Duty and the Beast: A K-9 Trainer’s Failed Bid to Keep His Partner
SHENYANG, Northeast China — When Guo Yicheng was assigned a German Shepherd, he could not have been happier. As a student majoring in police canine training at the Criminal Investigation Police University of China in Shenyang, in the northeastern Liaoning province, Guo always hoped to train a German Shepherd.
He promptly named her Baozi, or Leopard. At the time, she was two years and five months old. Her face was slender, her ears like velvet, and her fur caramel-colored. She had a symmetrical pair of spots on each cheek that looked like dimples. For Guo, it was almost love at first sight.
Within days of being assigned to train her, however, Guo realized he may have bitten off more than he could chew. Leopard was as ferocious and belligerent as she was beautiful. She never attacked people or dogs smaller than her, but she frequently went after larger prey.
Guo witnessed this soon after training started. Leopard pushed over a bigger dog in the same group and held it to the ground before sinking her fangs deep into its neck. Only when the bigger dog tucked its tail and whimpered meekly did Leopard finally let go.
With encouragement, patience, and intermittent kicks, Guo did his best to mold Leopard into a model police dog. In April, he was among 108 young trainers paired with 108 dogs at the Shenyang police university mandated to do just that.
Over the next couple of months, each pair followed a grueling training regimen day and night. The objective: join the police force together.
Guo and his fellow trainers, all in their early twenties, were owners, parents, and teachers rolled into one for the dogs under their command. Their responsibilities, he says, included, “everything you could possibly think of.”
But for police dogs, the bar is set very high. By the end of the course in July, 54 dogs were deemed unfit for police service. Reasons included poor physique or personality, age, or a mediocre showing in the final evaluation.
All 54, including Leopard, were scheduled to be sold at a public auction.
Considering the bond they had built over the weeks, Guo and around 40 other trainers saved up the average price of last year’s auction, hoping to buy their faithful friends back. But this year, none got their wish.
On the day of the auction, an unprecedented interest in police-trained dogs trended on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, causing a surge in bids. One dog even sold for a record 330,000 yuan ($52,000).
Leopard features in more than half of all the photos on Guo’s phone. In one, a ginger stray cat is seen sauntering past and Leopard stares at it, seemingly wrestling with the idea of attacking it. In another, Guo is giving Leopard a bath.
Bathing is very important, says Guo. Large dogs have heavy body odor; they often relieve themselves in their kennel and then the excrement gets stuck on their fur. Students often leash the dogs and then hose them down.
With no hair dryers at the training facility, students have to rub them down with dry towels and walk them outside until they dry in the sun.
Hoping to give Leopard a proper bath, Guo bought his own shower gel for pets and wanted to take her off campus. But the school mandates special security: the dogs must remain on the premises at all times.
Every dog is given a leash, three toys, and two separate food and water bowls. Some trainers go the extra mile to buy their dogs more toys or snacks.
Sometimes, Guo gave Leopard extra meals. Once, he threw a duck carcass into her kennel. When the other dogs smelt it, they barked greedily and rattled the kennel door with their heads. Flecks of saliva from one dog even sprayed Guo in the face.
According to Guo, the way a dog eats can reflect its affection for humans. Some dogs make a conscious effort to not bite the hand that feeds.
“Instead, they’ll lightly hold the food — say, a sausage — with their tongue and begin chewing only when their owner’s hands are out of the way. Others not only wolf their food down, but in their excitement, often inadvertently bite people’s fingers,” says Guo.
To help train Leopard into an obedient partner, Guo learned a meatball recipe from one of his classmates: Grind dog food into powder, mash pork sausages, eggs and chicken breast, add boiled water, and knead the resulting dough into balls.
Guo used these treats to reward Leopard when she obeyed his commands.
However, the process was arduous. When the electric meat grinder Guo bought broke down, the man who sold it to him gave him a hand-cranked one for free. Guo and a classmate cranked this machine for three or four hours until their joints ached. The nauseating stench of ground dog food hung thick in the air.
Conversely, depriving dogs of food can also be a very effective training technique. Some withheld all meals on the day of the final evaluation. With this technique, the dog would be so eager to do whatever it takes for food that an entire month of commands can be taught in a few days.
But unless Leopard’s behavior was particularly obstinate, Guo was reluctant to use this technique. Even for just the day of the exam, Guo couldn’t think of letting her go hungry. He kept a little dog food in his hand with a small amount of feeding stimulant added, which he used to try to guide Leopard.
