Appearance of dogs on the island of Bali has been naturally occurring for thousands of years. Close observation of their activity has only been a serious action in the last few decades. Before then they were just part of the background shadow play that fills the flow on this mystical Hindu island.
A government loosening of importation laws in response to mass foreigner arrivals saw non local dogs flow across porous borders. On the back of this change Bali dogs became an increasingly interesting and unique phenomenon. It’s as if they, as a thing, had only just manifested, instead of being here from whenever that beingness began.
The Bali people-dog relationship is seriously unique in the context of its island isolated reality. Yet when other ancient indigenous cultures are examined in regard to their human-dog historical relationship the Bali relationship differs very little. In those historical periods no great thought was given or intellectual energy expelled when it came to the relationship; dogs had their place as all things had within the order of subsistence village societies. That past mindset is still presently current, how could it not. The Bali dog and/or their relationship to/with Bali people was a no big thing, it just was/is.
It was not until this latest round of colonization swamped the island that a spotlight was shone upon the relationship.
Fueled by a turbo driven economy, foreigners descended and moved into traditionally stable areas upending generations of island viewpoints. Apart from bringing money they also brought a worldview that continues to be completely foreign to a majority of Balinese. Bali dogs were and continue to be a perfect emotional drawcard for an increasing number of foreigners.
There is very little naturally occurring in those areas where little Bali has become big Australia or any number of other foreigner resident locales. The phenomenon of Bali dogs free roaming in and through those areas is unheard and unseen.
As a ballooning economy continues to expand, more and more traditional areas are submitting to inevitable unavoidable realities, changes that come with such historical economic movements. More families have less dogs and status value has replaced utility value. Knowledge of how to care for foreign things is proving difficult for a society that hasn’t dealt with so many foreign viewpoints/philosophies. When it comes to dogs, everything to do with foreign dog care is the antithesis of their view.
On an island where the future will continue to pin cultures literally on top of cultures the dog-human relationship will ‘need’ to unfold on the basis of welfare law.
As that battle will be fought on solid ground the only Naturally Occurring Phenomenon will continue to be the human made plastic invasion that washes ashore on the islands seasonal waves.
The sun hasn’t even risen in a typical village of Bali. A wife in one compound opened her eyes. She looked at her two children and her husband who were asleep next to her. She looked at the ceiling and think,
“What should I cook today?” “Oh it is a school fee payday,” “Need to prepare for Galungan,” “Wait, need to go to neighbor to help her with upcoming Ngaben ceremony,” “Did the electricity has paid off?” “Need to tell husband to fix the roof, rainy season is coming,” “Wait there is nothing in the fridge to cook, market now.”
And many, many more thoughts, a check list for the day, an endless checklist.
A black and white Bali Dog curled up in front of the house and she clearly has scratched the front mat a little to make herself warmer, a natural instinct of survival. She heard the rooster screaming his lungs out; her ears were moving, but her body is so intact, her tail touched her nose. She wanted another 5 minutes.
The Bali wife also needs 5 more minutes, especially after big long ceremony in the temple that just finished last night. But she can’t. She needed to wake up or the checklist she just designed in her head will be ruined and fly out of the window.
So she stretched and got up, washed her face and got ready to the market. She opened the door and Duduk, her lovely Bali Dog waited in front of the door. She got up soon after she heard the door unlocked. She didn’t need her five minutes anymore, her favorite person was here and she was ready to guard her anywhere.
She looked like she was about to go somewhere, thought Duduk.
The wife walked out of the house with her dog on the side. She patted her head slowly and walked 5 minutes to the market. Duduk was there, next to her, sometimes she ran to her dog friends, had a little zoomies to warm her up in a cold morning. But she always comes back to her person.
Once she got back from the market, there went the chores. House, kid’s school, big family, neighbor, banjar (village community), temple, ceremonies and offerings. A-Z. Everything.
