They gather in gangs by the gates of compounds, they hang about outside temples, and slouch intimidatingly in the shade on street corners. They moodily stare at you as you walk past, muttering under their breath, making sure you know that you’re not welcome on their territory. Sometimes they approach you and sometimes they cleverly ignore you – lulling you into a false sense of security until you have passed before menacingly appearing behind you.
They are the street dogs of Yangon.
Mangy old battle-weary animals – their scars and lesions revealing a tough life on the streets; young pups – courageous beyond their years, they’re all intimidating at times, just plain scary at others, and there is no way of avoiding them completely. They’re even in the parks and the university grounds; regardless of where you take your exercise you have to be on your guard and ready to respond to their unwanted attentions.
You might assume that these animals are strays – in fact the truth is anything but; these dogs aren’t starving scavengers. Although they live on the street they are regularly fed; every teashop and monastery has their dogs hanging around outside, and the rest just simply belong to a community, looking after the gates in that street.
I have a dog, a big dog, the type of dog that was originally intended to be used hunting on the African savannahs, and subsequently I spend a lot of time on the streets exercising him, and that generally involves passing through many different territories and interacting with the dogs on the street.
We do tend to get a bit of hassle.
To be fair to the street dogs, they are after all, just doing what comes naturally to them, guarding their patch, protecting their neighbourhood, discouraging strangers and big foreign dogs from lingering. They also remember me when I’m out on my own – not so big and brave without your big African mate – they whisper as they circle around me.
If you do find yourself being unfairly hassled by the dogs that live on your street you could perhaps take some time to befriend them, or at least find out who looks after them and get to know that person. Use the teashops they are hanging outside of, or stop by the monastery they live at. Make an effort to encourage them to accept you as a part of their area, you could even go as far as feed them occasionally – they are after all looking after your neighbourhood as well. And if you can persuade them that you are not a threat, and that you are a part of their community then they’ll be happy to see you, to welcome you home, or at the very least to ignore you most of the time.
And if you are not in a familiar neighbourhood and you feel threatened by dogs then there are many tactics to try to avoid an unnecessary disagreement. The non-confrontational approach would be the best all round, and by walking on the other side of the street whilst avoiding eye contact you can dodge a kerfuffle. You do have to keep a discreet eye on them though as they have a sneaky habit of sneaking around behind you when they think you aren’t looking.
A well-waved umbrella also works to keep them at a distance, and you’ll more than likely never actually have to use it in anger. Though if that isn’t doing the trick, then a good loud shout, a firm stamp on the ground or a wave of your arms tells them you mean business. If you make enough fuss someone on the street who is familiar with the dogs usually helps with a half-hearted kick in their general direction.
I would definitely not advise running away from a pack of street dogs – unless of course you were in the process of running in the first place – if so, then, well, just keep on running, maybe a bit faster, and certainly keep a eye on your ankles.
My method of deterrent – of which I take no responsibility for injuries or embarrassment sustained whilst attempting – is to bend down low and bare my teeth whilst opening my eyes wide and giving lots of eye-contact, I emit a long loud guttural growl, and then feign a charge by shuffling my flip-flops in the dirt like a bull at a red cape. By demonstrating that I consider myself the ‘top-dog’ these other dogs that have suddenly found themselves moved down the pecking order usually work out that they aren’t going to win this fight with the big pink sweaty dog and retreat; or perhaps they are just so surprised and amused that they stop and consider whether it is worth getting into an argument with this odd-looking mad-dog, either way, it usually works.
On the rare occasion that this doesn’t work, perhaps they’ve already been fooled by this pantomime before, then I have to up the ante and go all out. I charge at them – growling, barking, snorting, whooping, baring teeth, waving arms and whatever comes to mind at the time. That always does the trick, the dogs disappear and everyone in the street has a good laugh and a funny story to share with their friends over tea.
Whatever your method, it is just one of the things you’ll have to get used to; and it’s better to be safe than sorry as there is rabies in Myanmar and I don’t advise getting bitten. If you do you’ll be thinking about getting some expensive injections pretty sharpish as untreated rabies has a near 100% mortality rate.
And likewise if you have a dog then make sure that it is vaccinated against rabies, if they’re bitten then get them to the Vet as soon as possible for a rabies booster jab, regardless of when the last one was.
It has to be said though, regardless of the occasional skirmish with the street dogs, there is nothing quite like getting out onto the streets and walking a dog; you see a whole different side to the city outside of your air-conditioned bubble. And it is very important to them too; they need to find out what is going on outside the gate, to catch up on the news through the lampposts and kerbstones of the area. Even the smallest dogs need exercising, and a big garden to run around in just isn’t enough. They need to be out, with their pack, or at least with their pack leader. Those dogs you see going mental behind the huge gates of large compounds – guard dogs; these are dogs that don’t get out enough. Even a barking slathering, snarling 150lb Rottweiler just wants to sniff a lamppost sometimes.
If you haven’t got a dog, and are thinking about an addition to the family at this time of year then you need to be fully aware of the implications of how much time, money and space is required for that lifetime investment. Can you commit to feeding and walking the dog each and every day regardless of the weather, and maintaining that whilst you are away on holiday? Have you considered that you may one day leave Myanmar and thought about how ridiculously expensive and unbelievably bureaucratic moving a dog between countries is?
Don’t let me put you off, but if you are going to get one make sure you are committed to caring for that animal for the rest of their life, and when choosing a dog, choose wisely. Because the bigger they are, the more they eat and the more exercise they need.
You may notice that the puppy sellers are going all out to get puppies on sale in the run up to the holiday season. You’ll see them adoringly trying to escape from crates outside Bogyoke Aung San Market, cutely sitting quietly in cages at Yuzana market and dolefully eyeing you up at pet shops across the city.
But if you pick one of these cruelly cultivated pups, you will more than likely have a disappointing and distressful Christmas. The puppy farms are churning out hundreds of sick, diseased and unhappy dogs that generally live a very short and painful life.
If you really want a dog, then avoid this cruel trade and think about adopting a rescue dog. Yangon Animal Shelter currently has over 300 dogs that have been rescued from the streets, many of them orphans whose mother was poisoned by Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) who regularly put out poisoned meat to attempt to reduce the numbers of street dogs.
They neuter or spay and vaccinate all their dogs, and they are fit healthy and smart. And if I’ve learned anything thing on the streets of Yangon, it is that you have to be smart to survive. My big lad, Darwin, sadly doesn’t live up to his name, or his size. He wouldn’t last two minutes alone on the streets of Yangon, let alone the African Savannah. My other dog Lucy, the street dog from Dar es Salaam, she’s the brains of the operation – she doesn’t get any hassle out there!
The Yangon Animal Shelter is a non-profit organization funded entirely through donations. They are dedicated to the rescue and care of stray animals that are homeless, sick, injured or under threat of poisoning. If you would like to learn more about their work, make a donation to support their cause or are interested in discussing how to adopt a Yangon street dog then more information can be found at http://www.yangonanimalshelter.com
A version of the article was published in My Yangon Magazine – November 2104