They call them “quiltro” here and they will…
steal your ball at the beach
ask for cuddles
and crash your class.
They’re the street dogs of Chile and they roam the country freely.
The culture surrounding them is new to me. In the United States the last time I saw a dog on the street I followed him, put him in my car, and drove him to the humane society where he was given a treat and put in a kennel with all of the other lost dogs. But here, kennels rarely exist and coming across dogs without an owner is as common as seeing squirrels in Florida.
It’s been said that Chileans take care of their street dogs and I’ve noticed that in Santiago and in larger cities that notion holds true. Most of the dogs there seem well-fed, undisturbed by human commotion, and sleep for most of the day!
Sometimes they’re a welcome sight to the locals who give them a bit of food when they ask for it. It’s when I visited the rural towns in the North that I saw the rougher side of the quiltro life, with some of the (usually shy) dogs appearing very malnourished, lethargic or sick.
In the small town of Punitaqui where I teach English, street dogs are considered “cochino” (Chilean slang for dirty) and a nuisance more often than not. If they get too close they’ll be shoo’d with a “sale!” (sah-lay), and I’ve witnessed more than one get whacked with a purse.
Still, Chileans own dogs as pets that they may keep fenced off from outsider dogs, or allow to roam freely throughout the day.
My host family adopted a roamer pup who they’ve fallen in love with. Meet “Negrita”, the most well-fed dog in the pueblo!
It’s always amusing to see her peeking in and out of local facilities around town such as banks and shops. I’ve also gotten used to having an always joyous companion follow me freely when we cross paths! Negrita helps start the day with a smile when she greets the world with her tail-less butt wiggling. We walk to school together every morning.
I also watch the other dogs interact often; just being with these guys and with nature has become part my spiritual practice of cultivating presence and acceptance. Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher whose books I’ve rediscovered here in Chile, says,
“Just watching an animal closely can take you out of your mind and bring you into the present moment, which is where the animal lives all the time-surrendered to life.”
These little guys don’t (and can’t) create a pity story around the knocks that come at them; they don’t see the cold, sickness and hunger as I sometimes do. As a matter of fact, they don’t label these situations at all! They allow things to simply be, forgive the purse-whacker easily, and deal with whatever pops up in the moment.
By observing these “guardians of being”, as Tolle calls them, I have also noticed that out on the streets—it’s back to the roots. Some dogs like to form wolf-like packs complete with hierarchies that stick to and defend their own territory. You’ll also find inseparable duos that face the streets together.
And although the service is free, the street dog situation is proliferated because most dogs aren’t fixed in Chile. So yes, there are puppies!
I think that dogs, like humans, crave companionship and have a difficult time surviving on their own in “the wild”. Although some seem to thrive on the streets, others naturally fall by the wayside. And even if dogs are natural zen masters, it can be tough to see them in pain. I’ve talked about it with the local veterinarian—who has helped many street dogs himself—and he put it to me this way: In the United States thousands of unwanted dogs are euthanized every day. Here in Chile, they are given a chance to live. It was a perspective that I simply hadn’t thought about and has helped me see the quiltro situation in a different light.
In any case, I like watching the dogs as they’re out and about and I enjoy their company. I always give street dogs attention if they’re friendly and want some love.
“… but aren’t you worried about fleas?!” I hear you say.
“What about getting bit?”
Yes, kinda. I’m a little less worried every day. I check my clothes thoroughly after petting them and have surprisingly not found any so far. I also tread carefully when dealing with street dogs and let them approach me if they’re up for it. Most are cautious but very friendly!
For this sometimes lonely backpacker in an unfamiliar land, the street dogs of Chile have become friends and a boundless source of joy.