The free-roaming world is not all rainbows and butterflies. No big deal.

This is the long version of my video description to go with today’s Free Roamer video. Subscribe to the channel here to not miss videos I don’t share on my blog. I also love comments, and am happy to discuss, clarify, and go into detail on Youtube.

Stand-offs with free-roamers

What you are going to see is two dogs in a stand-off. They don’t know each other. This is Game’s home range, but we don’t go here often. I don’t know if the other dog is in their home range or core area. First, Game is ready to curve politely. The other dog approaches frontally instead. As a result, the meeting itself starts off tensely: the free-roamer is tense, and Game responds with tenseness herself. They are in a stand-off: both stiff. Neither one giving an inch. I know it’s going to erupt.

I happen to have someone who’s taking video for me (thank you, Rodrigo!), which is rare – that’s the reason I do not interfere or manage when I see the other dog is tense rather than loose-bodied. I want you to see what happens in a situation like this: not a whole lot.

Free-roaming dogs are usually excellent communicators. That is to say, they may have attitudes and opinions; they may even be snarky and barky, feisty and mean. But they do not harm each other. Fights are loud, and then everyone walks away, shakes off, and continues with their day. Think Lucha Libre or Capoeira (it’s ritualized like a dance; it may be about winning, but it’s not meant to harm the opponent), not Krav Maga (few or no rules, and the aim is to knock out, eliminate or even kill your opponent quickly and efficiently).

Let’s define “usually” …

Let’s define “usually excellent communicators”: I have lived in free-roaming worlds (Thailand, Guatemala, Mexico) with my dog(s) for the last five years. In these five years, we’ve met multiple ree-roaming dogs every single day. Let’s say on average, I will meet 5 a day (that is a conservative estaimate). Only twice have we met a free-roaming dog who did not have great communication skills – it happens so rarely that I remember. So “usually,” in the sense I’m using it here, means close to 100% of the free-roaming dogs Game and I meet.)

Game is an excellent communicator as well. She is usually friendly, but can be a jerk, like any living being. Even when she’s being a jerk, she will not draw blood. This is why I am not worried even though I know the situation is going to erupt in this situation.

What if I didn’t want the situation to erupt? I’d manage or interfere the moment I saw a stiff-bodied free-roamer.

What options do I have to manage/interfere?

1. Space permitting, I could curve my leashed dog around the other dog in a wide half-circle, giving that dog space. I can’t cross the street here because there’s a fence separating the two lanes; if I could, I would just cross the road

2. I could do a u-turn with my dog. (I don’t usually do this because Game is a very stable dog, so it’s not necessary. I would do it with a puppy, a dog-aggressive dog, or a fear-reactive dog.)

3. I could tell my dog to stay next to/behind me and throw treats at the other dog.

4. I could tell my dog to stay next to/behind me, and threaten the other dog (free-roamers mostly respect humans and keep their distance).
Levels of threat I can use:
I Facing them frontally.
II Direct evil stare into their eyes.
III Throwing invisible stones.
IV Walking towards/into them while doing I and II.
V Kicking the dog if none of the above do the trick, while still having my own dog stand back. (Game knows if I am taking charge of a situation or if I am letting her take charge.)

5. I could tell my dog to come into “middle” position (see this video), and, if necessary, keep the other dog at bay with any of the methods mentioned in points 3 and 4.

When do I know it’ll erupt?

The moment I am sure it is going to erupt is when their stand-off starts. At this point, I know that the situation can only be resolved by an eruption – but who will give in and who will go forward is not yet clear.

It’s like arm-wrestling: while they are both stiff and staring at each other, it’s like both wrestlers are equally strong; their arms are vertical. They are holding this position for several seconds, and then one of the wrestlers will start losing ground.

The same happens between two dogs in a stand-off like this. One of them will give in. In this case, it’s the other dog. In an arm-wrestling match, this will most of the time result in the winner smashing their opponent’s arm down.

Things were standing still or moving in slow motion until that moment. Because the other dog gives in by retreating a step, Game goes forward (smashes the other one’s arm onto the table).

Loose leash

Notice that I’ve made sure to keep my leash loose the entire time. I can’t tell my leashed dog that she gets to handle a situation, and then keep her from freely communicating by tightening the leash. It would not be fair Tight leashes are only an option if I am going to handle the situation myself, and my dog is not expected to do anything.

However, I’m not going to let her tie herself and the other dog up in the leash, so I just stay where I’m standing. Situation over; you won, Game. She’s already defeated the opponent; it’s over as soon as Game reaches the end of her leash and the other one gets out of dodge (out of Game’s leash radius). And we continue on. All is well.

