She lies in the sun near the native sandstone surface road in Monument Valley’s Navajo Tribal Park. Tucked into the swarm of her littermate’s legs and tails, she seems content until approached. She’s afraid. But, she’s also a survivor.
She’s a rez dog.
Short for reservation, a rez dog is a familiar sight across the landscape of many Native American reservations. Dogs. Lots of dogs. They seemingly roam from one point to another, prompting outsiders to wonder if they are homeless. They aren’t. The reservation is their home. Some have owners, some do not.
“It’s a very tribal tradition to have a dog,” explains Deb Dunham, foster coordinator for Soul Dog Rescue, a non-profit animal rescue and welfare organization based in Ft. Lupton, Colorado that has worked with underserved tribal communities in the Southwest for over a decade. “Animals are animals to their owners, and they always, always have a job.”
Historically, this has been the case. For centuries, the domesticated tribal canine has played an integral role in the Native American’s daily working life. Early Indians trained them to pull a travois–a sled-like platform–for hauling buffalo meat back from distant hunts. At home, they were valued as loyal companions and vigilant watchdogs. As farming and ranching expanded, dogs found a new purpose to herd and guard livestock. It should come as no surprise that many reservation dogs are a mix of cattle dog, Australian shepherd, great Pyrenees, husky and border collie.
Dunham considers a reservation dog a “breed of its own.” “They are smart, loyal and willing,” she explains. “They are survivors.”
Unfortunately, that will-to-live instinct–combined with the multi-generational cultural belief that dogs are considered both sacred and spiritual beings– has lead to an overpopulation of nomadic reservation dogs. According to Dunham, many families choose a favorite dog, which becomes their “house” dog. Those pets then mix with the working dogs, resulting in an unchecked number of litters. “So many dogs will wander off because there are no fences,” says Dunham. The net effect is up towards and estimated 160,000 to 400,000 stray dogs that roam the backcountry.
It’s not that their owners don’t care. It’s just that they don’t always have the financial or educational resources to slow their overpopulation. “The distance and cost to travel is astronomical and unaffordable,” says Dunham.
The Navajo Nation Animal Control can only support five officers to monitor and assist with all dog and cat-related issues in the entire Navajo Nation—a vast area of 27,000 square miles spread between Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Already overwhelmed, most of what they handle are reactive measures to dog bites and livestock damage. There are few additional resources available to assist owners in spaying and neutering procedures or vaccines; therefore their high-kill shelters are filled to capacity with numbing amounts of euthanasia performed daily.
Dunham believes that a cultural shift is necessary to curb the overtaxed system. “We need to educate about spaying and neutering in every community as a viable alternative.” To meet that goal, Soul Dog conducts a monthly series of low-cost clinics throughout the Four Corners region. In 2019, together with volunteer veterinarians, they spayed and neutered 4,619 dogs. The clinics also provide necessary vaccinations for distemper and parvo in addition to deworming. Says Dunham, “No animal is ever turned away for the inability of the owner or caretaker to pay.”
Soul Dog is equally dedicated to accepting non-aggressive, abandoned, injured or owner surrendered dogs and cats for adoption. They work endlessly identifying animals in need from Tribal animal control or those left behind by owners who could no longer care for them. Once rescued, Soul Dog mobilizes its vast transportation network to deliver the rescues to over 130 foster homes throughout Colorado or directly to their adoption center in Ft. Lupton. Last year alone, Soul Dog rescued 2400 dogs and 900 cats. While nearly one-half of the animals rescued have been adopted, there are still many who are in need of a home.
Through a partnership with Denver area PetSmart stores, Soul Dog adoption events are held every Saturday in at least two Front Range locations. Upcoming events with a list of adoptable animals are updated weekly on Soul Dog Rescue’s Facebook page. All dogs and puppies are fully vaccinated, spayed and/or neutered and range in adoption fees from $350 for a puppy to $250 for an adult canine.
As for the rez dog mentioned at the beginning of the story—she’s now part of our four-dog family in Colorado Springs. Her name is Holly. She joins Smudge, another rez dog we adopted two years ago. Already five months old when she was rescued, Holly remains shy and reserved with strangers, but loyal and affectionate with us. She looks like a miniature German shepherd. Everyone at the nearby dog park always comments on her beauty and ask what breed of dog she is.
“She’s a rez dog,” I say. Best dogs on earth.
To adopt, volunteer or donate to Soul Dog Rescue visit their website: www.souldogrescue.org or call 303-857-6789 and follow them on Facebook.