Meet China’s ‘Pet Wheelchair King’


SHANGHAI — Wei Lijun was distraught after her 19-year-old dog Fufu had a stroke earlier this year. The mongrel was fully paralyzed and often cried out in pain during the night. “We’d have to carry her outside to someplace quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbors,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.

The 56-year-old worried that Fufu would never walk again, but she refused to contemplate having her beloved pet put down. Finally, a vet suggested a solution: Why not try ordering a wheelchair for Fufu?

Wei searched online and found a business offering customized pet mobility aids for just 630 yuan ($90). A few days later, the new wheelchair arrived, and the effect was almost immediate: Within hours, Fufu was zooming around the streets near Wei’s home in Shanghai.

“It’s magical,” says Wei. “She seems so happy and relaxed when she’s ‘walking’ outside.”

Wei is just one of thousands of Chinese pet owners who have called on the services of Gao Xiaodong, a former migrant worker from Huludao, northeastern Liaoning province, who has helped give countless animals a new lease of life.

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

The 44-year-old claims to have been the first person in China to sell animal mobility aids commercially, opening a small workshop in 2006. What started as a niche venture has since grown into a thriving business, thanks to the explosion in pet ownership in China.

Today, just under 100 million Chinese households have a pet, up 44% since 2014, and the country’s pet industry is worth an estimated 200 billion yuan. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums to give their animals a more comfortable life: The market for pet travel products — which includes carriers and mobility solutions — increased by 40% in the past year.

Gao now runs a 300-square-meter factory employing eight people, which churns out more than 4,000 wheelchairs each year. The firm is responsible for nearly all the pet mobility aids sold on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com. The vast majority of other vendors are either agents or business partners of the firm, Gao says.

The Huludao native recalls first seeing a dog wheelchair around 15 years ago, while he was working a door-to-door sales job in Beijing. One of his clients had made a makeshift frame for his paralyzed Pekingese. “He could walk using this device made with a board and four bearings,” says Gao.

Two years later, Gao returned to his hometown to try his luck as an entrepreneur. After a couple of failed ventures selling health care and computer products, he came across the websites of some overseas pet wheelchair makers while searching for new business ideas online. The image of the Pekingese popped into Gao’s head, and he was sure he’d found a winning project. “It just hit me,” he says.

Gao and his wife, Fu Lijuan, made their first prototype for a disabled stray that often begged for food near their home. The “simple car” — which they fashioned from some discarded wood, wire, and roller skate wheels — didn’t look great, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, according to Gao. “He was so eager to try it and was running so fast,” he says.

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

After this early success, Gao was confident enough to quit his job at a local zinc factory to devote all his energy to the pet wheelchairs business. His parents, however, didn’t take the news well.

“They looked at me with a shocked expression,” says Gao. “They couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.”

At the time, keeping a domestic pet was still a luxury for most people in China. Families had little disposable income, and animals incapacitated by disease or old age were normally put down. Gao and Fu’s neighbors frequently questioned whether the couple had lost their minds.

“None of them had heard of this business, and they didn’t believe that people would actually buy wheelchairs for animals,” says Fu.

During the early years, Gao sometimes wondered if they were right. In 2008, he remembers only selling a handful of wheelchairs each month. Over time, however, his sales figures gradually climbed into the dozens and then the hundreds.

Gao puts the change down to a dramatic shift in social attitudes toward animals. Though China has yet to pass an animal protection law for domestic animals, cities have become much more pet-friendlyand a huge number of animal welfare projects have launched across the country.

“Animals often accompany their owners for many years and emotionally become part of the family,” says Gao. “It’s just like when people are terminally ill — the family will do anything to prolong their lives.”

Wang Jinyu bought a customized wheelchair from Gao for her Yorkshire terrier, Gin, in 2015. Her father had accidentally stepped on Gin when he was only 8 months old, and the puppy had gradually lost the use of his legs. The vet said Gin was only likely to live another five years, but Wang was determined to do whatever she could to help him.

