Write a list of all the things that make an island. Your pen spins across the lined paper curving descriptions into the arcs and loops of your cursive. You witness words about waves or meals or the accents of people. You might write about weather or sea grapes or hammocks or reggae. These would be all the things you remembered that made your island experience memorable. Johnny cakes and conkie dumpling and soup pronounced like “sup”. You wouldn’t remember the dogs.
The dogs laid at your feet while you played dominoes under the tamarind tree. They barked at the spinning wheels of passing cars and took advantage of the shade created by church walls. They ate rice thrown out from pots near kitchen steps. They came in shades of brown or tinged black. Most wore no collars because they owned themselves.
Dogs in the Caribbean, regardless of the island, possess some similarities in both physical and lifestyle features. What they don’t always have in common is their labeling. On each island, there is a specific term used to refer to the type of dog ubiquitous to the landscape. In Anguilla, that term is “Yard Dog”. The animal itself is the quintessential mutt, its purpose often singular—guard the yard—and its lifespan spent fulfilling that objective.
Yard Dogs do not hold high social status on Anguilla. In fact, they are usually the washout when compared to the robust purebreds used to portray affluence in society. To own a Yard Dog is a consequence of living on the island. To own a purebred dog means you can afford not only to buy necessities, but also to spend frivolous money on an animal most likely imported from the United States. It is this symbolism that has yielded the Yard Dog as the underdog.
My first memory of Anguilla is of a Yard Dog. My mother found one in the early 1980s on the beach before I was born. It was an escapee from a sack of unwanted female Yard Dog puppies meant to be drowned. The dog was small, pink-nosed, white and had blue eyes. Her name was Bamboo and she returned to the United States with my mother where she went on to become my canine big sister. Away from the societal ills that befell a Yard Dog in Anguilla, Bamboo was unique. In the US, she was an anomaly. She had short legs and a big body. Her snout was long, and her ears were large and stood straight up like radar. “What kind of dog is she?” people would ask. My mother would tell them that Bamboo was an Anguilla Dog.
I grew up thinking the Anguilla Dog was special. Partially, because of Bamboo, but also because of my childlike fascination for the fact that these dogs did not consume dog food. At least, not in the traditional way. Of course, Bamboo (now being an American) ate her kibble dutifully from her ceramic bowl at nighttime. Dinner was exciting for her and her whole piggy body would vibrate with her happiness at the thought.
The true Yard Dogs in Anguilla did not operate in this regard. They ate scattered leftover pot scrapings tossed in the yard throughout the day. They may or may not have had a food bowl of their own for this purpose. They walked themselves, visiting neighbours and ravaging garbage cans. This gave them some sovereignty in the way they governed their own schedule and almost negated the omniscient power the human contained in the relationship of owner/dog outside of the Caribbean. The Yard Dog was extraordinary. It lived a life with very little veterinary intervention and even less human instruction. It was resilient and intelligent, navigating daily decisions I didn’t see American pets steering. Street savvy meets sand savvy.
But what exactly is it that makes a Yard Dog special? It could be that the combination of breeds used to create such an independent canine generated a perfect balance of brains and brawn, but little is even known about this. While there have been attempts at determining the strains contained in the genes of Anguilla Dogs, the answers are rarely as obvious a cross as many mixed breed dogs are in other larger countries. New-age DNA testing churns out “super mutt” or “shepherd” in some of the percentages, but never anything definitive or concrete enough for a eureka moment. The Yard Dog’s genetic origins continue to remain a mystery. There are, however, theories about the breeds which were combined to create the first variations of what we now know as the Yard Dog. In order to shed some light on the possible kin of this common canine, the history of Anguilla needs to be considered.
Originally known as Malliouhana, Anguilla was inhabited by the Arawaks who would have had their own dogs brought with them up the island chain in dugout canoes when they migrated from South America. Historically speaking, these were the first canines to run the beach on Anguilla. When British colonizers arrived in 1650, they would have brought European dogs on their ships. These new dogs would alight their decks and set foot on Anguillian soil, going on to intermingle with those which already lived on the island. The foundation for the characteristics of the dogs we know today would be laid.
It’s easy to imagine the early Yard Dogs performing duties and responsibilities alongside the first Anguillians. Perhaps they used their own doggy experience under colonial rule to form the independence of character that we now associate with the Yard Dog. The cultural differences between the care of these animals and their counterparts abroad also stem from these early days. Viewing the dog as purposeful in nature and not necessarily a companion or pet, early Anguillians would keep an emotional distance from the creature. This is similar to the way in which many Yard Dogs are treated on Anguilla today.
As the years stretched languidly by, other canine inhabitants would arrive in Anguilla. Large shepherds and hounds visited on the various ships that came to port at the island’s wharfs during maritime trade from other territories in the Americas. The 20th Century also meant British Royal Monarchy and Queen Elizabeth’s penchant for the corgi. Conveniently, Anguilla is not only a British Overseas Territory, but also boasts to be the home of a distinctive short-legged, barrel-chested dog known colloquially as the “Anguilla Long Dog”. The similarities between these two cannot go unrecognized. Much attention might not be paid to this petite, furry animal locally, however, through my more extensive Caribbean travel in my adult years, I came to discover that the squat Long Dog was not as common on other islands as it was in Anguilla. Could a dog be a significant part of an island’s history or culture? Many might scoff at the thought.
Throughout the years, the Yard Dog sat unhurriedly observing the changes in Anguilla. With the evolution of the island’s industry and the shift to tourism as a main revenue builder for the country, a change was at play for the Yard Dog. I didn’t know it then, but our dog Bamboo’s recognition in our neighbourhood in the United States was foreplay to the rising popularity of the Yard Dog as a novelty. Without a marketing team, the unpretentious and unsuspecting Yard Dog had become an ideal souvenir for animal-loving tourists visiting Anguilla. What was an undesired, dependent animal that did nothing to elevate social status in Anguilla was much the opposite in America. The ultimate stalwart traveler to the Caribbean was the owner of a coveted Yard Dog. Groups on social media became dedicated to the ownership of dogs from the various Caribbean islands, given the blanket misnomer of “potcake” which is actually a dialectal term for Yard Dogs in more northern territories like The Bahamas and Turks & Caicos.
As we round the curve of this new millennium, it has become apparent that the Yard Dog has been given its proverbial moment. Inconspicuously such a part of the Anguillian landscape that we take it for granted, it has slowly crept up the ranks without us even realising. Although locally the Yard Dog is still given little respect or prestige, ownership has shifted and many Anguillians adopt Yard Dog puppies from the Anguilla Animal Rescue Foundation when seeking canine companionship. Irrespective of its genetic origins, the Yard Dog is characteristically robust and good-natured. It has an extroverted personality, is a quick learner, and displays resilience to many conditions. Our Yard Dog, Bamboo, lived to be 16 years of age, dying in Portland, Oregon. She never returned to Anguilla.
Many Anguillian memories of childhood Yard Dog pets are still prefaced with “just a Yard Dog” if referring to the canines. Without the elaborate breed standards enjoyed by purebred varieties of dogs, it is probably too optimistic to think a comeuppance of the Yard Dog will formerly occur any time soon. Nevertheless, it should still be considered as part of Anguilla’s unique West Indian characteristics. More than likely, anywhere you can find dominos, calypso and coconut tart you can find the Yard Dog lying in the dirt observing it all.
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This essay came 2nd Place in the Anguilla Literary Foundation’s non-fiction writing competition. Check out the other winning pieces here.