Dog sitting in the tropics – what you need to know
House sitting with "Jungle Dogs"
It's common for expats living in the tropics to own one or more "jungle" dogs. Dogs are usually unwanted puppies, older dogs that have been abandoned or abused, or left with injuries that the locals simply can't afford to have treated.
Our experience with a rescued jungle dog began with our own while living in Panama.
It has to be remembered that in some poorer communities that local indigenous communities often have an extremely difficult time feeding and caring for their own "human" families. They have dogs generally for practical reasons, to keep the property and land secure, and dog and cat owners often don't have the same compassion for animals that we have. These animals serve a purpose and come fairly low down on the list of priorities. This is changing slowly through education, but it's going to be a long slow process.
Many rescued jungle dogs are fearful of humans to some degree. Most locals won't think twice about throwing stones, or even kicking a dog that is proving troublesome. Kids see them as something to "play" with, often without proper supervision or instruction.
When you are pet sitting in the tropics, you may notice a dog subtly cowering on a first encounter. Or, there will be lots of aggressive sounding barking. But, there are some simple and effective ways to deal with this to put the pets at ease and lesson any anxiety you have being around these animals.
House sitting with outside dogs
Because dogs are used for security in many homes, they are often kept outside. Of course, they may come into the home from time to time, but often they are happy to live, eat and play outside the house, acting as a deterrent to any possible intruders. In extremely hot climates it's often more comfortable for them to be outside, away from extreme heat in airless environments, or to avoid the dryness of air conditioning.
We've been on pet sits where the dogs are not allowed into the house at any time and this should always be respected. The dogs have their routines and it's unkind to mess with that as it can lead to confusion when the home owners return.
When we lived on our small island in Bocas del Toro, "Campesino" was our "Head of Island Security". He came to us as an unwanted pup and consequently knew nothing other than the 2.2 acres of land that was his new home. His friends were us and the chickens, of which we had many. Sometimes we were convinced he was more chicken than dog! He was so gentle with them, including new born chicks.
Eggs, however, were fair game! It was him and us and a case of first come, first served!
One thing we discovered is that jungle dogs can be very intelligent. They are often food motivated, for obvious reasons, and can quickly learn commands and tricks. Campesino also developed cunning methods to supplement his diet. Our weekly shop by boat in Bocas Town meant we returned with many shopping bags that had to be taken in relay from the boat dock to the house.
On more than one occasion we neglected to take the meat or chicken directly to the house and would return to the dock to find Campesino had doubled back to retrieve his bounty and hide it from our view!
Night time dog barking is the norm
Of course with outdoor dogs you can expect some night-time barking. There are many nocturnal creatures that roam in the jungle throughout the night and early dawn, so it's likely you'll be woken several times (especially if you are a light sleeper).
Of course, the dogs are just doing their job, and it is usually just a quick warning to any interloper.
While house sitting on St Vincent in the Caribbean, we lived on a road where almost every house had an outside dog. They would set each other off and all start howling loudly in the evening. It was quite a spectacle and on more than one occasion we joined in too!
Back in Panama, on the odd occasion that barking persisted, we would get up and check out the situation. Again a quick "well done" and some reassurance silenced Campesino - he was often just alerting us to passing night-time fishermen and wanted to know that we were aware of the situation.
Only once did we have to intervene when we found him with a Coatimundi (jungle racoon) attached firmly to his leg. Sadly it didn't end well for the racoon who was on a stealth mission to steal eggs from the chickens.
Of course dogs that bark are not confined to the tropics, you'll encounter them in many rural locations around the world.
Give praise and reassurance
We have house sat other jungle dogs in Panama and in other locations around the world. We've discovered they all respond well to praise and reassurance. They usually stop barking once they know their "pack leader" is alerted and in control of the situation.
The diets of jungle dogs
Jungle dogs are made of sturdy stuff, especially when it comes to what they will eat. They will happily live on a diet of kibble or other dry or wet food, but their natural hunting instincts mean you'll often find them munching on the bones of some recently deceased jungle critter. Our most unpleasant experience was finding a recent charge grinding through the skull of a sloth.
We found it best to have distinct feeding times and not to leave food available throughout the day. As much as anything this deters the ants and other critters that live around the property, terrace or balcony.
It's quite easy to pick up bags of bones at local butchers and these provide a good way to help with the dental hygiene of your dogs.
