Cleaning Chestnut’s living space, instead of casting judgment

When Chestnut was discovered living in filthy conditions, the author and her friend withheld judgment and took action that taught the best lesson of them all.Chestnut is a young dog found by my friend Kelly, who helps runs the The Snoopi Project in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The project delivers doghouses made out of pallets to provide shelter for dogs and cats to families who cannot afford it.

Those animals get spayed/neutered at Coco´s Animal Welfare, a partner of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, or by other local veterinarians.

Kelly is a tough woman, so when she told me she needed my help with this dog, I knew it was serious.  

She called me to a house where a dog was tied up right in a heap of garbage. The smell was horrendous. The dog cowered among empty beer bottles, plastic bags, discarded clothing, feces and rotten food.

Kelly and I do a lot of rescue work, so we are used to horrible sights of neglected or abused animals. While this dog didn’t appear wounded, he was very thin and terrified.

He didn’t deserve to live in such conditions.

But my experience has taught me that one always has to give people the benefit of doubt, and that trying to work with people is always more productive than to approach from an attitude of judgment.

The house was small and a bit shabby and had no doorbell. We called “Good morning! Good morning!” until a woman came to the door. I greeted her and asked if we could speak with her about the dog tied up out front.

She looked at me as though she did not understand what I was saying. Sometimes I meet people who speak Mayan and little Spanish. I was wondering how to proceed, as I unfortunately haven’t yet learned  Mayan, when she replied that the dog belonged to her son and that he wasn’t at home.

“I am sorry to bother you,” I said. “You probably want to rest, but I would like your permission to clean the dog´s place a little bit. My friend here would like to give you something for the dog so that he can have a good shelter from the sun and rain.” I pointed to the back of Kelly´s truck and the dog house that she had brought for Chestnut.

The woman hesitated. She really didn´t understand why we were here or asking to clean up for a dog. At last she agreed to open the gate for us.

Armed with sponge, soap, bucket and a big roll of trash bags, we started to excavate Chestnut from his stinking tomb.

Chestnut was very frightened of us. He tripped over the rubbish and his chain to tuck himself in the farthest corner that he could reach. I approached him gently, speaking softly, and worked quietly around him with slow movements. I explained that we were here to help him.

I was also still struggling with my anger. It is difficult to understand how things can be allowed to reach such a point.

Chestnut warmed to us, and little by little we gained his trust. We gave him plenty of treats, and when he decided that we were okay, he accepted tummy rubs and ear scratches galore. By the time we had his space cleaned and were ready to bring in his new dog house, he was actually playing with us!

As we worked, we noticed the children and other family members gathering at the door to watch us.

I believe strongly that actions speak louder than words.

Our actions that day - toiling in the heat and stench to clean rubbish, and our loving behavior with Chestnut - spoke more than any lecture about responsible guardianship or empathy could ever do.

Children in particular are deeply impressed by their observations of people’s behavior. We learn by mimicry.

Chestnut’s new dog house was too wide for the space in the gate. We located a key to open the gate properly, and we set up Chestnut’s house. He received a clean new collar and new food and water bowls. We filled them with fresh, clean drinking water and good food.

Chestnut didn’t know whether to eat or jump on us. He tried to do both at once, and he nearly wagged his tail off!

The wife of the dog’s owner came out with the children. She said someone had wanted to give the dog away, and her husband offered to take care of him. Then her husband got a new job that demanded a lot of time and he had begun to neglect Chestnut’s care.

I asked her to put herself in Chestnut’s place for a moment, and to feel how he must feel, living on a heap of garbage, alone, hungry, thirsty.

She watched Chestnut eating and wagging as I spoke, and promised that she would make sure that he was okay. The children were staring.

I asked them, “Now tell me, how would you prefer to live if you were Chestnut: the way he was before or the way he is now?”

They called out, “The way he is now!” and giggled.

I stopped by Chestnut’s home a few days later and found him happy. He had pulled out the mat from inside his dog house and rested on it as though it were his front porch. He looked fantastic.

Kelly rides her bike near Chestnut’s home and keeps an eye on him. Several weeks have now passed since we first met him and he is doing well. His space is clean, his bowl is full of water and he looks like he is being fed well.

He is usually out front, watching the neighborhood or napping with his head hanging out of his dog house. He has lost that cowering fear of being abandoned on a rubbish heap.

Chestnut’s story is an example of how, even when things seem awful, they can be addressed and changed for the good of everyone without casting blame or judgment.

We always try our best to keep the animals with their families, and to give those families a chance to learn how to care for their dog or cat with the compassion and responsibility they show for any family member.

Chestnut gave us the chance to show a family the same respect and kindness that we hope for every dog.


Learn more about out work with dogs and cats in Mexico.

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