What if there was no leash?

You may ask yourself what would have happened if Game was off leash. Would she have ended up in the same stand-off? Yes, if I hadn’t managed or interfered, she’d probably have ended up in the exact same stand-off.

What would have happened if I had chosen to not interfere? I would have continued walking because I am a magnet for my dog. I don’t want to increase her power by staying close, but pull her with me by keeping moving. I would have walked past them, and then watched from a distance. Game would have had to finish her stand-off before catching up with me (otherwise, she would have become the one taking a step back, and the other dog would win and smash her metaphorical arm on the table).

Things would likely have ended in the same way: the other one would have given in, and Game would have responded by going forwards (smashing their arm onto the table). Because in this situation, there is no leash stopping her, the “fight” (remember: Lucha Libre or Capoeira, not Krav Maga: sparring for show, not to do harm) would have lasted a little longer. Maybe 30 seconds. Then, everyone would have moved on with their day; no blood, no harm – except maybe for that other dog’s ego.

Why am I telling you all of this?

Because people tend to be afraid that when dogs get into fights, blood is going to flow. This is really rare among dogs who grow up free-roaming. It is not so rare among pet or sports or working dogs. If you live in a world mostly populated by the latter, it makes perfect sense that dogs getting into fights is something you are worried about. Free-roaming dogs are different in that their social skills are on a different level.

Why is Game good at this stuff?

Game has been hurt (bitten to the point of blood being drawn) by my own previous dog (who was severely dog aggressive), and she has been hurt by a pet dog who was with their owner. She has never drawn blood herself, even though she has been a jerk on occasion. Why is that? Take a minute and think about your answer before you scroll down and keep reading!

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No, it’s not because I’m the world’s greatest dog trainer and turned a blank-slate puppy into the best version of a Malinois. It’s because Game is genetically an extremely stable dog. I would not blame her if she had developed aggression after living with my previous dog. But Game did not develop aggression. She has two personality traits that keep her from it: high confidence, and high sociability. The combination of these two allows her to assume that other dogs she meets are not going to be psychopaths despite her own bad experiences. She acts like a dog who has never had a bad experience, and is simply confident (will not submit if challenged) and sociable (will usually be friendly). So do most free-roamers we meet. Not bad at all, this part of the world, is it?

Body language in free-roaming dogs, or: meet the dog in front of you!

This is the full version of the description that goes with today’s Youtube video on the Free Ranging Dogs channel. If you’ve read the first part of the description already, pick back up under the heading “Dog #4”! If you haven’t – here’s the video description from the beginning:

Game is happy to be allowed to run off leash again (nothing to worry about – the surgery I mention in the video was minor and all is well, but she’s only been out on leash for the last 2 weeks).

This video shows how, in just 3 minutes, Game meets 5 different owned free-roamers. Just like pet dogs differ, so do the personalities, looks and behaviors of these dogs.

All 5 free-roamers in this video are owned dogs. That is to say, they live in the respective yards they come out of. Their gates are always open. This street is part of Game’s home range and part of the other dogs’ core area. Only dog #4, the Doberman/Lab (this is not a Doberman; I’m just picking look-alike breeds for you to distinguish them) is not inside their own yard – the person working on the car is probably their human, and the dog is out here with them.

Dog #1: the Husky

Game sees the Husky before I do. At 00:29, she greets them with a friendly wag and moves on. What you see at 00:29 is a behavior that lets me know there is a dog to her right.

00:36 The Husky comes out – hackles up at first, but Game has already moved on, so the Husky doesn’t care. Instead, they show curiosity/interest in me, and their hackles come down all the way.

Dog #2: the big black-and-white pup

00:54 This one looks pretty young to me – but I can’t say for sure; he may just look that way because of a recent hair cut. He, too, comes out of his territory. Unlike the Husky, the pup is interested in Game: friendly, waggy and playful.

01:02 Game responds to the friendly interest the pup is showing. She may be in the mood to run together. That’s because she’s been deprived of exercise for the last 2 weeks, and I’ve also mostly kept her away from from other dogs. When that happens, she tends to act more playfully until she’s back to baseline in terms of exercise and intraspecific social interaction. It usually takes her a few days to get back to baseline.

01:16 Game would have pooped here, but because the pup is still there and being playful/friendly, she forgets about pooping and reciprocates the playfulness.

01:19 Btw, the ear position you see here in Game – ears up and turned back – is what she’ll usually show when we’re out and about. This is not a sign of insecurity, submission or fear. (Game can do a whole bunch of things with her ears; this is just one of her many expressions.) She’ll usually have her ears up and back like this when she’s ahead of me. She watches what’s up ahead, and keeps an ear on me at the same time.

