Monika and Jim had met us at the airport. I knew Monika to be a lover of dogs so I was surprised when she complained.

“There are dogs everywhere, I mean everywhere. You’ll see the one whose taken up residence at the house we rented.”

Driving into town I did see a few – midsize, shorthaired, none on a leash and few behind fences although there were some. A lot had collars and a lot didn’t.  All seemed fairly normal at first blush.

Monika continued.  “He’ll be at the door when we get to the house. He’ll growl but he hasn’t bitten anybody. Yet.” She fretted a bit. “I don’t know who  owns him.”

We pulled onto the hilly drive where their rent house hung on the side of the mountain and I could see the yellow dog jump up from the path and head our way. His hackles were up. He was on alert and he started a cacophony of response howls and hoots from dogs in other places when he barked at us. I bent to pet him. He cowered and headed back to the door, hoping that maybe I wouldn’t venture that far. His dog brain guessed wrong.

Or maybe he hadn’t guessed wrong or cowered. Looking back it may have been resignation.

Although the hackles still stood from his head to his tail and his brown eyes darted about, he settled and we settled to watch the sunset.

It was the drive to our own rented house, a little past dark and down to kilometer 14 that I began to notice just what Monika was talking about. Dogs were roaming everywhere. Never just one, they clearly traveled in packs usually of 3 or 4. Shepherd looked to be the dominant canine gene pool, they always looked fed, but not overly and quite healthy.

By the time the week was out I would estimate that there was an average of 20 dogs for every square block. And those were the ones not in fences.

We pulled into the driveway of our rent house and the three dogs next door started in. Their barks were more warning than rabidly threatening and stilled quickly, once we had finished carting suitcases and groceries.

The next morning we headed for our first sampling trip. Down around the 7 Lake Road we headed to a pier where the wind had blown pumice into a cove. All along I watched. Bus transportation is a great choice in Bariloche and the Argentinians take advantage of it. As many people as were walking and waiting at bus stops, dogs stood in attendance or cantered nearby. I understood Monika’s observation. The sheer number of dogs running around was not exactly unsettling, I had yet to see any overtly aggressive behavior from the dogs or timidity among the human population as they moved intimately with the canines. It was the sheer numbers of them. There have been places where the dog population ran free, like this, but their demeanor was wholly different. These in Bariloche had not been mistreated, few cowered or slunk about.

This was a society of animals with rules I hadn’t really seen before. Clearly there were territories here, invisible lines marked with scent and guarded religiously, but there was also a kind of … generosity.

Once we got to the pier, with buckets and dip nets in tow, we headed down the plank and stationing ourselves in good places for retrieval, sampling started. One dog followed us onto the pier and once past the small rope that cordoned off season sightseers, he sniffed us each, looked up and then satisfied, took up his post at the front of the pier. I am not quite sure how to explain what I witnessed. In those few instances and for no reasons that I can really point to, we were welcome to share his province, temporary members of his society.  Unconcerned with hierarchical pack structure as far as our roles were concerned, he was the self designated protector, for as along as our temporary membership lasted. He warded off any four legged interlopers with growls and attentiveness.  He wagged his tail at us from a few feet away, watching with mild disinterest as we dipped.

Three other dogs meandered down the beach. They began to frolic along the water. Like kids in a ball pit, bent on  fun in the pumice, each time one of them ventured a bit too close the invisible lines that were drawn in their world,  they were warned. Like a carnival barker who makes sure no one takes the mark he’s got hooked, our dog let the pack know they should be careful and not become too familiar.

For the next five minutes, everyone on two legs and four on the pier watched the three in the pumice. It was a spectacular moment.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcGBHR3i_eQ[/youtube]

I’m not a behavioral scientist but it takes only heart to see that in Bariloche, it’s good to be a dog. They are rich in community, respectful of property, and accept humans if not quite equals at least tolerable enough for unprejudiced inclusion. They are healthy, rarely violent, and uniquely friendly, with boundaries that barking reminders enforce.

I like the dogs in Bariloche and despite the racket they caused at night, when our own rental house pack chose to vocalize their displeasure beneath my bedroom window for some canine infraction, it’s a sense of  respect I share with them.

The story goes that indigenous Australians would customarily sleep in a hole in the ground while embracing a dingo, a native species of wild dog. On colder nights they would sleep with two dogs and if the night was freezing, it was a “three dog night”.

I learned something at the bottom of the world. The dogs of Bariloche excel in the art of accomodating. Apparently the dingos of Oz do too. Three seems to be a good number in dog world for pumice fun or freezing weather or running in packs.  But mostly, what I learned was that Bariloche dog world seemed to work.  I like that. It might be worth it to consider why…

Video Credit: Josh Siefert