But this approach has its drawbacks. The dog might find it difficult to resist temptation. If, during a police operation, it smelled food, the dog might go rogue. Guo knew he had to control the use of treats.
To an extent, methods reflect the personality of the trainers. Some attempt to teach by force — slapping or yanking on the leash in an approach called “mechanical stimulation.” But this can backfire if used excessively.
It was not Guo’s style at all. He mainly relied on verbal encouragement and food rewards. Sometimes, he even cried out, “Good dog! Good dog!” before feeding Leopard generous chunks of ham.
But at times, positive reinforcement just did not work. Leopard was not particularly obedient and had a habit of eating random things off the ground. Guo spent a whole afternoon trying to correct this behavior. Once, he ran out of patience and praise and began to tug on the leash. But to no avail.
Irked, he scattered dog food in a circle and loosened his grip on the leash. When Leopard lowered her head to eat, he kicked her. And for every bite she took, Guo kicked her again.
“But she was so stubborn. Once she acquired a certain habit, it couldn’t be unlearned,” says Guo. She simply learned to dodge his flailing foot.
Together, they were like a calm father and his impetuous daughter. “I was resigned to the fact that I couldn’t control her,” says Guo. When exercising her, Guo was often the one being walked. It was only when he yanked on the leash that she paused for him to catch up.
Leopard’s biggest problem was her proclivity to pick fights. And she usually won.
Before long, most dogs in the training group fell victim to her aggression. She also fought like a wolf, often aiming precisely for the neck. Once she had sunk her fangs in, she would shake her head violently from side to side.
It’s why Guo frequently tried to train her away from the rest of the pack. On walks, he often carried a small cane to ward off other dogs walking without a leash.
According to their textbooks, a dog’s behavior “may be corrected” using special collars. But a course instructor at the university was frank about the harm these collars could cause: “The shock they cause dogs is too great and the consequences are too unpredictable. They may completely ruin a dog’s potential, causing them to become cowardly.”
The instructor was referring to metal collars that have a ring of sharp prongs pointed inward. When pulled, the prongs dig into the dog’s neck. They’re primarily designed for dogs that fail to respond to less coercive forms of training.
Eventually, Leopard was evaluated as “average in all regards and too ferocious.” But she was excellent at biting and barking, hardly requiring additional training in these areas. “But if a dog is always on the attack, it takes a toll on teamwork,” says Guo.
On the other side of the spectrum were prodigies like A-Hua, a Mali-dutchie — a cross between a Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd. A-Hua was extremely sensitive to external stimuli; at the slightest touch, she would bounce up like a spring.
While other trainers had to slightly lift their dogs’ hind legs to get them to respond to a “stand up” order, A-Hua needed no such encouragement, almost leaping when commanded to stand.
A-Hua needed no guidance while tracking either. She just lowered her head to the ground and sniffed away, sticking close to the trail.
However, hyperexcitability and excessive exercise later led her to suffer from joint effusion — a condition where excess fluid accumulates in or around a joint, usually the knee. Blobs of fluid, sometimes bloody, oozed from her joints and had to be drained every day.
This past summer, 54 dogs were eliminated from the program, accounting for exactly half of the original cohort — higher than past years. And amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the program was delayed for six months, which meant some dogs missed the ideal training age of six months to three years old; these dogs were among the first to be eliminated.
For the majority, however, elimination does not depend solely on performance. In his grade, Bubu, another German Shepherd, ranked highest. He was extremely diligent during training and was often eligible for extra lessons. Eventually, he was even capable of following remote commands; his trainer could command him from over 100 meters away and he would obey.
Bubu was ultimately eliminated because of his weak hind legs. In the auction, Bubu sold for 150,000 yuan to a young woman from Zhejiang province.
Luck is an important factor too. Take for example Xiaoqi, who most trainers agreed was the school’s most attractive dog. During the exam, a ball was thrown for him to retrieve. However, it fell right next to where a dog had just relieved itself. Xiaoqi ran over and began sniffing the area instead of bringing the ball back. At the auction, Xiaoqi sold for the record price of 330,000 yuan.
Some dogs are eliminated if they are chosen for breeding by course instructors. For these dogs, appearance is the only criterion — uniform coats, hunky physique, and attractive faces.