Here, she’s running towards me, and her ears are up and back to keep an ear on the pup who she’s allowing to chase her. Ears up and back are a sign of split attention in Game: eyes in one direction, ears in the other one.

01:24 … and running back the other way, in exactly the kind of speed that is right for the pup (who seems to have a hurt paw/leg and is not super fast). Game enjoys both being the chaser and being the chasee.

01:25 And yes, I say in this video that she’s been on limited activity for a long time. For me (and for Game, but really, mostly for me), 2 weeks are a fucking long time! Walking is my thing. And without a dog, it isn’t fun.

Dog #3: the Chihuahua

01:42 The Chihuahua has just come out of their yard, and wants to see what’s going on out here! Since the 5 dogs (the free-roamers) are all neighbors, the Chihuahua isn’t interested in the pup, but in Game.

01:45-01:48 The Chihuahua displays their interest by sniffing. They are confident and curious, and the fact that Game ignores them (“Too small; whatever; also I’m done playing”) likely raises the Chihuahua’s confidence to the bouncy, chasey level you see here.

The Chihuahua and Game aren’t playing – the Chihuahua is sniffing while chasing Game, who ignores them because she’s already on her way.

Game is aware of size differences and is much more likely to ignore a small dog than a large dog. The Chihuahua isn’t unfriendly, but not exactly friendly either.

01:49 Game may just have left the little one’s core area, making her less interesting and me (I am still in the core area) more interesting. The Chihuahua folds the ears back and wags at me in a friendly-submissive greeting gesture.

Dog #4: the Doberman/Lab

01:52 To your right, where the cars are parked, you’re about to see the Doberman/Lab. This dog is insecure and barky. They are in their core area (this is one of the neighborhood dogs here), but not in their own yard. They are likely out here with their human.

You’ll see the insecurity in the retreat and the continued barking:

02:01 Retreat.

02:04 Now that Game has passed, the dog is coming forward again: when one dog turns their back on another one, the other one will feel safer. Game just passed and ignored the Doberman/Lab.

02:06 … which is why the Doberman/Lab can now come forwards again and bark – this time at me.

02:12 The response to me is barky, but not fearful. There was only a fear response when Game was walking towards and past the parking lot – so this dog’s insecurity is dog-specific.

02:14 It’s hard to say whether the Doberman/Lab is in their territory or in their core area. In any case, the person at the car is probably their person.

It is entirely possible that the dog’s response to Game and I would be different if there was no other human present. Being with their human generally gives dogs greater confidence/perceived strength.

Dog #5: the second fluffy big one

02:19 This dog was probably alerted to Game’s presence by the barking of the Doberman/Lab. Like the Chihuahua, he wants to see what’s going on! He is not interested in me and runs out of his territory (yard) and right past me to check out Game. The barking you keep hearing in the background is still the Doberman/Lab, not dog #5.

02:28 Game is done socializing for this outing, which is why she isn’t giving dog #5 any attention. Dog #5 is just curious about her – no strong feelings in any direction. Having caught up with her, he sniffs where she sniffed, and later, he’ll pee on the corner of the wall.

This dog is confident, has no ill intentions, and is an adult. Among confident adults with good social skills, if dog A ignores dog B, dog B will also politely leave dog A alone. (There are exceptions. Sometimes two adult dogs – just like humans – dislike each other at first sight. But that would be an exception for socially confident good communicaters. Politeness is the rule: live and let live.)

02:39 You can see dog #5 pee and look around (for example at me) with loose body language. He has gotten a good look at Game, had the chance to sniff where she sniffed and where she stood to collect information – that’s all he needs.

02:46 Dog #5 is done; ready to head back home. He has learned all he needed/wanted to learn about Game.

02:56 Even when Game is back outside the forest, dog #5 is still good: he has satisfied his curiosity and is ready to return to whatever he was doing. (Probably snoozing outside his house.)

A glimpse into the life of village puppies: long version, and a detour on different types of selection

There’s a litter of four puppies in a 1000-habitant village in the State of Mexico. The day I made this video, I met two of the four. Only over the last couple of days had they started coming out and exploring: they had reached an age where they dared venture further and further from their birthplace.

It’s interesting to observe how many of the experiences Western breeders and puppy owners recreate happen naturally for a puppy like this – and they happen on the right time scale since it is the puppies themselves who decide when they are ready to explore, and how far they are ready to go on any given day.

