I went to Cambodia and Vietnam for two weeks with National Geographic. The trip took us to cultural landmarks and major cities, but also to places off the beaten path — floating villages, tiny towns around temples, and rural hamlets where modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and internet are still sparse.
Pretty much everywhere, we saw dogs. Here are some of my observations about them:
In rural areas towns we saw “village dogs.” In general (not always) they were medium-sized, brown, and smooth-coated with pointy ears.
Often they were hanging around close to people — lying under a table or chair at people’s feet. Scholars Raymond and Lorna Coppinger say that village dogs consider shade a valuable resource. It was hot and sunny out, and it did seem dogs were using the shade that human dwellings provide.
I also thought they were claiming, by their choice of nap location, a safe place where humans or other dogs would alert them to anything important going on, and a place where a scrap of food might drop.
At one home in rural Cambodia, where a cat and a dog were hanging around the table of a family with children, I inquired about whether or not the dog and cat had a name. “Kitty” and “Puppy,” were the translations our guide and I came up with. The expressions of the people when asked this by my translator told me they found the idea of naming the animals curious. I wondered to what extent they were pets at all.
I asked a local academic familiar with Cambodia how he would describe the relationship between people and these dogs: “indifferent” was a good descriptor. “They do not pet them,” he said.
Kids and dogs were hanging around together freely. Behind one home, I saw several 5-7 year old kids playing with each other while a puppy followed them around.
As we walked through the villages, a couple of dogs did bark, but they generally ignored us even though we were certainly strange outsiders. They didn’t seem to want to be with us or get anything from us.
More Males Than Females?
I started thinking there were more male than female dogs around, and so I started counting. It turned out to be too hard to get close to enough dogs to tell their gender. But still, I wonder, if there are indeed more males than females around, is it because of human population control. I surmised that for health and safety reasons it could be good to control their numbers, while keeping a steady pool of dogs around for other benefits (food, protection, waste and pest control) could be helpful. With that in mind, are females more likely to be taken out of the population?
Vietnamese Pet Dogs and City Dogs:
Closer to the cities, there were more dogs with varied coats and shapes and more small dogs, and more dogs who seemed to be pets. I did not see purebred dogs anywhere though, and not once did I see a dog being walked on a leash, even in the larger cities. (In the floating villages, where the dogs lived on the floating houses with people, there were quiet a few dogs that looked like german shepherds mixes.)
In Ho Chi Minh City, there was a long line of people waiting to get a signed copy of a new best-selling book “The Puppy Carries a Basket of Flowers.” The pet dog culture seemed to be stronger within this educated young city. A vendor with a cage on the back of her motorcycle sold small mixed-breed puppies for about $50 each.
Dogs at Angkor Wat:
No Dog Food: Around the ancient temples around Angkor Wat, I saw dogs begging for food. Their strategy was familiar. They watched people and their food, making it clear with their eyes and posture what they wanted. But, unlike many dogs in the US, who will get up close and personal with a stranger to get a treat, the dogs I saw kept their distance. I watched one woman toss food back behind the dog. I think she was trying to get the dog to leave her alone and back away. And though that woman never asked for a sit, the dog eventually sat, waiting for food.
It’s no surprise that the rural people and poorer communities do not feed dog food, as we know it, to the dogs. And, I didn’t see a lot of scraps of food being left around. So what are these dogs eating? They didn’t look too underweight. A study of village dogs in Zimbabwe estimates that a large part of the village dog diet comes from human waste (including poop). I would believe the same is true for these dogs. There is not a lot of infrastructure for waste removal in these communities.
How Much Exercise Do Dogs Need?
I only saw one dog on a leash during our whole trip— a small dog in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t see anyone walking a dog, and only a few dogs with collars. I read that in more upscale neighborhoods in Vietnam, dogs are generally confined to the yard and house. There were plenty of dogs in the floating villages, many tethered on deck. I doubt they ever get to dry land. I saw a couple of them eliminate on deck.
It made me think that exercise, considered important for pet dogs here, is a reflection of the fact that our dogs are well fed, under stimulated, and afforded comfortable environments. When its hot, when food is scarce, and when resting out in the open requires keeping one eye open, exercise must not be that important. I did however, see puppies playing with each other a couple of times.
Do They Eat Dog in Cambodia and Vietnam?
Just a few decades ago, the Cambodian people suffered starvation and worse at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. During that time they ate whatever they could get. This was the explanation given for the large cricket traps we saw in the fields: people ate insects during desperate times, and they developed a taste for them. So, they still do. If insects, wild birds, and snakes are eaten, in addition to more common meats, wouldn’t dogs be eaten, too? We were told that dog is rarely consumed in Cambodia these days, in part due to the Buddhist respect for animals, and that eating dog is more common in Vietnam and China. Our guides said dog meat is most often sold to tourists from other parts of Asia. In Phnom Penh, I did see a dog on spit in a restaurant on the edge of town. And in another location nearby, I saw meat with rib bones of a size that to me seemed like dog. It’s a barbaric custom I abhor.
At the same time, nature’s emotionless processes resulted in an amazingly tight relationship: dogs protect us, and we protect them. They eat our garbage, and can also become human food. A study of free-ranging dogs found that free-ranging dogs are also the best among species at scavenging for carcasses. Perhaps, in our shared past with dogs, our dead bodies provided their nourishment.
If I were to go back to either of these great countries, I’d take along a translator, ask a lot more questions, and read all about village dogs. Much can be learned from how people and dogs interact in these and other places.
Butler, J. R. A., and du Toit, J. T., Diet of free-ranging domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) in rural Zimbabwe: implications for wild scavengers on the periphery of wildlife reserves, Animal Conservation, Volume 5 Issue 1, 2002. Blackwell Publishing. Link to article here