The happiest dogs in Albania

Animals are integral to the Albanian way of life. Cows, donkeys, horses, pigs, goats, turkeys and sheep are everywhere and not just in rural areas.

Donkeys and horses are used in place of tractors and trucks can be seen working in paddocks or pulling carts of crops, machinery, rubbish or people through the streets.  In smaller towns and country areas I often saw people sitting in a paddock keeping watch on their sheep, goats, turkeys or pigs and most families have at least one cow to supply the household with milk.

But these animals have value. They are important in a country where most people can’t afford machinery and transport. Households make their meager incomes stretch by being as self-sufficient as possible and something as simple as home-made cheese helps.

Dogs, unfortunately, do not.

I’d heard about the poor treatment of dogs in Albania before I saw it. I mentioned how some of the dogs I’d come across seemed scared of people and was told that it wasn’t uncommon for people to entice a dog close with food and then kick it in the stomach. Anyone who has lived in Albania will have a horror story you don’t want to hear.

On the bus ride from Sarandë to Vlorë I saw a man on the road pelt bricks at three dogs. The dogs ran away, but the man followed them throwing more things at them.

It’s rare for Albanians to keep dogs as pets, or keep any pets at all. It’s partly because most families don’t have money or food to spare, but it’s also cultural. Many Albanians feel about dogs and cats the way most people in more developed countries feel about rats and mice. Dogs are considered dirty, disease-ridden and are treated accordingly.

This is one of the reasons the work done at Protect Me Organisation for Animal Protection in Albania is so impressive.

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“A dog shelter? In Albania?” was a common reply when I told other people in Albania where I’d been. The concept is quite literally unheard of here.

When my CouchSurfing hosts in Vlorë, Shira and Assaf, told me they volunteered at a dog shelter I asked if I could visit.

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The number of stray dogs I’d seen in Albania was depressing. In Theth a very skinny dog often hung around at meal times, but it was terrified of humans and took a lot of coaxing to come close enough so I could slip it some of my dinner. I hated thinking about what had made that dog so afraid of people. I’ve grown up with pets and animals as part of my family and it broke my heart to see so many hungry, hurt and scared dogs. If there was something positive being done about this, I wanted to see it.

It was a stray dog called Johnny that motivated founder Liljana to open the shelter. Johnny started following Liljana when she was taking her dog for a walk in June 2012. She fed him and gave him a new home on a block of land owned by her husband’s construction company.  Protect Me Organisation for Animal Protection in Albania was born.

Liljana "at work".

Liljana “at work”.

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The shelter now has pens, kennels and a building with examination and treatment rooms. When I visited about 30 dogs were calling it home. It’s probably the first any of them have had. Liljana knows of only two similar shelters in Albania, both of which are in the capital, Tiranë.

Most of the dogs here were found on the street by Liljana or her friends. A few weeks ago a box with six puppies was left outside the shelter, which is both sad and encouraging. It is astonishing that someone thought to bring the litter there. The puppies were three weeks old when I visited, although only three had made it that far.

I had a cuddle, which was going very well until one of them peed on me before my three-hour bus ride to Elbasan. The puppies were lying together in a basket when I picked one up. She was so lively and curious – licking my face, sucking my fingers and burying herself into me. So desperate for love.

Can something break your heart and warm it at the same time?

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They are too young to be without a mum and while Liljana is doing everything she can, she’s worried the milk she feeds them isn’t a good enough substitute. It’s still early days.

I just kept thinking how the puppies deserved a family that will love them and care for them, just like my dogs had.

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There were four other dogs inside, including a recent addition that was still very shy around people. The Tiranë shelter, which can only take 25 dogs at a time, sent Liljana a dog whose bones are so weak it can barely stand. It was curled up in an armchair in the sun.

Liljana has vets come to the shelter to treat the dogs, but the vets in Albania are not really at the standard I’d expect or hope for. I doubt they’d be interested in doing pro-bono work and the shelter relies on donations. Everything else comes from Liljana’s pocket.

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Most of the dogs live outside where the well-behaved “grown ups” are separated from the more rowdy, younger dogs. A couple of them are known to get a bit aggressive and are kept tied up most of the time, but the rest have a lot of space to run around.

They love people and were jumping all over us when we arrived. It was such a contrast to the timid, scared dogs I’d seen in Albania so far. It’s amazing what a bit of love and attention (and food) can do.

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Liljana is at the shelter full time and helped by volunteers. They are currently building more kennels and hoping to have them finished before winter. Liljana’s ultimate goal is for the dogs to be adopted and she’s had a lot of success, but the shelter is a teeny tiny step in addressing a country-wide problem. There are so many obstacles and the biggest of all is the attitude of many Albanians. The adoptions and the fact the puppies were brought here show that something is changing, but it will be a long road.

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I don’t know how many dogs have passed through Liljana’s shelter, but I have no doubt that most of them wouldn’t be alive now without it.


