The Hipster Tour Groups Winning Over Chinese Millennials


SHANGHAI — For most young Chinese, there is nothing less cool than a package vacation. Traditional travel agents offer everything they’re hoping to avoid, from 5 a.m. starts to unexpected stops at overpriced souvenir stores. But Fu Wenxian thinks he can convince millennials to give group tours another try.

The 36-year-old is the founder of 54traveler, a travel company that is shaking up China’s $880 billion tourism industry by creating all-inclusive vacations exclusively for travelers under 45 years of age.

There has been an enormous increase in the number of young Chinese traveling independently over the past decade, with 44% of vacationers in their early 20s choosing to arrange trips by themselves, according to a 2018 report by consulting firm McKinsey. This has come at the expense of tour operators, as travelers tire of being herded around on coaches and given little time to explore the places they’re visiting.

But 54traveler is bucking this trend and offering young travelers a third way. Its culturally immersive tours are designed to appeal to millennials who crave authenticity and unique experiences.

“Mainstream Chinese tour companies are like standardized coffee chains such as Starbucks,” says Fu. “We are more like a private café studio: We have an independent spirit and unique culture.”

Inspired by Australian travel guide publisher Lonely Planet, Fu set up 54traveler — the name also means “I am a traveler” in Shanghai’s local dialect — in 2009, and the company now offers tours of remote regions across China, as well as nearly 20 overseas countries, including relatively niche destinations such as Georgia, Iran, and Morocco.

The Shanghai-based firm channels a similar backpacker-style ethos to Lonely Planet, encouraging travelers to go off the beaten path and mingle with locals. Whereas tours of Spain offered by China’s leading travel companies include tickets to flamenco shows and dinners at paella restaurants, 54traveler arranges dancing lessons from flamenco bailadores and cooking classes from local families in Valencia.

The packages are hardly suitable for those on a shoestring budget — a Spanish tour offered by Ctrip, China’s largest online travel firm, costs 14,000 yuan ($2,000) including flights, while 54traveler charges 16,000 yuan plus travel costs — but many Chinese millennials are willing to pay extra for a better experience.

More than 30,000 young Chinese traveled with 54traveler last year, the company says, and there appears to be significant potential for further growth. McKinsey predicts that high-end package tours will be among the fastest-growing segments in China’s tourism industry over the next few years. Several copycat startups have already emerged to compete with 54traveler.

“Our website has been duplicated, our tours have been copied, and even our company name has been ripped off,” says Fu. “But the culture and spirit we have cultivated over the years can’t be copied.”

Fu Wenxian, founder of 54traveler, shows Sixth Tone the company’s mission statement at its office in Shanghai, July 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fu Wenxian, founder of 54traveler, shows Sixth Tone the company’s mission statement at its office in Shanghai, July 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

Spirit and culture are qualities that 54traveler takes extremely seriously, Fu says. For him, the key advantage of a group tour is not convenience or value for money, but the ability to share experiences with fellow travelers. This belief comes from personal experience: As a student, Fu met his future wife and 54traveler co-founder, Zuo Huimin, on a 48-day trip to Tibet in the Southwest.

“Young people today have been to many places and have seen countless beautiful views, so I believe that for them, travel will eventually be about finding their true selves and having sincere relationships,” says Fu. “But this requires a process, and they need our help.”

The company aims to help its tour group members develop lasting friendships. The age limit is designed to bring together like-minded travelers, and the firm’s staff personally test each itinerary before accepting bookings from customers.

But most important of all, according to Fu, is the firm’s network of 320 tour guides, which 54traveler refers to as “givers.” Their responsibilities go far beyond simply ensuring the tour runs smoothly and safely.

“The givers lead the group members to explore a more colorful life, open their hearts, and experience, communicate, and share,” says Fu.

Wang Xiaodui, 31, became a giver for 54traveler in 2014, after going on a tour of southwestern Yunnan province organized by the company. He says the experience transformed his opinion of tour groups. “It was just what I had hoped for: Contact with locals and observing places in an unhurried way, not acting like a tourist,” says Wang.

Wang leads around 10 tours of Yunnan each year, each lasting nine days. These tours are especially popular among young women. “When guys have time off, they would rather stay home and play video games,” says Wang, adding that because 54traveler does not force customers to book expensive single rooms, it attracts lots of solo female travelers.

