This past semester I studied abroad at Duke University’s Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) program in Rome. We stayed at the Centro, a four-story building in the Monteverde area of Rome that served as our dormitory, classrooms, and dining hall. I had many fantastic experiences while in Italy, but out of all the experiences, some of the ones that have had the greatest effect on me were my experiences with dogs. I had two very negative encounters with dogs in Italy that brought back some of my childhood fears and have changed how I interact with them. While I still love dogs, I tend to be wary around them now and I try to avoid walking too closely to ones that I haven’t met before.
The first negative experience took place at the Villa Doria Pamphili Park. The park, once the suburban estate of the wealthy Pamphili family, is the largest in Rome and certainly one of the most beautiful. I frequently took walks there in the afternoon to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and it was always a pleasure to watch the birds frolicking in the pond. One day, a couple weeks after I arrived in Rome, I went for a brisk walk around the park. The incident happened as I was walking, deep in thought, down a muddy trail near the edge of the park. A man and his dog walked past me up the trail, but I was not really paying attention to them. The dog was not on a leash, but this was nothing unusual since most Romans do not obey the well-marked leash laws. All of a sudden, I heard the dog snarl at me. I spun around and immediately started backpedaling down the hill because the dog was almost on me. It was large dog with grey fur and appeared like a less domesticated version of a Husky. I came close to slipping in the mud as I tried to get away. Fortunately the owner managed to get between me and his dog. The dog, however, kept trying to circle around him to attack me and its owner had to keep moving between us to keep the dog at bay. Eventually it stopped trying to get around him and ran a little ways up the hill. It continued to ignore the shouts of its owner and stared at me menacingly as I backed away. As soon as I could, I picked up some rocks and a heavy branch and left the park as quickly as possible without encouraging the dog to give chase. After I got back to the Centro I sent out a Facebook message letting the other students know about what happened so they could stay safe. I was very shaken up from the whole experience and did not end up going back to the park for almost a month.
The second negative experience happened while I was in Sicily visiting the site of the ancient Greek colony of Segesta. Oddly enough, the coins minted at ancient Segesta had a dog on one side, referencing the mythological story that the city was founded by the descendants of a river god that would take the form of a dog. That day we were greeted by the ubiquitous stray dogs when we got off the bus at the entrance to the site. We noticed that one of the site dogs was particularly well groomed, having a much thicker and fluffier coat than was usual, but when we started petting him we noticed that he had a large open wound on his side and fresh pink divots in his snout. This felt out of place because in all other respects, the dog seemed perfectly healthy. I wondered aloud what had injured the dog, and almost as if to answer my question, another seemingly friendly dog trotted over and then suddenly attacked him. It was so sudden; the attacking dog just latched on to the injured dog’s face without having given any noticeable warning signs. The whole incident probably happened very quickly, but everything felt like it lasted for much longer. It was horrible to watch, but even worse to hear. The injured dog was yelping and yelping and the attacking dog was snarling and then all the other dogs ran over to join in on the fun. I just froze. I could only watch as one of my teachers tried to shoo off the attacking dogs by clapping at them while some other students splashed water at them with their water bottles. The attack didn’t end until the site guards physically grabbed the first attacker by its hind legs and yanked it off the whimpering dog. Even then, the guards still had to throw stones at the other dogs to give the injured dog time to escape. It was a pretty shocking experience and I kept thinking about what had happened during the rest of my time at the site.
While the two bad experiences I had are very memorable and have been responsible for the reappearance of some of my childhood fear of dogs, the vast majority of my canine interactions in Italy were very good. I remember the friendly dogs at the site of Morgantina, an ancient city we visited on our trip to Sicily. As soon as we got off the bus there, several friendly site dogs descended upon us with wagging tails. One dog in particular stood out: a cute little black and white puppy with a friendly disposition that I immediately named Oreo. Oreo was a trooper and followed us around the ruins of the city all day, sniffing inquisitively as we sketched the layout of the ancient forum. He was a bit of a distraction during my teacher’s presentations, but I think all of us were glad to have a canine companion. It was hard saying goodbye to Oreo when we had to leave the site at the end of the day. He followed us all the way back to our bus and stood by the door with dejectedly drooping ears as we got on board. I also met a lot of great dogs at Volpicelli’s, my favorite cafés near the Centro. Luigi, the owner of the café, would spoil the dogs that were brought in by their owners. He always asked how the dogs were doing and I even saw him giving a corgi some gelato. Most mornings when I went to Volpicelli’s for a cappuccino and a pastry a small dog named Layla would be sitting outside the café with her owner. I only got to pet her a few times, but it was always nice to see a familiar furry face in the morning. I definitely went through some dog withdrawal that semester. My own dog, Sammy, is a bit of a Luddite and refuses to get near the computer when I Skype my parents and I didn’t really get to see her for the entire time I was away from home. Despite my bad encounters with dogs, the friendly ones I met definitely made it easier to get through the moments of homesickness that semester.