A Bali wife is the rock of the house. Imagine a life without them managing the Balinese household. Imagine the burden that was put on her shoulder by society. Or on any Balinese women that will become mothers, or someone’s wife. Anything wrong with the house, the kids, the husband. The wife will be put to blame. They mostly out of time to be herself. They do not have time to empower herself, to develop, to treat the mental burden they are having every day. They just serve, and most of times don’t get what they deserve. Any appreciation. Love and attention.
A Bali Dog, are having an exactly the same problem. Their loyalty and service are less appreciated. And maybe, that is one thing that our society has been built up to. “It is just the way it is. No questions asked. It is just the role, it is the nature.”
The nature of Bali Dog is a working dog, and their work is versatile based on the type of household where they were raised. A Bali dog who was raised in a farmer family will know their people’s schedule to go to the farm, or rice field. The one who was raised in fisherman’s family would not be scared of water or even the waves. A Bali Dog, who was raised in priest’s house, will know how to behave with many people coming to the house and stay still during mantra puja from his person.
They adapted, adjusted our family routine. They are not indoor dog; they belong outside in the yard where they can get up to chase rats, cats or burglars, anytime. They are free soul. They could not be contained. And most importantly, as the Bali wives, they just serve.
What will happen when Bali Dogs are not able to do this anymore? What is a Balinese household without a Bali Dog? It is just a household. There is no specialty, nothing to distinguish us to any household in the world. Their antics are what make Bali, Bali. It is very sad to see Bali Dogs are getting less and less appreciated. They are one important element in Balinese household. They are the rock along with the Bali wives.
A Bali Dog is a Bali kid’s first friend, the first one who taught them about loving animals. They can be clown to the family, they protect the family. Waiting for the husband to come home from work and walking alongside the wife to get to destination safely. Waiting for any leftover meal and staying in the kitchen whenever there is a cooking activity.
It is something that can’t be bought and never been taught. It is something that occurred naturally, as the thousands of years they spent to learn Balinese routine, character and behavior.
Something that we should not take for granted, something that should be more appreciated, protected and preserved.
A shout out to all Bali wives who thrive every day to manage the house with patience, love and integrity. And for the Bali Dogs who always stay beside them, ready to serve.
If we seek to understand why a community behaves in certain ways towards their dog population, we must first look at those animals through the lens of that community’s world view. The power of an ancient canid – human bond, is easily misunderstood but is not to be underestimated. For many ancient cultures, dogs were the first non-human animals who provided companionship; they helped with hunting; they learned to understand basic human speech in order to respond to commands and they actually answered back when yelled at. (Rose, 2011). These traits and their ability to interact with humans have inserted them into a unique place in the structure of society, somewhere between non-human and human.
These bonds have seen humans and canids travelling together over thousands of years. Indeed, the Bali dog has travelled alongside her people, and has borne witness to attempts at colonization, war, natural tragedy etc. etc. The Bali dog has not sat as a neutral observer to these events but has been subjected to the same processes as her people, if not with the same consequences. She has, in the Australian Aboriginal sense of the term, borne witness.
This witnessing together, of monumental world altering changes, the closeness of cohabitation, the necessity of sharing time, space and food has generated a bond between the Bali dog and her people. Musharbash (2017), suggests that this human-canid long-term co-residency and the familiarity it brings can manifest in the characteristics and social practices found in any society where humans and canines co-evolved. The Bali dog’s unique ability to remember you no matter how long ago you met; their innate proficiency in seeing you coming long before you see them and capacity to amass in large number’s when action occurs within their Banjar are just some skills that are definitely reflected in her people and community.
These ancient connections and reciprocal behaviour is summed up precisely by Ojoade (2003) in his observation that the role of the dog in Nigerian culture, his culture, is considerably more important than the role held in Western cultures, as Western cultures generally lack dog lore.
Understanding another’s world view does not signify an acceptance of that world view. It is simply an appreciation, an acknowledgment of difference and a point at which conversations can start.
Musharbash, Y., 2017. Telling Warlpiri Dog Stories. Anthropological Forum, 27(2), pp. 95-113.
Ojoade, 2003. Signifying Animals. s.l.:Routledge.
