The Dogs of the Navajo Nation (2010)

posted: by: South River Veterinary Service Tags: "Clinic Specials" "News" 

In July, I received a call from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare, based in Falmouth on the Cape). I had helped them previously with standard of care recommendations for spay and neuter clinics and they were looking for a veterinarian to help with a vaccination clinic on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

Distemper is a viral disease that attacks dogs and other carnivores such as foxes, raccoons and coyotes. Virtually unknown to most of us in the northeast, and now rarely seen by most veterinarians, it is a devastating disease when an animal is infected. Known in the west as the “reservation disease”, it is all too common where people are poor or otherwise have limited access to regular vaccination programs for their dogs. Most infected dogs die from the disease which attacks the GI tract, the respiratory system and, most fatally, the central nervous system. There had been reports of a recent distemper outbreak in the Navajo Nation, and we were there to help get all of the dogs vaccinated.

One of the amazing and most useful things about our trip was the opportunity to spend extended periods of time talking to the people on the reservation with whom IFAW has been working. Because the unemployment rate is over 60% and poverty is a fact of life, many of the dogs and cats on the reservation are in tough shape. Homeless dogs wander the roads, highways, parking lots and markets. Most are thin, many suffer from the unrelenting disease of sarcoptic mange, and are clearly parasite ridden. Pregnant and lactating females scavenge around dumpsters and fast food restaurants. Puppies wander in small groups, dodging cars and looking for food. Many of the dogs are Australian Cattle dog mixes, the predominant type of dog used by the Navajo to guard their sheep. For a territory the size of West Virginia, there are two veterinarians to treat all of the dogs, cats, sheep, goats, horses and cows of the region.

Historically, the Navajo dog is a working dog. For centuries, the Navajo have been sheep herders. The dog is the guardian of the flock. The dogs are born “into” the flock as their parents continue to work the sheep. They learn, not from their human “owners”, but from their dog “family” how to do their job. The dogs do not enter the hogan (house) and they are not petted or coddled. Although they sometimes develop a deep bond with the human sheep herders, they often are distant to their humans, sometimes even guarding their flocks from the humans that own them. From remarks made by a sheep farmer with whom we worked, I inferred that there is an imaginary circle around the house over which the dogs are not permitted to cross. Their home is with the sheep, not with the humans.

On our day off, we left the high desert that characterizes the land around Window Rock and entered the even higher plateau of the Ponderosa Pine. Climbing to over 8000 feet above sea level, we followed the network of poorly maintained dirt roads that crosses this plateau. Through the trees we spotted grazing cattle and horses, unconfined by fences. An immense bull sat in the tall grass and watched us with interest as the cows and calves grazed around him. Mares with foals at their sides, appaloosas, paints, buckskins and duns. All beautiful and wild looking in this wild and lonely place. No people. We stopped the car and got out. There were no sounds of airplanes or faraway highways. Only silence and the sounds of birds. We followed a tiny road up a mountain track. Ahead of us a black faced lamb ran across the path, and then more sheep, goats, a buck with a big bell around his neck. And ahead of the flock a dog, beside the flock, another dog, and bringing up the rear, another. I looked around for the people. There were none. The dogs moved the flock away from us, deeper into the forest, protecting their charges from strangers. These dogs were doing their work and they knew what they were doing!

I reflect on the life of a Navajo dog and on the meaning of freedom. Here in eastern Massachusetts I believe in leash laws. My clients get central air conditioning especially for their dogs and cats, buy special cuts of meat, match collars and leashes, apply soothing ointments to their most minor wounds and rashes. I do the same. Here the dogs are part of the family. They sleep with us in bed and lie on our couches. Sometimes we even feed them from the table. What do “our” dogs gain by this secure life of unconditional love? And what do they lose? One thing is certain. If my little Italian Greyhounds were left to guard sheep in the mountains of northern Arizona, they would last one hot minute.

People pull up to the vaccination clinic with two dogs, a pit bull cross and a cattle dog cross. Both dogs on big chains, riding in the open bed of a pick up. We examine them and give them their rabies, distemper and deworming shots. The dogs are good shape, and it is clear that these farmers take pride in their robust, healthy dogs. A little girl brings us puppies. Her parents are not home and she walks them over from her house, one by one. They are beyond cute, and she is beyond cute, with her long dark braid and serious brown eyes. She carries them carefully, cradled in her arms. An older woman brings us two chihuahuas, one is about 14 years old and if it had any teeth, it would remove our fingers! She talks to them as if they were her babies, a familiar thing for this veterinarian. We do not see any sick dogs, these are the cared for, household dogs that people are bringing us, also the valuable herding dogs. The dogs likely to carry the distemper are standing off in a field, wandering around ownerless. A nursing female emerges from a culvert. I wonder if she has puppies hidden there. She looks at us from a distance with listless curiosity and no little distrust. She’s white with brown spots, fluffy and thin. Her mammary glands are big, filled with milk . We discuss strategies to reach out this fragile population of semi wild dogs.

Coming back from our trip into the highlands, we see the female we had spotted from the clinic the day before. She is standing in her “usual” place, beside the highway as the huge semi trucks speed by. We pull over. I grab a bottle of water, a plastic frisbee and 2 packets of cheese crackers. I dash across the 4 lane highway to her side of the road. She watches me with interest and wags the tip of her tail but keeps her distance. Wary of frightening her into the incoming traffic, I avert my eyes as I dig a little hollow in the dirt for the frisbee so that it won’t blow away. I pour the water into this improvised dish and place the cheese crackers to the side. Sitting in the car, we watch her drink the water and eat the crackers, and then turn and trot towards “home” and her waiting puppies.