Perro Callejero Finds His Forever Home
When Kate Axten left the U.S. for a once in a lifetime opportunity to study abroad in Chile, she had no idea that five months later she wouldn't be returning solo. She would bring someone very special back with her. And no, not a pololo (Chilean slang for boyfriend) but a best friend, with four legs and a huge heart. The overwhelming presence of perros callejeros (street dogs) is not limited to the main plazas or touristy areas of Valparaiso, Chile. Their howls can be heard throughout the entire city. In 2007, it was estimated that some 25,000 street dogs roam as strays throughout Valparaiso. For a little perspective, the population of Valparaiso is about 264,000. That means for every ten people, there is one stray dog without an owner. Today Kate celebrates one year with her best friend Clyde in the U.S. we love a story with a happy ending- especially when it involves an animal!
" Every once in a while a dog enters your life and changes everything"
Where are you from?
I’m from a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts but I am currently a senior at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. I graduate in just a couple of weeks!
Congrats! What brought you to Valpo?
I studied abroad in Valparaíso for five months through an exchange program. I lived with a host family in nearby Viña del Mar and attended university in Valpo. It was the best five months of my life and one of the most special places on earth. I miss it every single day.
Tell us about the day you met Clyde...
On May 4th, 2015, I was coming back from a morning class in Valpo and took the micro (bus) to my usual bus stop, about 8 blocks from my house. I hopped off at my stop and all of a sudden a big black and white street dog ran up behind me. I pet him and he rubbed his head against my leg. I continued on my walk home and he stayed by my side, trotting along next to me, stopping now and then to root through trash bags for food. He continued to follow, which confused me a bit because there wasn’t much food up in the hills where I lived. When I reached my gate he lay down for me to rub his belly. He was breathing hard. It killed me to leave him out there, and as I unlocked the gate, he pushed past me and into my driveway. His panting was so labored and it was hot, so I decided at the very least I’d give him water. I sat down with a bowl and he ignored the water and instead lay down and put his head in my lap. He looked up at me with the most desperate eyes. It amazed me how much trust he had in a complete stranger and how vulnerable this poor creature was.
What kind of condition was he in? What were your first thoughts when you saw/met him?
The first thing I thought when he ran up to me was how weird looking he was for a street dog! He had this big black head and white body and oddly placed black spots down his back. Most of the perros callejeros are black or brown shepherd, terrier mixes. As we continued our walk home I saw he was a very submissive dog who had clearly been attacked by other unneutered males on the streets. On one block in particular a resident male street dog rushed up and went to bite. Clyde was cowering. I called out to him and he ran across the road to my side. It was also clear that he had the sweetest disposition, rolling over for me to give him belly rubs (still his favorite to this day) and wagging his tail constantly. I didn’t know right away that he was dying. He had all the usual street dog signs: underweight, filthy, gum stuck to his fur from sleeping in gutters and on sidewalks, fleas, and nails worn down from cement. He had broken cartilage in his ears from dog bites, and scars on his legs. But I couldn’t figure out why he was breathing so hard and too tired to even lift his head. I actually have a video of the first few moments I have him where I am holding his muzzle up and saying, “Why won’t you open your eyes? Why are you so tired, bud?”
What happened next?
The first thing I had to do was ask my Chilean family if he could live with us for the next month until he could be shipped back home to the U.S. I truly had the most amazing host family in the world, and they instantly agreed, though in Chile all pets live outside of the home, so he would spend the next month living in the yard.
That next morning I took him to the local vet as soon as it opened. They were stunned I had taken in a street dog, but I assured them he was now my pet and needed medical attention. The veterinarian told me he was dying of fever. I was shocked and devastated. He had a bacterial infection transmitted by fleas, plus a host of worms and parasites. Clyde collapsed on the examination table, and his eyes were rolling back into his head. She administered some injections to reduce the fever and gave him IV fluids. It took weeks of medications, special food, vaccinations, IVs, and lots of TLC until his true personality began to emerge and the sickness started to fade. Although, it would not be until six months later that his final worms were killed, he suffered from so many different and treatment-resistant species.
How did he improve or change, and how did your bond grow?
