Sniper, A Dog Story


Nana visiting with Sniper before we let him in….

I have to wonder why such a dramatic and fraught story, so vivid in memory, has taken this long to write. Maybe post traumatic stress disorder, maybe.


In Bali, we adopted a village-dog puppy we named Nana. She and her sister found their way, at about seven weeks of age, to the office of our neighbor. The security people there were about to throw them against the wall, a customary way to kill puppies.

It has to be said that the dog situation in Bali is out of control. Many dogs run wild, some with rabies, especially in the villages. Puppies can be born with rabies, a disease that kills them and the people they bite. Every once in a while, the government issues an order for the police to “thin the pack”. The last time this happened the dog death squad killed about nine thousand dogs.

And so, the situation in Bali is a bit different than other places. Once in a while I would wake up in the middle of the night and look out on the street. Making their way silently, five or six very strong, healthy, wild dogs carefully checked the garbage at each house. Medium-sized, strong village dogs, streamlined, well proportioned, like a pack of tropical wolves, they commanded respect and some fear. The street belonged to them. Once the sun was up they disappeared, vanished like the night.

As the aforementioned puppies were about to end their life, our neighbor, Hanny, got involved and saved them. He is a nice man and took on this responsibility despite having two dogs himself. Hanny offered us one of them and we refused. I refused knowing how much a dog, no matter how great it is, changes your life. But I have always had dogs and my wife also loves dogs so I took a careful look and I saw that one of them had long legs like a ballet dancer and perfect proportions, some kind of a Dalmatian mix with black and white patches. That was Nana.

We brought her with us to Surabaya and settled in. She is a great dog but not in the way we know from Labradors and Goldens and Shepherds, dogs like that. A village dog has thousands of years of DNA tweaked by their special lives surviving on the street, avoiding endless dangers including poison. They are not the loyal dog we know who can’t wait to lay down its life for you, not like that. They don’t trust easily; it takes time, but they are more interesting and a lot smarter than the “normal” dog but paradoxically not in trainability. A friend who has had one of these dogs for many years cautioned,
“there are some things they just won’t do.” In some ways, they are smart more in the way a cat is smart. It is difficult to explain. I tell a good friend, a veterinarian, that she is more like a fox than a dog and that seems almost right.

We moved to Manyar, East Surabaya, into an old but decent house in a middle-class neighborhood, a great location convenient to important things in our life. During walks around, we noticed up the street a way, about six houses, that a group of black people were living in a communal way, so it seemed. It was not clear how many people were there. We found out they were from Papua, New Guinea and later I found out that the Indonesian government sponsors some the “best and brightest” to come to Surabaya to get an education since Papua is still quite primitive. Later, I also found out that less than fifty percent finish their studies. Aside from being black and looking aboriginal, they are Christian, not Muslim, and they like to drink.

None of that would have made a difference to me even if I knew it before interacting with them since I try to take people for who they are. We stopped when we encountered them, said hi, and then came inside to talk with the leader, Vincent, who also had some political agenda as part of his mission, probably Papua Independence or some iteration of that. He was friendly and spoke good English and it seemed to me they were lucky for his guidance and leadership.

There was a dog loosely connected with this commune, a dog named Sniper. We saw him around the neighborhood going through the garbage here and there, galivanting happily. Sniper is a border collie. He is a medium-sized dog about like Nana but with big bones, strong, compact. He was about two years old at the time and Nana only one year old and here’s what happened.

Our house, like most in the area, has a wall and a big iron gate. At some point, we noticed that Sniper was coming by in the afternoon. Normally Nana, at that time in her life, would bark at anything, the endless neighborhood street cats, vendors, butterflies, anything. But not with Sniper, not a peep. I am not sure how long it had been going on before we noticed. They would just be there together on either side of the gate talking and kissing between the vertical stiles of the heavy gate.