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  1. I remember Moldova having this sort of problem as well. It’s sort of a weird contradiction, because really old-fashioned countries had dogs as pets to help hunt or herd sheep, but modern countries have kennels and other measures, but the in-between countries have populations of cats and dogs, but no mechanism to deal with them. It’s pretty sad, because they’ll never be as well-off in a city as pigeons.

    • Megan

      A pigeon in a place like Albania would be very happy indeed. So much food for the taking. I like your observation about the in-between countries. It’s spot on.

  2. Albanian Man

    I recommend that you go up to the Northern part of Albania, visit the Sharr Mountains where dogs are treated very well. These dogs are called Qen Stani and they are usually used to protect the sheep. The shepherds take good care of them. The Albanian highlander believes that that the dog a man’s best friend.

    • Pera

      The Sharr Mountains extend to Mount Korab (2,764 m or 9,068 ft) in the southwest, and pass into northeastern Albania with very small part (0.63% of the entire length).
      That’s why dogs are treated so well on Sharr. Because there is no Albanians on Sharr or number of Albanians is very low.
      Another name for Sharr is “Tsar’s mountain”, as a reference to the capitals (Prizren and Skopje) of the Serbian Empire located in the region.

      • Doggy

        Albanians are poor and they cannot afford to have shelter for their homeless people. Dogs are not really a priority when you have actual people living on the street. I have visited Albania many times and they love their animals just as anyone else. The love for animals is deeply rooted in the human heart no matter the language one speaks or the culture it belongs. The case of people chasing at dogs or scaring them is due to the fear that they have of different infections that are spread through them, especially during the summer since many of the abandoned dogs are born wild and not vaccinated. It is never a pretty sight to see a dog being mistreated and that is why often the government suppresses them in mass actions before they spread in large packs and acquire diseases. There are many protests every time this happens because people feel that dogs have no fault and should not be suppressed but rather taken to dog shelters. However there seems to never be enough funds for this so the cycle just repeats over and over. If someone is interested, there are many organizations in Albania that take care of abandoned animals (not only dogs), search them on facebook. Many of my albanian friends have dogs, few have cats. Most people that have pets are in a good financial situation. Most of the ones who abandon pets are not.

        • ginindia

          I wish I could believe that the love for animals is something we inherit. I have seen with my own eyes a group of young people (of a certain community that shall not be named) throw stones and attack poor stray dogs in my country India (which is the world capital of stray dogs) when the dogs were sleeping without causing any trouble. They were also throwing stones at pet dogs (which were clearly ruffled by their repulsive behaviour). I can’t comment on the actual facts with relation to the prevalence of rabies in the stray dogs. But I am pretty sure that very very few of the dogs (<1 in 1000) actually have the virus.

        • Megan

          Unfortunately it was the Albanians I met who told me the some of the worst stories of animal cruelty and it was them who told me that animals, particularly dogs, were so ill-treated. For example, the story I mentioned about someone enticing a dog close only to kick it was told to me by an Albanian about an Albanian. I know these actions do not represent the entire country, but it’s still very shocking.

  3. Animalist

    Albanians are poor and they cannot afford to have shelter for their homeless people, not even for the homless dogs. But thay are very rich to make and to have the richest politikans in the world. This is our sarkastit destination.

  4. valerie brophy

    i agree with Doggy, I have visited many times to Albania, lots of stray dogs but I never say deliberate cruelty thank god, its just some countries have bigger priorities, and I don’t think Albanians are any crueller than anywhere else, it needs education and funding, short supply everywhere, in Ireland at the moment we have a huge problem with unwanted dogs and horses, and this is the irony, everyone and his mother bought pedigree dogs snd horses in our boom years, now we are in a depression and they cannot afford to keep them, shelters are maxed out and good horses and dogs are being euthanized on a daily basis, this cruelty and neglect was born out of people having too much money!!!

    • Megan

      We have a similar problem in Australia Valerie. People get pets but then find they can’t care for them or they move house and can’t take the animal with them and the animals end up in a shelter. And a lot of people want a particular breed of dog or cat so they buy through a breeder while many cats and dogs sit in shelters waiting to be adopted.

  5. Andon

    This is not true 100% Albanians don’t feel dogs are like rats and mice. Yes a lot of people don’t want the stray dogs because they could have rabbis and a lot of stupid people are cruel to them. But u have failed to notice that most people that live in houses with gardens and in rural areas and villages all have dogs mostly for guarding property. And treat them properly!! Not just in the north but in the south aswell!!

    • Megan

      Andon, nearly every Albanian I met spoke to me about the cruel way dogs are treated. Some even admitted they shared the opinion that dogs were like rodents. I would have loved to see more dogs treated well or met families that had a dog as a pet, but unfortunately that wasn’t my experience.

  6. Cozillonne

    My dog – born in Pristina, then resident in Belgrade, France and now the UK is identical to the one in your picture. Parents were street dogs. Amazing to see she’s not as unique as we thought.

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