It was just another regular day at the dog park. Bubbles the Labrador was trailing his young owners, Simba the German Shepherd was chasing his beloved ball, Mishti, the boxer, was pleading her owner for a treat, and Khal Dogo, my five-month-old Dogo Argentino was doing the grass dance, in which he rubs his back on the soft grass, his head moving side to side, his paws in mid-air.
It’s quite a sight, as no other dog in the park pulls off such a spectacle. And then almost suddenly, Khal got up, started sniffing all around, until he reached the other side of the park. Two young kids called out: “Aunty, Khal has a rat in his mouth!”
All heads turned towards me. “Catch him, catch him!” I called out, and started sprinting towards Khal. ‘Leave it, leave it, leave it,’ I screamed at Khal, as he sprinted away at 25 kilometres an hour. (Yes, that’s how fast Dogos Argentinos can run).
With some divine intervention, Khal stopped running, I caught him by the collar, and with some hesitation, pulled out the rat (yuck!) from his mouth.
I was disgusted and Khal disappointed, but it was better that way than seeing him fall sick, or worse, in case the rat was poisoned — in Navi Mumbai, local governing bodies and some building societies regularly spray rat poison in various neighbourhoods to kill them.
Had I ever, even in my wildest dreams, thought I’d handle a rat in my bare hands? Let alone a dying, rotting one? The straight answer is, of course, never.
But my 10-month stint with Khal, my large mastiff has taught me life lessons, helped me step out of my comfort zone, fight my fears, become assertive, more disciplined and confident, to be trusting, control my emotions, and also understand non-verbal cues. Khal has changed my life forever, and for good.
Let me break it down.
To fight my fears
Street dogs are intelligent, sturdy, adorable and also extremely territorial. When Khal was younger, anytime we took him out for a walk, he’d be surrounded by them, barking at him. For the longest time, when it was my turn to walk Khal, I avoided going outside the building. But soon, it became inevitable. On one fateful day, Khal and I encountered four ferocious dogs at a trekking spot. My heart skipped a beat, but to my surprise, I instinctively tightened my grip on Khal’s leash, screamed and made sounds with a stick, until they got scared and ran away. From that moment on, I knew I could handle this myself.
I also realised that it was my fear that made Khal nervous, giving street dogs the confidence to bark at him. Since I became calmer around strays, though always vigil, they don’t trouble Khal. Some have even become friends with him.
To trust myself and my dog
There were times when in our neighbourhood or on treks, whilst playing with other dogs, or just on walks with us when Khal, would jump at loud noises and try to run. This has happened with helicopter sounds during a quiet trek, or firecrackers sounds in the neighbourhood. Both times, I worried that if I let him run, he’d never come back.
Once, I ran behind him, calling him out like a mad woman. Soon, he went out of sight and I froze, panting on the road. Scared, desperate and almost in tears, I called out his name again, and there he was running towards me. In that moment, I knew that I needed to be more trusting of our bond, that not everyone abandons you in life. Now, when faced with danger of an unknown street dog or a strange sound, Khal runs straight to me because he knows he can trust me because I trust me and him.
To manage my emotions better
Very early on, our dog’s trainer and behaviourist Delano Delriques had taught me the importance of maintaining an even, assertive and loving (but not overtly) tone with my dog. For loud voices threatens them, making them either aggressive or very docile; and extra pampering, including too much praise or excessive petting can spoil them and encourage them to misbehave.
For Khal’s good, I have been trying to better manage my anger, frustration, and love, always mindful of keeping it balanced. I am also learning to process my emotions better, talking it out with my spouse if I am upset with him instead of screaming or yelling at him. I’ve also tried to control my frequent, overwhelming desire of petting my dog, without reason.
This is the hardest for me. Refusing food to my pleading pup feels downright cruel, but it’s necessary, since a) most dogs have no sense of how much their stomachs can accommodate and can overeat and fall sick; b) human food with salt and spices is not good for them; and c) you don’t want them to be picking food off your plate or annoy any dinner company you may have.
Establishing boundaries and ground rules is essential to keep your dog in check. Khal is not allowed on bed, on any of our furniture and inside our kitchen. He tries to defy us sometimes and it’s hard for me to say no, but I do. I have to, sometimes in a stern voice, and sometimes by showing him a correction chain of which he is scared. Just like you have to draw some lines with your children, you to with your dogs, too. It’s essential for their safety and yours.
Discipline for health
Bringing up a large-sized, highly energetic dog in a city is no joke. He needs a structure and a lot of exercise, which has put me in the habit of waking up at 5.30 am, going for a walk or hike with him. For this, I ensure that I hit the bed by 10.30 pm, because no matter how late we sleep, our never-failing, barking alarm clock will be by our bedside at 5.30 am sharp, constantly nudging and licking us.
Being observant and mindful
Raising a furry baby who can’t speak human language has taught me to read non-verbal cues and body language. I now understand that when he sticks to my legs, he wants belly rubs, and when he does that more than two times in 10 minutes, it’s an urgent potty call. When he is roaming frantically all around the house, he is scared, trying to understand where a specific sound—which I wouldn’t have even registered otherwise—is coming from.
My pup forces me to tune into this, and all of life’s many big and small moments.
Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based writer, a Kathak student and a first-time pet parent