She massaged Gin every day and looked for a wheelchair to help the dog stay active. The first one she bought was far too big and heavy for Gin, who weighs only 2.5 kilograms, but Gao’s work was an instant hit. Four years on from the accident, Gin still goes out for walkies at least twice per day.

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“With the wheels, he can walk much faster than before,” says Wang. “And he always sticks his tongue out, which shows he’s happy.”

According to Wang, at least a dozen people have asked her where they could buy a similar wheelchair while she’s been out walking Gin over the years. “One of our neighbors ordered a wheelchair for his old golden retriever so that he could enjoy the outdoors,” says Wang. “The dog passed away a few months later, but it’s all worth it.”

As Gao’s fame has spread, the factory in Huludao has found itself receiving an ever-greater variety of orders. The business now produces around 1,000 wheelchairs for export each month, according to Gao. He says 90% of his wheelchairs are for dogs, while 9% are for cats. The remaining 1% are made for a range of animals, including rabbits, tortoises, and pigs. The company has also created wheelchairs for horses at a Chinese zoo, as well as goats on an overseas ranch, he adds.

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

“We’re so happy to see a growing number of Chinese pet owners willing to help their disabled or elderly dogs enjoy a new life,” says Gao. “Dogs can usually adapt to wheelchairs very quickly.”

Sadly, some dogs pass away before their new mobility aids can be delivered. “Our customers will still pay for the wheelchair,” says Gao. “They often bury it with their beloved dogs, hoping they can run free in another world.”

Gao’s next project is to start making pet houses, tapping into Chinese owners’ desire to pamper their pooches. There still appears to be enormous room for growth in the pet market, with U.S. pet food giant Mars predicting it could more than double in size within the next five years.

Mainly, though, Gao just wants to make sure the country’s animals are as comfortable as possible, he says. “We were all born equal,” says Gao. “Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Royal Canin Wants Shanghai To Be China’s Most Pet-Friendly City


SHANGHAI — French pet food company Royal Canin will partner with the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, as well as local pet industry associations, veterinary clinics, and social organizations, to provide a comprehensive solution to the city’s rescue programs for stray cats and dogs, Cai Xiaodong, the general manager of Royal Canin China, said at a press conference Wednesday during the five-day Pet Fair Asia.

Under the new initiative, Royal Canin will cooperate with the public security bureau to capture and provide shelter for homeless animals, as well as send them to 14 pet hospitals for vaccination and desexing, and to local nongovernmental organizations to be put up for adoption.

Moreover, Royal Canin aims to promote more harmonious human-pet relationships in Shanghai, its China headquarters, by 2025. “We want to make Shanghai a pet-friendly city as a national benchmark,” said Cai. “Our new vision is that dogs will be able to go to public places like parks and offices without a hitch.”

To achieve this goal, Royal Canin and its partners will host lectures and summer and winter camps to share expert guidance on pet rescue and adoption with children and young people, to lay a foundation for broader public education in the long term.

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Royal Canin’s booth at Pet Fair Asia in Shanghai, Aug. 22, 2019. Fan Yiying

There are around 100 million pet dogs and cats in China, according to a white paperon the country’s pet industry published last week. But the problems of abandonment and unchecked reproduction have led to growing populations of strays, which in turn have put pressure on the social environment. “Although Chinese people are now more willing to participate in animal rescue, the knowledge and norms for doing so, and for immunization and sterilization, remain backward,” Niu Guangbin, a veterinarian at the Shanghai animal disease control and prevention center, told Sixth Tone.

Every neighborhood in Shanghai has stray cats, Niu said. “This is partially because people are constantly feeding them out of love,” he explained. But this doesn’t solve the problem of homeless animals. “The best way is to rescue them for sterilization,” he said, “and then release them or put them up for adoption so that they can live with dignity.”

Shanghai’s public security bureau accepts nearly 12,000 stray animals each year, which are dispatched to social organizations and around 1,000 veterinarians in the city for treatment and adoption, according to Yang Qiqing, director of the Shanghai Pet Trade Association. “Animals and humans should have the same rights,” he told Sixth Tone. “To care about the health of animals is to care about our own health.”