Rose, D. B., 2011. Wild Dog Dreaming. Love and Extincion. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Watching the sun rise over the peak of Mount Batur, waiting for that magical moment when the clouds part and the vast caldera comes into view – is an experience that can make you appreciate just why this entire highlands area is sacred country to the Balinese. The area of Kintamani is the land of Bali Aga. These Indigenous people of Bali share a sacred bond with their land and its spiritual inhabitants. Spending time on this country embodies you with a sense of the spirit and energy that is sometimes lost in the shadows of the more famous low-lying kingdoms of Southern Bali (Reuter 2002).
Heading north from the caldera viewing point, taking the road less travelled by day trippers and scene seekers you come to a narrow, winding roadway, densely lined by forest on both sides. The gradual ascent steepens suddenly, and rounding a sharp bend, you enter Desa Sukawana, a designated Kintamani pure zone (Madanir 2018).
It is hard not to be taken aback by the number of free roaming, thick coated, short eared, fuzzy tailed Kintamani Dogs. They stroll along the roadside, gather in clusters alongside warungs and lift their muzzles in a threatening growl to the incoming strangers. In the middle of this village is a large plinth on the top of which sits a stone statue of a Dog. A plaque reads ‘Banjar Sukawana, Home of the Kintamani Dog’.
This is believed to the birth place of the Bali Dog. It is here, during the twelfth century that King Jaya Pangus built a temple in honour of his beautiful Chinese princess bride, Kang Ching Wei. He called the area Balingkang to signify the union of the two countries and cultures. Local mythology describes the Princess bringing her Chinese Chow Chow dogs with her to live in her new home and it is from these dogs that the Kintamani dog has descended (Muthia 2018).
Genetically, the short haired Bali Street Dog carries DNA markers from the Kintamani, and no one really knows which one came to the Island first (Puja et al. 2005). However, leaving aside the debate about what came first, the Kintamani, or the short haired Bali Dog, this is a place of significance for the Bali Aga and those of us outsiders who admire and respect the Bali Dog be they the short or long haired variety.
Madanir, R 2018, Bali's Kintamani Dogs seek global recognition.
Muthia, R 2018, How Bali’s Chinese were accepted and integrated into island society – in contrast to other parts of Indonesia.
Puja, I, K, Schaffer, A, L, Irion, D, N & Pedersen, N, C 2005, “The Kintamani Dog: Genetic Profile of an Emerging Breed from Bali, Indonesia’, Journal of Heredity , vol.96, no. 7, pp. 854-859.
Reuter, T 2002, Custodians of the Sacred Mountains, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press .
As creators of this website we have been asked on many occasions how we reconcile respecting Balinese beliefs with our awareness of sentience. Especially when it involves cruelty and general mistreatment inflicted on Bali Dogs.
Simply put, there is no reconciling, no justification and no defending any act that inflicts pain. Cruelty is universal and Bali is certainly more than able in delivering its very own local brand. Respecting a belief system that does not demonstrate awareness of sentience is nigh on impossible.
What we do is acknowledge that there is a relationship between Balinese people and their indigenous canine. It does not look or feel like pet ownership in the Western cultural context, but there is a relationship. Just because something doesn't look or feel like the familiar its not OK to dismiss its existence. The Westernised pet ownership framework cannot and should not hold itself up as being the ideal.
As long term appreciators of dogs and the contribution they have made to our lives we are eternally curious about what a dog looks like through a different cultural lens. We are interested in how different beliefs and values influence and shape the human/canine relationship. In Bali we have found a relationship that is ancient and bound in complex reciprocal utility and entrenched within the Islands unique belief system.
Beliefs are very real; they bring order to chaos, they are concrete cultural anchors, passed from generation to generation. They help us to navigate our world.
From words, statements and stories, our societal structures are formed. These structures have to be respected even if they conflict with our own beliefs. Acknowledgement of these structures, without judgement, is the first step towards understanding, communicating and then negotiating human behaviour change.
To do otherwise is like asking us to speak a foreign language without lessons. We can learn to survive among native speakers, but we will not be able to converse deeply and appreciate those subtle nuances so vital to understanding issues that matter.
