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The meaning of "rez dog" is changing on the Navajo Nation

Justin Higginbottom
An Underdog Animal Rescue and Rehab volunteer vaccinates Tonan Mitchell’s chihuahua at the Navajo Nation’s Sweetwater chapter house on April 24.

It's hard to not notice the large number of dogs roaming the rural regions of the Navajo Nation. It's long been considered a problem as the animals can be aggressive or carry diseases. In fact that the Navajo Nation Council recently passed legislation that penalizes owners of animals that bite or attack people

But many of these animals also live a harsh life, and the culture around dog ownership in the area is changing. For Rocky Mountain Community Radio, KZMU Moab’s Justin Higginbottom visits a pop-up animal clinic on the reservation trying to help.

The Sweetwater chapter house is found well off the highway, down a few miles of dirt roads on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. Today there’s about a dozen idling vehicles stretching to the entrance of the property used for local government and community services — mostly trucks with dogs and owners sitting in the beds.

This is slow, according to Katy Gullette of Underdog Animal Rescue and Rehab. “In fact we were spaying and neutering until 11:30 [p.m.] last night,” she says.

Volunteers with her nonprofit make trips from Moab to the Navajo Nation monthly, offering a host of services including tick treatments, de-worming and minor wound care.

“We typically do about 225 spays and neuters each of our weekends. And then we do an additional maybe six to 800 vaccines,” says Gullette.

Gullette approaches Jack, a timid puppy in a cage in the back of his owner’s truck. The man says he just bought the dog in Farmington, New Mexico, and isn’t quite sure if he bites. He holds Jack as Gullette gives vaccination shots in the scruff of his neck. There’s no bites from Jack, who turns out to be a good boy.

There’s an estimated 250,000 strays in this rural area about the size of West Virginia. Gullette thinks that number is closer to 500,000. The problem has likely become worse since the pandemic as animal shelters shut and the few public services available were cut.

Chantel Wadsworth is one of the volunteers today. She also runs Rez Road Rescue and has a van filled with her own dogs, who sound quite excited at this line of new friends.

“We did van life on the reservation for about two years. So that’s how we got into dog rescue. We were just traveling on the rez and you see stray dogs everywhere,” says Wadsworth.

Her partner and her decided to put their van to use. They collected strays and brought pets to clinics. Wadsworth is from the Navajo Nation. She says things are changing on the reservation. More private resources are available for dogs and more residents are taking advantage of that care.

“Just within I think the past, I’m gonna say, five years, it’s improved a whole lot. There’s a lot more resources now than there was. So I feel like now the word is getting out,” says Wadsworth.

Justin Higginbottom
Chantel Wadsworth travels the Navajo Nation helping stray animals. She’s seen here at an Underdog Animal Rescue and Rehab clinic in Sweetwater where a line of vehicles wait for pet services on April 24.

Tonan Mitchell is from Sweetwater and this is his first time at the clinic. His kids are helping to handle their dogs as they get shots. He says a clinic like this is helpful for his family.

“Because it’s kind of hard for us to, let alone get our animals in a vehicle, [drive] 200 miles to get [our] animals vaccinated,” says Mitchell.

“Access is very difficult. You probably noticed the roads you came in on. With gas at $5 a gallon and 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line, it’s very challenging for people to make it to one of the Navajo Nation clinics where their starting price is about $100 for a dog neuter,” says Gullette of Underdog.

She says that with only a couple veterinarians on the entire reservation, her clinics are constantly sold out.

“It’s not, we’ve discovered at all, a lack of wanting to do the right thing. It’s a matter of access… and finances,” says Gullette.

The issues of strays and disease isn’t just sad — it’s dangerous. The Indian Health Service treats around 3,000 people each year for dog bites. Last year, a pack of feral dogs mauled a 13-year-old girl to death while she was walking near her home on the reservation. She was the fifth person killed by dogs on the Navajo Nation since 2010.

But Gullette agrees with Wadsworth of Rez Road Rescue that there’s a cultural shift happening.

“Generationally the attitude toward dogs is changing. I started working on the rez with animals about 13 or 14 years ago. And even in that short amount of time, [there’s] dramatic change in what we’re seeing,” says Gullette.

Dogs have long been an important part of traditional Navajo life. But, according to Gullette, they were mostly working dogs. The animals were well cared for, but more likely to bond with sheep than humans.

“As far as pets, we’re seeing so many more dogs that live in houses,” says Gullette. She’s noticed more dogs in crates rather than loose in the back of trucks at the clinic. And she gets calls regularly from people who have an unwanted dog instead of them dumping the animal on the side of the road.

On the way to find the Sweetwater chapter house, Gullette was guided by a local who happened to have his dog in his car. She offered him shots for his pet. But he said the dog was neutered and up-to-date on vaccines. She says that would have been very rare 15 years ago.

But Gullette says there’s a lot of work to be done. She’s hoping to add a mobile clinic, increasing her organization’s reach on the reservation.

The Navajo Nation recently passed a law that penalizes those with dangerous animals. It’s waiting for President Jonathan Nez’s signature.