Writers get in trouble attributing human characteristics to other forms of life and inanimate things too. It is called “pathetic fallacy” which is to say “you must be a dumb shit and we feel sorry for you if you think like that.” Personally, I am not prone to that kind of thinking, although I do ponder that we share forty percent of our genes with a corn stalk, so it seems we are all connected more closely than we normally think.

This love fest with Sniper and Nana went on every day. In my long experience, I had never seen anything like it. It was Romeo and Juliet or Lady and the Tramp, Disney’s masterpiece. I even downloaded the movie to remember what he knew about this kind of dog love. And that is what it was, total unabashed love.

We didn’t know much about Sniper’s personality beyond what we saw in his relationship to Nana. And, by the way, we had her “fixed” at an early age so the pheromones were not responsible. Because of how close they were and how happy they were to be in each other’s company we decided to let him in and see what would happen. And what happened was total ecstasy for them and a lot of vicarious pleasure for us. They played and romped and wrestled and kissed and smelled and raced to exhaustion, except exhaustion never happened.

 When we felt it was time, we let Sniper out, back to his life on the street, a free dog. And he respected that play time was over. Border collies are considered at the top of dog smartness but they, paradoxically, are stubborn and not easy to train unless they want to be trained, a little like that famous Japanese dog, Hachiko. And, I need to say now, although he is a border collie and consequently smart, he is nowhere near our village dog, Nana, in the brightness category. Just sayin.

This went on for weeks and we earned Sniper’s trust and found that he had a beautiful face and a warm, loving disposition. We fell in love with him for himself and also because of Nana’s love for him. With love comes concern and responsibility. We were worried about him living on the street eating garbage, dodging cars, avoiding poison people put out. Dogs are Haram to Muslims. Haram is like not kosher but stronger. They hate dogs mostly and fear being bitten or even kissed which is something even more terrible somehow, and so poison is part of what street dogs need to avoid or die. Throw in whatever else they might eat from the garbage and endless interaction with cars and motorcycles and it is only a very cautious, intelligent animal that will survive.

And so, we made our way over to “his people” and sat down with Vincent and asked if it would be ok for us to “take care of him” from now on since we were concerned about him and wanted to protect him from the hard life of the street. Vincent was fine with that, not caring really, and happy to do something we wanted and not have the dog around for whatever reasons. It didn’t seem to make much difference. And so, we took charge and brought Sniper into our life without many difficulties or adjustments, just the normal settling in, learning the routines that are so important to the man-dog relationship.

If you know about Border Collies, they are not even recommended as pets. My friend Charlie, the veterinarian, advises people who want to buy a border collie to also “buy three sheep”. That’s because border collies are super energetic and, without enough to do, these working dogs can raise a whole lot of hell. Lucky for us, and not knowing any of this at the time, Sniper was already two years old and not totally crazed but plenty strong and energetic. I walk him three times a day, every day, a long one in the morning and two shorter ones so he can mark his territory and feel some freedom.

I found that I couldn’t dominate him the way you can with a Labrador or other dogs like that who are so eager to please and so submissive actually. He almost bit me a couple of times, not a bite really but enough to show me that I had better be careful, that this was more a relationship of equals and not the master/slave thing. Once I got over the shock to my ego I accepted it and learned. He taught me that what we do together is something we share. It is quite amazing and I love how that has evolved. It was less easy for me than it was for him.

I found that his tail had been broken in a fight and hadn’t healed very well but healed it did with a crook in it now. I learned that he is a tough, dominant dog who will attack any male dog whenever possible and win. He has bones like a Swedish peasant and can pull me miles, which at my age is not a bad thing. Having him in the harness, you could plow a field. We found he had some medical problems, liver problems, and that required a couple of trips to the veterinary hospital and medication and x-rays. We learned how to feed him better as to not stress his liver and he is super healthy as a result. My wife cooks for the dogs twice a day, bathes them, and treats them like the children and family they actually are for us. I don’t see a lot of difference between their antics and affection and those of a couple of five year olds but that is a whole different discussion.

