Misunderstanding the Canines of Cuzco

The first dogs I saw were large, running, and smiling. I was experiencing the culture shock of the taxi, one which felt more like a ride at a fair than transportation. The pair wove, tongues lolling, through this packed intersection of fluid, honking traffic with a sense of  camaraderie and freedom. They wore not leash nor mark of ownership that I could tell. Yet they navigated traffic and looked like they were having a wonderful time together.

The dogs that make up a backdrop for the streets of Cuzco seem completely independent of the people. They scurry on social calls and missions that look like assignments of great importance. They get into fights. They make love.

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It is hard to know exactly what the people of the city think of these ubiquitous canines. The fact that they aren’t corralled and gassed en masse in clay crematoriums to solve an “urban nuisance” is a clue that they are considered very differently by the people here. I did a small bit of research on what others thought of the dogs and so many see them as just that, nuisances, forming coalitions to try and put an end to this problem of feral dogs that fill the streets of Cuzco.

A Couple Doggy Adventurers
A Couple Doggy Adventurers
A Batch of the Plaza's Residents
A Batch of the Plaza’s Residents

One volunteer organization, the Cusco Dog Campaign, claims the fact a problem exists is obvious: “As anyone who has been to Peru will say, there is a dire need for a program to help with the immense amounts of street animals, namely dogs. […] we can no longer stand idly by.” This sentiment is echoed on blogs from the small and personal to the huffingtonpost. Many travelers fear them. The travelers that don’t fear them, fear for them and wish to somehow save them.

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The Perfect Squat for the Perfect View.
The Perfect Squat for the Perfect View.

That these creatures are “mongrels,” “animal control problems,” or “vectors for rabies” appears to be a condition of outsider attitudes. It is a problem created in the minds of the concerned foreign traveler, one who expects dogs to stay constrained in the same small boxes of their countries and home cultures.

Oh, the Great Indoors
Oh, the Great Indoors

For example, one writer commented on the dog problem and was instantly rebuked by a local: “They suffer and survive just like the people.” I asked someone here about the quote and he agreed. “Like the Cuzceno people” he said, “the dogs have to work to survive.” It would be very interesting to see how widespread that this narrative of suffering goes, and how true it is, especially because it is not completely the sense I get. To me it seems that dirty, mangy, damp* dogs appear to be enjoying life just as much as the groomed.

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Mangy but Free to Pee
Mangy but Free to Pee
A Very Loved Dog - Usually Seen With Adoring Fans
A Very Loved Dog – Usually Seen With Adoring Fans

Moreover, wonderfully filthy dogs – those ones which might be considered abandoned – are, in fact, not stray at all. After getting to know them and their patterns a little better it is obvious they are cared for. They keep to a certain territory and can be seen sitting or sleeping dutifully in the doorways of the families they belong to.

Munching Away at Newly Found Grub
Munching Away at Newly Found Grub
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How does the canine dine? The dogs know where people dump their trash, smell out nutrition, and tear the bags apart to get to the flavor. They can also be seen munching grass. If you inspect their feces (a necessary step for anyone interested in the mysterious diets of animals), they are varied but often seen with a decent ratio of grasses, solids, and juices.

Canine Cuisine Section in the San Pedro Market
Canine Cuisine Section in the San Pedro Market

However, it can be deceiving to think that dogs are merely scavengers. Dog food is sold in quantity and feeds many canine bellies. I asked a local about what goes on inside the homes, and he said, “Some dogs need more care. They buy special food for them. They have to pay a lot of money to keep the dog, but it depends on the dog. People love their dogs. Kids love the dogs. They treat them as a member of the family. They are more like one of you.” In other words, these dogs don’t survive by scavenging and begging. They are fed both because they provide services and because they maintain a vital family role.

A Shopdog
A Shopdog

To see dogs as family members is a common way to see dogs in the United States, but in Cuzco they are not perpetually bound to home or leash. They are independent. They work for their food. They are contributing members of the family, perhaps you could even say, of society. They socialize, go for walks, get sick, and get into trouble. They have adventures which depend on their own will, rather than being served a life under the control of the humans that own them.

