Stephanie Lown of Exploring Dogs on Dogs as Heart Healers
Hong Kong/ Ohana/ Pets

Exploring Dogs Founder Stephanie Lown on Going Lone Wolf to Pack Leader

Exploring Dogs Stephanie Lown header Photo by Design/Alisa Chau

Every first Saturday of a month, a phenomenon can be witnessed at some of Hong Kong’s greatest natural sites. Helmed by an eager trekker and her adorably feisty dog, a group of explorers and their four-legged-friends make their way around and fill the area with excitement, admiring all the passing scenes and landscapes.

Leading the way is Stephanie Lown, guiding the travellers who are all in fact part of her Exploring Dogs group. From coasteering with dogs on the rocky columns of Wang Chau Island, to setting camp in the rolling greens of Sai Kung Country Park, she welcomes eager crowds of all backgrounds and dogs of all sizes to join in and experience the lesser-known corners of Hong Kong.

exploring dogs lola standing in front of jin island
Stephanie Lown

Exploring Dogs was born out of a journey to the remote island of Wong Mau Chau, just off the coast of Sai Kung, in July of 2020. “It came about at a time when we were supposed to be socially distancing,” Stephanie explains, “it was a very weird time. Can we go out, can we not? It was a very isolating time, and everyone was struggling mentally.”

Smack dab in the throes of this global pandemic, Stephanie led a group of 27 people and their accompanying pups away from the increasingly restrictive city to an azure paradise brimming with corals and fresh air. An unexpected turnout for Stephanie, that summer day marked the beginnings of her sharing her passion for the outdoors with like-minded adventurers, with everybody’s dogs in tow, of course.

“We spent a few quiet hours out there, and I thought, seeing as so many shelters are struggling at the minute, I wondered if I could put in a ‘giving back’ element to it.”

Many from the group were more than happy to meet with Stephanie for another trip, and even more were offering an outpour of support towards her donating to animal welfare causes and charities. All the trips that followed came with a simple HK$50 donation, plus a small deduction for transport expenses. Exploring Dogs has since accumulated over HK$150,000 in donations and hosted over 30 excursions across Hong Kong!

Returning to that fateful day that began the first-ever Exploring Dogs trip, amidst the splashing, sun, and immersion into their picture-perfect surroundings, it would be near impossible to notice that Stephanie had just been thrown into the deep end in her personal life. At the time, she had been relegated to voluntary no-paid leave at her job and was silently struggling with ongoing depression.

exploring dogs stephanie lown and beagle tigger
Stephanie Lown

“I really struggled during COVID. I've never felt so isolated like that before. That [trip] was eye-opening to me because I always thought I didn't really need other people,” she revealed.

Candidly revisiting her past, she shares that a big hit on her mental health was the passing of her first dog, Tigger. An active yet even-tempered beagle that loved to ‘sing’, he had been by her side since she was 14 years old and was the reason she became so enamoured with venturing into nature.

“When he was diagnosed with cancer, I completely retreated within myself, which wasn’t good. I was like ‘well if I can’t take you hiking, I don’t want to go hiking either.’”

The hikes and walks the two shared were indelibly a huge part of her self care, and in her grief, the weight of life’s troubles gripped her into a chokehold. The period after Tigger’s sad departure was unfortunately bookended by a bad breakup, a stressful flat-move, and (human) friends beginning to relocate away from Hong Kong in droves.

Seeking help, she began to consult a mental healthcare professional to cope, but was then faced with a shock from her employer at the time - she was suddenly let go from her job as a kindergarten teacher as a result of the school finding out she had been receiving medical treatment for her diagnosis of depression. With her previous employer's stigmatization against mental health services and her support system crumbling, her view of friendships and relationships became clouded with cynicism.

It wasn’t until a fateful encounter while fostering for a shelter rescuing dogs from the meat trade that Stephanie met Lola, a fluffy white Spitz-Pekingese mix transported to Hong Kong after escaping a butcher’s knife in Dongguan, that she began to let herself open up again.

exploring dogs lola and stephanie lown trekking in river
Stephanie Lown

A self-proclaimed introvert, there is a special warmth that seeps into Stephanie’s demeanour when she talks about all the animal companions that she turned to for connection growing up.

“What you see is what you get, there’s no BS with them. There’s no judgment, it’s just unconditional friendship. They’re always there for you.”

While she jokingly states that she much preferred the friendship of dogs to “her own kind” in her early years, this love gradually transformed into a strong foundation for her efforts in animal advocacy. As a rescue dog, Lola’s initial introduction into Stephanie’s life and home took longer than normal due to past trauma, but trust began to build and strengthen, and the two formed an inseparable bond.

As if she was living in parallel with Lola, Stephanie also slowly started to unravel from her cocoon, returning to her old favourite pastime. “I get a lot of therapy from hiking with Lola,” she beams, “Dogs are amazing, hiking is amazing, you put them together and it’s so therapeutic!”

exploring dogs 2nd anniversary party on beach with crowds of dogs and pet owners
Stephanie Lown

Step by step, kilometre by kilometre, the pair settled into a shared ritual of exploring the Hong Kong wilderness together. Trotting along to waterfalls and creeks – favoured spots for Lola, who will always find a way to jump into a body of water for a little paddle – hills, forests, and beaches; the urge to share the beauty of these experiences and sites began to outweigh the nervous compulsion to retreat from other people.

“It takes a lot of trust just to follow some random person out to some strange island, who essentially has you and your dog somewhere far away from civilization. It takes a very adventurous and open sort of person to do that.”

Coming face to face with this realization, the Exploring Dogs trips began to feel like more than just an outlet for her own stress relief. As these trips began to get more and more popular, growing to an average turnout of almost 60 participants during each monthly meetup, the buzz of camaraderie softened up the daunting nature of getting to know new people and reaching out to others.

exploring dogs group photos from different trips
Stephanie Lown

“It was a way to get to connect with people, in nature, with our dogs. It was just such a good icebreaker. Ordinarily I think I’d be awkward talking to people, but when a dog is involved, it just suddenly becomes so much easier. I've met so many wonderful people who are willing to donate their time and money to - not only their own dogs - but other dogs as well other animals.”

The compassion of this community was clearly infectious. Tracing back to era where she had felt socially alienated, Stephanie outlines the importance of asking for help. While she laments that she had been trapped by the unhealthy societal expectation to “just buck up and get through it” during her dark times, she learnt to recognize that depression is a very real and debilitating condition that shouldn’t be overcome alone.

“I really value community. I think community is what helps us through the difficult times. Previously I was very stubborn about being independent. But now I know it’s okay to lean on one another, it’s okay to ask for help.”

exploring dogs stephanie lown looking at lola sitting on her lap
Stephanie Lown

As the trips continued, one thing remained constant and palpable. At the heart of the group, Stephanie had found the type of support and mutual aid she once shied away from searching for.

“People that sign up to my trips kind of automatically have this ‘we got to help each other’ mentality. So if we see you struggling with your dog, someone’s going to come and help you carry your dog or lift you, help you plan your route to safely get you where you need to go, or something. I think that’s what I love about this group.”

Now working at the SPCA and continuing to vouch for greater animal rights and protection, Stephanie has emerged out of her own healing journey towards a pathway lined with the footsteps and paw prints of the community she has found. Joined by Lola, she continues to share opportunities for anyone to connect with nature, dogs, and with other human beings.

“It’s such a joy to do this for people and bring everyone together. It just makes your heart feel good.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Keep up with Stephanie at @livin_da_vida_lola and @exploringdogs on Instagram.

Catch the next Exploring Dogs trip by signing up for updates here and check out their official website here.

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