Adopting Jai the Jungle Dog – Love and Complications of Having a Dog in Thailand
a video introduction to Jai
Bamroong, the Patriarch of Petchrungruang Gym, is looking at me through his thick, Coke bottle glasses and his eyes are glimmering under his slicked back hair. His question is in Thai and I don’t understand it. I tell him so and he repeats it verbatim, then tries again by asking the question to 12-year-old Alex, who is standing with his oversized gloves dangling at his reed-thin thighs. Alex is Italian and speaks better Thai than English; he shakes his head and says, mai roo pasa angrit, (I don’t know how to say that in English) and the question gets volleyed over to Kru Nu, who is behind both of them in the ring. Kru Nu steps over to the ropes and points at the puppy that’s sprawled in Kevin’s lap, “what kind of dog – what species?” he translates. I suddenly remember being asked this once before, regarding a photograph of my dog back at home in the US, now living with my parents. They want to know the breed of the dog. I smile and shake my head and tell the row of eyes looking at me that I don’t know what kind of dog he is. We found him living in the jungle, he’s a “soi dog,” – literally a “street dog,” meaning a stray. We’ve named him Jai, which is kind of the word for “heart” in Thai. Thais don’t get this name by itself, because it’s not properly how you’d use it to mean what we mean, so I tell them his name is jai dee, which means to have a “good heart.” Every Thai understands this – it’s the compliment I got as a fighter when I first started out. The kids call him by this name when he comes in the gym, Jai Dee! Jai Dee!
About a week prior to Jai sitting with us at the gym, almost two weeks after moving to Pattaya, Kevin decided he wanted to walk down the street to get a coffee between training sessions. It’s an unusual request and seemed reasonable enough an activity to see the area where we’re living and actually engage with it with our feet on the ground rather than zipping through it on the motorbike going from gym to gym. So we headed out and rounded a few bends before reaching a stretch that is a big concrete wall on one side – behind which sit some nice houses – and a stretch of undeveloped jungle on the other. There are lots of little lots like this in urban Thailand. You’ll find lush, thick jungle between houses and often it’s got a barbed-wire fence in front of it with a sign that claims it’s for sale. This one doesn’t have a sign, but it’s a big piece of undeveloped land that, like most other lots like this, acts as a garbage dump for the local community. Old or broken spirit houses, broken furniture, bags of trash and the like are piled along the edge of the land. You’ll also see little piles of rice, usually soggy and wet from a recent rain, dotting the edge along the fence as well from where good Samaritans have left food for “soi dogs” in the area.
Feeding street dogs in Thailand is a form of making merit, so most of the stray dogs, while mangy and unkempt, are relatively well fed and they’ll stick together in packs on corners, bits of empty land, parking lots, anywhere where a street food stall will park at any point during the day, near restaurants and, of course, at temples. There are so many stray dogs in Thailand it’s hard to handle when you first come over from the west. It’s sad to see them but the way in which they become quasi-mascots for locations, shops and corners becomes part of your everyday experience and it’s kind of sweet. They’re generally very calm and I’ve only experienced a bit of fear around them when on a run – sometimes you’ll get chased by a few dogs at a time that don’t dig you running through their stomping grounds. But I’ve never been bitten. Given their prevalence as street animals, it’s not too surprising that dogs are generally regarded as dirty animals here in Thailand. Unless it’s an expensive breed that is a lap-dog, like a Pekingese or something, dogs generally live outside the house even when they are “domestic” animals.
I should add in a sidenote, as Thailand is often filled with contradictions. While everyday people can look down upon the dog, in a certain social sense, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej who is the most revered person in the Kingdom, has made it a point of public of importance to adopt stray dogs out of compassion, and is often photographed with his dogs:
So we’re on our way to the coffee shop that Kevin wants to visit and we’re in between this cement wall and the jungle and when I look over to the jungle area I see this little black and white puppy digging in the trash. I make kissy sounds at him and his head pops up to look at me. That’s a good sign; even puppies can be very timid and sometimes they’ll run away at that sound. But this little guy came out of the trash pile and sat down in front of me, allowing me to reach down and pet his head a little bit, right between his giant, satellite ears. I was very pleased to pet him. I am absolutely what we in America call a “dog person” and it’s reasonably hard for me to be around so many dogs with my own natural inclination to pet all the dogs I ever see and have most of them be either afraid of me or indifferent to me, with the rare option of being possibly dangerous thrown in as well. So when I see a dog that seems willing to let me pet it, I pet that dog with absolute joy.
When we kept walking the little puppy started following us. I’ve pet puppies before that then try to follow me, usually while I’m running, but in those cases there’s always more than one and I’ve developed a fail-proof trick of manipulating a tackle by tossing one dog over the other, starting a wrestle between them and making my escape while they go at it. But this is just one little guy, no other dogs around. So I couldn’t really make him stop following us and he kept up pretty well. He walked a good few blocks with us and even followed us into the coffee shop area, where he started adventuring around while we sat and ordered drinks. A big, older dog up the way let the puppy know that he was not welcome in the area by barking at him and charging. The puppy ran away from that dog but kept trying to explore the area, wandering far from us at times. When we were headed back to the apartment I told the puppy to come with us back to where we’d found him and sure enough he came back with us. I’m sure he would have followed us all the way home but just past his garbage area is a house with a mama dog and four puppies that work as a guard to that area of the street and little jungle puppy was not allowed to pass. A dog’s life is very political.
