Once upon a time it would have been a fairly unusual sight on the streets of the relatively conservative, southern Iraqi city of Basra. But now Saif Abdul-Jabbar walks his German shepherd down the street confidently. He greets his neighbours as he goes and the local children approach him and the dog for a pat, even though often they’re scared of the animal.
Previously the only dogs these locals would have seen would either have been stray beasts that scavenged food and which might have been dangerous or diseased - or, also relatively rare, dogs bred and trained by local security forces.
In Islamic religion, dogs are considered unclean – one piece of scripture says that angels won’t enter a house where a dog is kept - and although a staunch Muslim would not treat canines unkindly, they would not keep a dog as a pet either; there is however some dispensation that allows dogs to be kept if they are working animals.
Most of the hundreds of stray dogs around the city are considered dirty and dangerous by local authorities, who run campaigns to eradicate them: these include throwing out scraps of poisoned meat to kill the pests.
However over the past few years this has been changing. There has been more demand for guard dogs in the city and the attitude towards dogs as pets seems to have changed too. This has included dog owners upset at the campaigns using poisoned meat which endanger their own animals.
“People in Basra have become used to seeing dogs in the gardens of private homes,” Abdul-Jabbar said. And he should know - Abdul-Jabbar is a canine trainer with the Basra police. But his plans are more ambitious than this. In fact, because of changing attitudes towards dogs, his dream is to start a local business breeding and training dogs.
Abdul-Jabbar has presented proposals to several investors revolving around a business that trains dogs in various ways – but mostly as guide dogs for the blind or handicapped so that they can live more independent lives.
Before 2003 and the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, police dogs were really only bred by the state security services. Breeds suited to this began to be imported in the 1960s and the dogs were usually bred and trained inside the police academies.
After 2003 though, other canine breeds found their way into Iraq and some of the breeds used by British military in Basra found their way to the local markets, and then into private homes.
“Iraqi interpreters played a big role in this,” Abdul-Jabbar notes. “Often when a dog was considered useless or too disobedient by the British troops, they’d sell the dog, or give the dog away, to the Iraqis that worked with them.”
We get to watch Abdul-Jabbar’s German shepherd in action at a city checkpoint. The dog runs backwards and forwards, sniffing at cars. Abdul-Jabbar holds his lead and gives the dog instructions, curtly and in English. Afterwards Abdul-Jabbar told us that more dogs were being used in airports and other sensitive areas in Iraq these days.
“We trust the dogs much more than we trust other weapons detection devices,” he remarked.
“Some of my colleagues have also started doing this. They’re importing cleverer breeds from Germany, and from other European countries, then training them. Some of those dogs are being sold for as much as US$4,000,” said Abdul-Jabbar, before adding that he was also training some guard dogs for high ranking officials in Baghdad.
Abdul-Jabbar knows the local dog trade. The Friday market in the city and the market known as the thieves’ market north of central Basra are popular for dog sales. “You’ll find dogs being sold there for US$100 and the sellers claim they are pure bred,” Abdul-Jabbar explains. “But the dogs sold at the markets are definitely not all pure.”
The policeman himself deals with breeders in the Ukraine and brings his puppies in through Baghdad airport, with certificates of good health and vaccination. Abdul-Jabbar says he takes great care of his dogs and feeds them correctly; he then trains the dogs and sells them for between US$1,300 and US$1,600.
Some of the dogs trained by police such as Abdul-Jabbar have become famous due to the fact that they may win at Basra’s dog fights – these events are organised during winters and usually take place in the Jumhuriya neighbourhood.
As a result you hear a lot of interesting dog names around here – things like Rambo, Sheer, Kalo, Dush and Kneich. In fact, in certain Basra circles, Rambo the dog is just as famous as his Hollywood counterpart. He’s a champion fighting dog and there have been many attempts to steal him. One audacious heist was successful when a female dog was used to lure him away.
Rambo’s owner, Adel Muzan, then offered a reward of US$100 for Rambo’s safe return. “You can’t imagine how happy I was when he was brought back to me,” Muzan said.
Hussam Mohammed is another owner of a fighting dog. He has been keeping his dog, a boxer called Jacky he was given as a present two years ago, at his home in a fairly low income area.
“Jacky is a fierce dog, especially in fights,” Mohammed boasted. “I spend more money feeding him than I do on my own food and I treat him as though he’s one of the family.”
“People here started keeping dogs in their houses because of the security conditions in Iraq,” a community leader, Hussein al-Mayahi, said. “They wanted them for protection.”
And this could cause controversy among strictly religious Muslims, al-Mayahi explained. “According to Islamic tenets, one shouldn’t buy or sell dogs, with the exception of working dogs. Eating the prey that dogs hunt is acceptable and it’s also acceptable to keep dogs for farm work or for herding. However there are still some issues about keeping dogs as guard dogs.”
“But I completely depend on Darwish, my dog, to guard the market in Jumhuriya in the evening,” Mahdi Jaber insisted when asked about this – Darwish is a former guard dog from Kuwait, he’s big and vicious and he gets all his food donated by a market butcher. “And even now, nobody has dared to steal from anywhere that Darwish guards.”
Jaber knew that breeding dogs was considered taboo in Islam. But he felt this was a tradition that many locals simply followed without thinking enough about it. “They don’t realise how valuable and useful these dogs can be,” he argued.
As for the policeman Abdul-Jabbar with his German shepherd, there’s only one kind of dog that he thinks should be banned: small dogs, the likes of which fashionable European women carry in their purses. “They’re useless,” he complained. “Nobody wants to have them here in Iraq and we wouldn’t import them.”
This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s regular correspondents around Iraq.The mentor for this story was regular NIQASH contributor Waheed Ghanem.