Vietnam dogs not just for dinner

HANOI – On a summer evening in central Hanoi, 22-year-old Son relaxes with his girlfriend as their pet poodle Bean plays on the grass among a menagerie of dogs including huskies, a Doberman and a pitbull-mix.

"Lots of people bring their dogs here," says Son, a driver. "In the afternoon it's cool and Bean likes to swim in the pond."

Son is among a rising number of pet owners in Vietnam, where dogs are more traditionally used for their meat. That tradition is coming under some scrutiny, but seems not be holding back the growth of the pet sector.

The first pet store opened in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006; now there are around 50 there and dozens in Hanoi, says Wayne Capriotto, director of marketing agency Digi-escape Vietnam, which focuses on the up-and-coming pet sector.

"A lot of people have these dogs and want to show them off, that's the new generation of wealth, but there's the companionship too," he says.

Bean cost Son around $75, not so expensive for a pedigree. But looking after the dog is cheap, apart from the occasional splurge. "I spend up to $25 getting him groomed," his owner says.

As disposable incomes rise, dogs and cats are becoming status symbols, especially Western breeds, and being treated more like members of the family.

One man harnessing this trend is 34-year-old Texan Ricky Forester, who founded training school Alpha Dog in the capital two years ago, and has moved to bigger premises twice to keep up with demand.

"When I first started, everyone told me there wasn't high-enough demand, people weren't going to appreciate the service. Of course they were completely wrong," he says. "People are really, really turning towards more of a dog-loving society instead of keeping them locked in cages or on chains."

But Vietnam is still a nation of dog eaters. Every year around 5 million animals are slaughtered for the trade, according to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance. Many are strays captured from rural areas, often from neighbouring countries, or stolen, with dog thefts getting increasing coverage in local media.

Prices have risen since the government cracked down on imported dog meat to curb rabies, increasing profits for thieves, said Le Duc Chinh, Vietnam coordinator for ACPA. A dog fetches around $35 from a butcher or restaurant.

"At the moment the media talks a lot about the dog-meat industry. There is a growing negative perception," says Mr Chinh. This is partly because of the way the dogs are killed. The animals are often beaten to death to release adrenalin, which makes the meat more tender.

On Phung Hung Street in Hanoi's Old Quarter, the women staffing the stalls stacked with dog meat are reluctant to talk about their trade to a journalist.

One stallholder who gave her name only as Loan, said she buys live dogs from her village and slaughters them herself. She did not comment on how she kills the animals.

"Most of my customers are owners of dog-meat restaurants," she said. "You can make sausages, marinade the meat in lemon grass and eat it on kebabs, and many other ways."

"From what I've seen of the industry, they like adrenalin in the meat, they like the taste," dog trainer Mr Forester says. "There are a lot of different processes, like putting them in sacks and beating them, electrocuting them, cutting them and bleeding them out."

Once people get attached to an animal, it becomes much harder to eat that individual, he says, but there are exceptions. "When I grew up on farms, I loved our goats, but they were also very tasty," he adds.

Dog consumption does appear to be on the decline. A survey published in Thanh Nien newspaper in April said a narrow majority of respondents, just under 54%, were against eating dog meat.

However, not everyone is convinced. As Son ruffles the ears of his poodle Bean, he admits that he is partial to a plate of dog meat every once in a while.

"Sometimes I eat dog; not every day," he says. "To be honest, I don't think about it."

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