Gray-furred Gongzi has lost most of his teeth, but he still loves running after a ball. At 12 years old, the venerable German shepherd is the canine equivalent of an 89-year-old human. He’s living out his golden years at Bai Yan’s nursing home for retired police dogs in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province in eastern China.
On a rainy afternoon in December, eight dogs aged from 8 to 12 are at the home with Bai, a police officer who devotes all of his off hours to his canine charges. A typical day sees Bai rising before dawn to conduct a round of training for the younger dogs and some games with the older animals before he leaves for the police station at 8:30 a.m. After his shift ends, he’ll return to the home to check that all is running smoothly. Today, he’s giving Gongzi a massage to relax his muscles.
Bai is 55 years old and sprightly compared to the retirees in his care, but he says all old dogs are young at heart. In addition to making sure the dogs get enough general exercise every morning and afternoon, he keeps their detective skills sharp with a variety of games, such as hiding balls for them to find.
“That makes the dogs feel like they are still valuable,” Bai tells Sixth Tone.
Each of the canine seniors enjoys individual accommodation, fresh spring water, and nutritious dog food, as well as occasional treats like eggs. Bai also employs a full-time housekeeper to look after the dogs in his absence. But the amenities at the home weren’t always so luxurious — when Bai first started the retirement facility in 2012, he fed the dogs rice with minced meat. “I didn’t have enough money to buy them dog food,” he remembers.
Bai’s canine-centric life began in 2004, when — as the director of a local police station — he had the opportunity to participate in training at Hangzhou’s official school for police dogs. With his lifelong love of dogs and a natural affinity for animals, Bai proved a quick learner, even teaching his own officers how to train the dogs.
He then started using dogs to crack cases at his local police station. In the first month, the canine officers managed to catch wanted thieves within a few minutes. “It strengthened my confidence in using dogs in the police force,” Bai says. “A good police dog is equal to five policemen.”
In 2005, Bai established his own training facility for police dogs, even giving up his post as station director in May 2010 so that he could focus on his side project. When the first batch of dogs he had trained were ready to retire, he expanded the training center to include a nursing home.
Bai’s dogs are an exception, as most of the country’s police dogs are trained at official bases and then distributed to different departments under the Ministry of Public Security. In China, hundreds of police dogs are assigned to track criminals, search and rescue disaster survivors, sniff out drugs or bombs, and carry out other tasks that humans can’t do.
Bai has trained 25 police dogs over the past 12 years. Two dogs were entrusted to him by the Zhejiang provincial public security department, and he purchased the other 23 from central China’s Henan province through a personal connection. He paid 3,000 yuan ($430) for each dog, plus the costs of daily care and medical needs.
Though the Hangzhou public security bureau recognizes his animals as certified police dogs, it doesn’t provide Bai with any financial support in return for training the dogs to work at his police department and other organizations. “Some people think I’m crazy, but I just can’t help it,” Bai says. “I love dogs too much.”
Training for Bai’s canines begins when they are 6 months old, with a focus on positive reinforcement. “Dogs think training is like playing games,” Bai explains. “The more you encourage them, the more effective the training will be.” After two to three months, the dogs are ready to join the police force.
Bai says that when he first started, he did it just for fun. “I love the game of cat and mouse; that’s why I work in criminal investigation,” he says. Dogs were helpful and delightful companions. But soon he was forced to realize that a dog’s life is short. Most police dogs retire at 8 years old.
In China, retired police dogs usually remain at the station or department where they served, if they’re not adopted by local citizens. But few bases for police dogs have adequate resources to care for canine retirees, especially in less economically developed regions. When the six police dogs Bai first trained in 2004 retired in 2012, Bai built his nursing home in the same year to ensure they would have a high quality of life in old age.
But though his love of dogs seems boundless, Bai’s energy and finances are limited. Luckily, his daughter — a successful businesswoman who owns two investment firms — has been able to lend a hand, putting 2 million yuan into expanding her father’s base and building a separate canine behavioral school for pets in 2014. An average of 20 dogs board and receive training at the pet school daily, and the money the school makes helps subsidize Bai’s nursing home and the police-dog training facility.
About a dozen of Bai’s retired police dogs have been adopted by friends and coworkers, but Bai doesn’t actively seek out adoptive families. “Honestly, I’m reluctant to give them away because of the emotion I’ve invested in them,” he says. Even after adoption, he visits each dog frequently to make sure they’re enjoying a good life. “If any adoptive owner decides they don’t want the dog anymore, I will bring it back and take care of it in the nursing home,” he tells Sixth Tone.
New retirees join the nursing home every year. Four dogs have passed away, and Bai has built a small cemetery for them in the sunniest part of the yard. Sometimes, the remaining dogs will join him when he visits the graves to pay his respects. “They know everything,” he says.
Bai is overcome with emotion when he thinks of his favorite dog, a beautiful German shepherd named Kaxi who died last year at age 11 after developing twisted bowel syndrome while running around on the job. “He was in great pain when he died,” Bai says tearfully.
Kaxi was a star officer who continued serving well past the ordinary retirement age because of his unusual aptitude for police work. Bai recalls a rash of break-ins in 2013 that had a hundred policemen stumped. Bai then brought seven police dogs to the affected village and had Kaxi sniff a shoe that the criminal had left behind. Kaxi circled the site a few times and then rushed to a nearby field. “After 10 minutes, we heard the dog barking and the man screaming,” Bai recalls.
Kaxi was awarded a badge of honor in 2007 after solving countless cases, but in Bai’s heart, all the police dogs are worthy of praise. Perhaps an even greater honor, he considers the dogs part of his family.
“When they’re young, they take care of me at work,” he explains. “Once they grow old, it’s my responsibility to take care of them.”
Bai hopes that all dogs who serve in the police force or military will be able to spend their retirement in a comfortable environment, and he’s happy to take the lead in making this dream a reality. Earlier in December, firefighter Shen Peng of Nanjing in eastern China’s Jiangsu province won permission to take his 10-year-old sniffer dog with him when he retires.
The case touched many people, including Bai, who feels that adoption of the dogs by their human colleagues offers the best possible future for retired working dogs. He hopes to see this become the norm, with each dog’s former employer paying a pension for the animal.
Bai himself will retire from the police force in five years. In addition to taking care of his old buddies, he plans to start training dogs as companions for lonely human seniors and autistic children. But while he intends to spend the rest of his life caring for the dogs, he feels that the inevitable discrepancy between human and canine life spans brings too much sorrow. If there is an afterlife, Bai says,
“I wouldn’t raise dogs again because it’s so hard to see them passing away.”
This article was published on Sixth Tone.