As he grew healthier, his personality began to emerge. Unfortunately, so did the problems. Clyde developed intense separation anxiety and had a phobia of small spaces, vomiting if he was confined. He dug and barked and jumped and nipped. He was wild! He wasn’t domesticated and he had no idea how to be a pet or have an owner. Clyde was used to being his own boss, operating under his own rules, and completely free to do as he pleased. No amount of walks could drain his energy, and he began to exhibit fear aggression with other dogs. I walked with a long stick to protect us from the other street dogs that would try to attack him as we passed through their territory. When I left for school, he would scream this terrible high-pitched shriek that I could hear from blocks away. He would become furious if I was gone too long, even biting me on one occasion. His worst fear was being abandoned again and going back to the streets, so Clyde stuck to my side like glue; he wouldn’t let me out of his site, and when I went indoors he scratched at the door and cried. It was exhausting.
There were times I was confident I had made a huge mistake bringing him in. But my cousin told me, “Kate, you essentially just adopted a wild teenage boy and are expecting him to be a normal kid after only a couple of weeks. Have some faith in him and yourself.” She was right. Clyde was just a confused, scared, anxious animal that had no reason to trust me not to dump him like everyone else had.
As difficult as the early weeks were, there was nothing more rewarding than watching his transformation. He had the goofiest personality in the world and was incredibly smart, so I had to be a step ahead of him all the time. I had never had a dog that was so devoted and loving. He was my shadow. And he was so incredibly grateful for every meal, dog bed, and treat. I’ll never forget the time I gave him his first toy. I kept trying to show him that if he bit it, it would squeak. The moment he finally figured it out, his eyebrows shot up and he gave me the cutest little face. To this day he will squeak toys endlessly. We discovered he loved water and would chase the hose around the yard for hours. He was a total goof-ball, stealing shoes and racing around the yard with them, making us chase him.
When did you know that you couldn't leave without him?
As soon as he lay down in my lap. He gave his complete faith to me, and I felt I couldn’t betray such a pure trust.
Tell us a little about the process of bringing him back? What kind of obstacles did you face?
For those who want to bring a foreign street dog home, fear not! It’s not as tough as you think. Since he was so sick it took a little bit of time to get him healthy enough for him to receive the vaccinations he needed to enter the country. The U.S. requires a certificate of health from a veterinarian that says the animal has no communicable diseases (which means the dog has also been given a general anti-parasite vaccine), and a rabies vaccine that has been administered at least one month before immigration. The CDC was actually fast to answer my calls and questions.
The biggest obstacle was the new regulations airlines have put in place to ship a dog. The crate specifications were extensive, so I hired a professional shipping company with offices in Santiago that handled everything for me. All I had to do was fax them the veterinary forms and they did the rest (booking flight tickets, buying the crate, arranging pick up from my house and delivery to the airport, etc.). They even dropped off the crate a week before his flight so we could acclimate him to it!
United Airlines has pet care stations at major airports, so Clyde got a bathroom break and was able to stretch his legs during his layover in Houston. Plus, I got a tracking number so I could see Clyde on his journey as a moving, blinking dot and watch as he moved across the world map. 32 hours and 6,456 miles later and he arrived safe and sound at the live cargo pick up at Logan Airport in Boston, his tail wagging a mile a minute.
Tell us a little about transitioning a perro callejero into a domestic pet? What were the challenges?
Once Clyde was in the U.S., there were different challenges than in Chile. Living indoors in a home was a foreign concept. He didn’t like slippery floors, had no idea that food sitting on counters wasn’t free for the taking, and didn’t know that he should pee outside and not on the living room carpet. One day we came downstairs and found him sitting in the kitchen sink, licking dishes! He obviously had no idea there was anything wrong with that. But at this point he’d been off the streets for over a month, and he was learning faster and more easily every day. He began learning English commands, he picked up house training in less than a week, and our other dogs helped him get the hang of being an indoor dog as he mimicked their behavior. Lots and lots of positive reinforcement! He also began taking Prozac, which helped enormously with his anxiety. Once he was out of Chile, I think he understood that he wasn’t being thrown out on the streets again. Then, his development was fast and easy.
As a foreigner what were your feelings about the "dog situation" in Valpo while living there? Have your feelings changed at all overtime?