By understanding the nuances of the dog/human relationship in Bali, by appreciating its history and by grasping its complexities we have an opportunity to converse and influence change.
Riding in a Northerly direction into clear open air can be a delightful and refreshing escape from what is becoming an increasingly densely cramped Southerly environment.
Even the once slow paced quintessential and serenely iconic Ubud has become a heaving mass and mess of humans and stuff. Yet thankfully fifteen minutes from the central mayhem travelling in a Northerly direction life begins to reflect some of the images of a bygone era, for now.
There are a number of major arteries leading to the Islands beating volcanic heart. Travelling upward, passing through village after village, coolness and spaciousness merge and movement slows. It’s where old time expats still go to get their high, to breathe, re-energize and reminisce on how things once where. Where adventurous modern day tourists go to see old Bali and take selfies with Gunung Batur and Gunung Agung.
There are at least a hundred ways to get purposefully lost in this region.
This is Kintamani country, home to the impressive Kintamani Dog. The long haired, protected, promoted, preserved and somewhat sought after highland canine. It’s also liberally peppered with the more common Lokal Bali Dog.
Away from the urban squeeze in a Northerly direction is where healthy dog and human relationships live on. Not only is the environment cleaner, development is slower, the pace is kinder and space isn’t sparse. In this healthy environment annoyances between dogs and humans are mitigated. The simple provision of more open space means you don’t often see dogs with knife or burn wounds, indicators of canine-human conflict. The cooler air is kinder to canine skin, so there is less scabies and mange on view and thicker coats are the norm.
Certainly some dogs are a little thin, but if you look carefully the physical condition of humans and canines reflect each other. This is agricultural land where the residents are lean and hard working. Farmers toil and old Ibu’s stroll along streets carrying unbelievably large bundles on their heads.
Alongside them their Bali dogs lope, close enough to receive the Balinese caress, a light tap to the head, or a dropped morsel of food, but far enough away to shape shift out of sight when needed.
In speaking of isolation we refer to evidence that shows the prize factor behaviour associated with ‘owning’ a canine other than a lokal dog. Bali dogs are not isolation items, they are valueless. Foreign imported and now Island born specialized breed canines have unfortunately become such.
Evidence appears to show that there has been a shift from unaware, unconscious and what many believe to be an uncaring relationship in respect to lokal Bali dog to a fully aware, conscious and caring position when it comes to new and fashionable breeds. When attempting to examine and observe the deeper facets in the ancient Bali dog Bali people relationship this shift creates a dichotomy between what was a stable relationship for so long and what has so recently changed. It makes understanding how decisions are made somewhat more confusing and insightful clarity in respect of how choices are made more difficult and cloudy.
The battle for hearts and minds in the welfare field will always be driven by emotion. Welfare is by its very nature emotive and there really isn’t any other way to kick the ball around other than with feeling, thoughts, and resultant actions.
Beyond the no-win positioning there are realities that continue to throw up many more painful questions than soothing answers. For those in the Rescue and Re-home (R&R) arena the frustration faced on a daily basis inevitably takes a heavy toll and good news or positive outcomes are always outweighed by constant incoming pain. There are most certainly endless things that strike at the heart, tear at the soul and render answers redundant in the face of an avalanche of equally endless questions.
As Bali continues its move to an increasing commodity consumer reality, life for all canines will bend toward isolation, not unlike those countries that demand stricter regulations on all things dog related. More and more dogs, especially non lokal, are already behind gates walls or chained. The reasons are obvious, when seen from a development point of view, yet also complex when viewed from the wealth of historical evidence that points directly to free roaming. There are of course positive and negative outcomes dependent on where you sit on the welfare spectrum.
What and how this shifting has impacted the lokal Bali dog Bali people relationship is really unknown at this early evolution. They and their dog are still cohabiting. A need to continue the union still appears to be evident and their viewpoint of each other appears to be unchanged.
