El Territorio de Zaguates | Photographs by Rob Polishook
There’s a hilltop in Costa Rica that’s a slice of Dog Heaven on Earth. It’s called the Territorio de Zaguates. Urban Dog booster Rob Polishook visited it recently and shared his experience with us.
The Territorio de Zaguates — which means “Land of the Stray Dogs” in Spanish, is a dog sanctuary run entirely by volunteers located in the mountains about an hour north of Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. At any given time it’s home to 700 to 1,000 dogs who have the chance to roam freely across the the sanctuary’s hillsides. You may remember last year when videos of dogs running around the Territorio went viral on the internet. Urban Dog reported on it, here and here.
I sat down with my part-time Miami Beach neighbor Rob Polishook to talk about his visit to the Territorio. Rob is the owner of sweet little dog named Gumbo, the founder of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group, and CEO (Chief Canine Officer) at the Barking Buddha (more on that later.)
What is it Like to Visit the Territorio de Zaguates?
Urban Dog: How did you first become aware of the Territorio de Zaguates?
Rob: I first became aware of them through my dog-walker in New York. When I told her we were going to Costa Rica, she told me we must go to this place, that it’s a bucket list kind of place. She told me it was a place where there were hundreds and hundreds of street dogs that were taken in by a couple and taken care of. It’s basically a dog sanctuary, a dog rescue.
Urban Dog: I remember seeing the videos of the dogs online and being blown away. Can you describe your initial reaction?
Rob: When you get there you just see a few dogs outside. And your thoughts are “Oh wow… this cool.” But then you walk in, and you just see hundreds of dogs! We just started walking up the mountain with hundreds and hundreds of dogs. It’s not like you are walking with your own dog and paying attention to him. Everyone was walking in single file. About thirty of us were all walking forward with all these dogs walking side by side with us, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Urban Dog: What is like to be around that many dogs?
Rob: It’s hard to describe in words. It’s a visceral feeling of peace and calm that you get. Almost like being the only one skiing down a mountain. You are just relaxed. Being in the presence of that many dogs, it’s truly heaven on Earth. There just aren’t the words to describe it. Peaceful. Relaxing. And yet at the same time all these dogs around you are barking. They come up to you. They are friendly. They’re not skittish. Everywhere you looked, there were probably thirty dogs within eyeshot. It was overwhelming and yet at the same time it felt perfectly normal.
All of the dogs at the Territorio are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, given appropriate medical treatment and, remarkably, given individual names. That last item is something that really impressed Rob.
Urban Dog: Name one thing that really struck you about the Territorio.
Rob: One of the unique things about this place is that every time they get a new dog they name it. They thing is that they don’t take a one size fits all approach. Every dog is different. It has its own spirit. It has its own soul. They know the name of each dog, and there are literally hundreds of dogs there. They see the differences in the dogs. These are people who really care about dogs.
Visiting the Territorio de Zaguates
If you’re like Rob and me, you love to travel. I’ve been to Costa Rica before, but now I have a great reason to return. The very good travel blog, Costa Rica Guide, has posted this tentative 2017 tour schedule for the Territorio. Walks with the dogs start at 9:00 AM. You can drive there yourself or take the shuttle from the town of Alajuela.
June – Saturday 3, Sunday 4, Saturday 17, and Sunday 18.
July – Saturday 1, Sunday 2, Saturday 15, and Sunday 16.
August – Saturday 5, Sunday 6, Saturday 19, and Sunday 20.
September – Saturday 2, Sunday 3, Saturday 16, Sunday 17, and Saturday 30.
October – Sunday 1, Saturday 21, and Sunday 22.
November – Saturday 4, Sunday 5, Saturday 18, and Sunday 19.
December – Saturday 2, Sunday 3, Saturday 9, Sunday 10, Saturday 16, and Sunday 17
Click here to go to the Costa Rica Guide site for all the info you need about visiting the Territorio, including how to schedule a visit. Rob stresses that you can only visit the sanctuary on a scheduled walk; you can’t show up unannounced.
If you want to donate to the Territorio, visit their official Facebook page. There a number of links there you can use to donate money.
Urban Dog: To close I want to ask you about your project, The Barking Buddha.
Rob: Barking Buddha came about when I observed how I connected to my own dog Gumbo. I want to explore the visceral connection between us and our dogs. When you are connected to your dog, you are in the present, much as I described my experience at the Territorio de Zaguates. It’s almost two hearts as one, two souls as one. There’s been research that’s been done that shows there’s a chemical released in your brain when you are with you dog. It’s called oxytocin and it’s the same chemical that’s released when a mother has a baby. It’s called the “feel good hormone.” It helps you focus, center, and relax. And anyone I know who has dog knows what I am talking about. So Barking Buddha is going to be all about highlighting how people connect with their dogs. This will be expressed through things like photo exhibits, a website, or even a book.