We give our dogs everything. But is it what they need?

I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. Our flight was long but uneventful. We picked up our car and the moment of truth was about to present itself. I clenched my fist and looked down at the cracked floor mats of our not-so-gently used rental car.

Should I look up? Should I look around, down the block, past the people? Am I ready?

Before we left for our trip to Brasil, Eduardo – one of the few people who sees my insides – and I had a serious conversation about our visit. “We need to talk about the dog situation,” he said cautiously while unpacking his day. I took a deep breath and admitted I was nervous, unprepared and needed to have a plan. We agreed that I would not attempt to gather as many strays as I could and buy them all business class seats back to the states. Short of that, I still had too much gray area to deal with.

I had to prepare myself but I didn’t know for what. We talked through a number of scenarios and made some agreements. I agreed that if we could identify a couple of resources around the city of Sao Paulo just in case, I would feel better. Now, to define that just-in-case scenario was another thing. After a bit of negotiation we agreed our intervention would be limited to dogs that were in imminent danger. If they appeared sick or hurt, we would help. If they were just wandering around, I agreed to stand down.

It was hot. The palm trees looked almost wilted. Our little car thumped over the road toward a massive display of high rises. The sun hit panes of glass at angles that made the buildings seem like they were dressed in sequins. From our distance it was all sparkly. Closer, inside the maze created at the foot of these dancing buildings was something different. There was decay, a city worn thin, better days peeking through layers of graffiti. Favelas stamped the landscape with their distinct shapes, squares upon squares of random materials dotted with clotheslines, rainwater buckets and satellite dishes. I was getting nervous now. “Ok, where are they? Where are the dogs?”

I took a deep breath and lifted my head. But I wasn’t completely ready so I assumed the classic horror movie position: The “Oh my God, he’s behind you,” hands over the face with just a sliver between you fingers to peek out from. It was a few more blocks before I saw him. No leash. No collar but clearly in the company of a person. Once I got over my initial American shock of an unrestrained dog walking along a busy road, I did a quick assessment. He looked good – plump, happy, trotting along side of a shoeless man. Ok, that wasn’t so bad. Of course, it was just one.

Expectations are amazingly powerful. My imagination was full of hurt, skinny, helpless and homeless animals pouring into the streets, one more needy than the last. What I expected to see was not at all what was happening. I saw several more dogs. One was black and lean napping by the pumps of a closed gas station. Gas stations were popular places for the dogs to be. We passed another station with a big, shepherd mix donning a red bandana and hanging with attendants. No leash. No chain. No tether. He had a big dog house right by the entrance to the mini mart. At the mouth of a smaller favela were 2 dogs lying out on the sidewalk with some kids. “Oh, look! There are some on leashes!” That seemed the rarity for all 20 minutes of my christening.

On the way to Eduardo’s parents’ apartment building, we drove by a nice park and there were dogs everywhere, all accompanied, some on leash, some just casually strolling. Here is what I found striking: NONE were barking, pulling, lunging or acting in any way frustrated or stressed. Not ONE. Very few were neutered. There were more sacks in that park than a potato farm in Idaho. As we ventured out and around the city my amazement and relief continued to grow. The dogs were everywhere, allowed to be out, to be free, to walk around in the malls, roam the parks and they seemed HAPPY. And smart. No one was darting into traffic, picking fights or scaring any of the humans.

We traveled to a beautiful island just off the coast of the city and I was filled with curiosity and peppered with apprehension. I wanted hang on to my pleasant surprise, keep my new found bubble from bursting. I had one scare: a medium sized, graying dog walking alone along a busy road. I could not see a person but what I quickly realized was if there was a house, even one house, the dog was probably good. What I was learning was there were no strays – not the way we think of them anyway. There were the unrestrained; they were the unattended. They all appeared to be healthy, well fed, and for the most part, safe.

The ferry was packed and as we were waiting, I saw more dogs with their people waiting to board. I saw a yellow dog grabbing some shade while his guy worked his shift ushering the cars onto the boat. We putted along the water, taking in the vista. I was a bit anxious as we debarked so I said a little prayer to myself, “Please, just let them be ok.”

The island was beautiful. And I was a bit less afraid of looking around. We saw a few dogs hanging out as we made our way to our posada. Our host had 2 house dogs, rescue mixes that came from the same litter. They greeted us jumping excitedly, one a bit mouthy. I got down on my knees and let them do their thing. They calmed and went back in the house.

Now, this is where the fun begins…

We went into town on a mission: Find our evening meal and gather groceries for the morning. It was close to dinner and suddenly, like someone had shaken a bag of kibble, dogs appeared. There was a little guy missing a leg – a legitimate amputation, an older Boxer trotting outside our restaurant, a big yellow lab looking thing, a little scruffy black dog, and a female hound mix. Of course, I needed information. Through my loving and patient interpreter we asked the waiter about the Boxer. We asked a question that seemed to puzzle him: “Does anyone own her?” He went on to explain that everyone cares for her, watches out for her, and make sure she eats. Let me just comment here that this dog, though technically homeless, was actually a little chunky.

Making sure to pack up our leftovers, we paid and set off to find her. She was trotting around the square coming in and out view but we had lost her in the crowd. We came upon a woman with a little cart serving ice cream outside a very busy park. Moving closer we noticed a white shape contrasting the black of the cart’s wheels. It was a little hound, no collar. Again, Eduardo, my dear man, went into interpreter mode. “Babe, ask the ice cream lady, who this is. Does she have a person? Can we feed her?” After a lengthy and quite excited conversation, we learned her name was Amanda and she hung with a pack of dogs cared for by a Gypsy man who frequently had to leave the island and when he did the locals kept their eye on them to make sure they we ok.

The little park was teeming with people, kids playing, families laughing, and the dogs. We pulled out our leftovers and my little street dog friend actually turned her nose up at some of my offerings which gave me a chuckle. Then out of the shadow of a parked car, I saw her. Kika. She was a little, very old, very skinny dog who was obviously looking for food. She was another one of the Gypsy’s dogs. My concern grew as I fed her and ran my hand down her body. She was skin and bones, itchy and uncomfortable. Ok, this is exactly what we agreed to – sick or injured, that’s what we said. Yes. I will do something. I will help! Just not sure how…

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56G6KI4yF_0&w=560&h=315]

With both dog’s fed and a little information from the ice cream lady about Kika and her condition, we decided to leave. But I could not shake the feeling that I needed to help the skinny little black dog. “Babe, I can’t stop thinking about Kika.” He replied, “I know. Let’s take a ride by on the way to the beach and see if we can find her or the ice cream lady.” It was a hot morning and no one was in the square so we decided to return in the evening to see what we could do.

At the beach we met 2 more dogs roaming around sharing lunch with anyone who offered. We had our two little friends under the umbrella. Eduardo said, “Sentar.” They both sat a