Breeder dogs stay in separate, more spacious kennels. Each dog selected for breeding gets a private small yard and is fed higher grade dog food. And to prevent their muscles from weakening, they are exercised every day.
From the day he started training her, Guo hoped Leopard would be eliminated. “So she could come home with me,” he says. When the elimination list was announced, Guo was not the least bit surprised that Leopard’s name was on it. The official reason was “small build.”
For the auction, Guo had saved money in advance and hoped to help Leopard qualify as a guide or rescue dog, so she would get a license to remain in his custody.
He had already researched places where he could bathe her for a little over 100 yuan per wash in Shenyang. He had also begun to gradually correct her habits. Ferocity is certainly undesirable in a pet.
But on the day of the auction, all his plans went awry. The final bid for Leopard far exceeded Guo’s budget.
An unprecedented auction
In the past, it was not uncommon for trainers to buy their partners back. At that point, the winning bid usually capped out at around 2,000 yuan. For example, only 20 or so people attended the auction in March, where puppies deemed unfit for training were auctioned. Bidding started at 200 yuan, and the highest bid was only 1,700 yuan.
Online, the price of a certified purebred German Shepherd is generally less than 10,000 yuan.
But in June, news of the auction went viral on Weibo, drawing unprecedented attention.
On July 7, the day of the auction, prospective buyers began lining up at the gate of the Police University two hours in advance; at least one thousand people were admitted. Freshmen in police uniforms stood at the gate, forming a blockade to stop more people from surging in.
When it was Leopard’s turn, the bids didn’t stop: 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 yuan. Guo had originally only set aside 3,000 yuan but was prepared to call out “5,000!”
He was thwarted, however, when another bidder yelled out, “20,000!” Beaten, Guo muttered under his breath before leaving his seat. He went over to Leopard’s kennel and let her out.
In the end, Leopard sold for 61,000 yuan. Guo vividly recalls that moment. He had never wanted so desperately to be rich.
Before the auction, around 40 out of the 54 trainers had announced their intention to try and buy back their partners. None succeeded.
Bubu’s trainer had only set aside 10,000 yuan. When the bids rose beyond 20,000 yuan, she sobbed in her seat.
The farewells were hurried and painful. Just that morning, the trainers had disinfected the kennels to prepare them for those attending the auction. By noon, the dogs had already been introduced to their new owners, leashes were handed over, and the dogs’ capabilities demonstrated.
A buyer who asked to be identified only as Lü drove overnight from Beijing to take part in the auction. Others had arrived the night before from even further away, such as Hebei, Inner Mongolia, and Zhejiang.
Before the auction, bidders only get a quick tour of the kennels and briefly meet the dogs before deciding.
Lü bought both No. 30 and No. 7 for 51,000 yuan and 61,000, respectively. No. 30 was a male named Ruirui, and No. 7: Leopard.
Lü intended to buy a pair so he could breed them to produce offspring who had the same strong temperament as their parents.
But the dogs were not familiar with each other. On seeing Ruirui, Leopard only howled; she seemed on the verge of leaping over and biting him.
Guo handed the leash over and told Lü: “She has quite an appetite, and is not at all picky.” Leopard was then crammed into a cage and loaded into Lü’s car. With great difficulty, she lowered her head just enough to exchange one final glance with Guo.
On the drive home, not long after leaving Shenyang, Lü began to doubt his purchase. “She knows ‘sit, stand and lie down,’” he said — but only after the commands were repeated two or three times.
Lü thought to himself: a dog bought on the market is capable of mastering these simple commands within six months. So what exactly is so special about them?
Before the auction, all bidders were shown a promotional video featuring dogs that had all passed their evaluations — official police dogs who would never be sold at an auction.
Lü struck up a conversation with an officer and asked him, “Since she’s a military dog, I can’t let her skills go to waste. What can I do to keep her active?” The officer replied, “You’re overthinking. What you’re buying is just a house pet.”
According to the officer, the video was filmed during a competition. “The dogs that were auctioned off had been eliminated after six months, and couldn’t possibly perform the same kind of stunts,” the officer said.
When videos of the dogs on sale were shown after the auction started, the disparity in skills became clear. Lü recalls that, in the video for No. 3, the trainer threw a frisbee, and the dog ran in the opposite direction.