After six months and with “peace in the valley” domestically, one afternoon a Papua man I had never seen came to the gate and wanted “to take Sniper out to play.” That was not something I wanted to do and I told him I was not comfortable with that. He was drunk, a young Papua guy with shaggy hair, strong, getting mad. He started yelling and pushing on the gate, shaking the gate back and forth and then the gate broke, a crucial weld having given way. I retreated to the house pushing my wife back and locked the door while she called the security and also her mother who lives not far away. I grabbed an iron piece of exercise equipment and waited to see what would happen next as he pounded on the door. He stepped back and took the broken piece of metal from the gate and slung it against the door and then retreated to the street. The security man finally showed up, not too happy since they are scared of Papua people and are not used to having to actually act like security. Mostly they usher in cars at the gate waving and taking it easy most of the time.

Then the real police arrived, someone “Mom” had called, something you pay for here but at least they have some training. From my view this was serious and I wanted the man arrested and prosecuted. As I told Vincent later, “If this had happened in America he would probably be dead” and I don’t think that is an exaggeration. But Yudi, the police’s name, convinced us to handle it “as a family” and so, despite my anger, my wife negotiated with them, some hands were shaken over at the Papua house, and we went back to our life but now with misgivings, with trepidation, with fear for the future. Because they maintained that Sniper was their dog. We showed the x-rays and told about how happy he was. They didn’t care about that but agreed that we could continue to keep him, for now.

On my daily walks, I started carrying a heavy walking stick my sister had given me years ago. I had to look over my shoulder, something we normally don’t have to do here. I came home one afternoon and there were two of them there, always different people, wanting Sniper again and again I refused, shaming them, cursing them as drunks and people who couldn’t care less about the dog because if they did they would be happy for him. I don’t have much patience for this kind of thing, and it became clear that my wife would have to handle it going forward.

In another few weeks, we came home after dark and there were five or six of them at the gate, just the whites of their eyes glinting in the streetlights. I started in again and our driver at the time also started to get into it. They stood their ground unimpressed. It felt sort of like dealing with people from a different planet who have totally different life experience and values not shared by the majority. And that is what it was.

My wife, Jovita, a brave person with a strong character and real negotiating ability, took over. My sister in law was there and my mother in law showed up and Yudi came again, the police.

The Papua people were moving soon to another house, thank God, or going back to Papua. And they wanted to take Sniper with them. Whatever Vincent had told us carried no weight and he was not around in any case. Finally, I said to Jovita, “This can’t go on. He is not our dog. We have to give him up,” and everybody agreed. So, with some tears, my wife and sister-in-law brought Sniper to his Papua “family”. We tried to process what happened, the fact that we had no formal papers showing ownership that we should have gotten in the beginning. We were just “hoping for the best” which is definitely not good business.

Two days went by and then my wife called me at school and said “Sniper is not eating and they have decided to give him back to us.” “Wow”, I said, “Great. They decided to do the right thing.” And I began to adjust my attitude toward them in a favorable way. The next call I got a few hours later was different. My wife said, “They want $200 or they are going to butcher him and sell the meat.” Westerners are not used to people eating “man’s best friend” but they do that in Papua.

The next day my sister-in-law, “Sis”, and my wife went to the Papuans and negotiated down to $100 and got signed papers giving ownership and saying that any further contact with them would result in police action. Sniper came home to us; he is now lying on the floor in Marine-crawl position watching me write this.

Honestly, I used to think I would like to visit Papua because of its natural beauty and because of the birds and wildlife one can see there but I have no interest in going there now. I have no interest in ever seeing a Papuan person again. I can see their features in people here now and again and I don’t like it. That is what one drunken idiot and his friends did for his people.

What makes me feel better about them is what a beautiful dog Sniper is, so full of affection for those he trusts. You can pick him up like a baby with absolutely no resistance, totally relaxed, and I know that could only be because he was so loved by his Papuan family.

Ricker Winsor

Surabaya, Indonesia

January 2017