Esprit de corps: true-blue top dogs

For a crackerjack team in Pudong, every year is the Year of the Dog. The "dog commander" prizes the loyalty, dedication and friendship of his troops.

Video by Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham and Yao Minji.

Spring Festival decorations are full of pictures of cuddly canines to mark the start of the Year of the Dog. But in law enforcement, every year is the year of the dog, and that doesn’t mean man’s best friend when it comes to criminals and saboteurs.

At a Shanghai suburban center, some 500 dogs are part of a K9 team trained how to sniff out drugs, explosives and criminals on the run.

Tiger, a 1-year-old German shepherd, rushes to the fence, barks and wags its tail furiously as Sun Longgen, head of the center, approaches at a distance. Once inside the gate, Sun plays with Tiger for a bit.

“The boss truly loves dogs,” says Mo Jianwu, training director at the K9 training company in Chuansha town of the Pudong New Area. “And they know it. The dogs get excited whenever he is here. Sometimes I feel slightly jealous because I actually spend more time with the dogs than he does.”

No wonder Sun is called “the dog commander.”

A dog lover since his youth, Sun enlisted in the military in 1976 and received his first training at an arms depot. He quickly moved into army dog training. He came to Shanghai in 2000 and helped build a team of K9 canine coppers to search for drugs.

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Sun Longgen shares an affectionate moment with Tiger, a star performer among his canines.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

In 2007, when Pudong International Airport was being expanded, authorities turned to Sun for security assistance. Copper cables were being stolen because of the high price copper fetched on the black market. The economic loss rose to more than 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million) in just a few days.

That was when “the dog commander,” who was born in 1957 in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, started his own training company, beginning with two dogs.

“It’s a very tiring job that requires a large sense of responsibility, but I just can’t leave it,” Sun says. “You have to treat each dog like your friend, comrade and son, then it will repay you with friendship, loyalty and love. If you devote yourself to a dog, he will reciprocate, even protecting you from bullets.”

Of the more than 500 canines at his center in Shanghai, about half do security work in hotels, conference centers, airports, railway stations and other places. His dogs were hidden heroes at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, World Expo 2010 in Shanghai and the annual Shanghai International Film Festival, among other large events.

When Sun first began building the K9 team, he had to look far and wide for experienced trainers. Gradually, he developed his own training program.

“Any dog can be trained,” he notes. “But just like humans, each is born with a different talent. You have to find their specialties and train them accordingly.”

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Hurricane jumps over trainer Mo Jianwu.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hurricane takes part in a daily routine training session.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Big dogs like German shepherds are best suited for anti-terrorist work because their size and growling looks can frighten criminals, but they are not especially suited to sniffing out explosives at airports for the same reason — they might scare passengers.

On the other hand, English Springer spaniels, much smaller and cuter, have an excellent sense of smell and are usually trained to be explosive K9s. When their noses pick up the scent of explosives, the dogs raise a quiet alert by sitting or lying down until staff come to inspect the suspicious luggage.

“The key is to keep them stimulated and intrigued all the time,” Sun says. “It’s the same as with humans. If you keep feeding them the same food day after day, they grow tired of it. If you never alter training routines, they lose their intrigue. We always need to find new ways to stimulate the dogs and keep them engaged.”

To illustrate the point, Sun presents Hurricane, a nearly 4-year-old Malinois, a variety of Belgian shepherd that is a star performer at the center.

He is a diligent watchdog and fearless when confronted with danger.

“It’s very important to start training when they are very young, barely 2 months old,” says Sun. “We introduce them to the world, exposing them to various kinds of noise so they won’t be stunned or scared by them as they grow up.”

Hurricane, on Sun’s command, sits straight. Only his twitching ears show his excited attentiveness.

Part of the training for anti-terrorist dogs involves using firecrackers to familiarize them with the sound of gunshots.

“They do not cower when faced with knives or guns,” Sun says. “Rather, they get more furious.”

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Hurricane is trained to sniff for drugs and explosives among luggage.

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During a training session, Hurricane seizes the arm of a "terroist" and holds it tight.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Hurricane always remains alert, whether he's on duty or not.

A trainer then poses as a “bad guy,” and Hurricane goes into alert mode, barking. As soon as Mo releases the leash, Hurricane jumps forward to grab the arm of the “terrorist” and holds it tight even as the “bad guy” tries to shake him loose.

“These are not mere dogs,” Sun says. “An untrained dog is a pet. Mine are canines. When I was in the military, I trained K9s, the war dogs. Later, I trained police canines who can help in tracking and solving criminal cases. Now, we have more varieties of working dogs, from explosive K9s who locate bombs to service dogs who help the blind.”

Service dogs are a relatively new segment of Sun’s business.

“New varieties of working dogs are needed now, such as guide dogs for the blind and pet dogs for elderly nursing homes,” Sun explains. “Shanghai is a big metropolis, but we have only 36 guide dogs for the blind when thousands are needed. You need a lot of government support for such charity work.”

It’s costly to fully train a working dog, and profits come slowly. Some people have suggested to Sun that he auction off “star” dogs who worked for big events like the Olympics or Expo, but the idea was rejected.

“They told me these canines can easily be sold for at least 100,000 yuan (US$15,870) each, but their value shouldn’t be measured in money,” Sun says. “They are heroes, and I will treat them like that to their dying days.”

Sun is true to his word. When a trained dog gets too old to work, he goes into pampered retirement at the company. When he dies, a funeral is held and the dog is entombed with a memorial.

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A canine anxiously awaits his trainer.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE