SHIPROCK — As the sun rose and the frost melted Friday, a pack of dogs slowly woke. Nestled together, they tried to create warmth, more difficult in recent weeks as winter has neared.

"Every morning we come here, they're all huddled in the corner," said Marquita Mark, one of the outside vendors lined up in the City Market parking lot in Shiprock.

Smelling the freshly made fry bread and roast mutton, the dogs woke from their slumber, visiting each booth with a begging glance.

The dogs wander without fear between cars, but as a person approaches, some get skittish and back away. Others approach at the sight of a crumb, or the sound of a whistle.

Mark tossed slices of bread to one dog, an apparent mix between a hound and a shepherd, her fur matted and eyes weepy.

"This one always visits us," Mark's aunt, Paula, said. "There used to be another one that was brown that used to come with it. I don't know what happened to it."

While "rez dogs" always are vulnerable to their haphazard lifestyles, roaming wild around both the reservation's desert and streets without the guarantee of food or water, the winter months can prove particularly fatal for the furry vagabonds.

Between cold nights and little food, many perish during the winter months.

"We see a lot of them on the road," said Jeannie Benally, an extension agent with the University of Arizona's agricultural and 4-H youth program.

Benally herself took in a rez dog several years back, turning the dog from a bareboned creature to a healthy, loving pet.

"If you save them, they want to protect you," said Benally, who said she found her dog starving near a canal before taking it in.

The Navajo Nation Animal Control program estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of dogs on the Navajo Nation, many traveling in packs, others solo.

Though some can be dangerous, most in the more urban areas, such as Shiprock, are more comfortable with people.

In fact, many start off in homes and are abandoned by their families.

"It's common on the rez.

People throw off their dogs all the time, especially if they're girls," said Seline Begaye, a grocery shopper who ended up taking home a dog found in the parking lot outside.

Begaye noted that the female puppies, such as hers, are frequently given or thrown away because the owners do not want to fix the female, nor do they want to take care of her if she has puppies.

Because of the low-income levels on the reservation, many cannot afford to take their animals to the veterinarian, or to a clinic to get the animals spayed or neutered.

The pets then reproduce, creating more animals than the owners can afford to care for.

Begaye on Friday took home the female puppy, who she has not yet named, after a woman in her car almost hit the small creature.

The puppy's paws were covered in mud, as she had been seen following several people around aimlessly, according to the woman who initially almost hit her, and then picked her up.

While many people are tempted to pick up the dogs, they are known to carry disease and have various health issues — which also can worsen during the winter with increased hunger and exposure to the elements.

While there are few local programs aimed at helping the rez dog population, some programs offer assistance from afar.

The Navajo Nation Puppy Adoption Program is one of the few trying to reduce the number of dogs that have to endure a winter without shelter.

The program has volunteers take in found puppies for 10 to 12 weeks, giving them food, shelter and taking them in for their first shots while the program looks for homes for the animals.

The Blackhat Humane Society is another nonprofit dedicated to finding homes for dogs, and other animals, abandoned on the Navajo Nation.

For information about the care of a rez dog, locals can visit the Shiprock Veterinary Clinic. It does not have a full-time veterinarian, but it does have a veterinary technician and a part-time veterinarian who visits from Chinle once or twice a week to perform surgeries.

The clinic also has information about low-cost spay and neuter programs and other organizations knowledgeable about rez dogs. 

"People are always dumping their dogs," Benally said. "You don't have to have a pit bull, a Rottweiler, or a popular dog, like a Labrador. Rez dogs will serve you well."