Iraq's Unlikely Love Affair With Cuddly Canines

Iraqi pups
Merchants display foreign dogs for sale at the al-Ghazel animal market in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 21, 2010. Iraq’s fondness for canine companionship began during the chaotic years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Wary of growing crime rates—and perhaps inspired by the American military’s K-9 units, many shopkeepers invested in the biggest, most brutish-looking fleabags they could find. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty

It's 9 o'clock on a chilly night in January, and the Adhamiyah animal market is teeming with visitors. There are the private zoo owners who've dropped by to size up the mangy lions and monkeys, and young couples sneaking furtive kisses in the shadows, ignoring the animals.

Yet here in Baghdad's largest beast bazaar, it's families and earnest-looking businessmen who outnumber the gawkers and flirts. And they have no interest in exotic flora and fauna. Darting among the cages, they eagerly scan mutt after mutt, dismissing each in turn. "Too small," Mohammed Salama, a car salesman, says of the Jack Russell terriers. "Useless," he calls the lone dachshund. It's only when a dealer points out a new shipment of rottweiler puppies, cowering in the back of a shabby enclosure, that Salama and his children stop. "Yes, why didn't you show us these before?" he asks. "This is what I want!"

So, it seems, do many of his countrymen. Every week, vendors ship rambunctious pups over the border from Turkey, then circulate them around Iraq. Some are dispatched directly to military installations, where they're trained for bomb sniffing. Most, however, make their way to markets or small, roadside vendors for sale to private buyers.

In much of the world, where dogs are beloved, this supply chain would seem unremarkable, but in Iraq, where most people are Muslim and thus many regard dogs as unclean, the recent clamor for canine companionship represents an abrupt change. In 2006, there were only four veterinary practices in Baghdad; today, there are more than 100, Haitham Khalil, a Baghdad practitioner, estimates. On Facebook, Iraqi dog appreciation groups have tens of thousands of members in medium-sized cities like Samarra and Sulaimaniya. After centuries of antipathy toward "man's best friend," dealers now complain they can't meet demand. "Rich, poor, Kurdish, Arab—everyone wants a dog now," says Mohammed Ismail, a taxi driver turned canine broker in the northern city of Kirkuk. "They're like gold."

Iraq's unlikely love affair with cuddly canines began during the chaotic years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Wary of growing crime rates—and perhaps inspired by the American military's K-9 units, many shopkeepers invested in the biggest, most brutish-looking fleabags they could find. Then, as electricity outages grew more debilitating, often knocking out power for 20 hours a day, some well-to-do families turned to canine burglar alarms to replace their useless electronic security systems. By the time Western security contractors arrived en masse, four-legged pup protection was a fixture of their operations. The British security giant G4S still uses dogs as a key component in its defense of Baghdad Airport.

But it wasn't until the Islamic State group (ISIS) seized tracts of Iraq in 2014 that dogs became popular among the public. With most available policemen and soldiers redirected to the front lines, even homeowners in provinces unaffected by the war began to feel vulnerable. Dogs became an extra layer of security for fearful families.

Likewise, as ISIS punctured Baghdad's porous checkpoints with endless car bombs, Iraqi authorities were finally forced to acknowledge that their go-to explosive detector—a totally discredited golf ball–finding device—wasn't fit for purpose. In many instances, they've turned to bomb-sniffing dogs. "They are an important part of our security, and we are looking to buy more," a police colonel in the Ministry of Interior says, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But Iraqis newfound love of dogs hasn't been without its problems. There's some continued opposition from both Sunni and Shiite clerics who have railed against this new enthusiasm. The Koran says nothing against dogs, but many Muslims take their cue from a hadith, or a saying attributed to Muhammad, which describes them as dirty.

Some new owners also don't know how to take care of dogs. Huskies are among the most popular breeds in Iraq, but with the temperature often 100 degrees Fahrenheit or above, several buyers have needed to install air conditioning just to keep their furry friends alive. Dealers in Kirkuk still laugh about a local farmer who thought he'd bought a husky; once it ate several of his sheep, he realized it was a wolf in dog's clothing. Or so the story goes.

Another problem: The wholly unregulated nature of the booming industry has also allowed charlatans with few or no medical qualifications to pass themselves off as veterinarians. "These new people, they're nobodies," says Saidoon El Tai, who practices in a small established clinic along the Adhamiyah market's periphery. "They just hang a sign on the wall and then start poking at the animals."

Even the trainers seem to have some interesting ideas about what makes dogs tick. "If you want them to behave, you have to speak to them in English or Ukrainian," from where many of these dogs are imported, says Gharid Farik Abu Mariam, Kirkuk's most established instructor (call him the Iraqi d og whisperer ), who originally taught himself about dogs by watching National Geographic documentaries. "Never Arabic."

But perhaps the most confounding matter is the one these pups were largely acquired to address: theft. Prices have risen so high that some people now find themselves having to guard their guard dogs. As the value of a pit bull tops $300 and Doberman puppies go for up to $500, gangs of thieves have taken to raiding kennels. Traumatized owners hope the government's recent decision to ease import controls on dogs will boost supply and cause prices to subside.

Iraq isn't the only part of the Middle East that's slowly warming to dogs. Attitudes appear to be changing in Egypt, where security concerns after the Arab uprisings appears to have inspired a similar enthusiasm for canine protection.

But in Iraq, dog lovers say their affection for these four-legged friends now extends well beyond their ability to ward off intruders. Sweet Labrador retriever puppies now appear on advertising billboards and in marketing campaigns. Even if the security situation stabilizes, Iraq's odd assortment of huskies, German shepherds and rottweilers are here to stay, fetch and roll over.