Zhang Jialing, 28, chose to visit India with 54traveler for this reason. She has traveled to more than 15 countries, usually staying in shared rooms in youth hostels to save money and meet new people. But she was wary of doing so in South Asia because she had read news articles claiming the region was dangerous. When 54traveler started its Indian tour in 2017, she signed up immediately.

“It was such an amazing experience,” says Zhang. “The group was a bit restrained during the first couple of days, but the giver broke the ice and organized all kinds of activities to facilitate friendships.”

The company’s tours are also popular among young couples. When Yang Tuni, 31, and her husband went on a 54traveler trip to Northwest China in August, they were one of three couples in the 12-person party.

The couples all had things in common, according to Yang. They had all been married awhile, and the freshness of their relationships had faded. Yang, who sometimes tires of her husband’s jokes, liked the fact that the other group members enjoyed his sense of humor. She also loved the memorable activities their giver organized, from singing karaoke in the desert to flying kites over Qinghai Lake.

“Couples usually arrange these romantic things for each other, but the giver had done it all for us,” says Yang.

But as 54traveler’s popularity among young professionals soars, the company risks straying ever further from its mission of helping travelers discover “authentic local life.”

When Fu set up the company, he encouraged guests to stay in local guesthouses. But many young urbanites are not prepared for the rough living conditions in China’s rural areas, where water scarcity and power outages are common.

“I used to strongly oppose the idea of offering fancy hotels on our tours,” laughs Fu. But that is exactly what 54traveler does now. For each itinerary, the company offers a “classic tour” where guests stay with local families most nights and an “upgraded tour” with more luxurious accommodation.

Yang and her husband signed up for an “upgraded tour,” though they still ended up in a hotel room with a leaking roof for several nights. “But I think that’s the best place they can offer, and we understand what the situation is like in that area,” she says.

Yang Tuni and the other tour group members pose for a photo in front of Zhuo’er Mountain in Qinghai province, Aug. 18, 2019. Courtesy of Yang Tuni

Yang Tuni and the other tour group members pose for a photo in front of Zhuo’er Mountain in Qinghai province, Aug. 18, 2019. Courtesy of Yang Tuni

The group members were less understanding, however, about the lack of modern toilet facilities. “We had to hold it on the bus, and then when we finally made a toilet stop, many of us couldn’t relieve ourselves after seeing the piles of waste in the squatting pot,” says Yang.

Yang suggests that 54traveler build toilet facilities along its travel routes. “They can charge money, which can be used to maintain the toilets and build more,” she says.

Many of the rural destinations visited by 54traveler are transforming as locals adapt to the company’s needs. Some villagers have built new toilets inside their homes, while others have constructed pavilions outside where tourists can hold bonfire parties. A few have even chosen to work with other tour companies instead to earn higher profits.

“Everyone has the right to get out of poverty and grow their economy,” says Fu. “We maintain an understanding attitude.”

Fu has no plans to slow down any time soon. In 2017, Lonely Planet co-founder Tony Wheeler visited 54traveler’s headquarters in Shanghai. Meeting his hero was inspiring, Fu says, but he now aims to surpass the global travel brand.

“Lonely Planet has influenced countless people to set off on trips on their own,” he says. “But now we want to be the leader.”

Additional reporting: Ai Jiabao; editor: Dominic Morgan.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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How I Got Out and Saw the World


During my college years, my biggest goal in life was to see the world. I wanted to backpack Europe, hike all the national parks in the United States, and eat from local food vendors in Southeast Asia. After I graduated in 2009, I managed to land well-paid jobs and began traveling solo in China, before forging amazing and unforgettable experience in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe.

In October 2013 I quit my job and traveled full-time for two years. Many of my friends were jealous — pursuing my dreams and traveling the world seemed a desirable lifestyle. However, few of them understood the hardships a Chinese female traveler has to face and how hard I had fought to get where I was. Independence and the spirit of adventure are not qualities that everyone in China appreciates.

I was born and raised in an ordinary Shanghai household. My dad works as a bus driver, and my mom was a drug inspector before her retirement eight years ago. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment where I had to sleep on the couch without my own space or privacy.

