A flash of fluff darts between the legs of Chileans on Apoquindo Avenue as they shuffle to work in morning. Beneath the manicured trees near La Moneda Palace, tourists dispense sandwich scraps and incite tail wags, which slap the shaded pavement. A scrappy mutt waits patiently for a busy crosswalk to open to pedestrians, emitting an alarmed bark when a man dashes across the street before the road is clear.

For decades, street dogs have maintained a constant and integral presence in city life and culture, as fixed to the Santiago landscape as the Andes.

Over a million stray dogs inhabit roads and parks in Santiago — one of the cities with the highest population of strays in the world. An estimated total of 3 million dogs roam streets throughout Chile.

Life on the streets 

On my first day in Santiago, I biked through the Bellavista neighborhood with a Tours 4 Tips group in the pouring rain. As the tour group huddled around one of the many vibrant street murals in the area, a large dripping dog happily meandered his way into the focused crowd, and I jumped back in surprise.

Our tour guide assured us the dog was friendly, like the many other street dogs in Santiago — known locally as quiltros, a term used by the Mapuche people since the 16th century to refer to Chilean dogs of mixed breed. She said it was strange the dog was “naked,” as Santiago locals usually care for the animals by dressing them in sweaters and jackets and ensuring they are well fed.

The dog splashed through puddles beside us as we rode for miles, trailing off when we stopped at a museum and failing to catch up again.

The dogs end up on the streets because their owners abandon them. Many dogs wander the city during the day and return to their homes at night. These dogs are usually healthier than the homeless dogs, and they contribute to the rampant overpopulation problem in Santiago, which has experienced an 80 percent increase in quiltros in the last decade.

A number of dogs endure diseases, like parvovirus and distemper, and many die from the cold in winter months. Chile has not designated specific laws that protect animals from abuses, but certain municipalities have instituted more compassionate policies.

Combatting the problem

The quiltros of Santiago are generally cleaner and healthier than stray animals in other countries, largely due to sympathetic locals’ generosity and kindness.

Several years ago, Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet launched a national sterilization plan that included state-funded medical services for all dogs. She developed the scheme with the guidance of animal right’s organizations, and she drew connections between the high population of street dogs and the great economic divide in the country.

Lower income families may not have access to resources to take care of their dogs properly, and the animals unfortunately end up on the streets. However, quiltros seem to thrive most in poorer communities, in which residents come together to nurture them.

As part of Bachelet’s initiative, Santiago offers free vaccination services on specific days each week, when veterinarians can also install location chips in dogs and perform internal and external deworming services.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

Maipu, a neighborhood in Santiago located in the southwest of the province, developed a unique approach to raising awareness about responsible pet ownership. In August 2014, the mayor, Christian Vittori, formed a brigade of 12 quiltros and enlisted the police to train them to patrol the streets and protect the neighborhood’s citizens.

“The sense of forming this brigade is on the one hand to avoid abandoning the animals by promoting responsible tenure of them, and secondly, to recover the abandoned canine population and to train them to be useful to the community through a training that allows them to act as true guardians,” Vittori said at the commencement for the brigade.

The mayor specifically chose dogs that had experienced extreme neglect, and police taught them to form a line, greet people and crawl through tight places. The efforts led to an increase in adoptions in the neighborhood, because the brigade proved quiltros were capable of learning new tricks and adapting well to a household environment.

Now, the dog brigade accompanies police cyclists and guards throughout the neighborhood. In December 2016, a Maipu resident adopted the 100th dog, “Lulu,” from the local veterinary clinic, and the positive results continue.

How to help

I had been in Santiago less than 24 hours when I first researched the procedures necessary to bring a dog home to the U.S. (In case you’re wondering, Chile is a rabies-free country, so you don’t need to bring proof of vaccination to customs, but you do need to fill out an application form.)

Luckily, there are more practical ways to help stray dogs whether you are located in Santiago or elsewhere. If you’re in the city, it helps to provide food and water to the dogs. You can volunteer with the Association for Abandoned Animals, a charity run by students at the University of Chile’s Veterinary School. The group treats, sterilizes and arranges adoptions for quiltros, and they accept donations through text. The Association of Students for the Defense of Animals performs similar functions and also accepts donations.

But the overarching problem of quiltro overpopulation remains best resolved through education efforts, sterilization and local adoption.

Part of the community

A couple days ago, I was waiting for an Uber outside the Costanera Center after enjoying some ice cream with friends. A poofy brown dog I had encountered before waddled up to me and rolled over for a belly rub.

As my friend and I happily obliged, a tourist couple walked up to us and asked, “Can we pet your dog?”

We rushed to explain that it was not our dog. Rather, he lived on the streets near the center.

But the quiltros seem to be more than just street dogs to the people of Santiago. Locals appear to feel a sense of collective ownership, responsibility and sympathy for the animals, which accompany them on their daily trek to work, in the park as they play with their children, and under their chairs while they enjoy a snack at a café.

The quiltros remain as much a part of Chilean culture as pisco and empanadas, and I definitely plan to make more furry friends during my time here.

More information: http://fundacionquiltro.org/