Life on the Rooftops
Life on the Rooftops
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Seriously? This Pup Was Just Playing By Itself
Seriously? This Pup Was Just Playing By Itself

One of the biggest differences I see is in their attitudes. The dogs here are more casual. Rather than living for the daily walk, that ten minutes or so of giddy, sensory stimulation, the dogs of Cuzco seem clear headed. They are not ravenous for attention like the yipping canines of the states. When offered food, they will just as often refuse it. I don’t see the separation anxiety that characterizes the house-trained domesticates of the United States. It might be because they are always connected. They are immersed rather than cut off. Travelers have much less to fear than they think. When they see dogs in the street they assume they are the same creatures as those crazed, traumatized canines of their own country. But nappy or napping on the streets, these dogs are balanced.

Getting Fed by a Family Member
Getting Fed by a Family Member

*From what I have seen, a damp dog is a sign that it has been recently reprimanded for getting too near food. Market women dip their hands into buckets of water and fling trails at them rid the unwanted attention. I’ve seen yipping, soaked puppies bounding down staircases, probably a sign they were just recently caught with red paws.

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  1. Stick to food. It sounds like you are saying that the street dogs of Cusco are “No Big Deal”, and are maybe better off than dogs in developed countries that live in houses, get taken for walks, and are fed a balanced diet. Have you not seen the dogs limping around because they got hit by a driver that will not stop for them? Did you know that are large portion of these dogs have intestinal worms because of the “balanced” meals they eat? Or how about the puppy shops that steal babies away from their mothers at less than a month to sell them for profit. Just to clarify, I live in Cusco and have taken in two street dogs (including the 8 pups unknowingly carried by the female, which we found good loving homes for, with people who were willing to vaccinate and sterilize). The dog culture here is changing and NEEDS to change. Please don’t make it harder. Your disclaimer below says the purpose of the blog is to provide useful information. If that is so, then please provide it. Provide shelter information. Encourage people to sterilize and vaccinate. Encourage people to protect their pets. Thanks.

    1. The dogs in the sierra of Peru mostly have an owner and are fed. May be they don’t look trimm and beautifull but that is something that they don’t take too much into account. According their ways, the dogs are walking in the street but belong to someone and come back for shelter and food but basically during the day they stay in the street. That is the way it is, like it or not. Proof of that is when there are rabies campain in their town, many if not all, of these dogs ends up walking in the streets with the clasic plastic necklace around their necks that testify that they have been vaccinated. These dogs are calmer and more adjusted than the ones in the US that once they reach the street they run like they were running for their live. Also, in the towns in the sierra of Peru, cars don’t run. There are no highways and on the roads that are not paved it is impossible to run unless you want to leave your shock absorbers somewhere on the road. The way people related to their dogs is different than in the US but that doesn’t mean they don”t care. Don’t try to impose your criteria and validate it without understanding how the things goes in there. Very tipical, one day they open a NGO and the day after they want to impose their way and create a narrative that goes with their objectives. May be it is not what you would like but it is what it is.

  2. Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for responding. It gives me an opportunity to revisit my earlier thoughts to see if they hold chicha. :) You correctly analyzed my theme/conclusion: Perhaps a dog would be happier in Cuzco rather than a country considered “developed.”

    However, I can’t see how your claims meet or criticize my position. First of all, it is very difficult to quantify happiness, even in human beings that can ask directly. To be able to definitively state that another species is happier in one country or another seems almost impossible. I tried to do it by analyzing demeanor. I see that you are trying to get to this same thing by correlating worms, lame legs, and broken families with overall happiness. I am not saying that having worms or a lame leg is not bad (I am actually in bed with a broken ankle right now, so I empathize greatly) but it does not adequately counter my observation that the dogs in Cuzco appear to be more psychologically balanced than the dogs in the United States.

    I am very curious what you think of this. There may be problems, of course, but do you see a difference in psychology in the dogs of Cuzco? How do you see the worms, the injuries, and the forced separation affecting their minds?

