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Just watching the dogs of Argentina freed my soul.

In the park yesterday, near the lake, my daughter and I sat on a bench and watched the dogs play, unleashed. They tussled over palm fronds, tried to take the ball out of each other’s mouth, raced each other for the stick thrown into the water, and had wonderful fun. The retrievers retrieved, the shepherds ran, the tiny princesses daintied around under a tree, unwilling to mix with the hoi poloi. When the shepherds tried to outrace the retrievers to the ball in the water, they were beaten, but when they raced toward a stick on land, the shepherds outpaced the retrievers. It was a display of the natural order of things. Peaceable. Joyous. Unthreatening. Free.

The freedom of dogs extends to the streets. Many dogs were off leash, yet they followed their owners closely. There are numerous wide boulevards in Buenos Aires and pedestrians have to pace themselves to get across in the time allotted, gauging from the seconds counting down on the traffic signals. One man had a white and black dog following—not heeling, but following about two yards behind. It was a mix, as were most dogs I saw, possibly a Fox Terrier with a hairier breed. The traffic light had already started counting down the seconds available to cross and the man strode into the street, moving quickly to make it to the other side before the two buses and the phalanx of cars surged forward. He paid no attention to his dog at first, but the dog stopped to pee on a lightpost—I was getting worried. How could he make it across in time? The man turned to look for his dog, who trotted out, ten yards behind him at this point, speeding up to take his place in closer proximity to his owner. The owner didn’t come back to the the dog to assure he got across the street, instead, he turned and continued walking. I breathed easy when I saw them step up onto the sidewalk as the cars took off. I would never risk that with my dog, though I wonder if it would be healthier if I did.

On the ranch where we stayed for a few days there were two feral dogs, in the sense that they had no visible owner. One of them, a German Shepherd mix, sported a collar, but had matted hair and a tattered coat. When we asked whose dog it was, the waitress shrugged her shoulders, “He comes here every day but we don’t know who he belongs to.” The Shepherd was old and lay on the ground next to my daughter as she sipped on a drink, bringing his snout close to her foot. When she got up for a stroll, he followed her closely, the natural faithfulness of a shepherd being applied promiscuously, day by day, depending on who was visiting the ranch. A smaller black dog was also in residence. The first time I saw him he trotted alongside the horses we were riding for a while. He visited the guests on the lawn, too, but was more aloof.

These two dogs were not scrounging for food—the lunchtime “asado” provided a feast or them every day. Argentine asado is prepared by placing an assortment of beef chunks and sausages on an outdoor grill and cooking them for a couple of hours. I woke up one morning smelling smoke and checked to see if the place was burning down, but it was only the logs heating up till they were fierce charcoal for the asado. The meat is seasoned with each chef’s secret salts, herbs and who knows what else, and served with a chimichurri accompaniment. There were scraps to feast on and bones to chew on for the dogs. The offer of a crust of bread was haughtily ignored.

I wasn’t in Argentina long enough to determine whether the human animals got to, figuratively, roam as well, though I suspect they do.