My parents always thought that I would be a typical Shanghainese girl: attend college, get a good job, find a boyfriend, get married, and deliver a grandchild before the age of 27 — after which time single women are considered “leftover” in China. Chinese men face similar pressure from their parents, but it is particularly bad for girls.

Since my parents don’t particularly like traveling and didn’t have the money to fund family vacations anyway, I didn’t even get out of Shanghai to see China for the first 20 years of my life.

It wasn’t until university that I suddenly got the itch. I became friends with many international students who shared with me their life experiences and travel stories, and I couldn’t help but wonder how we could be the same age and yet so different. I met my first boyfriend — a Londoner — when I was 20. That’s when I began having lots of arguments with my parents. Most people in their generation married their first boyfriend or girlfriend, often arranged by their elders. It took me almost a year to make them accept the idea that a person doesn’t necessarily have to marry their first partner.

However, although that particular argument was resolved, other fights surfaced. I remember at one point I suggested moving out when I reached my senior year of university. I expected them to be supportive and proud of me for taking charge of my own life.

But this desire to move out confounded them even more than the boyfriend issue. They questioned what my boyfriend had said to me, and expressed their reservations about the toxic ideas my Western friends were poisoning me with. They asked me to stop dating foreigners.

As opposed to parents in the West who expect their children to learn to fly the coop after high school, Chinese parents value community and social cohesion. Many parents in China demand obedience from their children and don’t know how to communicate with them as individuals. It is generally understood that a son or daughter won’t leave home until marriage. It took me a full year to persuade my parents to let me move out — I wanted to be happy, but I also wanted to make them happy. We finally compromised that I would live somewhere nearby them and have dinner together several times a week.

They were nervous when I first moved out in 2009. None of their friends’ kids lived alone and my parents felt constantly judged by their peers. To my relief, after about three months they calmed down and all of us began enjoying our newfound privacy and space.

I began getting good jobs and I could suddenly afford to travel. First I worked at the Shanghai office of American Public Media for a couple of years as a news researcher, before moving to work as a research specialist at a consulting company. My two former bosses, both American, supported my travel desires and appreciated my sense of adventure.

Western culture is adventurous and exploration-based. It values discovery, invention, and rational thinking. When I stayed with a local family in Australia, the parents often encouraged their young children to be adventurous by taking them hiking in the snow, canoeing in the river, and sliding down sand dunes. I remembered how when I was 24 and told my parents that I wanted to travel to Beijing on my own, my father simply responded,

“Beijing is such a dangerous city for a girl.”

I first told my parents that I wanted to leave and travel the world in 2013 and they weren’t against it. I guess they had become used to my dramas. To help them through my absence, I bought them each a smartphone and taught them how to use the messaging app WeChat. I wanted to share my moments on the road, to show them how happy I am, and how wonderful traveling really is.

After spending the past several years hopping around the world, I’ve noticed the attitudes of those around me beginning to change. My parents and friends actually prize my independence now. They are happy that I have followed my dreams and admire my spirit of adventure. Many of my friends have even confided that they can’t wait to hit the road themselves.


This article was originally published on Sixth Tone.

Gay Pride: Toronto vs Shanghai


The 35th annual Toronto Pride Parade kicked off on June 28 through the city’s downtown core, with thousands showing up to celebrate despite the rainy weather. The parade started at Church and Bloor Street, before making its way down to Yonge-Dandus Square on Yonge Street.

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Attending the gay pride parade was one of the major reasons why I wanted to travel in Toronto in late June. I felt excited and anxious as I had never been to such a parade before. Born and raised in Shanghai, the most gay-friendly city in China, I’m proud to witness that my city has been more open-minded and tolerant about LGBT, however, it’s still not enough.

Shanghai Pride (上海骄傲周) was first held in Shanghai in 2009 and it was the first time a mass LGBT event has ever taken place in Mainland China. Unfortunately, the parade has not been approved by the Chinese authorities yet. Instead, the annual weeklong event is celebrated mostly through films, art exhibitions, panel discussions and theatre productions to raise awareness of issues surrounding homosexuality in China and raise the visibility of the gay community.

Here I was, at the largest pride parade in North America, I saw gay-friendly politicians, local businesses, church groups, fabulous dancers from the gay bars and a lot of weird things including unnecessary nudity.