Not Having a Dog – And Getting One
It’s difficult for me to not have a dog in my life. My own dog, Zoa, is turning five this August. She’s being loved and cared for at my parents’ house in Colorado while we’re in Thailand and I haven’t seen her in over two years, other than on computer video calls where my dad tips the computer down to show her sleeping under the table. There’s something about the companionship of an animal, a dog in particular, that kind of settles everything down. No matter what other chaos is going on, the dual responsibility toward and unconditional love for and from a dog just cuts through it all and makes it all more manageable. We’d hoped, actually, to fly Zoa out to Thailand to live with us after the first six months. There are a number of reasons that hasn’t happened, the biggest of which are that it’s too expensive, I freak out at the idea of her being in a cargo area for a 24 hour flight, and there aren’t many apartments in Thailand that allow pets. Our apartment building in Chiang Mai didn’t allow for them and we’d actually looked into renting a house to solve the problem, but it was too expensive and too far from the gym. That said, I occasionally saw Thai university-age kids with cats or small dogs living in our building. I guess if you keep it undercover the non-confrontational aspect of the culture kind of helps a lot in bending that rule.
Here’s a pic on the 2nd day of feeding him
A day after the jungle dog followed us I bought some dinner down the road and got an extra piece of chicken to hopefully feed to him, if I could find him again in that jungle. I pulled up to where I’d first seen him and yelled “puppy, puppy, puppy!” and within a few seconds he appeared, trotting out very sweetly. I turned off the engine and got off the bike to give him the chicken. It was a drumstick and when I tried to give it to him all as one piece he didn’t know what to do with it. He’d never eaten such a thing. So I pulled it apart with my fingers a little bit and fed him the pieces and he gobbled them up quite happily. Then I gave him the bone (this isn’t the American “never feed dogs chicken bones” world. Dogs here eat everything and don’t choke) and he laid down and chewed it. When I went back to feed him again the next day he made this insane little Mogwai sound in anticipation of the food, a kind of half-cat/half-dog purring/yipping sound. It was the cutest thing I’d ever heard from a dog. Kevin and I started talking about whether it was reasonable and responsible to take him home. We weren’t sure of the stance our apartment building had on pets (it’s not written anywhere and the first time we came here to look at a room there was a western dude holding a puppy who seemed to live here, so we’d assumed they were allowed at that point) and if we couldn’t keep the dog it made no sense to take him in and then have to put him back out. We also don’t know how long we can afford to live in Pattaya and leaving, either moving to another area of Thailand or moving out of the country, with a dog is significantly more complicated than without one. And then there’s my training schedule. I’m pretty much always at the gym or sleeping, so the responsibility toward an animal has to fit within that schedule. It was a lot to consider.
Then it rained. It rained harder than any rain I’d ever seen and it rained all night. Rainy season is coming up, lasting from July until about September or October. I thought about that poor puppy huddled under some discarded cabinet door trying to wait out this storm and I thought about how he would have months of that ahead. He’s not old enough to have dealt with much rain before and the thought of it was heartbreaking. Late at night, when I couldn’t stop thinking about the puppy, Kevin told me, “just go get him then.” It was a moment of division: if I went and got the dog, that was it. We had a dog. If I put it off and gave it a few more days to think about it, the dog had a few more days of my rumination while he lived in a garbage pile. I couldn’t take it; I got dressed, hopped on my bike and zipped over the 400 meters or so to where the puppy lived. I put my kickstand down and before I could even call him he was prancing out from the jungle to greet me. I pet him and scooped him up into my arms. He seemed to really like that, but wasn’t so sure when I put him on the bike. I wasn’t sure either. Dogs ride on motorbikes in Thailand in absolutely amazing ways – balanced on the back all by themselves or even sitting with their butts on the seat and their front paws on the handlebars like a person if it’s a larger breed. They obviously have to learn how to do this; this puppy had never done any of it. So I had to kind of hold him like a baguette under my left arm and pull the accelerator and steer with my right hand, going very slowly back up the road to our apartment. Jai was not thrilled to be on the bike and he got nervous when we passed by the area where mama dog and the gang of puppies usually stop his passage. I wrapped him in my jacket to get him past the front office – we still weren’t sure about the pet issue – and brought him up the four flights of stairs to our apartment.
here he is very soon after we took him in, after we bought him a rawhide bone to chew, which he loves.