By the time he was halfway home, various social media platforms were already abuzz with videos and articles about the auction. Photos of Xiaoqi — the dog sold for 330,000 yuan — dominated his news feed.
“Now that they’ve made the news, I guess that dog was worth the money. Perhaps even over half a million yuan now,” says Lü. On the drive back, he reassured himself that it would all be worth it in the end.
“Though I don’t have any hopes of turning a profit from them, I don’t think I’ll lose money,” he says. Lü did the math out loud: if this couple were to produce four or five pups a litter, he could easily sell each one for 10,000 yuan “because of where they came from.”
If successful, he would recoup what he had spent within two years. But he also emphasized that he wasn’t in it for the money.
The 330,000-yuan sale was different, though. “Sooner or later, they’ll come to regret it,” he says. “No matter how well trained he is, he’s not made of gold.”
A new home
Before Leopard, Lü hadn’t owned a dog in more than a decade. He only attended the auction because police dogs were on offer. On returning to Beijing, Lü’s friends had seen the news and badgered him about how much he’d spent. He refused to tell them.
One neighbor, a professional dog breeder, said Leopard wasn’t worth a great deal. Lü didn’t reply.
Before he could discover what was special about Leopard and Ruirui, he ran afoul of the authorities. He had initially sent both dogs to his older brother’s company compound, but three weeks later, neighbors called the police.
Lü was informed that it was forbidden to raise large dogs in that area. The dogs were then sent to a garage on the city’s outskirts, from where they had to be moved again when the property was scheduled for demolition.
According to Lü, however, “the dogs’ quality of living greatly improved.” He says they bathe in warm water and dry with a big hairdryer. The car in which he brought them back to Beijing is now their designated vehicle, and they currently stay in one of his factory compounds.
They are also no longer fed dry dog food and instead get meat, chicken carcasses or ribs. Their upkeep sets Lü back about 7,000-8,000 yuan a month. “While Leopard originally only weighed 15-20 kilograms, she’s since bulked up to 36 kg,” he says.
Though both dogs now live in relative harmony, they occasionally quarrel. That’s when Leopard throws a threatening look and Ruirui immediately drops to the ground in a sign of surrender.
Lü says Ruirui longs for freedom and tends to run off when not on a leash. “When my brother smacks him, he holds a grudge, refusing to acknowledge him for all of a week besides the occasional glare,” he says.
Leopard, on the other hand, is just as combative as ever. “Should a dog walk past the compound’s iron fence, she starts howling and snaps at them,” says Lü.
The first dog she fought since leaving school was a blue-eyed husky whose owner persuaded Lü’s brother to open the gate. She shot out, bowling it right over before sinking her teeth into the husky’s neck. In the frenzy that followed, the two tumbled down a hill together.
Ruirui, however, never goes looking for trouble. It’s only when Leopard gets in a fight that he goes over to partake. “He timidly snaps at the other dog’s hind legs, hardly even biting before he runs back,” says Lü.
Though Lü initially hoped to mate Leopard with Ruirui, all his attempts were fruitless. Since then, he has tried arranging for her to meet three more studs; none of these efforts were successful.
She immediately bit them upon meeting, scaring them out of any attempts at courtship. Lü then met a man named Captain — someone with experience in training military dogs.
Captain showered Leopard with praise, saying that she is a purebred and that, because of her pedigree, he was willing to waive the matchmaking fee of 2,000 yuan. He described her as a “fierce woman” — pretty, with a fiery temperament and high standards.
He also mocked Lü’s breeder neighbor for his poor judgment: “You are a hack, much like your pups.” He tracked down a handsome stud with whom Leopard was all too happy to get acquainted.
After getting pregnant, Leopard became far less energetic than before, and often suffered from morning sickness. Lü’s brother has started giving her an extra meal a day, mostly apples; two eggs in the morning and two in the evening; as well as bone broth at noon.
During a video call with Guo, Leopard’s former trainer didn’t want her to see him, fearing it would stir up old emotions. “She’s no longer my dog,” says Guo, who sometimes still speaks wistfully of Leopard to his classmates.
Guo now plans to adopt a new dog. He’s still mulling his options — maybe a Labrador, perhaps an Alaskan Malamute. This time, though, he intends to raise it from a young age and see how well it goes.
Guo Yicheng is a pseudonym.
A version of this article originally appeared in Positive Connect. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Courtesy of Positive Connect)