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Among all, the most moving group in my eyes is Toronto PFLAG – Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It is sad that there are still many parents who do not accept their children’s sexual orientation, thus, seeing a group of loving and supportive parents with signs that says “I love my gay son” and “love is a family value” really touched me deeply.

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Gay pride can mean different things to different people. For some, attending gay pride is a celebration of who they are by expressing equal rights and freedom. For others, gay pride is nothing but a big party for fun. For me, as a straight person, I was glad that I could be involved in such an overwhelming parade to show my support – be gay, be yourself. Meanwhile, I hope that I can be able to write about the first gay pride parade in Shanghai soon.

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Photos taken by Yiying Fan

Why I Travel Alone


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After saving money for years and engaging with real world travelers in my own apartment as a host on Couchsurfing, I finally made the move in 2013. I quit my job and started to travel for long term. My initial plan was to travel nonstop for a year, but I got home after two years and I told myself this is not the end.

I believe you have figured out what question I was frequently asked: “why are you traveling alone? Don’t you feel lonely?” “No, not at all. Actually I really enjoy it!” So, why do I travel solo? Following are the major reasons:

Meet New People

The coolest thing about traveling alone is the people I have met on the road. I don’t think I could have met them if I traveled with someone else, because I probably would have spent all the time engaging with my travel buddies instead of paying attention to my surroundings and other people.

The fact is, although I’m a solo traveler, I haven’t spent more than half of the time alone on the road. That’s because I get to meet people everywhere: in hostels, on buses, trains, planes, at restaurants, on the street, etc. I met a girl from Mexico in a hostel in Venice. We got alone well and decided to travel in Venice together. Two weeks later, I saw her again in another hostel in Barcelona and we traveled together again. The world is smaller than we think it is!

I also enjoy meeting new people through the following three ways: couchsurfing, airbnb and helpx. This is another major reason why I love traveling alone because none of my friend who I have traveled with feels comfortable staying with strangers.

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I Don’t Want to Miss Out

I’m single. I was hoping that I could find a boyfriend who’s willing to quit his job and travel round the world with me. But after searching for a few years, I realized if I really want to do it, I’d better do it on my own. I also have friends I can and have traveled with, however, as we all know, plans fall through. Trips didn’t happen and I ended up staying at home alone. After it happened to me a couple of times, I told myself I would just travel by myself. Life is too short to be sitting at home while the whole world is waiting to be enjoyed. Planning a solo trip whether it’s a weekend getaway or a two-week long vacation, it means I get to travel when I want to. Eventually, I was ready to explore the world on my own.

I Feel Empowered

If traveling makes me a better and smart person, then travelling alone makes me a super better and super smart person. Long term travel alone is not a vacation, it’s a full time job. Planning trips takes an incredible amount of time and efforts. Researching the next destination, making reservations, booking flights, trains or buses – all of these are not easy especially when you travel long term on a budget. Also, how to deal with emergencies, what if I’m sick, how to engage with local people and culture, what if the host I found on couchsurfing changes his mind, how to order food and ask for directions when I’m in some places where people don’t speak English or Chinese?

I feel good about myself for figuring out how to deal with it. This resulted in building confidence in all aspects in my life. I’m stronger and more confident than ever before. Sure, there are still some things in my life I’m afraid of, but I know with time I can overcome them.

I Can Do What I Want to Do

I believe many solo travels will give you a lot of reasons about the joy of traveling alone. Let’s get real. I do enjoy the company of others when traveling, but there’s a lot of compromise. Don’t get me wrong. I like sharing travel experiences with others especially my close friends and family because it’s the special moments and memories I’ll always have. However, sometimes, I just want to be selfish and do things I want to do. I didn’t enjoy spending 2/3 of the time on shopping when I was in Hong Kong with one of my best friends; I wasn’t happy about being dragged out of the bed at 6 AM when I traveled in Sanya (China’s Hawaii) with another friend. I certainly didn’t intend to ride the elephant when I was in Thailand with two other friends but I didn’t want to disappoint them. When traveling alone, I set itinerary and decide what time I wake up, what I will see and do, and what and where I will eat.