A useful tip we found at our last house sit in Bocas was to add a spoonful of coconut oil (easily and cheaply available in Panama) to food which helped keep the coats of our dogs glistening.
Bananas are in plentiful supply too and we've found the dogs we've cared for have enjoyed a banana or two. Carrots also seem to go down well.
Don't overlook the need for water
Water is obviously important and should be left accessible at all times. We check and fill or replace several times through the day to make sure our charges stay hydrated. If you spot a dog panting excessively, check their water supply.
The heat and humidity is relentless and so a shady spot with a big bowl of water will keep your jungle dogs comfortable at all times.
Missing or injured dogs
It's not unusual for outside jungle dogs to disappear from time to time. Whilst it can be very worrying (especially as a house sitter), you will often find that your charge reappears with a happy wag of the tail a day or two later.
He/she has possibly been off hunting or looking for romance! Generally there are no fences or perimeter boundaries to properties, so it's easy for a local bitch in search of love to come roaming onto your land.
That said, at any time your charges disappear for longer than normal, it's wise to check around the property or at the neighbors. Snake bites or injuries from fights may mean your dog has sloped off to a quiet spot to nurse his wounds.
It may be necessary to administer basic first aid, or to get the dog to a vet. This is not always an easy task when you are house sitting in the jungle or in a remote location.
It's always a good idea to discuss this in depth with the home owner before they leave, to see how they would handle any emergency situation. Find out if they have any basic medications and whether they've ever administered these in the past and how. Ask also if their dogs have ever gone AWOL overnight.
Dealing with fleas and ticks
It is virtually impossible to have a jungle dog that is always free of fleas, and particularly ticks. Monthly flea treatments can keep infestations at bay, but you'll often find a small bump harboring a feeding tick on outside dogs. These ticks should be removed as quickly as possible to avoid infection. Ask if the home owners have a tick removal tool - it makes life much easier if used properly.
Jungle dogs can also suffer from worms and parasites, or mites which can lead to mange. This can happen especially if they have been rescued or taken from indigenous communities, so de-worming treatments may also be necessary. Mange is harder to eradicate and may need extensive treatment.
It may also be necessary for the dogs to have seasonal vaccines against distemper and other viruses.
Make sure you always take the advice of your home owner or their designated vet before administering any medications.
HOUSE SITTER TIP
On a jungle sit? Consider a tenanus jab.
When house sitting in a rural location, where medical treatment is scarce or difficult to get to, you might want to make sure your tetanus jabs are up-to-date. House sits in tropical and jungle environments present more hazards.
Make sure outside beds are shaken, aired and laundered regularly. Also give your dog's coat a good brush outside to help prevent skin and infestation problems. Regular grooming times allows you to check the dogs for ticks, bites and minor injuries too.
How social are jungle dogs?
Jungle dogs are often more wary of strangers, so your initial interaction is key to your ongoing relationship.
Our advice, when you first meet a jungle dog, is to simply ignore it. Don't give it any attention but instead focus on communicating with the owners. The dogs will very quickly leave you alone and stop barking (if they are).
Locals are very good at this but western dog lovers find it hard not to immediately interact with a dog. Remember that to a dog, a smile can be interpreted as aggressive (bared teeth look like a snarl). And, a pat on the head may result in a sharp retort, or worse, an attempt to nip you.
Dogs sense nervousness in humans and are more likely to bark at, or hassle a fearful person. Try to stay calm, focus on something else and don't attempt to interact or placate the situation. Once the dogs have relaxed in your presence then make more intimate contact with them. But, first ask the owners how they would recommend you approach the dogs.
Our checklist for house sitting with jungle dogs
- Remember hydration is key
- Check water regularly - keep in shade and leave an extra bucket of water if out for day
- Provide a well ventilated shady outside space throughout the day
- Exercise or walk dogs in the cool early morning hours
- Groom pets regularly to check for ticks and help prevent shedding and dander
- Shake down and air bedding every day
At the end of the day, some of our best sits have been with jungle dogs. They are smart, loyal and provide a sense of security in often very remote environments. We have a lot to thank them for and have found our time with them to be extremely rewarding. We hope that's your experience too!
author - vanessa anderson
Vanessa and her partner Ian, are full-time British travelers and house sitters who have published the online publication House Sitting Magazine since 2016. They provide numerous resources for the community as they continue their explorations and slow travel adventures across the globe. You can find out more about their house sitting lifestyle here or at LongTermHouseSitters.com
Last updated on May 12th, 2023