Colombian Canines

by Lorraine Chittock

“Colombia is gorgeous! Don’t believe the horror stories, they’re a thing of the past,” were the reports from traveling friends. “And you won’t believe the guard dogs in Bogota, they’re everywhere!”

That is what catches my attention. All I hear is, ‘Dogs are everywhere.’ Some people travel to see ancient ruins, others for delectable dining, while many go for a lively social scene. I go for the dogs. Meandering slowly south in our 1978 Chevy van, Dog, Bruiser and I stay up to a few months in some locations, allowing me to catch up on writing assignments, and giving us opportunities to walk in amazing landscapes. Colombia is the 35th country I’ve visited. For Dog and Bruiser, canines raised in rural Kenya, it’s their twelfth.

Military personal are spaced intermittently along roads throughout the country. At some checkpoints they’re accompanied by bomb sniffing dogs. Colombia once had the highest homicide rate in the world with 62 murders per 100,000 people. In the past ten years, this has decreased drastically. Using dogs to sniff out explosives and drugs must be at least partly responsible.

“It’s ok, ok,” I say, hoping a singsong tone will hush Dog and Bruiser, while I show vehicle papers and passport. As usual this tactic is futile. They both bark furiously at the uniforms and guard dogs, as well as the numerous street dogs hoping to scrounge scraps thrown from windows.

Not all vehicles are asked to stop at checkpoints. But our van appears perfect for smuggling. The military seem disappointed my papers are in order, and don’t ask about the dogs—Bruiser’s gargoyle head lunging out the window is probably the deterrent. Bruiser doesn’t know his bravo, or daring nature is appreciated in this country more than others. When we docked in Cartagena, there were no border officials present. My passport was processed the following morning, but since no one has ever asked for Dog and Bruiser’s vaccination certificates while traversing through previous Latin countries, I never bothered going to the agricultural office. I am indeed carrying smuggled goods – the two dogs!

Upon arriving in the cosmopolitan capital of Bogota nestled high in the Andes, it’s just as I’ve been told, guard dogs are everywhere, doing what they do best, guarding. Shopping malls, apartment buildings, banks and international chain restaurants such as TGIFriday’s, are all flanked by security guards and their accompanying hounds.

Dog and Bruiser and I have been invited to stay at a friend of a friend’s flat in an upscale neighborhood. Since there are no leash laws in Bogota, and the streets have been closed to traffic for a holiday, we run leash less. Not so the pampered pouches surrounding us. They are all purebreds, neatly washed and coifed, and walking politely at the end of leads. In Latin America, rarely do you see mixed breeds in up market households, unless of course, they’re street dogs hoping to score luxury tidbits.

“What breed are they?” a man in a three-piece suit asks, stopping to admire Dog and Bruiser’s physique. It’s not the first time this question has been posed of my Kenyan mixed breed mutts. Ironically just minutes before, a pack of dogs, looking alarmingly similar to Dog and Bruiser, had slowed down to have a sniff. If they had collars around their necks, would they too appear like an exotic breed?

As we negotiate our way around an apartment block. A guard dog lunges at us, while its consort pulls back on the lead. Dog and Bruiser continue down the street, not rising to the bait. Most guard dogs we’re seeing are working for K-9, a private company with over 600 dogs. But there’s another group entirely—the police dogs. They guard the Presidential Palace, Ministry of Defense, airports, bus terminals, football stadiums and other public places.

Perched on a hillside overlooking Bogota, is the large police dog facility. Fog drifts off the 8000 foot mountains, and lingers on a sign reading, Est. Carabineros y Guias—Componerismo, Integridad, Bravura: Guns and Guides—Self-Reliance, Integrity, Bravery. Even though I have an appointment, my arrival seems a surprise, so I suspect the kennels haven’t been spotlessly cleaned on my behalf. Most of the 110 dogs have their own individual kennels, with a dividing wall towards the rear so the animal can retire in privacy to it’s own bed.

Next to the kennels is the surgery of the sole veterinarian. Dr. Nancy Lopez.

“I think Mallinois are the best for sniffing out contraband,” says Dr. Nancy. “They have irregular appetites so you know for certain when they sit in front of an explosive, it’s because they scent something. The Labradors are perfect as food trainers, as they have mucho appetites. The only time these dogs eat, is during their daily training sessions. Food is their motivation.”

I ask Dr. Nancy about the street dogs in Colombia, called los callejeros o criollos, literally translated as “natives of the road atlas”. I wondered if some could be used in bomb detection, thereby solving two problems. As Dr. Nancy also works with WSPA who have an office in Bogota, I felt sure she would be receptive to this idea.

“No,” she shakes her head emphatically. “Street dogs can’t be used in this type of work. The trainers need to know the dog’s past. Besides, los callejeros o criollos would be too easily distracted. Street dog are aware of everything in their surroundings. They have to be in order to survive. It would be too difficult having them focus only on explosives, and nothing else.”

I watch as the officers, both men and women, working with the dogs in manicured gardens with brick paving, or playing off-lead in wide green areas of grass surrounded by fence. Most of the humans show genuine affection for their partners. I ask Dr. Nancy what sex she thinks are better at working with these dogs.

“Male or female isn’t what matters,” she replies. “Some people just have a better way with animals.”

But is it a dogs duty merely to serve, and risk its life for the problems of mankind, only to be dispensed with like a piece of furniture when no longer considered useful?

“What happens when they’re old?” I ask.

“When they reach the age of nine,” Dr. Lopez replies, “they’re brought back to the center where they were originally trained, to live out the rest of their years. They’re free to sleep, play and eat, with no work.”

A dog’s life, and one all dogs deserve.


Text and Photographs © Lorraine Chittock 2008
All Rights Reserved

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