Great Service and Help

When you travel single, often times you can get better service and great help. People tend to admire those who are brave enough to travel solo. My experience taught me that people are more than happier to help someone like me: a small Asian girl traveling solo with a giant backpack. It has happened to me multiple times after I told people I travel alone, I got room upgrade, cocktail on the house, free lunch for thanking me sharing my stories and being so positive about life. I’m grateful for all these people who give me a hand when I need help and I hope to return the favor in the future.

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Long-term travel alone can teach me more than almost anything else. It has taught me about myself, about life, about what I want in my life and what makes happy. It also highlights how different home is from everywhere else in the world, especially when I start to get a lot to compare with. For me, long term travel has changed my life. I will keep traveling and it will always be my passion.

Helpx in Wales with the Malamutes


After traveling in Europe non-stop for two months, moving from one city to another every few days, I decided to find a place to stay for a while and HelpX popped up in my mind. I’ve heard it from a friend of mine but never tried it. I knew I would have to do it in the UK due to visa restriction and I would prefer to stay in Wales as I had been to England, Scotland and North Ireland already.

So I looked through the host pages in Wales on Helpx and a dog trainer Terry caught my eyes immediately. He was looking for a helper to clean kennels and walk the dogs. The pictures of him and his pack – Alaskan Malamutes and border collie are amazing so that I wrote him an email together with a pic of me and my dog. Terry replied my email quickly and accepted my request. I felt so lucky and grateful that he welcomed me to his home because this was my very first Helpx experience and I didn’t even have a review on my profile!

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I finally arrived in Cwmduad, Carmarthen, Wales after changing three trains and one bus from Oxford. I didn’t even know how to pronounce Cwmduad before I arrived. Terry picked me up at the bus station and then drove me to the farm. Wow, he lives in the middle of nowhere! The nearest neighbour lives 5-min driving away. It is an absolutely new life style to me. Raised and grew up in downtown Shanghai, I have never thought one day I would have a chance to experience living like a country girl.

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Terry briefly showed me around. I had my own bedroom and a shared bathroom. He said we needed to be as eco-friendly as we could when living in the countryside. I have to admit that as a city girl, sometimes I take things for granted because everything is ready to get in 2 minutes. Living on the farm offered me an opportunity to be close to the nature and change some of my living habits.

But hey! We’ve got wifi and fast board band in the house on the farm!

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There are nine dogs in Terry’s kennels: 8 Alaskan Malamutes – Nika, Luna, Bodi, Chi’ka, Tico, Vega, Juno and Bini, and one border collie Rock. They are all well trained and gorgeous. Terry suggested that I should act cool when I first saw them, otherwise they would want to dominate me later. So, no eye contacts at first! They were indeed very excited and curious to see me the first time, sniffing me all over. Tico, the only male adult malamute even jumped to me and kissed me right on my lips!

Here is my daily routine: left the house at 9 AM, fed the birds, then fed the dogs, cleaned their beds and changed water while they enjoyed their food. I picked their poos to the bucket and then found where they peed and cleared it up. It sounds easy but you have to be a dog lover to do this or you will be complaining all the time. I don’t think I should say I ENJOY picking up dogs’ poos everyday, but I’m willing to do that because I love dogs.

ImageAfter that, I walked them one by one. I have a small dog back in Shanghai but I didn’t have experience walking big dogs at all. Terry asked me to walk them one by one in the first week, and then I started to walk them two at a time in the next 2 weeks. That was the moment when I felt like I was walking the pack and they actually listened to me.

I had a lunch break after I finished my morning work at 11.30 AM. In late afternoon, usually at 3 PM, Terry and I walked the pack together. We walked 9 of them at one time. It’s amazing to see how well behaved they were when Terry walked them. When the weather was nice, Terry would let the dogs run on the farm. They looked so happy to chase each other, however no one could follow up Rock, the only border collie, as he runs way too fast than the malamutes!

At 10 PM, we needed to let the dogs out again to have a quick pee or poo so that they wouldn’t mess up the beds over the night. They said good night to us with their wolf-like barking every night after we got to the house.

ImageTerry is an experienced and respectful dog trainer in the UK. He has won many prizes in various kinds of dog competitions. He shared that he loves dogs and he was born with a skill of communicating with dogs. He is originally from London, but he moved to Wales 15 years ago after travelling in Europe and Asia. He bought this 400-year-old house in Cwmduad and built the kennels on his own. He spends most of the time in taking care of the dogs, participating in dog competitions or shows and giving dog training lessons. He also sells malamutes and people line up to buy his puppies as all of his malamutes are well behaved after he trains them.