To make Shanghai a better place for pets, Kai Ling, brand marketing director for Ta Shanghai — a pet adoption platform that incorporates a Chinese character meaning “he,” “she,” or “it” into its name — says it’s crucial to correct a few common misconceptions. In cooperation with select celebrities, Ta Shanghai organizes around 10 pet adoption events each month, mainly at shopping malls throughout the city. But oftentimes Chinese parents — especially mothers — will veto potential adoptions out of concern for their children’s safety. “We always educate the parents, explaining that animals are not as scary as they might think,” Kai told Sixth Tone. “I draw from my own experience to tell other mothers how much my son has benefited from growing up with three disabled cats in the family.”

Meanwhile, another adoption organization, Beijing Pet Adoption Day, has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. Since 2017, it has crowdfunded 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) toward food for over 20,000 strays. Beijing Pet Adoption Day is also building the country’s first stray animal educational center in Beijing, scheduled to open in October.

“When we had just launched the adoption platform on social media, we often received private messages asking whether it was a place to adopt children,” Yang Yang, Beijing Pet Adoption Day’s founder, told Sixth Tone. “Chinese people once considered strays dirty, unhealthy, and unsuitable for families — but now, many have gradually embraced the notion that adopting rather than buying pets is a life attitude, and a meaningful one at that.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

World Dog Show Features Chinese Breeds, Aims to Turn Hearts


SHANGHAI — In some parts of China, dogs have the unenviable reputation of being mean and unclean. They might spend much of their lives watching front doors, waiting for their humans to come home, all the while at risk of being dognapped, sold, butchered, and eaten.

So when Liang Xiaojun saw a Chinese dog about to come onstage at the 2019 World Dog Show, she was stunned. “I never expected to see a dog from rural China competing alongside those other, more expensive breeds,” the 26-year-old dog lover told Sixth Tone on Tuesday, the first day of this year’s four-day event in Shanghai.

Sanctioned by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), also known as the World Canine Organization, the World Dog Show is one of the most important international dog shows in the world, held in a different FCI member country each year since 1971. This year is China’s first chance to play host, and it’s only the second time the event has been held in Asia. Often called the “Canine Olympics,” the World Dog Show’s evaluation categories include agility, obedience, conformation, handler, and grooming, among others.

China’s pet industry has grown tremendously in recent years. In 2018, the value of the country’s dog industry alone exceeded 106 billion yuan ($15.7 billion). Moreover, Chinese consumers have increasingly shown they are willing to pamper their pets, spending big bucks on everything from pet hotels to pet funerals.

However, frequent headlines of animal abuse and dog eating in some parts of the country have damaged China’s reputation for protecting animal welfare. When Shanghai in 2015 won the bid to host the World Dog Show, a petition was circulated online to stop China from hosting the event. The FCI then released a statement, calling the show an “excellent opportunity” to raise awareness among the Chinese population that “the dog, our beloved friend, is a member of our families, a living entity and most of all, Man’s Best Friend.”

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A woman looks at a Chuandong hound — an ancient Chinese breed that’s little-known on the international stage — during the World Dog Show in Shanghai, April 30, 2019. Fan Yiying

This year’s event — which has adopted the slogan “Respect life, love world” — will see more than 2,100 dogs of 171 breeds from over 40 countries compete, and the number of visitors from home and abroad is expected to exceed 50,000, according to Xie Dianqi, secretary-general of the China Kennel Union (CKU), the only recognized FCI member from China.

“We want to take this opportunity to promote animal welfare in China, and at the same time let the world know that Chinese people love dogs and respect lives,” Xie said at a press conference Tuesday. He added that hosting the event would give China the chance to promote its native dogs on the global stage: This will be the first time in World Dog Show history that Chinese breeds will compete.