It was the only part of my experience that I struggled with. Valpo has one of the highest stray dog populations in South America. Most of them were owned at one time and them thrown out. Like Clyde, they grew too big, grew destructive from being locked in a yard, or cost too much to feed. No one neuters or spays their animals, so over-population is a massive problem. They are all flea-infested and sick. They aren’t starving, for the most part, because shops leave out food and water, or people throw them scraps, but they’re skinny. Clyde was 23 pounds underweight. Many have been hit by cars and get around on three legs. I could not understand how such amazing people could treat animals in such a way. Most of the Chileans I met were kind and good to the street dogs, but were so accustomed to their presence that they weren’t particularly impacted or empowered to act. It’s a cultural thing. In the winter months, some people put sweaters on the dogs to keep them warm. I struggled, and still do, with the fact that so many Chileans in Valpo treat the perros callejeros fairly well, but don’t do anything to change society so that no dog ever ends up homeless on the streets again. The mentality there is very passive. Every dog I passed (anywhere from 2 to 5 a block) had Clyde’s potential, just none of his luck. It broke my heart every single day.
In comparison with the U.S., it’s the lesser of two evils. We have parts of our country that treat animals in despicable ways. There are so many shelters that are some of the most inhumane places. Listen to the stories of any rescue organizations in Miami, Houston, LA, New York City, you name it, and you’ll hear of brutal animal cruelty. While we don’t have nearly the quantity of homeless animals living on the streets, they are living in cages, behind bars, instead. However, our country does have rescue organizations and foster homes. Chile has none.
Favorite moment with Clyde?
He gets his name from Port Clyde, Maine, where my family has summered for 60 years. Port Clyde is dog heaven. We are right on the water, with lots of land, and we boat, swim, sail, and hike. Our old dog’s ashes are scattered there. When I found him and thought he may not make it, I called him Clyde because that’s where I hoped his heaven would be. Last summer we were on the boat (he loves boat rides) and he climbed into my lap. He put his head against my chest and gave this big sigh of contentment and I all of a sudden felt him communicate the words “thank you”. It was as clear as any voice. He seemed as though he finally understood that the past was over, and this was his life now. By far one of the oddest things that has ever happened to me, and the only time I’ve ever felt anything like it. From that day forward he has had no residual street dog behavioral problems.
Another favorite was my return from Chile. My parents brought him to the airport to greet me. He’d been in the States living with my family for a month, and we’d been apart for as long as we’d been together. I was worried he may not remember me, or, even worse, be angry I had shipped him off alone. When I called out to him and he walked close and recognized who I was, he jumped in my arms and was wiggling like crazy. He was a brand new dog in just a month. It was such a joyful reunion. He certainly did not forget me and I think he understood then that I had sent him to this great new life. It was like, “Wow, we really did it. He’s home.” My dad filmed it, you can click the links below to see the video.
Describe Clyde in three words
Grateful, loyal, goof-ball
Any advice to other dog-loving activists/ rescuers?
Exactly one year ago I took Clyde in. Today, he is an amazing, loyal pet—balanced and well behaved (aside from stealing the occasional shoe or food off the counter, of course). He loves other dogs now, and is friendly with men, women, strangers-- you name it. I’m not sure what his history is with children, but there is nothing he adores more than babies and little kids. His whole body wiggles and he licks their cheeks and hands and is incredibly gentle and patient with them. He loves sprinklers and wading in the ocean and coming up with silly antics to make us laugh. Clyde is a joy. My point?
Please, please, please be patient! At first, I genuinely thought that Clyde was never going to be a normal pet. Don’t give up. It just takes patience, love, and strong leadership for them to understand they won’t be hurt or abandoned again. Never doubt the resiliency of a dog. They are some of the most forgiving creatures on earth. For those attempting intense rescue and rehabilitation cases, seek outside help. I worked with a handful of dog behavioralists who specialized in extreme cases and they were incredibly helpful.
To all animal lovers: the sheer number of abused and neglected animals can get overwhelming and defeating. But I remind myself that change starts as small as a single dog. There’s a quote that goes, “Saving a dog won’t change the world. But for that dog, the world changed forever.” It’s true. And once we begin to add up all those one dogs, they become many dogs, and then we begin to see true change. Even making the decision to go to a shelter, rather than a breeder, one time means that an animal’s life is forever changed. You won’t be able to change their past, but you can rewrite their future. And that’s pretty special. If you are reading this and considering adding a dog (or any animal) to your family, please adopt. I can now say from experience there is no greater gift. If you can’t adopt, foster, if you can’t foster, volunteer, if you can’t volunteer, donate, if you can’t donate, educate!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.