Whenever I travel I wonder, are dogs different from place to place? I’m of the mind that humans are pretty much the same wherever they are. We may speak different languages, have different customs, and wear different clothes; but at humanity’s core, we still need the same essentials to survive and thrive. But dogs act on instinct, not culture or customs (except an inherent culture of adorableness), and their body language is communicated the same throughout the world. So is it possible for dog’s behavior to change from country to country?
I’m no scientist. In fact I may or may not have gotten C’s in every science class I ever took — but observational science is a thing and I can do that. So with my observational and badly handwritten but detailed notes comes a theory drawn from my personal experience. Famed “dog whisperer” Cesar Milan maintains in his many books that dogs mirror their human pack leaders. It stands to reason that if humans behave differently in different places, so will les petis chien.
My trip to Israel through Taglit-Birthright, a pilgrimage if you will, was groundbreaking and mind-blowing on 1000 different levels (levels I didn’t even know existed). For those goyim out there (Yiddish slang for non-Jews), Taglit is a free trip to Israel for those of Jewish descent between the ages of 18-26. I spent most of my trip constantly thinking — about my own personal Jewishness (something I’d avoided like the plague for about 9 years), about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about how precious it really is to have a home. All this thinking was all well and good, but on the occasion, I needed distractions, and luckily there were a whole bunch of furry ones.
All the complex human controversy aside, Israeli doggos and meow meows still live their lives the best way they know how — looking for human affection, table scraps, and shade from the sun. And these canine and feline friends were everywhere. There were dogs and cats running wild and free on kibbutzim. Dogs and cats in gas stations. Excited leashed dogs and stray cats in Tel Aviv. Israel is an extravaganza of our furry friends.
When describing the culture and people of Israel to friends, I’ve found that the lesson always begins with “kibbutzim.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Jewish people began to leave Europe in waves to flee persecution. One of these waves of people were called “Zionists” and they headed to Israel to farm and reconnect with their original homeland, settling into collective communities focused on farming. Most kibbutzim aren’t quite the same socialist community they once were, they look more like really small towns, often complete with hotels, but that doesn’t stop them from having adorable feral animal populations.
Imagine, if you will, being a dog in a small, rural, community. Yea, sure it’s hot out, but you basically get to roam about at your leisure (as long as you stay out of the communal dining hall), accepting affection from all who pass you by. My favorite memory was waking up at 6 AM - because #jetlag - and seeing a man walk around the perimeter of the kibbutz with several dogs, none on a leash, like he was the leader of a wolf pack. The cats also seem to have it pretty great, hiding during the day and hunting mice at night. ‘Twas the laidback life of a country animal. I really, really, really wish I could live on a kibbutz full of these happy animals, but in America, this is not a thing that exists because the government is not so into communes. Call your Congressmen, because we are really missing out.
Speaking of cats, there are a ton of feral cats in Israel. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there's an estimated 2 million kitties roaming the New Jersey-sized country with a human population of about 8 million. CBC and local lore alleges that the British imported the cats in the 1930s to UK-controlled Palestine to fight a rat problem. I will say, I did not see a single rat in 17 days. All the tourists I saw showered love and affection on these cats, while locals seemed varied — some a little grossed out by the feral population and some also in it for the affection. The behavior mirrored how most people in the US can feel about cats — love ‘em or hate ‘em.
My sister, who lived in Israel for a few years, shared with me that there are constant debates about the cats (debating = the Israeli way). Every few years people debate if towns should stop feeding the cats, or get the cats spayed — but the debates typically end with nothing actually changing and thus more and more cats populating the land of Israel. My sister half-joked that the Zionist ideal is to bring more and more Jewish babies into the Promised Land, and if those happen to be cat babies, then so be it!
In my new favorite city of Tel Aviv, it feels like everyone has a dog. In fact, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports TLV is home to "30,000 dogs, along with 413,000 people." The city is a haven for pet owners complete with 70 dog parks and 4 dog beaches. Dogs in restaurants. Dogs on the bus (muzzled for everyone’s protection). Dogs on the beach. There’s even a dog festival called Kelaviv to celebrate the furry friends. JTA points to the kibbutz-like beginnings of this intensely dog-friendly country, claiming, “for Israelis, whose national culture has roots in the ethos of the kibbutz, dogs may also help ease the isolation of urban life.”
Luckily for saps like me, it seems all these Tel Aviv dogs are hungry for one thing — love. Never before have I seen so many dogs pulling their owners, trying to get affection from the person on the other side of the street. They seemed to have no fear. Of course that wasn’t the case for all dogs. As usual, there were a few reactive pups I observed — an on-leash dog who growled at a an off leash dog, a dog that lunged at me when I held eye contact for too long — hey, nobody’s perfect (except my dog, Genevieve, and also Beyoncé).
Maybe I’m just making assumptions, but it felt like these dogs were so boisterous and unashamed because the Israeli culture is boisterous and unashamed. I have a partial facial paralysis, something that my fellow Americans largely try to ignore, but in Israel I was often bluntly asked if I was alright ("Ehh, are you alright? Your eyelid is not closing. Do you need an eye drop?") If someone can tell you’re a little lost, they’ll go as far as to insist you sit next to them on the bus so they can tell you the right stop. I’m not sure what causes this behavior, but I must admit I don’t hate it, especially in dogs! My Birthright tour guide (Ammitai Weinberger...10/10 would recommend) told us there is no word in “hebrew for “awkward” and these dogs definitely got the memo.
One day I was wandering around the market in Jaffa, a port city so old it’s mentioned in the Old Testament when describing the story of Jonah, when I saw a woman sitting in a chair in the center of the marketplace with two poodle mixes Both pups seemed delighted to be alive, if a little anxious about their human ever leaving them, and I couldn’t help but stare longingly. The woman noticed and read my eyes, intuitively asking, “do you have a dog back home?”
At first I was embarrassed she could tell I was a tourist, but quickly responded with a yes, whipping out my phone to show her a picture of the most beautiful dog in the known universe. “Whenever I travel, I always want to pet other dogs because I miss mine so much,” she empathetically confided. We chatted about dogs for a bit and soon she asked me to hold her poodle mix duo while she got in line for some ice cream a few yards away. Initially I was taken aback, but remembered that being unashamed is the Israeli way and gladly accepted.
Cuddling her friendly poodles I realized she was right, even though I was seeing amazing sights and learning so much about Israel and myself, Queen Genevieve was always on my mind. My soul was crying for my doggie sweetheart, and I hadn’t even realized how much until this moment. No matter what dogs we see, no matter their behavior, and no matter where we see them, the best dogs are always the ones waiting for us back home.
After a hectic last day in Tel Aviv, a zillion year long flight, and a smelly Lyft line, I arrived to an an empty house save for My Sweet Genevieve and my roommate’s cat, Neville Longbottom, and burst into tears as her excited butt wiggled around the room in that special pit bull way. Traveling is always worthwhile, and learning about yourself through a pilgrimage to your hypothetical homeland is unforgettable, but there’s nothing in this world like coming home to your soul mate.