Before I came here, all I knew of dogs in Latin America was what animal rescue organizations told me in heart-wrenching pleas for fundraising. My expectations were that I’d come across countless street dogs with open sores, and sad eyes sinking into their pleading, underfed faces. My research on travel vaccines warned me that they were often rabid and unpredictable. Certainly, lonely homeless street dogs would be everywhere.

Toby, the very healthy ex-street dog in Mastatal, Costa Rica

Toby, the very healthy ex-street dog in Mastatal, Costa Rica

So far, the only consistently correct information on dogs here has been that they’re ubiquitous. Ellen and I see dogs on every street corner, napping on the doorstep of a restaurant, sniffing at a dropped ice cream in the park, or wandering through the market like they own the place. Most of them look in decent shape – nice shining fur with no visible ribs, anyway. I’ve seen more sick and hungry looking horses on the side of the road than dogs.

Two of the little tiny dogs in Mastatal, munching down on fresh barbecued meat

Two of the little tiny dogs in Mastatal, looking for scraps of fresh barbecued meat

Some of the dogs we’ve seen are strays, but many have homes and are free to wander off-leash during the day. This leads to interesting patterns in the distribution of dogs in the street. In Costa Rica, most of the dogs in the village of Mastatal were tiny miniature pinschers, but clearly a hound passed through the village some years ago, leaving a variety of hound-cross puppies in its wake. As you head into the next village, the floppy hound ears were combined with short legs and long hair. All the way along the bus route, we could guess the breeds of the wandering street dogs by the characteristics of the local pets chasing the bus.

Milo, my favourite big fluffy puppy at home.

Milo, my favourite big fluffy puppy at home.

Here in Santa Rosa, the dogs are much bigger, although not as big as our three big fluffy puppies at home. Whenever I wander through the park, lab-sized dogs are haring around chasing each other with big doggy grins on their faces. Nobody seems concerned about them, and nobody seems scared. At home, a small child would get knocked down and somebody would call the SPCA to remove the dogs and put up a fence and signs to prevent their return. Here, dogs wandering around are just part of life. We haven’t been bitten, but in my first week in Costa Rica I was licked on the mouth when a dog jumped up at me.

Dog on the street in Santa Rosa, Colombia - possibly crossed with a tiger?

Dog on the street in Santa Rosa, Colombia – possibly crossed with a tiger?

I wonder whether the dogs here seem less dangerous because people aren’t trying to lock them up. They’re not bored at home all day, going crazy. Instead, they’re free to live more naturally, forming friends and packs and sorting out their disagreements on their own. There are certainly some dogs that could be dangerous, but there isn’t the culture of keeping large dogs on short leashes or trapped in small apartments, waiting for people to give them permission to move. I think the lifestyle here is good for dogs, and I’m glad they seem content.

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