Caring for China’s Smog Dogs

SICHUAN, Southwest China — When Li Xiaolu adopted two puppies last summer, she worried about how to train them, where to buy them the right food, and whether the two would get along. What she didn’t worry about was how badly they would be affected by smog.

Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, is often described as the home not only of giant pandas, but also of some of the happiest people in China: Chengdu residents are known for their relaxed and slow-paced lifestyle. But recently, a decline in air quality has had the city’s 14 million people feeling worried and anxious.

The smog this winter was so heavy that at one point, the runway of Chengdu’s international airport had to be closed. “I saw the haze in the air, and it felt like the sky was falling down,” the 22-year-old Li recalled, describing the view from her window on a return flight from the southern city of Guangzhou.

When her dogs started to cough last November, Li didn’t associate it with the air pollution right away. “At first, I thought Bu Yao had food stuck in her throat, as she’s so tiny, so I held her upright and shook her,” says Li, who moved to Chengdu in 2010 to study nursing.

In December, when other dog owners in the neighborhood began talking about both them and their dogs coughing a lot, they started to suspect that it was due to the air pollution. Li started to worry about the health of her Bernese mountain dog, Bu Dong, and her toy poodle, Bu Yao — whose names translate to “don’t know” and “don’t want,” respectively. She says she named them after her life philosophy of being content with what she has and not desiring too much.

Throughout early March, official figures put Chengdu’s air quality index (AQI) at around 110, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” including the very old, very young, and immunocompromised. “But dogs, especially big ones, need to be walked so they can release some of their energy,” Li says.

When she takes her dogs for a walk, Li makes Bu Dong wear a muzzle and a snout mask. Masks made for humans don’t fit the 34-kilogram dog, so she puts wet tissues inside the muzzle and covers it with a piece of cloth on the outside. “Bu Dong doesn’t like it, but it’s for her own good,” Li says.

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Li Xiaolu holds her two dogs, Bu Dong and Bu Yao, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 5, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Bu Yao, however, has to make do without one, as the toy poodle isn’t even big enough to climb onto the sofa yet, and is far too small for smog masks. When the tiny poodle coughs, Li puts holds her in her lap and pats her back. “They mean the world to me,” Li says of her canine companions.

This winter, the unusually heavy smog has kept Chengdu’s veterinary clinics busy. Huang Li, a vet with over a decade of experience, tells Sixth Tone that since the new hospital she works at opened last November, she has treated coughing dogs every day. “I had never seen this at the clinics I worked at in previous years,” she says.

Although there are no official figures or research on how China’s pets are affected by air pollution, several vets told Sixth Tone that the health implications are similar to those in humans.

“Since dogs and human beings share a similar physical structure, smog that harms humans also damages the lungs of dogs,” says Huang. Several vets in Chengdu also confirmed an increase in coughing and sneezing in dogs, which coincided with periods of heavy air pollution this winter.

Huang explains that larger particles that are obstructed and filtered by the human nose can have adverse effects on dogs, as their nasal hairs are too short and sparse to protect them from dust and larger particles. Furthermore, dogs breathe at a faster rate than humans, and because they are closer to the ground, they’re more susceptible to breathing in particles that can be absorbed by their lungs to cause coughing and sneezing, and then enter their bloodstream to cause a variety of conditions, from retinal disease to fevers. In some cases, air pollution can even cause life-threatening diseases like lung cancer.

Air pollution has a greater impact on puppies, older dogs, and dogs with weaker immune systems — “in much the same way that children and the elderly are more vulnerable to air pollution,” Huang says.

Huang feels that there’s little she can do to comfort pet owners. In severe cases, she prescribes antitussive drugs to relieve coughing. Generally, though, she just advises them to avoid long walks.

Following the dog doctor’s orders, Li now walks Bu Yao and Bu Dong for very short periods of time — about 15 minutes in the morning, and then again during lunch. In the evenings, when the AQI is usually higher, she rarely takes them outdoors. “When you see the data climb to over 300, you don’t want to go out anyway,” she says.

While many dog owners are using face masks to protect themselves from air pollution, similar masks for dogs currently don’t exist. “The market may not be large, but someone has to take the risk eventually,” says Mary Peng, CEO and founder of Beijing-based International Center for Veterinary Services, an animal hospital and pet care facility.

Peng says she’s been looking for dog masks for years but has only come across homemade products from particularly concerned pet owners. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Peng, who owns four cats and one dog herself.

Peng believes that a tight-fitting, well-designed mask could protect dogs from smog, but also that do-it-yourself versions like the one Li uses might not be as effective as optimistic pet owners hope. “I still encourage them to try it though,” Peng says. “They’re just showing how much they love and care for their dogs. At least they’re doing their best and feel good about it.”

Last year, Peng approached Cambridge Mask, a U.K.-based pollution mask manufacturer, and asked whether they would be interested in producing masks for dogs. “I planted this idea in their head, and now it’s sprouting,” she says.

Cambridge Mask CEO and founder Christopher Dobbing told Sixth Tone that his company has already started working on the new line of masks specifically for dogs.

According to estimates, more than 1 million pets — the majority of them dogs — live in Chengdu, and Li is not the only one who is worried about their health.

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling hugs Jian Jian at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

The only truly viable option appears to be escaping the bad air — something entrepreneur Fang Ling is trying to turn into a business, in the form of a pet hotel in the mountains outside Chengdu, where the air is fresh and clean.

Last year, Fang bought an apartment in the city center with the needs of her young Labrador in mind. She chose one with a big balcony, which would allow her dog, Jian Jian, to enjoy sunshine and fresh air. In the winter, however, air pollution levels were so bad that Fang and Jian Jian spent all their time indoors, never far from their air purifiers.

“He looked sad,” Fang says of Jian Jian. Late last year, the 35-year-old took a drastic step: She sold her apartment, moved 30 kilometers east of the city center, and opened a dog hotel where owners can drop their dogs off while they are away on holiday. Key to choosing the right location, she says, was finding a place where the air quality was fairly good.

As a former marketing director, Fang is adept at promoting her hotel on social media, and although she only opened it in January, more than 50 dogs have already stayed with her. Most of them come from the city.

“We chose this place from many other options in the city because of its relatively good air quality on the mountainside,” says Wang Peipei, who brought her 1-year-old Labrador, Abu, to spend a week at Fang’s pet villa in late January. “Abu really enjoys playing outdoors here because we only let him out a few minutes a day when the pollution is bad in the city.”

Business is going well, and Fang is currently expanding the facilities and adding a pool where her canine guests can swim.

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang Ling plays with dogs staying at her dog hotel in rural Chengdu, Sichuan province, March 4, 2017. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Fang says that her friends and family laughed at her when she told them about her plan to move for the sake of her dog’s health. But life up on the mountain, surrounded by fresh air, has put her at ease with her choice of lifestyle. “They would understand if they had dogs,” she says of those who criticized her. “I see Jian Jian as my family, and I hope he can live a longer and healthier life.”

This article was published on Sixth Tone.


Old Cop Dogs Find a Happy Home in Hangzhou

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.

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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!