It’s sunny, hot, dry, and dusty. Toxic air burns your nose and throat. Some people here are scary and don’t want you around. But this place is too fascinating to leave. You squint your eyes and survey the scene. 1,000 free-roaming dogs in a square mile. This is the garbage dump of Mexico City.
I learned so much in this mesa of refuse. About dogs and people. Here’s one storyline that struck me. It relates to every dog owner. It’s about dogs coming when called. We all want our dogs to come when called. Right away. You’ve heard me say the two most important factors that determine a dog’s response are: 1) your relationship, and 2) the training. We’ll come back to this concept in future articles and episodes, I promise. But today I’m not going into details because the video tells it all.
My colleague and I came upon a group of men who live and work in the dump. Yes, both. We were interested in finding out if any of them perceive themselves as “owners” of any particular dogs. Turns out some of them do see themselves as owners, but in a VERY loose way compared to what anyone reading this on a computer screen is used to. We asked the men which dogs were “theirs.” (We were surrounded by hundreds of dogs.) So, they showed us. By calling them.
The relationship? I believe this perfect recall is a result of the same natural relationship that the very first dogs had with humankind. The sharing of food. Yes. That’s it. That’s all it is. There’s not a whole lot of praise and effusive love in this “training.” If you look carefully you’ll notice when the dogs arrive they won’t even let the men touch them.
The training? Simple. Just like in our positive reinforcement obedience classes. The signals the men use to call the dogs have been associated with a reward. In this case, though, it’s not being done for training purposes. These men don’t share THEIR food with the dogs. (You can see none of them are rushing to open the meal boxes we presented in exchange for their interview.) No, I don’t believe they share their own food much at all. But the men are dump diggers. They sort through heaps of trash with gigantic long-toothed rakes. And sometimes they unearth… meat. Yes, more than once I saw a huge rake flash its teeth in the sun, then get thrust into a deep pile of trash, and come up with a stabbed hunk of carcass. Cattle? Pig? No matter. The meat was in giant plastic bags that the men pulled from the pile and ripped open. Then the dogs were called. And they came. Just like in training class…