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Mumbai dog lady's tryst with Chinese pooches

In a country where dog meat is food, Shirin Merchant stumbles upon another side of China

Most of us have a preconceived notion about China’s relationship with dogs, considering dogs are still eaten as food, and it isn’t particularly difficult in major cities to find at least a restaurant or two that specialises in dog meat. But when canine behaviourist and trainer Shirin Merchant visited Beijing last month for the first time, she was in for a pleasant surprise. "I noticed that every evening you'll find at least 40 pet dogs on the streets. You'll see them at parks walking alongside the owner without a leash. They are so well behaved despite there being no solid pet trainer culture there,"she says. In fact, when Merchant was sitting at a restaurant, a colleague nudged her, pointing to the poodle on the adjoining seat. “The pooch sat on the lap of the owner, and not once did it bark. And the best part was nobody at the restaurant had a problem with it.”

Shirin Merchant with the local dogs that reside near the Great Wall of China
Shirin Merchant with the local dogs that reside near the Great Wall of China

Merchant, being a pioneer in the field of dog training and behaviour in India, was invited to Beijing to give a talk on assistance dogs and therapy dogs. The event was attended by 100 dog trainers and pet parents, who are part of the burgeoning breed of Chinese residents who are embracing dogs as pets like never before. “ The Chinese are a fun audience to have- enthusiastic, polite and with inquiring minds. I was privileged to meet with China's only guide dog at the event. China doesn't yet have a qualified assistance dog and therapy dog work is yet in its nascent stages ,”she says. The questions she says ranged from how to potty train a dog to what should they do if the pet doesn’t return home.

Merchant says in recent years it has become more common for people to own dogs as pets, particularly among the middles classes with disposable incomes. “They are warming to the culture of keeping pets. They treat the dogs as family; they are taken on vacations, restaurants and gardens. Unlike Mumbai, they don’t hire people to walk their dogs. They do it themselves.”

A local pack of dogs in Beijing who have learned to take money from friendly people and exchange it from a nearby shop for treats
A local pack of dogs in Beijing who have learned to take money from friendly people and exchange it from a nearby shop for treats

Beijing has what you call ring roads where big dogs like Huskies and German Shepherds or any dog that can’t be fit into a bicycle, is forbidden. The official definition of a big dog is any mutt that stands more 35 cm from the ground to the shoulder. You’re allowed to keep bigger dogs in the outskirts. “While many owners do have pets that are bigger than the stipulated size, but it is very rare to see them on the streets,”she says.

She says it’s not uncommon to find strays in Beijing. “In fact they are a clever lot. A local pack of dogs residing at the base of the Great Wall of China were so intelligent that they learnt to take money from friendly people and run with it to the nearby shop where the lady would exchange it for treats.”

Stray dogs in Beijing
Stray dogs in Beijing

While Merchant admits they have a culture of dog meat, she feels we can’t condemn the country for it. “They do kill dogs in the poor locales because the land is barren, and dogs are seen as meat. I don’t see it being any different from we slaughtering buffaloes and cattle in our country. For me, all animals are the same.”

The country, however, is working towards developing a culture of assistant and therapy dogs. “The younger Chinese have changing attitudes towards animals. There is certainly a transition on how dogs are perceived. Let’s see how it shapes up,” she says.

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