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During my stay, I met two of his former buyers – Anna and Caroline, who are now good friends with Terry. They come visit Terry and the pack regularly. Caroline brings Terry homemade fresh food and helps him clean the kennels and walks the dogs every two weeks so that he can have a day off. Before I left the farm, another volunteer Chrissy took over the job and she had stayed with Terry and the pack same time last year already! How amazing to see that dogs bring people together and make our relationship closer than ever! My parents and I have made a lot of new friends when we walk our dog. We would never talk with these strangers before we adopted her.

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It was lucky for me to watch 3 different kinds of dog training lessons when I was there. The most impressive lesson was to train a pitbull who bites people and eats sheep. Terry had to take Rock to move the sheep from one side of the hill to another in bad weather. We wanted to see how the pitbull would react with the sheep after the lesson.

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The pitbull Bryn was very nervous. He was shaking the whole time. I’ve never seen such a nervous dog in my life. He doesn’t trust human at all as he might be amused by people before. Basically he dragged his owner Paul around and Paul just couldn’t control him at all. Terry put a muzzle on him when training as a nervous dog is very dangerous. When they do bad or nervous stuff, we shouldn’t encourage them by saying “it’s alright, good boy/girl”. It’s a typical human thing to think that dogs need reassurance because if a child does that, he or she would need reassurance, but dogs don’t.  We should stop them right away by saying “stop it”.

ImageThe biggest problem is that, like other dog owners who fail to control their dogs, Paul doesn’t know how to be the pack leader. When humans are not acting like the leaders, dogs consciously want to dominate which leads to being aggressive or nervous. Bryn doesn’t want to dominate at all. Instead, he just wants to be a dog and relax. But he feels like he has to as his owner doesn’t know how to protect him and control the situation. That’s why he gets so nervous because basically he is forced to do something he doesn’t intend to do. When he gets nervous, everything could happen. He bites sheep because there are sheep on their farm. If they farm chickens, he would probably eat chickens as well.

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Anyways, the training course was successful as always. Bryn was able to sit tight in front of the sheep and stopped shaking. It only took Terry a while to train and fix the dogs, but it takes ages to train the owners how to train the dogs.

Many dog owners, including me, don’t know their dogs. We try to teach them somethings but we give up so quickly and blame the dogs. Gradually the dogs would become more and more aggressive. It’s not their fault. Owners are to be blamed. When I was helping on the farm, every time before I fed the dogs, they howled and jumped around in the cages. I learnt that I should wait until they calmed down, otherwise they wouldn’t listen to me when I walked them afterwards. My strategy was to feed the one who calmed down first, then put their food down, give them permission to eat after they gave me eye contact. Terry also emphasized to me and other dog owners who came to him for advice,

“make them wait for you to go first and never allow them to pull you. Malamutes are smart enough to be taught not to pull on the lead.”

All worked pretty well and they seemed happy and obedient when I walked them on the track.

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I couldn’t help but to reflect the ways I’ve treated my dog back in Shanghai. I thought I adopted her, gave her a family, provided her food and walked her every day, naturally, she should see me as her owner. After staying on the farm with Terry and the dogs, I realized I misunderstood what a pack leader really is. It’s not an easy job at all.

“Humans shouldn’t take it for granted that we can be the pack leaders just because the dogs are supposed to listen to us. We need to be confident, consistent, positive and relaxed with the dogs to win their trust. When they trust us, they will be the followers. When we fail to do that, many breeds of dogs assume that it’s their job to be the pack leaders which cause all kinds of problems.”

The primary value of my stay on the farm was to learn how to handle dogs and be a real pack leader. Many dog owners don’t really understand dogs. Yes, dogs are our best friends and we like to treat them as our family member, but before that, we need to treat them as dogs. It’s usually the owner’s fault when a dog makes mistake. It’s our job to train them and correct them.

I’m very grateful that I got the opportunity to live with Terry and the pack for a while. After I got back to Shanghai, I’ve taught my dog not to pull me around when I walk her and wait politely when I feed her. She’s making progress and I can tell she is happier than ever before. Thank you Terry for the amazing lessons!

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