The dog behind the fence


On July 31 2006, our summer vacation begins in a lovely apartment in Crete. That same evening we start looking for a restaurant in the nearby town of Archanes. We walk through a busy shopping street and all of a sudden, next to a noisy lounge bar, behind a high fence, we see a light-colored puppy. He is surrounded by broken glass, empty beer cans and old machines, from which oil has leaked on his coat. He comes to us, wagging his tail. Who puts a dog here? We do not see any food or water for this little creature. No property is adjacent to the small garbage site. We chat a bit to him and continue our way.

We have just arrived on Crete, but it is already clear to us that the interaction of the inhabitants with dogs differs. Most dogs are ignored by the public, but if you just look, they walk bashfully, begging behind you. Their coats are ugly and entangled; some dogs limp, others are missing parts of ears and sometimes an eye or a tail… In the several packs we meet, we notice very young animals between the adult dogs. Pups, still.

After our meal in a pizzeria, I pack some pizza edges in a napkin and on the way back to the car we give it to the dog. He eats them greedily.

The next day I describe the location of the dog to Mrs. S., the nice cleaning lady, and ask her whether she knows whose it is. She will ask around.

Archanes is a small community; she does not want to betray the owner of the dog.

It’s a warm summer evening when we return to the small town the next day, to eat ice cream at the shop right across from where the dog still sits behind his fence. I ask the shop girl if she knows who owns him. She says she does not know, but her nervous look says otherwise. Archanes is a small community; she does not want to betray the owner of the dog.

My stomach turns when I see a group of boys with motorcycles right in front of the dog, running their engines loudly with a lot of noise and exhaust fumes. How afraid this small animal must be, so alone. We can do nothing but talking reassuring words to the little beady eyes in the dark.

Two days later the cleaning lady finally knows who the dog owner is. She says it’s an elderly lady who lives diagonally across. She has put the dog there for her three-year-old granddaughter, so she can occasionally visit it!

I say that I want to explain to the woman that this is not the way to keep a dog, but Mrs. S. shrugs and says in broken English: ‘I also have a dog and if it is around three years old, my husband sends him away, on to the street. That is the way we do that in Greece. I think you can save the trouble, the owner of the dog only speaks Greek.’

That evening we go back to Archanes. I must do something. I heard about a shelter in Malia. Maybe it is an option. But how can I manage that? The fact that the dog owner does not speak English does not make things easier. The only solution is to write a letter in English and to ask Miss A., the friendly secretary of the apartment, to translate it. In this letter I – as gently as possible – explain that people can have so much more fun with a dog. I ask the owner to hand over her dog to me if she does not know how to take care of it, and to report her decision by phone to the secretary of the complex. If she rather wants to get rid of the dog, I am prepared to bring the dog to a shelter for her. Once translated, I deliver the letter with trembling fingers. The woman does not respond, and the next day I discover that the shelter in Malia is closed; it is congested.

I’m in a different country, in a different culture, and the whole country is full of dogs having a terrible life.

What to do now? I am almost desperate. A day later we need to go to Archanes for the groceries. The dog has found a shady spot under a kind of corrugated iron roof. On a whim I decide to ring at the door.

‘You cannot do such a thing,’ my husband says. ‘You don’t speak the same language!’

My husband and two sons take me for a fool. But I’m stubborn. While they remain at a distance, I ring the doorbell with a pounding heart… A woman of about sixty years old answers, carrying a child in her arm. I point to the dog and then to myself. She understands who I am immediately. She moves a finger in my face back and forth and says: ‘No-no’. She points resolutely on her chest and says something I do not understand. Then she closes the door in my face.


That night at dinner my husband unexpectedly says it’s time to buy a dog. ‘Once we get home, we go to the shelter to choose a sweet, abandoned dog!’ Although he has no experience with dogs, he knows that I have wanted one for a long time.

I am not happy with this ‘gift’. Yes, I want a dog, but I want to save this special one from behind the fence! I wet my pillow with tears, for this dog and for all the other strays that roam the streets and motorways. I think of the group of children we saw, chasing a dog and bombarding him with stones. These children have no idea how wonderful it is to have a dog as a friend.

As it is two days before our return to the Netherlands, we decide to visit the famous ruins of Knossos, in a 42°C heat, together with hundreds of other tourists. In the carparking area nearby we see skinny stray dogs. The excavations of the Minoan civilization can hardly arouse my interest. I am constantly saying to myself that I have to accept that the dog behind the fence cannot be saved. I’m in a different country, in a different culture, and the whole country is full of dogs having a terrible life.

Once we enter the apartment at the end of the afternoon, Miss A. calls me. ‘I have good news and I have bad news for you,’ is Miss A.’s message. ‘The dog owner called. She wants to sell the dog but she wants five hundred euro for it. She says it’s a purebred.’

I don’t know what’s coming over me. Miss A. and I start to cry together spontaneously. I weep for joy and hope. Miss A. cries because she is ashamed of her compatriots: ‘We need to bring this to a successful conclusion, Marianne!’ She grabs the phone and dials the number of the dog owner. She is able to reduce the price for the dog to slightly less than half. We can come to pick the dog up the next morning at ten o’clock!

I still get tears in my eyes when I think about the moment when we saw our new family member, with a short thin string around his neck.

That last night on Crete we go to a restaurant, this time to celebrate the arrival of our dog, inventing names for him endlessly. Finally we all vote for the name Boomer. We deliberately do not want a romantic sounding Greek name.

The next morning we wake up early. I still get tears in my eyes when I think about the moment when we saw our new family member, with a short thin string around his neck.

Back at the apartment, we are warmly welcomed by the staff. We all laugh about that silly dog: he has never walked on a lead and he does not like his first experience with grass that tickles his feet.

According to the vet, far in his genes is a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen. ‘He’s completely healthy, truly a golden dog,’ the vet says, as he hands us Boomer’s Greek passport.

We will never forget the moment at Schiphol Airport late at night, in a nearly empty baggage hall, when a porter enters, carefully pushing a cart with a bench on top. ‘Whose dog is this?’ he shouts.

‘OURS!!‘ we call, all four of us at once.

Today Boomer has gold-coloured hair, and is slightly larger than a West Highland White Terrier, but he can run with the speed of a Greyhound! When we found him he was around four months old. His left paw has two toes too many, and one ear is smaller than the other; according to our Dutch vet he was taken away from the mother too soon and he had bad food.

Boomer also has a so-called ‘wolf ‘s claw’ on two legs, a rudimentary fifth toe on the inside of the hind leg, just above the foot. As the nails on these toes have no function, they can grow into the skin. We cut these nails, but some dogs have no one to stop these painful ingrowths and even more painful inflammations. I try not to think about how the rest of Boomer’s life on Crete would have been.

Writing this story, I found the place where we found Boomer on Google Maps. There’s another dog behind the fence, which makes my heart cry, but at least this one we saved…


This is a personal essay by Marianne Miltenburg. Want to submit your own writing? Visit or email

A version of this story appeared in the July 2016 magazine.


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