    1. I went in Peru and stayed there for a bit. I even worked in a dog shelter. Let me tell you that their freedom is nothing what a dog hoped for or wants. Why would they go in trash if they are fed by family?? Having worms eating you alive or fleece oh my God it is terrible to see a dog dying from that. Seeing a dog chilling under cold rain and just following you to get some love. JJJJJJ Living in freedom whitout being taken care of is very different that being a dog and having all that is needed (vaccination, sterilization, food, fur cut, de-wormed, etc…..) when someone do not have the finance to take care of their dogs, the country need to take action. the country needs to put some laws in force to forbid anyone to own a dog that cannot be properly taken care of. Did you find it nice to see all of the garbarge on the streets??? Really??? A dog is a domisticated animal that provides a lot to human beings and it is our responsibility to take care of them. Dogs needs to be sterilized and vaccinated end of the line. If someone wants a dog, they should go and buy one not just take one out of the street and feed it a bit here and there and let them multiply and multiply….

      1. We leave a bowl of food out for our dog continually but if someone puts something in the trash she finds interesting she will dig through the garbage even though she has food available in her bowl.

        Seeing a dog going through the trash from the disgust that a human having the same experience is projecting human emotions and perspectives on a dog.

        Have you ever had your dog roll on a lawn where they smell something?
        Dogs don’t have the same perspective as humans. The argument that they wouldn’t go in the trash if they had food doesn’t hold water.

        To put it in human terms, why would a toddler play with something that belongs to an adult if the toddler has toys available?

  3. Hi Alonzo

    just watched a short programme on the dogs of Cuzco. The dogs really do look happy. Yes there will be worms and other related dog illnesses and disease. But they do look balanced and happy. What I would like to know is if there is any reported dog attacks on humans.
    I can remember back to the 70s here in Fife Scotland that a lot of people used to let there dogs out in the morning when they went to work and they came home at dinner time when there work was finished. You very rarely heard of any dogs biting humans, then when all the laws changed they were and are common.

  4. Hey Andy,

    A whole program devoted to Cuzco doggies? And no link? Oh, you tease.

    Regarding dog bites, I googled around and you can quickly find stories from travelers getting nipped by dogs. Bites happen, but what happens more commonly is people hitting dogs with rocks. I’ve never seen someone bitten by a dog, but I have definitely seen dogs getting some abuse from the human animal.

    What seems to happen is that Cuzcuenens are more wary. They are prepared to identify and avoid dogs that are acting strangely. I wonder, too, what the increased dog bites might be attributed to after the laws changed in Scotland. Was it the dog psychology that changed? The humans? Maybe, in order to legitimize the new laws, bites were better publicized?

  5. A couple of years ago I was in Porto, Portugal. Pet dogs were there let out in the morning to go for a walk and meet their mates somehow avoiding the rush hour traffic. They would be seen again during the evening rush hour. This was much the same as in London when I was a child as well as rural areas. These dogs were not feral but well loved pets doing their own thing much as our cats still do. Road sense has been bred out of dogs here now, probably due to the risk of litigation should they cause an accident. Certainly it is debatable regarding the happiness of a free roamer to a pampered but confined pet. I know that my many cats are far less stressed since the cat flap has been fitted. However my dogs runs free in the woods and fields, but only with me.

  6. I live in a small city outside of Cuzco. What I have found is many of the loose dogs are just pets as stated in the article. They are totally happy, but most of them don’t live to be old because of the traffic. Almost all of them have been vaccinated against rabies. I keep my dog confined, and she suffers from separation anxiety and is a picky eater. There are trade offs.

    I can remember when it was common for dogs to be put out for the night in the United States. They roamed freely with their friends and were totally happy. The downside was they sometimes didn’t come home, were hit by cars, or they killed small animals and pets in the neighborhood. In rural areas they would sometimes run cattle or kill sheep. It eventually became necessary to require people to confine all dogs. I see the day coming when cats too will be required to stay confined.