That’s how we got Jai. I’ve been cooking food for him, mainly because it’s so much cheaper than buying commercial dog food. I purchase cheap organ meats and cook them up with a few vegetables (the scrap ends from what we eat or just carrots) and precooked white rice bought from street vendors, throwing in a hardboiled egg or leftover bits of whatever I’m eating for dinner that’s dog-friendly. I just let it stew a little. He’s a champ and sleeps a lot, which is great for me because now I have a napping buddy. Getting him housebroken has been interesting, since we live four flights up, but he’s very smart and it’s been less difficult to train him than it was to train Zoa. He doesn’t like being left alone in the apartment but he’s just a baby and we’re afraid he’ll chew up our computer cords, so we try to lock him in the bathroom but he’s already had a jailbreak from there. Genius dog is too genius. And to make everything worse, we found out that the apartment does not allow pets. In fact Bamroong told me that it is extremely rare that an apartment in Pattaya would allow pets, he was shocked that I found one. For us the way it went was that front desk tolerated our going in and out with him in our arms to bring him to use the field across the street as his toilet but finally, after nearly a week, the head mistress stopped Kevin and said, “no dogs.” She explained that they’re dirty and make the furniture smell, and have “small animals” (meaning fleas, ticks, and parasites). Kevin explained that we wash him regularly and have covered the furniture – he even gave Jai a big sniff as he held him in his arms to show how fresh he is. He kept repeating that we will stay one year, giving some financial incentive to the situation as well. The lady hesitantly said, “alright,” as long as she could check the apartment for cleanliness once in a while, and that’s how Jai got his pass to the apartment. They’re not happy about it, but he’s quiet and we really do keep him very clean. When we took him to a vet to get him de-wormed, said he was generally quite healthy, with a great disposition. So far, so good. We still have to get him his vaccinations, we heard from Tawan, PhetJee Jaa’s mother that there is a free clinic where we can get this done, so in a few days that will be handled.
I really love having a dog around. Dragging my ass out of bed in the morning for my run isn’t the most fun, even though I love what I do. It’s just always hard to get up. But waking up with a quick cuddle and then having to drag him out of bed to go out for his morning pee is definitely a more delightful morning routine. I’m hoping that when he gets a bit older he can run with me. He’s sweet and doesn’t bark at all yet. We suspect he’s about 4-5 months old, so the barking could develop later, but he was living alone in that jungle and didn’t have any allies, so calling attention to himself is not really his favorite thing. Hopefully he’ll remain the quiet type. Every afternoon we take him with us to Petchrungruang – they have been kind enough to let us sit with him in a corner, they are I believe “cat” people. He actually really enjoys sitting between us on the motorbike. And in the gym he just lays there bored, already well adjusted to the thudding sound on the bags. I want him to become accustomed to Muay Thai, to be a Muay Thai dog. When we first got Zoa, we actually brought her as a pup all the way down to Virgina to the WKA Nationals, for my first fight ever, and even snuck her into the auditorium to watch the final day. People were pretty shocked to see a puppy as we exited the event.
The experience of dogs and the beach in general is an interesting one, and worth relating because it probably led to our decision to just take Jai in. The way the beach set up in Pattaya, is that there are local venders that put out chairs and umbrellas, and can offer cold drinks or even a menu of food (teaming up with local restaurants). They charge you for your stay (30 baht, $1). We drive to a beach just outside of Pattaya called Jomtien because it is a little more homey and quiet. You’ll see “beach dogs” on the beach, a kind of version of a the soi dog, cared for by these vendors. I don’t know how prevalent this is, because we only know our experience, but back in February during our first visit to Pattaya we found the one umbrella location person we liked a lot, and kept coming back. We now go to the beach on Sunday, my rest day. One of the nicest things about this umbrella location in particular is that it has about 4 dogs that hang out there, gentle as can be. They are always (secretly) hoping for some food, but aren’t beggarly. Instead they just seem to like your company, often laying down next to you in the shade. If you’re a dog person this is heaven. For us this experience probably opened up the possibility of having a dog in our minds. It was just so nice to go and sit there with “your” dogs (more or less). You can see two sweet ones in the instagram below, taken maybe a week before we found Jai.
So we took Jai to our little beach area on Sunday for his first experience of big water, and more importantly sand. He just loved the cool, diggable sand. He’s a puppy, and fairly submissive (at times) so he got along with these gentle beach dogs really nicely, even begging on of them to play. A grumpy older male dog gave him a snap or two, but no biggy. Everyone got little snacks from the skewers I brought, and it was a nice little pack. He got to walk a little on the leash, down the beach (first steps to maybe being able to run), and even got a swim that was a little stressful, but necessary too. All in all it was great to treat him to a big experience, and see him with other dogs.
Jai looking out at the water soon after we arrived at the beach.
Then yesterday we took him to Phetjee Jaa’s O. Meekhun gym, which is a wide open space with a big field and blowing wind, and he played with their puppies (video below). Her dad was very funny when he met Jai calling Jai’s style of play fee-mer, which means technical and clever, very skilled, because he tends to leap about. I sometimes go to O. Meekhun after my Petchrungruang training because clinch practice is incredibly valuable for me. I’m really expanding as a clinch fighter now that I am getting it regularly, and Phet and her brother Mawin are great partners of high skill. It’s pretty amazing to get to play in the ring with Phetjee Jaa, learning clinch with the best female fighter in the world while my puppy gets to socialize with the little pack of puppies that live at her gym. Everyone comes home tired and happy.