In a room, a group of students sit on the floor, squeeze onto chairs and stand huddled in corners. They are all eager to get a glimpse of a dog trainer who has one of the largest social media followings in the industry.
The head trainer at Quan Dao, a dog training school in Shanghai, shouts a command but the confused dog doesn’t move. Suddenly, the trainer retaliates with three open palm slaps to the dog’s face. He then hoists the dog into the air and slams it to the ground in a move that wouldn’t look out of place in a wrestling match. The dog sits up and the man delivers two kicks right into the dog’s chest.
This is the first 20 seconds of a brutal assault that lasts four minutes, all the time people in the crowd watch on, some even smiling.
A screenshot of the infamous Quan Dao video. Image via Weibo.
Quan Dao claims they adopt such violent training techniques because the dogs have “psychological problems” and violent tendencies. Quan Dao, which also goes by the name Chong Chong Ma Te (宠宠玛特) on Chinese social media, has almost 250,000 followers on Douyin (China’s TikTok). They are also estimated to have over 4,000 trainers.
Sadly, Quan Dao is not the only social media account in China teaching people to train their dogs by beating them.
During our research we found accounts posting videos of this type of training on WeChat Channels, Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Douyin. In one particularly disturbing video, a woman beat her dog so much that he vomited.
It doesn’t stop there; Taobao has courses that can be purchased for around RMB50 that advise owners to adopt abusive methods and they even sell special equipment used for beating dogs.
Training schools, where the dog will live in the school for anything from a period of 30 days to six months, cost around RMB3-6,000 per month.
Animal abuse has become a business.
How Do Dogs Learn?
Dails training a dog to catch a frisbee. Image via Dials
Beating dogs are often defended by owners who say something along the lines of, “Dogs are pack animals and my dog needs to know I’m the leader.” But is there any logic behind this claim?
In his book The New Science of Understanding Dog Behaviorleading dog expert John Bradshaw explains that treating dogs as pack animals is not only outdated but irrelevant to the animal we have welcomed into our homes.
Bradshaw argues that contrary to popular belief, wild wolf packs don’t choose their leader based on who is the strongest, but instead on family ties and relationships. He elaborates that through centuries of breeding wolves to become the loveable dogs we know today, a dog’s idea of a pack has changed entirely.
If left in the wild with no human interference, domestic dogs no longer make packs, but instead find companions based on affection and whom they can play with. A dog’s pack has become akin to a friendship circle and the idea of the strongest ruling the roost doesn’t exist anymore.
Furthermore, the concept of asserting dominance over a dog has been disregarded when training dogs for blind people, the police and even the military. So, to adopt such measures just to make your poodle pee outside is utterly ludicrous. Now, these institutions use reward-based training.
Dails giving a talk on dog training methods. Image via Dials.
Dails, who requested we use her English name, is a dog trainer in Shanghai who uses reward-based training. During the early stages of her career, she will witness trainers who adopted violent methods.
“One time a trainer hung a dog from its neck for so long that when he released the dog, he couldn’t even stand up, threw up and was incontinent,” she explains. “I thought the dog might die because he had been hanging in the sun for so long.”
The Psychology of Abuse
Image via Flickr
Aside from being downright cruel, such long and torturous methods don’t work. Dr. Ian Dunbar, one of the world’s leading dog experts says that rewards must be given to a dog within three seconds of them doing the desired behavior or action. Anything longer than that and the dog will not know what he is being rewarded for. Hence why clicker training has become a paramount part of reward-based training.
Dails was taught how to train dogs by Karen Pryor, an American dog trainer and the founder and proponent of clicker training. Clickers emit the same noise every time they are pressed and dogs can be taught to associate this sound with good behavior. When the dog does something good, the owner or trainer will push the clicker and quickly hand over a treat.
A startling number of videos that we watched suggested that you should come home to find your dog has chewed up the sofa or knocked the bin over, a beating will suffice. However, now we know that dogs need to be punished or rewarded within three seconds of expressing wanted or unwanted behavior.
“Beating a dog in this situation only teaches him to be scared of you coming home,” another Shanghai-based dog trainer, Gina Zhang, explains. “He simply doesn’t understand why you’re beating him.”
