The Rez Dogs Are Alright

Working with animals professionally my entire adult life, I’ve been a pet trainer, veterinary nurse, zookeeper, and animal rescue volunteer.  From rescue group meetings to animal hospital surgery suite chats, I’ve heard the same false narrative: The biggest horror shows in dog welfare, apart from puppy mills, are the neglected dogs on Indigenous reservations.  Pet professionals have lots of ideas about reservation dogs, and the telling is always steeped in racism. I frequently see rescue groups post adoptable dog profiles, stating they were rescued from abusive conditions on reservations. Some rescues even specialize in reservation dogs specifically. Many veterinarians share stories about spaying/neutering services they volunteer on reservations, some of them using the dogs to practice their first surgeries.  They say how they are tempted to keep the dogs, and some do. Out of curiosity, I reach out occasionally and ask what the protocol is for taking dogs from reservations, but no one has ever replied to me until now. Robert Hall of the Blackfeet people who call themselves ṗiikǔnir, took time to teach me about Rez dogs.  Animal professionals everywhere should hear what he has to say if they truly care about animal welfare.

Robert Hall explains, “There are non-profits that do dedicate a lot of resources and time helping Rez dogs. Most, if not all, are non-native and operate off the reservation. As for any protocol for outsiders mingling with our dogs, there isn’t any.  There are also individuals that see dogs and either take them as their own or take them to a shelter, which I understand is coming from a good place, but it does not always yield positive results. For instance, my friend’s dog ended up missing. I helped look for him for a few days, and then they looked online at a couple of animal shelters. Their dog ended up in Anaconda, MT, which is four hours away from our Rez. They drove down and got him, of course.  This is mainly due to the fact that many people don’t put collars on their dogs. Same as myself-- I don’t do it because my dogs just look uncomfortable and miserable with them...If someone is passing through the Rez, don’t just take any dog. Leave them alone. Us locals know who is who.”

It is important for people to understand that Rez dogs culturally free-range and aren’t considered housepets.  Hall says they are more like family, but not in same way our dogs are family -- they are given their own autonomy out of respect, and they are not required to change their ways.  

Hall goes on, “I mean, if a Rez dog comes up to you and smells your car tires, then please pet them and give them some food. I can totally understand seeing a dog without a collar and having empathy for the creature and wanting to take them away, but it’s just a clash of perspectives on how outsiders view ‘pets’ and how we view dogs…They have the right to go be themselves and piss around town and sniff ass where they please.  People saying their pets are their family but keeping them in a yard is somewhat funny to me. I do acknowledge realities of metropolitan landscapes and, to be blunt, white towns are just unaccepting of animals roaming freely (at least far less than us Rez folk). Anyway, I guess what I am trying to say is that you don’t put family on a leash and confine them to a yard. I don’t mean to ignore the love and value people put on to their pets. Blackfeet (or, as we call ourselves ṗiikǔni) had a working relationship with the mutt. They carried our lodges and belongings across the plains for us, WITH us for thousands of years.  Then we got confined on a reservation. The least we can do is honor the spirit of the dog and let them do as they do.”

Dogs are individuals, and their behavior is deeply affected by their experiences and environment.  Rez dogs don’t act like housepets on the loose. Therefore, community concerns about loose pets are not universal.  In my neighborhood, any loose housepet is having the adventure of their lifetime and is out of control. Most are not fully socialized, and an increasing number are fear-aggressive.  Nextdoor posts are an echochamber for people scared for the safety of their children because pets keep escaping yards.

Hall says, “As for the collective reservation attitude towards dogs, it is nuanced, like any community.  Some people, like me, love them. I genuinely believe Rez dogs ward off bad spirits, but beyond that, it’s really lovely to see smiling faces around town. Going to work, still half asleep, and pulling into town and seeing a few Rez dogs play around on the football field or in front of the tribal offices sure does shine a light on the simple pleasures of life.”

He continues, “My aunty Pinky loves dogs and always has dog food in her car. I stole that idea from her and do it, too. She works at the tribal offices.  There’s this one mutt that’s basically hers, even though it doesn’t have a name or home. My aunty even goes the extra distance and makes sure that the most pitiful of mutts get help and put into a shelter. She has a massive tender heart towards dogs, which I admire. Then there are also those that dislike the amount of dogs. Poor mutts can’t please everyone.”

“I give talks to outsiders all the time and always ask about something they noticed about my Rez that stands out to them.  People constantly remark that they love seeing dogs roam around. The ones who do not probably don’t say anything. I always explain to them that they run around not because of neglect, but out of respect. I feel that’s an important thing to emphasize.”

What happens to autonomous dog packs that have had the hunt domesticated out of them and are left to scavenge in harsh winters with oppressed people with fewer resources?  This is the stuff that spins the horror stories I hear in rescue. Instead of helping to correct a problem we’ve created, settlers like us blame the victims and turn a blind eye to real solutions.

“The biggest thing is that [rez dogs] live good lives, and many do suffer.  Winter really takes a lot of them out.” Hall wishes there was a dog hotel with food available for them when needed, and a task force that monitors dogs and feeds those that are really starving, and “perhaps even fix the dogs, which goes against allowing the dog to be itself.  It takes away their rights to reproduce, which is something many of us have issues with, but it’s for the greater good so that pups aren’t born just to suffer and starve.”

With dog behaviorists seeking places around the world to eagerly study free-ranging dogs, it’s clear they’re ignoring Rez dogs nextdoor.  Rescues and Good Samaritans are sometimes causing more harm. Volunteering veterinarians might be triggering a woman’s personal trauma. Settlers have stolen and continue to steal everything from Natives -- even their dogs.  Perhaps I haven’t heard more outrage because I’m not listening. Perhaps you just can’t steal what they never thought was truly theirs to begin with, because they don’t try to own others. That’s what settlers like us do.

“One thing I saw that was a brilliant way to help was when these mysterious people passing through went to the grocery store, bought a bag of dog food, and left that bag outside the store with a note that said ‘please feed the dogs’.  A good person found that bag, posted it on facebook, and fed some of the dogs around town. I thought that was a very nice way to respect dogs, their lives, and our culture, while also contributing to our tribal grocery store. It was a win for everyone involved: the kind people who bought the food, the dogs, our way of life, and our tribal grocery store.”

That’s something we all can do.

For more information about Rez dogs, follow Robert Hall on Twitter @DeadDogLake.