In 2016, CKU established a club to protect and breed native dog species. So far, six purebreds have been identified and bred for three generations each. According to the FCI’s requirement, each breed must be bred for five generations and be at least 1,000 in number before it can be registered as a new breed and participate in international competitions. “With new DNA technology, we expect to register the first native Chinese dog breed with the FCI by 2022,” Wang Ting, the director of CKU’s native breed conservation club, told Sixth Tone.

To achieve this goal, CKU is cooperating with local breeders and native-dog enthusiasts like Li Kunlin. Li bought four purebred Chuandong hounds — originally from the border between the southwestern Sichuan province and Chongqing municipality — to display at the World Dog Show. The ancient, little-known breed had soon caught visitors’ attention.

The history of the Chuandong hound can be traced back 2,000 years, Li told Sixth Tone, and today, locals in the mountainous eastern part of Sichuan use the dogs to hunt. “They’re intelligent and fearless, with an outstanding sense of smell — they aren’t inferior to any of the expensive foreign breeds,” he said.

When asked how much a Chuandong hound might cost, Li said they aren’t for sale. In the past few years, he’s bred around 20 Chuandong hounds through three generations from his home in Chongqing. “These dogs aren’t valued by the villagers, and this leads to cross-breeding and all kinds of (genetic) diseases,” Li said. “The number (of purebreds) is dropping rapidly, and if we don’t protect them now, they will die out before we know it.”

In 2017, a Tang gou — a Chinese breed also known as the “meat dog” — won best in show at a competition organized by CKU. “In that moment, it was no longer just another meat dog that’s so often abandoned or rejected in China,” Wang said. “Whatever their breed, Chinese or foreign, all dogs should be respected and loved.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Credit Score for Canines Keeps Dog Owners on a Short Leash


SHANDONG, East China — Ever since she was bitten on the leg at age 5, Zhang Qiaoling has been afraid of dogs. Years later, as a teenager, the sight of an unleashed dog still scared her so much she’d freeze on the spot. “I hate it when owners tell me their dogs don’t bite,” Zhang, now 25, tells Sixth Tone. “In my eyes, even a cute breed like a toy poodle is basically a wolf — never mind something like a husky.”

Dog ownership has increased sharply in China, with over 50 million pet dogs currently registered in China and corresponding increases in sales of everything from high-end pet products to breeding and cremation services. But the large number of pooches has brought resentment among those who don’t consider them to be man’s best friend and who blame dog owners for raising badly behaved pups.

Luckily for Zhang, unleashed dogs have become a rare sight in her hometown of Jinan. Early last year, the city launched its “Civilized Dog-Raising Credit Score System,” a first in China that has since been copied elsewhere. Reminiscent of other point systems introduced throughout the country that aim to improve people’s behavior, its stated goal is to make dog owners more responsible.

The compulsory program gives every registered dog owner a license that starts with 12 points. As with drivers’ licenses, points are deducted for infractions, such as walking a dog without a leash or tag, not cleaning up poo, or being reported for a disturbance. Good deeds, like volunteering in kennels, are rewarded with extra points.

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Over 1,400 owners have thus far been penalized under the new system, 122 of whom lost all their points and had their dogs placed in a government kennel until they passed a test on pet policies. According to police, 10 owners of confiscated dogs have yet to pass so far.

The prospect of losing one’s beloved pet is apparently effective. Authorities said in August that 80 percent of dog owners now use leashes — up from 20 percent in previous years — and that in 2017 complaints about barking and biting had decreased by 65 percent year-on-year. State-owned newspaper Legal Daily has praised the point system for its “strong operability and great effectiveness,” and argued for its countrywide implementation.

Zhang, too, supports the new system. She feels like almost everyone walks their pups on a leash nowadays, and she rarely sees dog poo on the street. “Civilization does need a strict legal push,” she says.

When Xing Ruizhi took her black-and-white foster pet, Coco, to be registered last year, the dog got vaccinated, had her picture taken, and was implanted with a microchip. Xing received a tag with a QR code that now dangles off Coco’s collar. When scanned, police can look up the breed, age, immunization status, owner information, and point total for each of the city’s 100,000 or so dogs. The tag also comes with geolocation technology that can help Xing find Coco if she ever goes missing. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, but it cost Xing 400 yuan ($58) — and she’ll have to pay an additional 200 yuan each year for tag inspections.