In this consumption fueled driven era where value and greed are one of the many new age Gods, everything is fast becoming about showing off ones wealth and newly elevated status. This show of valued items is of course nothing new and Balinese people are by no means immune when it comes to publicly presenting who has the biggest, best and latest stuff. Unfortunately when it comes to new and different non-animate objects such as sentient beings there can be so much more involved, especially when there are no easy step by step instruction manuals to guide a novice.
Sadly, evidence has already shown that as time goes by many of these valued unfamiliar and foreign items become isolated in a variety of ways. Chained caged and enclosed are physical manifestations employed when something you don’t understand becomes too difficult to handle. Emotional stress and boredom becomes the torturous mind map with no way out.
For thousands of years and endless generations Bali people had nothing to think about when it came to their Indigenous dog. Valueless in monetary terms yet valued for their service, Bali dogs and Bali people in communities simply survived together in the way their forebears had always done.
Bali dogs and Bali people fit together whether they are aware or not. Their need for and reliance upon each other is a mutually binding contract with absolutely no value at all other than one needs the other to feel complete.
Their relationship is a mystery spanning lifetimes. It is a relationship that can never be seen or placed in isolation.
If by normal dogs you are referring to domesticated dogs that people have as pets in Western type societies then Bali Dogs are different and are not ‘normal dogs’.
Genetic testing has determined their DNA makeup is different (research exists to evidence this) and their behaviour is very different, more similar to the Australian Dingo than to any domestic dog. They are not strays, they are free roaming dogs. There is a distinct difference.
Given that there are over 4 million people on the Island of Bali and an indeterminate but very high dog population there is no doubt that people regularly get bitten by Bali Dogs. However contrary to popular belief they do not roam in packs attacking people. If they did they would be killed by local people very quickly. Balinese people have lived parallel with these dogs for thousands of years. Complicated rituals exist that assist an owner to determine the personality of their dog. There are ancient scriptures that provide a Balinese dog pedigree describing the measurements and body posture necessary for particular types of dog. Bali dogs have an important place within culture, providing security in the physical and spiritual realms. They feature in mythology and are essential as a sacrifice in some ceremonies. It is important to note that, to their people, they are first and foremost working dogs.
The change in attitude towards the dogs is multifaceted and complex. Almost simultaneously, a decade ago, the following occurred:-
In the rural areas of Bali the dogs live with and alongside their people as they have for thousands of years. In the urban, tourist areas of the island conflicts occur between expats and locals and the dogs are sometimes subject to cruelty and neglect.
As is the case with all things human, people do not appreciate what they have until it is taken from them. The Balinese do not understand the uniqueness of their Indigenous dog because it has always been there.
The work of Yayasan Seva Bhuana and www.thebalistreetdog.com is designed to remind Balinese people just how exceptional the dog they share their lives with is and to educate non Balinese people about the relationship.
Healthy dogs, healthy communities – is a useful, descriptive tag line adopted by many animal welfare interventions across the globe and here in Bali. The condition of a communities dogs is often seen to be an indicator of a community’s well-being. Whilst it is true that the health of a communities animals provides a window through which you can glimpse the economic, social and emotional measure of the community itself, it is not a view to be taken at face value. Packs of unkempt, malnourished dogs do not necessarily signify an uncaring community, especially when they reflect how the people of the community also look. This is because the attention paid to the animals of a community by the residents of a community is entirely dependent upon two elements, the animal’s utility and the available community resources.
In the Bali dog Balinese people relationship, for the vast majority, the dog is nothing more or less than a part of the whole of daily life. A life that’s dependent on routine offerings and ceremonies, events where dogs are part of the picture, their noise and presence intermingling in the background cacophony of village life. They are not necessarily an unvalued utility, but they are a dispensable utility.
Access to resources for animal care on Bali is inequitable. In the vast majority of communities all resources are scarce and those that are available are utilised for human health and wellbeing. However, there are communities on the Island who have more than adequate resources available to them to provide care for their dogs.
It is at this intersection of unvalued utility and choice making to not provide resources, that the entrance way to the minefield of animal welfare issues is paved.
