day right in the middle of heavy traffic. Usually a pack forms in every neighborhood every few blocks or so. My apartment building has a shaggy brown sweetie who spends most of his time sleeping in front of the building with the tip of his pink tongue hanging out. The people of the area feed the dogs (and the pigeons). Everyone pitches in like one big family of sentient beings just getting on with the inevitable suffering of life together.

All is great in this unified community—until its not. A dog will start barking at night, creating a domino effect—for hours. The same effect can happen on the streets, with aggression. Dogs are chill until one decides not to be, and prompts his buddies to bully up on other dogs or on people (which I’ve experienced a few times).

When I bring up the night barking, Bhutanese just nod their head from side to side, which is a universal gesture of acceptance. No one yells at the dogs to be quiet at night, nor calls the police to shut them up. The dogs are loud, and thats just the way it is. I wear ear plugs.

Though I did get my (very expensive) rabies shots before Expedition Bhutan because of the length of time and rural locations we would be spending in country, I too have grown to live around the prominence of dogs in Bhutan. Living around them hasn’t been the tough part. Not touching them has been the challenge. Being a dog person I want to give the dogs a big cuddle when I see them. In particular the puppies. And they know I am keen so they seek me out.

But the dogs in Bhutan are not domesticated animals the way the dogs are in the US. Americans co-habitate with; vaccinated, flea bath scrubbed, regularly brushed, sleeping on their own special dog bed or in their owners bed, and with regular check ups for any other sorts of diseases that we Americans can’t live with, dogs. The stray dogs here are born, live in  streets or villages while eating scraps of food given to them from the people, and then they die. ‘Dog food’ is very expensive here and it is rare for people to purchase. But I have only seen one dead dog body on the street and rarely do I even see dog poop.

[Its important to note that though I’m singling out dogs in this post; cows, horses, donkeys, yaks, chickens, etc. also roam at large, and people and cars all move around them as necessary]

Imagine living in a neighborhood with the possibility that the stray dog that hangs out in front of

Could this be a relative of yours?

your house could be your grandfather who’s come back in his next life as a dog.  Would you feed it? Would you want to euthanize it if that wouldn’t allow granddad to live out his karma in this dog life? Thats a tough one.

Being an aspiring Buddhist I still put my dog down last year when he was very old and suffering badly. He couldn’t eat any more or walk outside to go to the bathroom. So I made the call. And even being here in Bhutan living among the dogs and devout Buddhist, I would not only make the same call again for Gryphon, but I am a believer in euthanizing humans in particular situations (have I just opened a huge can of ring worms? ;). So as far as Buddhism goes—I suspect I’ll keep aspiring…

And as far as the Bhutanese dogs go; they’ll just keep reminding me of the Patagonia t-shirt I wear with the Freedom to Roam logo on it.

Except they aren’t a coalition, they are the Bhutanese version of the real deal.

Back at you soon from Bhutan,


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