The points program also gives police the right to confiscate unregistered dogs, owned by people who might want to avoid such fees or who have more than the one dog per person allowed by the city. Last summer, when Ken Cari was walking 1-year-old Jenny in his neighborhood, passers-by warned him that police were on patrol in the area. Since he hadn’t yet applied for the dog registration, Cari and Jenny high-tailed it back home. “I heard the dogs need a license and can only be a certain size,” he says while petting Jenny, a decidedly rotund golden retriever. “I wouldn’t let them take her away from me. She’s my baby.”

When Cari, who hails from Montana in the U.S., called the dog management office to ask how to register, he was told that foreigners like him couldn’t own a dog, regardless of his fluent Jinan dialect and long-term job in the city. The next day, accompanied by a local friend, Cari took Jenny to the police station. They waited for hours as staff made endless phone calls to their superiors. In the end, he got the license.

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Everyone in the neighborhood knows Cari and Jenny: “A big foreigner raising a fat dog,” he laughs. Cari has noticed an increasing number of dogs in his apartment complex, from just a few when he moved in about a decade ago to more than 40 now. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the change, however. One major reason for this, Cari believes, is that few owners in China get their dogs spayed or neutered, leading to large numbers of strays and a public perception that the animals are “dirty, scary, and mean.” Dog bites are a frequent occurrence: Statistics show that 60 to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines are issued annually in China, and that 644 people died from infections in 2016, mostly from dog bites.

Canine-related tensions turn hostile at times. In July, a Chinese pharmaceutical company was found to have produced and sold substandard rabies vaccines. Following the scandal, a viral post on the social media platform Weibo suggested scattering pieces of meat with isoniazid, a drug for treating tuberculosis, to kill dogs walking around unleashed. The post was ultimately deleted, but not before generating pages of discussion and hundreds of thousands of views. Shops on the e-commerce site Taobao immediately pulled isoniazid off the digital shelves to avoid legal trouble.

When people get hurt by dogs, the public often questions the lack of severe punishment for owners, who usually only need to refund the cost of victims’ vaccinations. In September, for example, a court in the northeastern Liaoning province ordered an owner to compensate the family of a child whose face was bitten by an unleashed dog with roughly 19,000 yuan, which equals $2,740 — a fraction of the average amount paid out for dog bite claims in the U.S. last year: $37,051. In addition, almost every U.S. state has laws and regulations on how to raise dogs. But in China, now one of the largest pet-owning countries in the world, regulations and their implementation lag behind.

Xing, the owner of Coco, supports Jinan’s point system but says the government should do more to help dog owners in return, such as building parks where the pets can run free. Many dog owners would also like to see an animal protection law. Currently, owners can only file cumbersome lawsuits based on dogs’ legal status as property in cases of harm. Especially since the isoniazid post, such scenarios have worried pet parents. “I have no choice but to put a muzzle on my dog to protect her, but I know she really hates it,” Xing says.

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Jinan dog owner Liu Jin says a friend’s dog was poisoned to death last month after eating a piece of sausage laced with drugs. Her own dog, a tricolor corgi called Baobao, now only goes outside on a leash. Liu had a hard time convincing her father to stick to the rule, however. “He is so stubborn,” she says. But Liu’s father caught on after police spotted him walking a free-roaming Baobao and deducted three points from the family’s license. “Ever since then, he has followed the rule because he doesn’t want our dog to be taken away,” Liu says.

