‘The Rez Dog Biographies’
Photographer captures the plight of the rez dog

Two of Steven Sable’s favorite subjects pose in their native habitats. Sable brings “Rez Dog Biographies” to Durango this week. The photography project is an effort to highlight rez dog problem and raise funds for for spay and neuter programs./Courtesy photos

by Jules Masterjohn

Steven Sable is a man on a mission. It all began one afternoon, three years ago, when he pulled off Highway 89 near Page, Ariz., to snap the “obligatory empty highway” photograph. He did not know then that his seemingly casual action – one taken by countless photographers – would bring a worthy cause into his life and renew a sense of purpose with his craft.

When Sable got out of his car, he noticed a dog that looked malnourished with long, matted fur, sitting directly across the road. “She looked as though she’d been waiting and I was definitely, absolutely, late,” he said. Due to the dog’s appearance and the unpopulated area where they met, Sable concluded the dog was ownerless. As an animal lover, he invited the dog in his car, and Page, as she was later named, sped off to the environs of Phoenix to live with him.

“This dog exhibits some truly amazing behaviors, and I’d give anything to know how she survived in the desert while waiting for her ride,” Sable offered. A Phoenix vet determined that Page, a sheltie/corgi mutt mix, was probably 3 years old, and the condition of her teeth confirmed Sable’s belief that she was a stray. “The definitive trait of a rez dog is the teeth,” he said. “They had been worn down in a way you would find in a dog 15 years old or older. I’m told this is due to the fact that everything they eat in the desert has sand in it. Even when they nip at fleas their fur is full of sand.”

Totally intrigued by Page’s ability to survive by her wits in an inhospitable desert environment, Sable began to pay more attention to the strays he encountered during his landscape photography trips to Canyon de Chelley and Monument Valley. He started educating himself about desert strays and their plight. The more he learned and the more people he met who were working on this cause, the greater was his desire to contribute beyond writing a check. The idea of publishing a book, The Rez Dogs Biographies, was born.

Sable began taking trips to the desert to photograph these dogs, with paper bowls, water jugs and hot dogs in hand. During the book’s research phase, For Pet’s Sake Humane Society in Cortez was identified as “one of the few groups that was having a positive impact” on the starvation and overpopulation of desert strays. Sable wanted to help the organization. When he approached Open Shutter Gallery and Maria’s Bookshop about fund-raising exhibitions of the rez dog portraits, all the pieces fell into place. For Pet’s Sake was immediately receptive to Sable’s offer for the proceeds from the event and photo sales to benefit its spay and neuter clinics for rescued dogs.

“I wanted to reach a broader audience, raise funds and ultimately have a larger impact on the dogs themselves,” Sable said.

He admires Page’s ingenuity. She has adapted to whatever conditions ensured her well being. “If strays are to survive on the Rez, they need to expand their diets to include plants and insects, and relearn the strategies that allow for a successful hunt,” he said. “Page regularly demonstrates some of these skills in the back yard – harvesting the fresh shoots of weeds/grass that grow at the base of bigger bushes or eating bees straight off the flowers.”

Perhaps Sable’s admiration of Page is a form of identification: hearing about Sable’s life, one could speculate that he empathizes with her resilience due to his own ability to surmount difficult years working in the telecommunications industry in the early 2000s. The tumultuous times spent in the corporate world might have been as harsh on him as the thunderstorms Page experienced.

With upheaval and uncertainty surrounding his career, Sable turned to one of the activities that had always relieved stress during his corporate days – photography.

Through his passion, with camera in hand, dog biscuits in pocket, and a professional photography business to support this cause, Sable is determined to alleviate as much rez dog suffering as possible. Yet, even with all the efforts, it seems that rez dogs will always carry their past lives with them.

“Page will always have food issues, she is terrified of rain/thunder/lightning, and although she is safe and in a good home, she seems constantly worried that it will all be taken away,” Sable explained. “Can you imagine what it would be like to try to survive a thunderstorm on a cold night on a high desert plateau? I have no doubt Page suffered through some terrifying experiences. No matter how comfortable her life becomes, the instincts that helped her survive and the strategies she employed in the wild will always lurk just below the surface.” •

Steven Sable’s Rez Dog Biographies project will be on display at Maria’s Bookshop, 960 Main Ave., beginning Oct. 22 and at Open Shutter Gallery, 735 Main Ave., from Oct. 29-Nov. 5. For more info visit www.stevensable.com.