Free-Ranging Vietnam Village Dogs

Village dogs understand communal space.
By Barbara Tran, July 2016

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.)

Certainly, not every dog survives this amount of freedom unscathed. I have sighted one, maybe two, with a noticeable hitch to their gaits, the hitch likely earned in a collision with a motorbike. At the same time, I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of dogs who live very full lives, exploring their corners of the city at will, socializing and exercising in the early dawn as their humans do, when the air is freshest and the traffic lightest. Some do so in the company of people; others seek out canine friends independently.

While there are many loose dogs and swarms of tourists, I have yet to see a single dog react to a person walking by, no matter how close. And given the heavy foot traffic here, passing happens in tight proximity. Yet, while the dogs have no issue whatsoever with being passed, even brushed, by a pedestrian, a number have no interest in interaction beyond the accidental.

How do I know? I’ve heard them growl, usually when a tourist has been so bold as to reach a hand forward to touch without invitation, or moved in purposefully, camera in hand. The dogs communicated their displeasure quite clearly. Unlike in the U.S., in Hội An, dogs are not punished for their display, even in shops where the owners earn their livelihood by catering to tourists.

While here, I’ve been able to relate more closely to the predicament of dogs who are forbidden to express themselves in this way. There is a restaurant east of the marketplace that is owned by a woman who enjoys employing her English language skills. Since the first time I enjoyed a meal there, the owner has taken to shouting after me every time she sees me. When I am within her reach (she surprised me once rather far from her restaurant), she grasps me tightly in a bear hug. I’m not a terribly demonstrative person, especially with people I barely know. Were it socially acceptable (and I wish it were), I would emit a low growl to make clear my preferences.

I would have no more intention of biting than the growling shop dogs do. It’s clear from their body language: they are not about to get off their haunches and into a messy, tiring altercation by sinking their teeth into someone, especially not while the heat index is well over 100; they have no reason to. They have learned that a single clear communication gets them what they want: a bit of personal space.

Why is it that in the U.S., we consider such a reasonable request to be rude? As in humans, in dogs, bottled-up emotions tend to lead not to dissipation, but rather, to explosion. Imagine if every new person I encountered decided to give me a bear hug. You don’t have to know me personally to guess where this might eventually lead.

Rather than allow a dog to express his discomfort in a given situation, in the U.S., we tend to think it proper to forbid, and even punish, a dog for barking—let alone, horror of horrors, growling—at a person. This is unfortunate, as even children who haven’t been taught proper behavior around dogs understand the meaning of a growl.

As I prepare to sign off, one of the Chihuahuas who lives across from my house is telling an unfamiliar Cavalier mix in no uncertain terms to move it along. The courtyard is buzzing with neighbors newly returned from work. No one is telling the Chihuahua to put a lid on it. People recognize that she has a right to say what she’s saying.

I’ve heard, and read, many a complaint about the treatment of dogs in Asia. Here in Hội An, it’s been a joy to witness so many dogs leading full, wellbalanced lives, including enjoyment of the freedom of expression we hold dearly—for humans, if not canines— in the United States.

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.

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