    Peru is just a few years behind Europe and the United States. Eventually they will probably confine their pets too. And a new career in dog psychology and dog trainers will develop.

  7. Alonzo, I’m glad to read your blog and the comments posted here regarding the loose dogs in Cusco. I’ve just returned from a 2-week trip to Peru and was very concerned about the welfare of all the dogs we saw running loose in the streets of not only Cusco, but also in Aguas Calientes and some of the Sacred Valley communities. I asked local residents about the dogs and was told the same story – that most are owned by people who allow them to roam freely. One hotel owner told me that the veterinarians in Cusco don’t have clean, nice facilities to treat dogs and many dogs aren’t vaccinated or altered.
    I run a nonprofit organization in the U.S., Animal Rescue of the Rockies, and I wonder if there are similar organizations in Cusco dedicated to helping the dogs on the streets? There is a wonderful organization in the Sosua and Cabarete areas of the Dominican Republic called Dogs and Cats of the Dominican Republic (DCDR) that operates outreach programs to help the stray dogs and cats by providing immunizations, treatment for injuries and illnesses, and spay/neuter services. They have slowly been changing the perception by the local residents of how dogs and cats should be treated and cared for, and over the last 5 years or so, they have made a tremendous impact on the well being of pets in their area.
    I understand your observations that the dogs seem to be well adjusted and don’t exhibit the crazy behaviors that so many dogs in the U.S. seem to have. They nap comfortably in doorways, plazas, and sidewalks. Many wait at shop doors for their owners to close up at night and go home.
    On “garbage pick up” night, I did see dogs gathered around piles of trash, which was concerning, as I wondered if these dogs did have homes or were strays scrounging for a meal. I also saw dogs with huge mats hanging loosely from their coats, which can cause real discomfort and skin issues. The same hotel owner I asked about the dogs told me that a groomer had killed one of her dogs by injecting it with too much sedative. This isn’t allowed in the U.S., and I was dismayed to hear that a groomer was using injectable sedatives to groom dogs in Cusco.
    It’s obvious that dogs are not pampered and treated the same as we in the U.S. treat our pets. Psychologically, they may be better adjusted to social situations for sure. But healthwise, they suffer from lack of a well-balanced diet, injuries, grooming needs. I also worry about the need for sterilization to prevent overpopulation. My hotel owner told me that some years ago the government threw out poisoned meat to try to reduce the dog population – a horribly cruel thing to do.
    I plan to do further research to see if there are any animal rescue organizations in the Cusco area.

  8. Karen, I am currently in Cusco and today saw two dogs walking together one had a broken leg. His buddy walked slowly beside him and stopped and stood in front of him to protect hi every time the injured dog needed to lay down, which was about every 10 steps. The dog clearly needs vet care, but I was at a loss of how to help him. I will be in Cusco for 3 months. If you find an organization helping, please het me know. I am searching without much luck. I don’t want to take the dogs off the street, I just want to get the help if they need it.

  9. I visited Cusco not long after attending a seminar in the UK with Cesar Milan. I was amazed at how I was witnessing first hand what he says (Dogs in the south are skinny, free to roam, happy and balanced, dogs in the north are fat, contained, unhappy and unstable in some cases). They definitely were happier, not a nuisance and aloof to passers by. Cusco offers us a lot to learn on how dogs should be allowed to live if they are to be truly happy. But I agree there was the odd injured dog,so maybe if their doggy healthcare could be improved they would have the best of both worlds.

  10. I have been a dog owner and lover all my life. I currently have two dogs that are well socialized by American standards. That is not to say that they don’t lack from the absence of the traditional pack. Growing up my best friends parents had up to 20 dogs at a time living on a farm. Those dogs most of which were rescued from being dumped on or around their farm, were very happy and socially stimulated. They also had the benefit of veterinary care. Sure it would be nice if the dogs of Cusco had veterinary care but I guarantee that fewer dogs die from the lack of it than the millions we euthanized in the US last year. I have live in Latin America in my younger years. At the time I too identified the dogs of Cusco as a nuisance. The fact is they are just not living the way we in the states identity animals we consider pets live. I’m sure if europeans and Americans didn’t try to pet every dog they see they wouldn’t get bit. Hey, let them be and they’ll do the same for you. Live and let live. Reverence for life.