There are conservatively seventy groups / individuals who advertise themselves as rescuing and rehoming Bali dogs on this small Island. These vary in size and service but this disproportionate amount of agency offered to a collective dog is not lost on the population, the vast majority who are struggling to feed and provide for themselves. Nor is it lost on the part of the population who fail to see why they should take responsibility for their animals when so many people will willingly do it for them. The existing continuous cycle of rescue, rehome, rinse and repeat is perpetuating suffering and nurturing a sense of entitlement that once embedded becomes another barrier to achieving good animal welfare. People simply will not take responsibility to sterilise or humanely euthanize when someone else will come along and remove the problem from their radar.
Sterilization and education are essential animal management tools but they address only the visible symptoms of animal overpopulation and suffering. Intervention is needed to facilitate a framework of community responsibility that has access to services as a part of their community animal management tool kit.
The International Coalition for Animal Management (ICAM) recommends the use of Community Dog Management Plans (CDMP’s). These are bespoke animal management plans developed and owned by each community. The plans recognise the individuality of each community’s dog population and the resident’s relationship with their dogs. All facets of each unique situation need to be considered before designing a CDMP. However, the one consideration that cuts across all differences is the need to focus on the causes of the issues, not simply on the symptoms.
During my time as CEO with AMRRIC I observed the implementation of several CDMP’s in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities with severe animal management problems. Whilst they are not a quick or easy fix, when enacted well they do bring about positive results for both human and animal populations.
The utility of the Bali dog as a somewhat useful but ultimately easily dispensable part of community life is not an attitude that can be altered by educating adults from the outside. The only way welfare is going to improve for the Bali dog is by working from within. Local organisations joining forces to work with local leadership groups in exploring the community’s motivation for having free roaming dog populations and investigating how they propose to maintain the health of their community. The subsequent development of a communities own Dog Management Plan is just the first step along the complex path to individual and community behaviour change.
It is often said that the most powerful motivators for human behaviour change are hope and fear. A comprehensive Community Dog Management Plan provides both of these. It gives hope to those who are quietly despairing over the sight, sound and consequences of unmanaged free roaming dog populations and induces fear into those who would seek to intentionally, or unintentionally abuse those populations, by implementing community developed consequences for those types of actions.
Without a structured approach such as that offered by the Community Dog Management Plan framework it appears that the emotively explosive field of rescue, re-home, educate, repeat, will continue to be the minefield through which the Bali dog will unknowingly trot.
If you take the time to carefully observe the people of Bali going about their daily lives in the company of their Bali dogs you will discover a unique connection. You will uncover a human – animal rapport that sheds light on just how their ancient relationship has survived against the odds. Of course, your observation needs to occur through the lens of cultural relativity, accepting that difference exists and that what you are seeing is not your normal, but it is the other person’s normal.
Balinese people have much to offer in educating outsiders about their Bali Dogs. But, the right questions need to be asked to elicit this information. Equally, outsiders have much to offer Balinese people in supporting them to maintain their ancient human – canine relationship. Formulating questions, or approaching conversations from a position of cultural superiority will only result in misunderstanding, not two way knowledge sharing.
Sadly it appears that there are some groups and individuals active on social media who have already decided that what appear to be attitudes of uncaring when it comes to how Balinese people treat their local indigenous canine are in fact generalized unarguable truths. Their value laden postings do nothing to promote knowledge sharing and instead only promote cultural shaming. Sustainable behavioural change is never achieved through shame.
This is not to say that cruelty, neglect and uncaring does not occur. Balinese people are not immune when it comes to the darker side of human nature and its propensity to inflict suffering on sentient beings.
The photograph is a simple and perfect example of the ease and flow within the Balinese human – dog relationship. There is an unwritten rhythm in how they are moving together, a rhythm that is felt, not forced. Take time to observe how the dogs mingle and meander through the legs of those gathered at ceremonies, at the local markets, among the children lined up to enter school. It’s an ancient dance of symbiotic genetic markers. Coded dance steps that have been unconsciously handed through human and canine generations to become simply unnoticed normality.
We could learn much from this ancient relationship, we just need to take time to watch, listen and ask the right questions.