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Who let the dogs out?

A couple takes their dog to Coolbaby Dog Park near Beijing's Chaoyang Park. The city may need more dog parks as the canine population grows. Darnell Gardner Jr./for China Daily

Publication Date : 16-08-2012

 

China appears to be more canine-friendly

Twice a week, Chen Xingzhi and Berber leave their apartment in Beijing's Chaoyang district and walk together to the Yuan Dynasty Relics Park.

Chen, a retired businesswoman, has a group of friends she regularly meets at the park. Berber, a lively 1-year-old teddy bear puppy, is no less gregarious.

"Berber has lots of friends here," Chen says. "It's a really nice environment. He loves it."

Chen is one of a growing number of Chinese choosing companionship in the form of the canine.

But as China's dog population grows, dog owners like Chen remain uncertain as to how good a home the country's bustling metropolises can provide for their beloved pets.

Mary Peng, co-founder of the International Centre for Veterinary Services (ICVS) in Beijing, thinks conditions for canines are improving in major cities like Beijing.

"There are regulations about the size of dogs, but overall Beijing has generally become very dog-friendly. Beijing is on the forefront," she says. "But Beijing is not representative of the whole country, it is the exception."

Chen voices a similar sentiment, recalling that not long ago bans on bringing dogs into public places were more strictly enforced.

"The government is much more tolerant than before," she says. "Previously, they didn't allow dogs in parks like this."

Peng says health concerns contributed to authorities' low tolerance for dogs in the past.

"There was a ban on dogs for many years after the 'cultural revolution' [1966-1976]. Dogs were the primary carrier of rabies, and that was a major public health issue," Peng says. "You couldn't have dogs for many years. You started to see dogs again in the early 1990s."

Rabies still claims more than 2,000 lives each year in China, according to the Ministry of Health.

Peng says two decades after prohibitions on dog ownership were relaxed, fear of disease continues to fuel animosity toward the animals.

Still, Beijing residents aren't letting the possibility of infection deter an infatuation with dogs.

Beijing resident Xian Hui is happy with Tiger, his 3-year-old golden retriever. Xian says he's never been bitten before and isn't losing any sleep over rabies. He thinks most people's fear of dogs is unwarranted.

"Dogs are generally friendly creatures. We tend to treat Tiger like a child that can't talk but is nonetheless a member of our family," Xian says. "People who are afraid of dogs usually just don't understand them."

Xian says he normally walks Tiger around his neighbourhood, but that the two also sometimes venture to nearby Coolbaby Dog Park, located near the eastern edge of Beijing's Chaoyang Park.

Coolbaby offers a space where dogs can shed their leashes and run about within an enclosed, controlled environment.

Zhao Mangang, Coolbaby's manager, says he thinks Beijing needs more canine playgrounds like this one.

"Personally, I don't think there are enough dog parks in Beijing," Zhao says. "I think every district should have at least one."

Zhao thinks the amount of traffic Coolbaby gets on weekends is indicative of Beijing's need for more dog parks. He says on weekends, with about 300 customers, the park is full to the brim.

While Beijing dog owners get by with just a few dog parks, some residents in Shanghai, where dog parks are also scarce, seek an alternative in office building courtyards. The dogs and their owners travel to the courtyards after business hours, when security guards won't drive the pooches away, and convert them into playgrounds for pets.

While China's top-tier cities may not yet be equipped with enough dog parks, some upstart restaurants and hotels are beginning to realise the potential for profit in being dog-friendly.

Pudi Hotel is one of a few hotels in Shanghai that advertises its pet-friendliness. Pudi not only allows pets to venture indoors, but also offers rooms specifically targeted at pet owners, the hotel's sales executive Luo Jiaping says.

Luo says the increasing prevalence of dog ownership in China convinces the hotel to provide accommodations for dog owners. Pudi charges about 345 yuan ($54) per pet, with a limit of two pets in each room.

"Guests love their pets and are willing to pay the rate," she says. "Sometimes they request that we serve their pets the same way we treat a human being."

Hotels in Beijing aren't leaving dog owners in the dust either. Aloft Beijing has been operating since 2008 and is one of the only dog-friendly hotel chains in the country.

"I think more people are treating their pets like a part of their family," Aloft Beijing's managing director Zhang Lei says. "Our company did surveys that revealed many guests want to bring their pets along with them when they travel."

In addition to their Beijing site, Aloft runs 11 other locations across China, all of which are dog-friendly.

Restaurants are also warming up to the pet-friendly trend. The owners of Beijing's Bylace Cupcakes says their policy on pets is flexible.

"We let people with pets in all of our shops. Our only rule is that the animal be kept under control and away from the counter and food for sanitation purposes," Bylace co-owner He Yong says.

"We understand the inconveniences that dog owners go through."

Zhang Xiaoqiu, an animal rights activist with the China Small Animal Protection Association, says China is on the right trajectory.

He thinks the appearance of dog-friendly restaurants, parks and hotels is a promising sign, but that it's still too early to say China is a welcoming place for dogs.

Education, Zhang says, is the key to creating a dog-friendlier China.

"Dogs should always be leashed when entering public places," Zhang says. "Many people don't spay or neuter their dogs, so sometimes they can be more aggressive."

Peng, of ICVS, also stresses that dog owners ought to strongly consider having their pets sterilised.

"Culturally, in China spaying and neutering an animal is considered strange and almost cruel," she says.

She says unsterilised dogs contribute to the growth of stray animal populations and rabies outbreaks.

Like Zhang, Peng says education is key to improving conditions for dogs.

"You have to understand where the country is in its development," Peng says.

"We're only one generation into companion animal ownership. It takes time for education to seep in."

Still, she remains optimistic about prospects for dogs and dog owners in China's cities.

"We're on the same trajectory as any other developing country in the world," she says. "People really love their pets here."

Mary Katherine Smith in Shanghai and Gao Meng in Beijing contributed to the story.

 

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