What is a Rez Dog? by Steven Sable

Rez dog rescued near Page, AZ in 2005. Named Page.
My first Rez Dog, Page, defined the term with honor and grace.


My first Rez Dog sat beside a 75mph freeway, waiting patiently until I arrived.  I didn’t know she was a Rez Dog – had never heard the term.  I pulled to the shoulder of AZ Hwy 89 in Northern Arizona to make an “empty highway” picture and there she was, sitting on the shoulder of the road, eight miles from the nearest structure or sign of human habitation. She was a mix of many herding breeds and looked tired, skinny and dirty.  Some associate Rez Dogs with dangerous, feral animals and to be sure, those kinds of Rez Dogs do exist (through no fault of their own.)  But my first reservation rescue, Page, showed no sign of aggression.  Instead, she stared at me with an open demeanor, direct eye contact and came across as a regular dog slightly befuddled by unique circumstances. She also looked relieved that I’d arrived, but that might have been me, projecting.

The term “Rez Dog” can loosely be defined as any dog on a Native American Reservation.  While accurate, this definition is misleading.  Page was clearly a stray and there was no hope I’d be able to track down the owner of this tagless dog who’d apparently made the decision to hitchhike out of town anyway.  Still, she was in dire circumstances when I found her.  Summer temperatures were oppressive,  water was simply not available and she was as likely to have been hit by a car as rescued by one.  Page fit the definition of a Rez Dog because I found her on the Navajo Reservation but she was a “Rez Dog” because without intervention, her odds of survival were slim.  For the purposes of rescue, we define a “Rez Dog” as a stray or feral dog found on the Rez who needs intervention to save its life or prevent unnecessary suffering.  However, tradition requires that nothing is simple where the Rez is concerned.

May not have been pretty, but this rez Dog knew his job.
May not have been pretty, but this rez Dog knew his job.

When you visit the Rez, you’ll see plenty of working dogs in the distance, guarding sheep from predators and guiding them from water source to water source.  Their diet while working is sparse and hands-on affection from their Alpha human is even more limited.  But these dogs are privileged to spend every day doing what they were bred for and what they most enjoy. A working dog is a happy dog.

Rez Dog protecting the homestead.
Rez Dog protecting the homestead.

Any trip through the Rez also reveals that, in one way or another, all “owned” dogs on the Rez work security.  Whether they’re pets guarding the house when everyone is away, keeping coyotes from the chickens or a professional guard dog protecting a business, these dogs also thrive in their jobs and seem to love having something to do every day.

Working dogs found on the Rez certainly fit the common sense definition of Rez Dog.  For the purposes of hands-on save-a-life rescue, these Rez Dogs don’t often need rescue.  What they do need is access to low cost/no cost spay/neuter services to prevent unwanted litters, vaccinations, a dog house for winter or whatever else we and their owner can think of to keep them healthy and happy.

Some Rez Dogs are pets.
Some Rez Dogs are pets.

Most dogs you see on the Rez are “pets.”  Being a pet on the Rez can mean something different from being a pet in Suburbia where dogs visit dog parks and wear embroidered jackets in winter.  Pets on the Rez usually live outside year around and fences are uncommon.  This is a good thing for the dogs because they don’t always receive enough food at home to sustain them.  They range far and wide, hunting resources and revert to survival techniques unearthed from the dust-covered “survival tool box” in their head that dogs in the wild have been using for thousands of years.  Most of them are happy and loyal members of their family and while we stand ready to offer the vaccines, etc., these dogs don’t need rescue either.

The gold standard of Rez Dog is, of course, the stray, abandoned or feral dogs that seem to be everywhere.  Despite their high numbers, not every feral Rez Dog you see needs rescue.  However, any loose Rez Dog you see will appreciate whatever food you have on hand and water is always gratefully accepted as well. That doesn’t mean they need or want rescue.  If resources are available and feral Rez Dogs can live an isolated existence where they’ll never be blamed for harming livestock or people (or be tempted to do it for real), why not leave them in place?  Spay or neuter them, vaccinate them and put them back when you’re done so they can live a wild dog life that would spark great jealousy in your average Cattle Dog (so I suggest you don’t tell them that some dogs Live Free!)

There are countless kinds of dogs on the Rez living in all sorts of circumstances – some good and some heart-wrenching.  Maybe the important fact isn’t a crafted definition of the term Rez Dog but rather, it’s a sense that there are too many dogs on the Rez. Common sense tells you who needs rescue and who just lives a more primitive dog life. Rez Dawg Rescue is helping Rez Dogs in need by applying a number of strategies across time and geography.

Upcoming blogs will talk more about these strategies and the defining traits that make a rez dog a rez dog.

Unless, of course, you want us to talk about something else.  Which brings up a good question:  What do you want to read here?  Stories like Manny’s Last Update were popular and I’m working on one now… (sneak preview, meet Edgar)

Edgar had a tough start to life. Follow along as we share his progress in future blogs.
Edgar had a tough start to life. Follow along as we share his progress in future blogs.

For more information about what you’ve read here, in previous editions or about RezDawg in general, please visit RezDawgRescue.org, The Rez Dog Biographies, or stevensable.com.

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