  11. Sad stories all. Nature on P B S is where I learned of situation. Their report was not the real one, as
    I’m sure I read here. Been in animal work all my life. The problem NEVER seens to improve.

  12. I think freedom for the dogs is a very admirable thing to do. Injured dogs need medical treatment and all dogs must be required by law to have rabies shots and boosters. Sickness is normal in life of us all, but a broken leg or painful injury will indeed cause aggressive behavior. Set up a non profit organization to medically treat these animals. Americans will donate. Hell, my dogs sleep in my bed and live in my house, sit on my furniture, eat my food, ride in my car watch my grandsons, pull third watch, give me therapy, do absolutely anything I ask and treat me like a king. They’re like my daughters. Help these animals. Don’t shed their innocent blood…

  13. Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada just enacted an amended Dog-at-large By-Law. Knee jerk reaction to an unstable Pit bull and a more unstable owner inflicting 100 stitches worth of bites on their neighbour.
    Usual Neanderthal attitude for Animal Control officers…kill on sight and, if tagged, $1000 and $1500 fines for owners. This as I read about 50-60,000 feral dogs from Athens to Sochi during Olympic games living free without canine-human casualties. Sigh…

  14. I currently care for 3 dogs but have had as many as seven dogs in the past. (Children leaving their pets with me for a year or two, foster dogs, found stray dogs that appeared to be in danger). When I saw a PBS Nature program which contained about a 10 min. segment on the dogs running free in Cusco, my first joyous reaction was that I wanted to move there. The leash laws in the U.S. are so restrictive. I have searched for places I could vacation where my dogs could run free in nature type environments and have found only a handful of privately run parks. Even in remote areas, if government is involved (i.e. national parks, state parks, tiny country “towns”) dogs are required, if they are allowed at all, to be leashed.I know from experience that my dogs are happier, better behaved, quieter and healthier if they can get an hour a day of off leash exercise. I would love to live somewhere without leash laws. I don’t like to see injured or starving or suffering animals but I agree there is a balance to be achieved. People don’t get nearly as upset when they see a beggar in the street or homeless individuals obviously in need of medical care living on the streets of our cities. Anyone know if living in Cusco is viable for an American or if there are other semi-westernized areas that do not require dogs to be leashed.

    1. Hello Joann, There are Americans living in Cusco though there are many places in Latin America where dogs run free.

  15. The response bands with images of dogs are very challenging to read, so I didn’t read much of them. By the count I see my response will be placed on the image band and also difficult to see as the font color doesn’t change.

    Anyway, I’m visiting Cuzco now and was intrigued by what I call the mellow, chilled out canines. It’s like they’ve seen it all. I noticed a fellow tourist offer the back of her hand to a dog in Plaza de las Armas to smell before a possible pet and he/she wasn’t impressed. Just turned it’s head to the side, waiting for her to be on her way.

    As for the type of domesticity dogs experience in the states, I’d have to offer that the dogs in Cuzco aren’t treated as human children, nor do they have to meet the ego needs of their owners, as many dogs back home seem to be. That might make them the stereotypically neurotic creatures spoken of in prior comments.

    Thanks for the info.

    1. Hi Cecile, David here. I will let Alonzo know of your comment so he can respond if he feels he should. In the meantime I am not sure what you mean in your first paragraph. When I look at the page, I see comments at the end in a discrete area and each comment in a discrete box with different background colors. They should stand out and be readable both on mobile devices and laptops. Am I missing something? If there is something wrong I want to fix it. Thank you.