You can also see differences within a litter: the two black puppies are bolder than the blonde one who is not with them, but who I saw the day after I took this video1, still in the safe space of the restaurant. The second blonde puppy must have also been a bold one – maybe the boldest one, or just a bold one with bad luck – because the person I am talking to in this video tells me that puppy got hit by a car earlier that same day.

The fact that within this litter, there are both bold and shy individuals shows an interesting tendency in evolution: evolutionarily speaking, both bold and shy individuals get selected for. We see this in humans, too. If a trait gets selected for, it has to have an advantage – and indeed, it does! It may seem counterintuitive, but in fact, both extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness can be advantageous. This is, I’d venture, particularly true for species that live in a vast variety of different environments – such as humans, canines and felines! Since the environments vary greatly, what is an advantage in one environment can be a disadvantage in another one. Or what is an advantage in one part of the year can be a disadvanrage in another part of the year. Or depending on what circumstances you happen to be born under – depending on random factors! – it may be advantageous to be either bold or shy.

A thought experiment: the shy puppy in the litter – the blonde one who I haven’t seen out in the street – is the least likely to get run over. From this point of view, being shy is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival, because cars (as illustrated by the death of the fourth puppy) are a HUGE danger to puppies. On the other hand, the two black puppies in this video show a lot of exploratory behavior, and they find food – both in the street and in the entrance of the store they then get shooed out of. From this point of view, being bold (showing a lot of exploratory behavior) is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival because you find more food. Due to studies done on puppy mortality, we know that most of these puppies are not going to survive. If one of them does survive – will it be a bold or a shy puppy? It could be either, because it depends on many factors: are the puppies still getting fed within the safe space of the restaurant? If so, being shy may be more advantageous because there is no lack of food resources. Are they not getting fed anymore now that they are a little bigger? If so, being bold might be an advantage because you need to learn to find enough food to make up for the calories you spend growing and existing! Being bold likely also increases a puppy’s chances of becoming an owned village dog, and owned village dogs get fed. If you are bold while you are still young and cute, you’ve got a killer combination setting you up for success in this respect … unless, of course, you get run over by a car first.

So there is no straightforward answer, but one thing is clear: depending on when, where, to whom and under what circumstances a puppy is born, boldness, shyness, or both may be advantageous. The same goes for humans. If it were not the case – if you were most likely to succeed by being a middle-of-the-road animal – the extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness would already have disappeared (for canines as well as humans). We would have what is called stabilizing selection: selection around a stable phenotype around a mean (a certain degree of not-too-bold-and-not-too-shyness). What we actually see is disruptive selection: selection at both ends of the normal curve: on the one hand, we get very bold individuals, and on the other hand, very shy ones. We see it in puppies, even within litters. And we certainly see it in humans, too! Even in very young toddlers, the differences are striking. By the way, a shout out to Marc Bekoff: I’ve learned the terms stabilitzing selection, disruptive selection and directive selection (selection for more or less of a given phenotype, e.g. if over time, puppies would tend to get bolder and bolder) from his book A Dog’s World, which I’ve had the honor of translating into German.

After this little detour into different kinds of selection, let’s get back to the experiences that breeders and puppy owners recreate, but that happen quite naturally for free-roaming puppies:

1. Introduction of different surfaces:

in the space of the restaurant, the puppies would have encountered artificial turf and real grass. Venturing out, they get to move up and down the stairs to the restaurant entrance, and they will walk on concrete and asphalt. In this video, one of the black puppies walks over an iron grid covering a drain – something else a breeder or owner might carefully introduce to their puppies that happens naturally in this environment.

2. Introduction to different sounds:

Currently, the 9 days leading up to a catholic holiday are being celebrated in this village – and like most Mexican celebrations, they are celebrated quite loudly, with lots of cohetes (firecrackers). Similarly, there are cars going by – this is the busiest part of town – and the puppies will get used to the sounds of cars, busses, motorcycles and lots of different human voices: adults talking and yelling, children laughing and playing …

3. People:

I’ve seen kids interact with the puppies (hold them, pet them, pick them up), and the puppies will also see people of all ages once they start venturing out of the restaurant space. People are quite naturally being paired with food, so a positive classical association is made to them when a puppy is born in the town center. They will also interact with people in that they get a basic village dog education: being cute and begging politely is going to get reinforced with food, and being obnoxious or entering forbidden spaces is going to be punished (at 09:18, the owner of the store across the street shoos the puppies back outside).