Yet not everyone is a good boy. Thirty-something Leng Bing owns a bar hidden down a lane in Jinan’s historical city center. To the delight of his customers, he sometimes goes to work with his aging crossbreed, Dian Dian. Though Leng registered him last year and put a tag around his neck, he still walks Dian Dian unleashed. “I only walk him in my residential area,” he says while pouring a beer for a customer. “So I think it’s okay to set him free and release his inner nature.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The New Breed of Handlers Preening China’s Prize


HUBEI, Central China — With her bushy beard, expressive eyes, and wavy coat, Feifei enters the ring and walks a lap. Set up outside a shopping mall in downtown Wuhan, the show makes some shoppers stop in their tracks to snap photos of Feifei. “What’s going on here?” one asks. “It’s a dog beauty pageant,” a middle-aged woman responds, carrying a toy poodle in her arms.

Feifei’s handler leads her to the judges’ table, where the dog strikes a pose as a judge, flown in from Latvia, checks Feifei’s teeth and makes sure her bones are properly proportioned. Spread out in the mall area, other dog handlers — themselves looking their best in sharp suits and dresses — are busy with last-minute preparations. A corgi visibly enjoys getting its butt brushed, and a Doberman pinscher is sprayed with water to cool down.

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Schnauzer Feifei waits for more grooming at Wang Xu’s new training kennel before a dog show in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

These 200-or-so purebred pups are the pampered pioneers of China’s growing love for dogs. As the number of pets — now estimated at around 100 million — is ever on the rise, more and more people are willing to pay a small fortune to own a standout dog. Shows like the one in Wuhan attract owners eager to have champion dogs, and kennels who want to show off their breeding prowess. Audiences are slowly catching on

Feifei is a 2-year-old miniature schnauzer whose coat shades from gray to white. “She must feel like a supermodel on the stage,” says Wang Xu, Feifei’s handler and owner. At China’s dog shows, dogs compete at the breed level in the morning. After that round, each Best of Breed winner advances on to the group stage, wherein the dogs are separated into sporting, hound, and other categories. The winners of that round then compete for Best in Show. Feifei has won the top award four times.

Dog shows have a long history in the West. The first English dog show took place in Newcastle in 1859, and every year, thousands of dogs fill New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the annual, multi-day Westminster Dog Show. In China, however, the events are a new phenomenon. The Wuhan show is one of about 80 shows organized around the country by China Kennel Union (CKU) — a nonprofit established in 2006 that’s the only recognized Chinese member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), the World Canine Organization. Whereas the Westminster Dog Show is nationally televised and has a large, paying live audience, CKU’s shows are free, and likely wouldn’t attract any viewers were they not organized in downtown shopping areas, says Wang. But the number of shows is growing.

Much like the shows, being a dog handler is a relatively new occupation in China. Fewer than 100 handlers are full-timers like Wang. “Presenting dogs in a show is just a part-time job or a hobby for most dog handlers in China,” the 33-year-old says. In Wenlin, the village in suburban Wuhan where Wang lives and trains his and his clients’ canines, people think he walks dogs for a living. “They don’t understand that dogs can be showed or should be groomed,” Wang says with a shrug.

To prepare the dogs for top performances, handlers give them daily exercise, obedience training, and continuous grooming. It can be physically demanding work, and requires passion and patience. “The dogs I train come in all sorts of different personalities and tempers, so dog handlers need to be able to communicate with dogs on a spiritual level,” says Lu Bing, who became a dog handler in 2015 after learning from Wang.

But dog handlers are well-compensated, mostly from the fees they charge owners for taking care of their pets, which can be more than 10,000 yuan ($1,450) a month. Depending on how many dogs they manage, the best handlers in the industry can earn over a million yuan a year. Wang has six dogs of his own, all schnauzers, and handles up to 14 dogs from clients — a self-imposed limit to make sure they all get enough care and attention.

Growing up in the Hubei countryside, Wang’s family had mutts, though back then he had no concept of dog breeds. In 2012, Wang was getting tired of working as an engineer in a state-owned company. He decided to learn from his sister, who is a schnauzer breeder, and later to become a handler. “I feel happier and less stressed when I am with dogs than humans,” he says, adding that, purebred or not, “emotionally speaking, I love them all.” In 2015, he became the first A-level dog handler in Hubei province — the top level as certified by CKU.

