Life of a beachdog


When Rex and I first met on his private Mexican beach, I thought he was just a nippy puppy like the many I'd encountered before. I wouldn't have guessed that this barely one year old mutt would have such an impact on my view of the way we (by 'we', I refer to the majority of people in Western society) interact with dogs in general, during the few days we were about to spend together.

Rex, along with old uncle Snoopy, was hired as a beachdog by the people who inhabit this beach. A life as a beachdog means mostly free range and more than occasional food in return for loyalty to the safeguarding of the appointed territory.

On about a mile of shoreline, Rex had more or less ten neighboring beachdogs. These each patrol their territory, ranging from the beach to a small stretch into the jungle, and often encounter one another while on duty. Play and squabbles are daily occurrences, but dog on dog aggression is rather rare, unless people force two or more dogs onto the same territory or some dreamy tourist wanders the beach with his or her own suburban designerbreed.

After getting acquainted with Snoopy and Rex, I was granted permission by both to hang out on their property for a week. Both of them caught my interest from day one, because of the way they differ from the dogs we (you and I) share our lives with every day. Dogs like Snoops and Rex spend their days mostly in precious and complete freedom, limited in human interference. Most beachdogs aren't 'trained' the way we 'train' our dogs (or bribe them into pointless behaviors, depending on how you perceive training), and associate people only with food, the occasional playful roughhousing and belly rubs. They differ entirely from our own pets, in that they are nearly always free to make their own choices.

Snoops mostly did what you'd expect a senior dog to do: spending hours a day flat on the beach, while squinting at the scents blowing in from the ocean. Unless an unknowing stranger strolled by the beach. Then Snoops would get up and revive his no-nonsense core, often causing the unwelcome two-legged to hasten his sandy stride, which I amusingly appreciated.

Rex, on the other hand, had already established a reputation as a nuisance to both his owners and his caretakers. He nipped, bit (playfully yet annoyingly intense), jumped up, scratched and stole. When resolutions were made to lock him in or chain him up, he drove everyone mad with his constant barking. Thus, it was decided to choose the lesser of evils, and leave Rex to roam like the other dogs, in high hopes of him taking an example to his wise neighbors.

Needless to point out, Rex and I were bound to become besties. By the time his nose touched my toes, Rex had reached puberty, though his nipping was still a very, very persistent trait. (See, it's not always the human's fault. Sometimes dogs just do what dogs do, until we turn it into a problem.)

So here it was. Here was my chance to observe what dogs choose to do when no one tells them what to do.

More than anything, Rex liked to nap. This took in more than eighteen hours a day, easily. Sometimes he'd startle awake and bark at a raccoon (he had yet to distinguish the real threats from the false ones), and sometimes he'd disappear for hours at a time underneath a shadowy bush.

If Rex wasn't napping, he was gazing. Sitting by the beach, (actual sitting, a behavior that is now widely believed to occur only by dogs who have been trained to do so, or who are otherwise ill or experiencing some form of discomfort). Young, healthy Rex gazed at the smells coming in from the ocean and the rest of the bay. His eyes lingered by the movement of another dog in the far distance, or by birds floating overhead.

Third, Rex scavenged for food. He'd hop onto his caretakers' table at lunch, or follow us into a restaurant where we all enjoyed a mighty fine dinner together.

Fourth, Rex played. He'd ambush me and jump up at me like a mad dog, and trot off with his cheeky grin as I was left trying to find my sunglasses back in the sand. He'd bump into me and intice me to play with his sloppy play bows, to run after each other, wrestle playfully or pretend to guard some shell or washed up corral as the other tried to steal it. Snoopy, my amigas and I took turns and appreciated the welcome rest within this arrangement.

Yes, he nipped and jumped up, and yes, I left Mexico with an extra scar or two, but like most dogs, Rex mostly calmed down almost immediately after I did. I'd sit down, push my toes down the sand and pull him onto my lap, where he curled up and sucked my thumb like a babe. This was Rex's fifth main activity: lovins.

He'd lick my chin, ears back and lovey eyed, and snooze while I gently stroked his face, neck, belly and flanks.

The most beautiful part of Mexico, to me, wasn't the turquoise beach, white sand and clownfish. It wasn't the funny trot of a guana in the morning or the not so distant sounds of a waking jungle. It wasn't the hammock between the palm trees, or even the taste of authentic tacos by the beach, and that's saying a lot.

To me, the most beautiful part of Mexico, was Rex. It was calling out for him first thing in the morning, and watching him perk his silly ears on the other side of the bay, before running up to me. It was attempting to relax during a beach massage, only to be interrupted by my amigo who didn't quite trust the stranger hovering over and touching me. It was going to dinner with my amigas and amigo, and everyone acting like it was the most natural thing to share my dinner with my boy, without him even wearing as much as a collar. It was watching him trot in front of us on our way to margarita time, and watching him play with his buddies while we ate and sipped. It was randomly chasing each other, or gazing at the silent waves. It was pulling him onto my lap, so we could sit still while watching an enormous tortuga emerge from the vast blueness onto shore.

Most of all, it was knowing that the choices were all his. He chose our friendship, as much as I did. Our moments were genuine and pure. No fences, no leashes, no expectations, no commands. Just a girl and a dog, with the world washing up at our feet.

I won't go back to visit Mexico. I'll go back to visit Rex, mi amigo Mex.

(Originally published in June 2017.)