Skip to Content

The Stray Dogs of Vietnam that Changed My Life

Vietnam, until recently, has not had a pet ownership culture. Dogs and cats were a food source or a piece of property to be used for various practicalities.

Due to cultural beliefs, dogs were kept outside. Usually chained up and poorly treated, they were meant to ward off bad luck and provide symbolic protection throughout the night.

Not guard dogs as such, but their presence was supposed to keep the dangers of darkness away. Even with that association with fortune and protection, dogs were not respected. 

Those not eaten or chained up were (and still are by some) viewed as vermin and a burden on the streets. Scavenging on waste and rubbish and eating feces (something common in canines), dogs are thought of as dirty animals. They were certainly not an animal to invite into and share your home with. 

I am thankful to say that this way of thinking is on the turn. Whilst nowhere near the level of Europe, the USA, and Canada, Vietnam is becoming more dog friendly.

With an increase in expat communities, social media influencing, and a new generation that regards dogs and cats primarily as companions, pet care is on the rise. 

Finding ARC Dog Rescue Centre

When I first arrived in Ho Chi Minh, the number of strays was immediately evident. I had recently quit my office job in the UK to travel the world with my fiancé whilst working remotely. With some part-time work secured, I had free hours in my day and wanted to volunteer locally to give back to the country I was living in.

As animals have always been a love of mine, animal shelters seemed to be a logical place to start. I quickly found ARC Vietnam, a shelter that worked with Veterinarian Dr. Nghia of Saigon Pet Clinic in Thao Dien. I signed up to help with walking, cleaning, and anything else that might be needed.

The following Tuesday, I made my way over to the shelter, excited to meet the dogs and totally unaware that this centre, with its small group of animal lovers and challenging but charismatic four-legged residents would change my life completely.  

That first day was hot, chaotic and not what I expected. Admittingly, I was a little disappointed. The dogs were standoffish or scared and pulling away from me. Not the type of dogs you usually see clambering over each other, begging for your attention in the UK shelters.

The people were busy and not unwelcoming but not overly friendly either (I would later learn that many volunteers tended not to return after the first day or two). However, I turned up 3 times a week and with each visit, the dogs recognized me and began to trust me. The people too.

And I was fascinated by it all! I loved spending time with the dogs; who doesn’t, right? But it was the rehabilitation of the dogs that had me hooked. Dogs would turn up traumatized, terrified or in attack mode and the amazing people at ARC would work to rebuild them and find loving families to adopt them. 

 Molly – Overcoming Mange

Rescue dog sitting on scooter in Vietnam
© Emma Bowdrey

Dogs turned up full of mange, a skin disease caused by mites which leaves their host hairless and suffering from dry, flaky skin and open, weeping pores. Molly was one of the first dogs I handled, other than walking, and her case of mange was by far the worst I have ever seen.

Molly had been at ARC seven months before I arrived. She was a long-termer and taking a long time to heal. I could only imagine how much pain and discomfort she must have been in upon arrival as what I saw was pretty dreadful.

Her skin was red raw and produced a yellowish sticky fluid each day. Her eyes barely opened due to the mucus that was secreting around them and the smell she gave off was pungent, to say the least.

It took many more months of bathing with special shampoo, eye drops and protective clothing for her fur to grow back and her eyes to shine brightly. Molly now lives with a wonderful, caring owner in Taiwan. 

Oscar – Deformed Legs Due to Caging

Northern dog breed mix with deformed legs in Vietnam
© Emma Bowdrey

Dogs arrived at ARC with deformed limbs. Oscar, a Siberian Huskey pup had been kept in a cage by his owner. He rapidly grew and it must not have been long before he could not stand at all in the small space he was confined to.

He was only 4 months old when he came to ARC. We could see immediately that his hind legs were deformed; almost crossing over each other as he tried to walk.

His bones had not been allowed to grow properly and the muscles around them had not had a chance to develop and become strong. But what a joy he was to be around. He was a huge fluffball.

I am happy to say that as he was still quite young, in time his hind legs corrected themselves and he now lives in Canada on a huge estate with a wonderful family. 

Nau – A Wounded Nose

Healing process of dog's wounded nose
© Emma Bowdrey

One young dog, who we named Nau, had his nose split in two by a machete. It was a shocking sight. The veterinarian performed unbelievably accurate surgery to not only save the life of the pup but to reconstruct his snout in its entirety. Nau still has an obvious trauma to his nose but is now living a happy life with a caring companion. 

Zin and Dana – Inseparable Friends

Whilst all the physical rehabilitation in itself is incredible and hard work, mental rehabilitation is the most challenging, and the most rewarding. 

Zin and Dana were two female pups that were found one night. They were so terrified of people that for the first 2-3 weeks, only one of the ARC’s more permanent members spent any time with them to build a bond of trust.

She told me that anything more than that would be too overwhelming for them. They did not trust people. They did not trust other dogs and they were completely glued to each other. 

Each visit I enquired about them and how they were getting on. Finally, I was allowed to meet them. I was thrilled but told to be calm, slow and completely ignore them. The key was to allow them to come to me should they choose to. That first time was just heart-breaking. You could see how completely terror-stricken they were. 

Becoming a Dog Behaviourist

With the immensely inspiring care provided by that one member of ARC’s team, Zin and Dana started to integrate more with the group. 

Zin, a brindle-coloured Dutch shepherd mix, was the first to really show her character. And her love of food! She began socialising with the other dogs and started to welcome people who approached her.

While still nervous and skittish, you could see she wanted to engage. It took some time for her to receive any petting; a human touch was too foreign to feel nice. 

Dana, a much smaller mix, took longer. Extremely resistant to people, she stayed in Zin’s shadow. If Zin moved in a way that she could not be by her side, she sat hunched over with her face down. Another of the long-standing members of ARC’s team started to spend more time with Dana.

Taking her to her house a few evenings each week to encourage more interaction with others. She was gentle and calm and, without being forceful, she pushed Dana a little each time to be involved. She also indulged her a little too by bringing her out on the team lunches. It worked; Dana was a beautiful girl, who started to come into her own. 

After seeing how these women changed the lives of these puppies, I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. No more IT for me! At 30-something years old I went back to school to study canine behaviour and psychology.

I now live in Prague, running my own dog training business. I continue to donate my time to animal shelters, providing free support during the adoption process. Dogs need time to settle into their new surroundings, especially those with traumatic puppyhoods.

I try to ensure that with the right guidance and training no dog is given back to the shelter. It’s challenging but more suited to me than IT.

This post is contributed by Emma. If you would like to share some unique content with my lovely audience, click on my guest posting guidelines and shoot me a message.

Pin This:

About Danielle
I am the founder of PawLeaks where I share weekly tips on dog training and behavior. Sharing a passion for dogs and helping owners to solve problems through understanding canine behavior and modification is my number one goal.


Sunday 10th of May 2020

Thanks for sharing this Vietnam rescue story. Hope they're all well now

Emma Bowdrey

Monday 11th of May 2020

Thank you Keven, glad you enjoyed it. Yes, all the dogs that were living at ARC while I volunteered have now been rehomed. The centre has gone on to help many more dogs find their forever homes.