  16. The programme on the dogs of Cuzco was about pets in general with the Peruvian dogs taking up a small section of it. BBC programme as the link mentioned above. Rather than being greatly informative or insightful, I saw it was a bit of entertaining fluff (as was the whole two part series), something you could watch that was entertaining and didn’t have to think hard about rather than something of worthwhile educational value.
    I am not sure you could judge how well balanced those dogs were from viewing that programme. They were just dogs with what appeared to be some road sense but that must be the exception rather than the rule. It told us nothing of the difficulties they would face, the illness they might suffer, the harm that could happen upon them.
    Recorded the programme last year but only bothered to watch it in the last few days.
    I happened upon this blog while trying to find more information on these dogs.

  17. Free roaming dogs are common all over Peru. Cusco has been the center of this discussion, but I’ve noticed an even greater presence in Lima. I don’t think anyone can pretend to know whether strays are happier than leashed dogs, but the separation between human and canine does seem to be a devolution. Personally, I believe dogs are wired to have relationships with humans, so it seems those who are truly strays are worse off, those, as others have noted, being free and having a human association might be the best of both worlds. As for the problems that strays pose, I don’t believe danger is one. I’ve to Peru on a few occasions and have never witnessed aggressive behavior, much less a bite. However, cleanliness is an issue as dogs tear open garbage for food and then return it as waste left on the street. Unfortunaley, litter is a big problem in Peru, so the dogs are probably not as big a contributor as humans, but nonetheless, they exacerbate the problem.

  18. I haven’t been to that area for a while, but know a native Peruvian who is among those now trying to educate people to take better care of dogs and cats there. While some dogs there might have owners who are letting them roam, other dogs and cats there are being abandoned and are sometimes mistreated by those who don’t want them around (given some photos I’ve seen posted from Cuzco). Not to say that that doesn’t also happen elsewhere around the world.

    The photo of the “very loved dog” shows a dog with extreme fur matting, which typically inhibits movement more and more the worse it gets. I cut a lot of such fur off a dog in the United States and its owner was amazed at how much faster and more easily the dog moved afterwards…and how much thinner it was. If the dog in your photo is still alive there, I hope someone has removed some of that terribly matted fur so the dog might move more freely.

    There seem to be organizations working to improve the plight of dogs who need help there. Light and love to all…

  19. I just saw the BBC wild at heart show, too! Was surprised to hear dogs are allowed to roam, I love it!…in an ideal world. Too many seemed unhealthy, with only a few looking content, let alone happy. But it is really hard to tell thru the telly. You can see them on street view (rio has a lot, too) I just wish I could go and give a couple of them deep baths! Lol Instead I’ll just wish them luck if they remain free to roam.

  20. Hello everyone! My name is Jillian and I work for the above mentioned dog rescue, Globalteer in Cusco – we do offer a volunteer programme called the Peru Dog Rescue Shelter and are always looking for volunteers! Volunteer with the dedicated team at the city’s most welcoming dog shelter and care for rescued, abused and abandoned dogs. Follow the link to find out how you can volunteer with these amazing dogs in Cusco ! – Thank you!

  21. There are certainly pros and cons to free-roaming dogs, and you have correctly identified many of the problems with dogs being confined and left alone at ‘home’ while the owner is a work (or elsewhere).

    I did stop on the photo of the ‘well loved dog – admired by many’ and my first thought was for the constant pain it would be in from that clearly matted (to the point of dreadlocks) coat.

    True wild canines don’t have long coats that form dreadlocks. The exceptions are animals with coats that shed and the matting is a mechanism to annoy the animal until it rubs and rips that piece of coat off(camels and musk ox for instance). But being evolved to this process, the hair on these animals is already loosened, and shedding no more than a nuisance. The dreadlocks on a non-shedding animal cause chronic pain as they tighten and pull at the skin. If they cannot endure and attempt to rid themselves of these mats they often rip the skin, opening it to infection.

    So these, and a number of other characteristics are really signs that these animals need more than the occasional handful of food thrown their way, but equally the fenced dog needs more than the 10 minute walk to be happy. It’s good to see that most commentators here are thoughtful about the pros and cons and willing to discuss in a way that can lead to better welfare no matter which situation the dog is in.

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