When discussing how to deal with a dog that expresses this type of destructive behavior, Zhang says:
“Some people argue that they walk the dog for five, ten or fifteen minutes but the dog still ruins their house. This is because they have an energetic breed. For example, a dog like a husky can pull a sled for hours, but the owner thinks taking him out to pee and poo is enough. Therefore the dog has lots of pent-up energy that he releases by destroying the house.”
Zhang crate training a dog. Image via Zhang
Zhang focuses on fixing behavioral problems such as barking when someone knocks at the door and fostering good habits like going to the toilet in a designated place. Dails also teaches these, but she specializes in exercising dogs that need to lose weight or suffer from bone and muscle problems. Both trainers told us that due to how dogs learn and process things, beating them only teaches them ‘learned helplessness.’
“When you beat a dog, it learns what we call learned helplessness,” Zhang explains. “It means the dog doesn’t know why he’s being beaten so there is no use in resisting, all he knows is that he won’t be beaten again if he gives up and does nothing.
In another Quan Dao video, the trainer takes a client’s dog that bares his teeth and gets angry. The trainer wants to show the dog that this is wrong, so he provokes him until he shows his teeth and then unleashes a beating. Throughout the assault, the dog is unsure what to do to stop the onslaught. He tries sitting, rolling over and playing dead until learned helplessness kicks in and sits there motionless.
“These people don’t want their dog to do anything,” Dails interjects, clearly angered by the video we asked her to watch before the interview. “They just want their dog to be at their mercy. This is why the abusive approach has emerged and has received approval.”
A Societal Problem?
Zhang and a black labrador taking a break. Image via Zhang.
For Dails, there are two types of dog owners. “There are the ones who want to learn and are interested in training and participate in every session. In the end, the bond between owner and dog is very strong.
“The other type of client does not want to get involved. After every lesson, I tell them what we learned and they don’t show any interest. They want their dog to be well behaved and they don’t care how you get there. This type of client just wants a dog but doesn’t want the hard work that comes with it.”
Abusing dogs has become an acceptable form of training because of a lack of animal rights and laws. In China, unlike the vast majority of countries in the West, there are no clearly defined national laws against abusing animals.
In 2018 it was estimated that over 300 million people in China (a fifth of the entire population) own a dog. At the same time this data was released, many cities and provinces started enacting laws regarding “civilized dog ownership.”
These laws include restricting dogs from taking elevators during rush hour, limits on how long a lead can be and how many dogs one person can own in Taiyuan city, Shanxi Province. The city also told residents that when they walk their dogs, they have to avoid old people, the disabled, pregnant women and children. Similar laws were also put in place in Guangzhou and Suzhou.
These may sound like logical steps to put in place, but if society was better educated on how to raise dogs with abusing them, the number of aggressive dogs in China would fall rapidly.
Many cities have brought in laws regarding animal abuse, stating that fines will be issued to those who engage in activities such as dog fighting, but the rules around whether an owner can be punished for beating their dog remain vague. Even if owners are fined, the maximum punishment we found was RMB500. However, the law suggests this is to deter blood sports, not human to animal abuse.
China still has a long way to go. In the United States, animal abuse can be punished with a USD50,000 fine or up to 14 years in prison.
Despite China’s great firewall and strict control over violence in films and TV shows, social media accounts like Quan Dao are not only left unrestricted but they thrive. Although the trainer in Quan Dao’s videos tells viewers that they shouldn’t adopt these tactics, posting these videos as an effective way to train dogs is not a healthy way to educate people on pet ownership.
The situation looks bleak, but it’s important to stress that this is not representative of all of China’s pet owners.
“I meet more and more young people who are willing to spend money on their pets and hire people to walk them when they are busy,” says Zhang. “This generation doesn’t want children soon and as more people get pets, I believe the law will adapt too. It’s a step-by-step process. I hope that animal abuse laws in China will be introduced quickly.”
Dails looks at the situation from a historical perspective and explains how it will work in China’s favor. “Violent training is based on the concept of control which used to be prevalent in the West. It slowly evolved into the positive approach that they use now and more and more people are using this method in China.
“Institutions like Quan Dao should look for a better way of training which respects dogs. If they still follow the old path, then they are destined to draw more criticism. They have to change if they want to continue.”
All educated trainers agree: the problems your dog has is the problems you allow it to have. If you’re not committed to exercising your dog and training it in a healthy and humane way, its problems are likely caused by you.
[Cover image via Flickr]