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Wang Xu’s dog handling team at their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 25, 2018. Fan Yiying

For every breed there are particular techniques to achieve the best look. For schnauzers like Feifei, it’s all about the back hair, which is tangled and thick in its natural state. About three months before she is to compete, Wang will pull out most of the hairs on her back — which he says is slightly painful but bearable for the dog — so new hairs will grow and form a neat, needle-like coat come showtime.

Dogs are judged on their posture, appearance, expression, and pace. Whenever Wang gets a new dog, he’ll first conduct a series of inspections — such as the dog’s bone structure, waist circumference, and ear and eye spacing — to check whether the dog meets its breed’s standards, which are determined through the FCI. The dog’s character is also crucial. “If a dog is too stubborn and refuses to change after a period of training, it can’t compete,” says Wang.

Wang competes in about 30 shows a year, and has so far won over 200 Best in Show awards. There’s no prize money. Instead, he’s been rewarded with trophies, dog food, promotional items in every shape and form, and even the latest iPhone. “It’s not about the money,” he tells Sixth Tone. “I just want to present the dogs’ best sides and enjoy the show.”

But winning can be profitable. Wang Lin — not related to or a client of Wang Xu — is the manager of a kennel in Wuhan that’s registered with CKU. The kennel has over 200 dogs of about 10 breeds for sale. A few years back, they hired professional dog handlers to compete in shows. “After earning a couple of Best in Show honors, it’s definitely boosted our visibility and raised the dogs’ prices,” she says. Business has improved so much that the kennel didn’t have the time to partake in any shows this year.

Some clients are enthusiasts with deep pockets. “Owning a champion dog is a way for the wealthy to show off,” says 24-year-old Lu, Wang Xu’s former protégé. “Once their precious dog has a breakout performance onstage, they can brag to others: See, even my dog is awesome!”

Tan Liang, a thin and soft-spoken 50-something who works in finance, has wanted to show his dogs since he bought a purebred German shepherd back in the late 1980s for over 2,000 yuan — then a whole year’s income. Since then, he’s grown his pack. “I know I bought good dogs, and I want other people to admire them and have professionals judge them,” he says. “It’s all about gaining face, you know.”

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Lu Bing, right, and Wang Xu with border collie Yuanyuan outside their new training kennel in Wuhan, Hubei province, May 24, 2018. Fan Yiying

Tan bought a black-and-white border collie he named Yuanyuan — meaning destiny in Chinese — at a certified CKU kennel for 10,000 yuan in 2017, and has entrusted her to Wang Xu. “I can imagine that handling my own dogs would be one of the most enjoyable things in the world,” Tan tells Sixth Tone. “But presenting a dog to show its best qualities is an art, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to do such a good job.” Last year, Wang Xu handled another of Tan’s dogs to Best in Show awards at all the competitions in which he participated. “This is rare in the history of Chinese dog shows,” Tan says with pride.

On the day of the Wuhan competition, Wang Xu gets up at 5 a.m. He bathes the dogs, and then packs his equipment — from grooming tables and cooling mats to brushes and blow dryers. Then he puts his four show dogs — Feifei, a French bulldog named Cool, and border collies Weiwei and Yuanyuan — into his van and hits the road.

Arriving at the venue an hour before it begins, Wang Xu has no time to waste. He finds an empty spot, and one by one gives the dogs their last go-over. “I’m trimming her legs into the shape of a baseball bat,” Wang Xu says while working on Feifei. “They’re slightly thinner on the top and slightly thicker on the bottom.”

After a little while, Tan spots his border collie, Yuanyuan, entering the ring. He is thrilled and nervous, and eventually takes a step back so as not to distract her. “It’s her first show,” he whispers. “I don’t want her to see me and get too excited.” He takes his camera to capture every moment.

In the end, Feifei is judged Best in Group but falls short of the top award. Yuanyuan wins Best of Winner, a prize which is four levels lower than Best in Show. But Tan is happy. After the show he goes backstage, and strokes Yuanyuan. He hasn’t seen his furry friend for weeks. “You did great today,” he says softly. “Let’s keep it up.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.