4. Dogs:

In this video alone, you’ll see three adult dogs: the fluffy dark dog, the pitbull, and the black lab mix. Throughout the day, the puppies will interact with A LOT of village dogs: everyone who roams freely, whether they are community dogs or owned free-roamers, will meet these puppies and interact with them. Some will be big, some small, some male, some female, most intact and some spayed. It is unlikely that a puppy born to a breeder would meet this many dogs at this age.

5. Other animals:

Sometimes, horseback riders come through; sometimes, they’ll see a cat, and once they are bold enough to venture just a little further up the street the store is in, they’ll see sheep and chickens.

6. Objects:

The restaurant is closed, but there are still chairs and tables in there. And once the puppies venture out, they’ll see cars, busses, and everything sold at the little stores around the area: brooms and food and buckets … At some point in this video, you’ll see one of the puppies approach a broom that’s for sale.

Further remarks:

+ I met the third blonde puppy the day after recording this video – so there must have been 4 originally, but 1 got run over, leaving three.

+ At some point in this video, I say that my AirBnB “tenant” also owns the restaurant – I meant to say host. I do not own a building in this town.

+ It’s interesting that I get asked whether I want to take the two puppies (they are community puppies, so unlike the puppies of owned village dogs, they are up for grabs). I assume the reason the person I’m talking to suggests I take them is that I’ve shown an unusual level of interest in the puppies – I’m following them around, filming and talking about them.


(1) One of the puppies is still alive for sure 2 months after I took this video, as I am writing this post – and it’s the blonde puppy (the shy one). I don’t know about the two black ones. They must either have died, or been taken in and have become owned village dogs. Statistically speaking (given the percentage of puppies that survive), they are more likely to not be around anymore – but we don’t know if this is the case for this particular litter. It’s a littler born under relatively advantageous circumstances, and in a good spot. (No highway; plenty of people; close to a food source.)

The Puzzle Week – Part 28: The End of the Puzzle Story (of love and loss)

I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.

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In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.

All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.

When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.

I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.

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It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:

“Love is common, too, absolutely so – and yet our words for it only point to it; they do not describe it. They are indicators of something immense: the word love
is merely a sign that means something like: This way to the mountain.”

Mark Doty – Dog Years1

Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.

When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.

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Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.

I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.

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Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”

I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.

I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)

I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.

I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.

The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.

~ ~ ~

I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.

I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.

Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.

~ ~ ~

One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.

I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.

I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.

Graphs from the Manabi et. al. paper. “Death by human” means killed on purpose. “Taken by human” means spontaneously stolen (because puppies are cute), and often put back out on the street in a different neighborhood a few days later.

Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.

~ ~ ~

Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.

The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.

~ ~ ~

Sources

(1) Doty, Mark. Dog Years. A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

(2) Paul, M., Sen Majumder, S., Sau, S. et al. High early life mortality in free-ranging dogs is largely influenced by humans. Sci Rep 6, 19641 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep19641

The Puzzle Week, Part 24: Setting and respecting boundaries (two lessons for humans)

I’ve decided to split my remaining Puzzle material into a few more posts – they are just getting too long otherwise. Today’s post only has one video, but it is one I truly love, and could watch over and over again. It makes me laugh because it’s cute and goofy – but if I change my point of view, I can also see it as a metaphor.

Social skills: successful communication

An adult free-ranging dog tries to charm Puzzle, and get her to play. Puzzle isn’t afraid – she could walk away or hide behind me. She doesn’t feel the need to hide or flee, but she clearly says, “No!” by turning her head away and NOT engaging. The other dog works hard, but isn’t intruding in her space. He is being gentle, and self-handicapping by making himself small and rolling on his back. He doesn’t get frustrated or impatient – he just works very hard, and keeps respecting Puzzle’s boundaries.

The reason we know this is good communication – even though it doesn’t go anywhere – is the fact that Puzzle is able to stay put. She was sitting on this step before the other dog got here, and she stays in the place she picked for herself throughout the conversation. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet she clearly knows that he is communicating with her, and she responds politely and clearly: “No.”

These are great communication skills on both parts. Watch this – maybe more than just once. The next time you need to either set a boundary for yourself (see Puzzle) or respect someone else’s boundaries (see the adult dog), remember this video!

Two lessons for humans

  • Set your own boundaries kindly. You don’t need to yell, and you don’t need to hide from or stonewall the other person.
  • Accept the boundaries of others gracefully. No need to get frustrated or annoyed. Just do your best. Dogs don’t generally take things personally – for example, this adult dog won’t be unable to sleep tonight because he’ll obsess over what he should have done differently. He will get up (after the video ends), wag, and move on with his life. Don’t take things personally. Be more like this dog.