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Free-Ranging Vietnam Village Dogs
Village dogs understand communal space.
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This morning, on my daily run, I came upon a black-and-tan puppy sitting at the edge of the Thu Bồn River. I’ve seen him before, but never in this spot. Upon my approach, the puppy scampered back to his front yard, which is separated from the Thu Bồn by a small lane, traveled by motorbikes and pedestrians, and the occasional car.

It is my fourth week here in Hội An, Vietnam. When I first arrived, this same puppy hovered close to his house. While I didn’t notice anyone keeping an eye out for him, it was clear which house he considered home. Then, the puppy was young enough that his eyes were still that indistinct gray-blue color. He was a bit wobbly on his feet, and sported a rounded puppy belly.

Now, his eyes are focused and a clever brown. He is slimmer and a lot quicker, and he is learning, as most dogs here must, to get out of the way of any person or thing barreling in his direction. Soon, he will be able to distinguish between the people and things that will intersect with his trajectory and those that will not. He will learn to ignore the latter. He must, else he will be one tired puppy, as Hội An is a popular tourist destination for foreigners and Vietnamese alike.

Most puppies in Hội An are raised without leashes or fences. The entire time I’ve been here, I’ve seen only two dogs walked on leash, and one appeared to be visiting from elsewhere (the dog’s people were revolving as they walked, in an attempt to take in a panoramic view).

As a dog trainer in the United States, I’ve had clients who insisted on trying to raise a dog with little to no use of leash or fence. What these clients failed to understand is that it’s not a simple matter of removing restraints. Many factors help shape a puppy into a dog who will not wander from home or family. Among other things, dogs must lead a fulfilling life at home, or they will seek fulfillment elsewhere, whatever “fulfillment” means to a particular dog. And even if home life is fulfilling, dogs will roam if life away from home is equally or more fulfilling. It’s not that different from human behavior. Some of us require quite a bit of enticement to leave the comforts of our own home. Some of us return home only when entirely depleted.

In this area of Hội An, many shopkeepers live behind or above their stores, so their dogs are never alone. The house where I’ve been staying shares a courtyard with a number of other homes. Some of my neighbors disappear off to work at various hours. Others work from home. The dogs who share the courtyard have constant, though rotating, human company. They spend time around a variety of people, making it less likely that they will become hyperattached to a single person.

They also grow up with an understanding of communal space. The whole time I’ve been here, I’ve seen only two canine squabbles, and no one was hurt either time. One altercation involved a leashed dog being walked through a pack of canine friends gathered for their morning social. (An imbalance in freedom often results in confrontation, as does the addition of a newcomer to a close-knit pack, which this clearly was.) The other involved a young and overly exuberant dog who interrupted a group already at play. The interrupter was ostracized, but once he mellowed, he was permitted to join in the fun.

Here, one puppy excepted (a very young one, at a shop on a bustling street), all the puppies I’ve seen have been granted complete freedom. Like the little black-and-tan one I see each morning on my run, the puppies learn from the start that safety is found at home or close to it. In this city, if a dog leaves home, he is soon intruding on another’s turf. Neighbor dogs share common space without issue, but may not appreciate a “stranger” dog passing through.

Some of the more confident dogs will cross streets; their navigation of intersections bustling with motorbikes and pedestrians is a sight to behold. I’ve spent many mornings on the patio of a coffee shop watching the same few dogs travel up and down the road with purpose. Sometimes with great purpose, as when carrying a scavenged treasure. (They seem inclined to retreat a good distance from the site of the discovery, perhaps to keep that site secret.)

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Barbara Tran is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize in poetry and the author of the poetry collection In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words, winner of the Tupelo Press Chapbook Competition. She was an artist-inresidence at Chula in Hội An, Vietnam. Barbara shares her home with two mixed-breed dogs, and is a certified professional dog trainer. barbaratran.com

Photos by Martha Burgess

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