A Dog Trainer's
Journey

Luzelle & Puppy Sage of HausTralis Malinois at Starbucks Botany Auckland

By Luzelle Cockburn

I never set out to become a dog trainer. When I got my first dog, that thought was the furthest thing from my mind. But it happened. And I finally feel like I’m making a difference in the world. Seeing once frustrated dog owners actually being able to enjoy their dogs brings me no end of joy. So enjoy the story of my journey as a dog trainer.

The start of a journey

Before I got my first dog, Zak, I was watching every TV dog trainer and brought their books. I even went and got my responsible dog owner license from the Auckland City Council (New Plymouth doesn’t do this which is rather sad) before Zakkie arrived. Seriously, I’m the ultimate nerd. When I dive into a new thing I want to know everything about it.

I wanted a dog from the top 10 most intelligent breeds, and I didn’t want a puppy – totally a good decision, I was woefully unprepared for the challenges a puppy would bring. We saw Zakkie’s cute face on Trademe and wasted no time in getting him! Dobermanns were number 5 on the list of most intelligent dogs. When Zakkie arrived I really still had no idea despite all the episodes of “Dog Whisperer” and “It’s Me or The Dog”, so off to the training club, we went. Poor Mark, my husband, tagged along to everything, and at least Zakkie provided the entertainment at my expense (it’s a long story, stay tuned, I’ll post the story one day).

Attempting Dog Sports

After we did our intro class I joined a class that was aimed at preparing students for competitive obedience. So being the ultimate nerd and not doing anything by halves, I joined in. We regularly attended and I did my homework and practised my footwork. Unfortunately taking a Dobermann to a class run by people who are used to training Border Collies and German Shepherds don’t result in learning how to prepare your dog for competition.

Needless to say, we failed miserably at that, and our attempt at Agility. But mostly because I didn’t understand my dog. And the club instructors couldn’t help me because they didn’t understand him either (to be fair, their specialty was Border Collies – not Dobermanns). I was left feeling frustrated, embarrassed and disheartened. I thought Zak would never amount to an obedient dog because he was a rescue. I incorrectly thought that if I started with a puppy I’d have success. In the meantime, I met a lady called Alison Green (from Ruzuna Dobermanns who is now, unfortunately, back in the UK) who planted some seeds to steer me towards dog training, particularly for the sport of Schutzhund/IPO.

“When Zakkie arrived I really still had no idea despite all the episodes of “Dog Whisperer” and “It’s Me or The Dog”, so off to the training club, we went.”

Raising a Puppy

So I got a German Shepherd puppy. At this stage, I had been doing more research and investing in my own education. We had also moved to New Plymouth by now. So back we went joining the local Obedience Club. This time Kaz and I got first in class, however, when we went to join Grade 1, Kaz had started constantly sniffing the ground. Which was odd but I eventually figured out that she felt stressed around the other dogs and didn’t know how to handle it. So I decided to train Kaz at home instead.

After a few more months and lots of investment (time and money) in my education to help Kaz, I started making videos of our training. I had also started running a small training group to help others. 

My videos got some attention from other dog trainers who thought I was showing talent and I became friends with a few international dog trainers, like the awesomest Brad Griggs from Canine Services International in Australia as well as James Penrith from Take the Lead Dog Training in the UK. And I made some other amazing dog friends including Jolanda Naarding (from Garsova German Shepherds in Australia I would LOVE one of her German Shepherds, I think she’s the best GSD breeder in all of Australasia, but I digress) and Heather Hammonds (an amazing author and dog woman). Alison from Ruzuna was also impressed by my progress as my lack of skill handling Zak was as obvious as a clown at a ball.

Further Ambitions

My training group started making great progress, the focus was on competitive obedience as that was what I was good at, at the time. And those who were invested in learning did really well. So I decided to get myself a Malinois to realise my dream of competing in Schutzhund (or IPO) a breed known for being extremely difficult, bitey, fast, with a very high prey drive (that’s the instinct that makes a dog chase cats, motorbikes, etc), and also with a tendency to be sharp (think: act (bite) first think later), and did I say bitey? My trainer friends encouraged me along these lines. Some with raised eyebrows asking implying “are you sure you want to do this?”

So I got my little Mali-Monster and if raising Kaz (mostly because she was a typical GSD with health issues) wasn’t difficult enough, this little monster threw a whole new set of screwballs at me. She bit. HARD! I was always covered in bruises – but I loved every minute of it (Malinois owners tend to be masochistic, and slightly unhinged. Delta can single-handedly be credited for raising my pain tolerance). But where Kaz needed me to cheerlead her, Delta needed me to be firm. Except, I was trying to raise Delta, a Malinois, based on the mistakes I made with Kaz, a German Shepherd. It didn’t work. Delta was different. Where Kaz made me look like a professional, Delta made me look like an amateur. I was learning from trainers all around the world to prepare me and Delta for trial. And she was finally ready.

More Lessons

My blind ambitions resulted in me making some not-so-smart-choices. While these choices did result in me becoming a better dog trainer they weren’t so good for my mental health. I ended up working with many, many different and difficult dogs. Dogs that were known for killing sheep, dogs that were so nervous they would bolt the chance they got (and threaten to bite you and I had to make friends with these dogs). I worked my butt off to help a dog learn to love competition heeling after her previous two owners failed her. I also got the opportunity to get to become friends with three amazing dogs that had very bad reputations.

So a long story (that I’d much rather forget) short, Delta ended up with an unplanned litter of puppies. Yup, that’s little velociraptor puppies and both Delta and I were on the verge of a mental breakdown (though she was far more resilient than I). As I was trying to find homes for all these little monsters I learned that my puppies’ half-sister was being put to sleep for sprinting across a field and attacking another dog. And their half-brother had already been put to sleep for seriously injuring a visitor to his home. It wasn’t looking good. 

None of the sports people wanted a puppy because none of them thought much of Delta or the sire of the pups (though after seeing them all grow up that was the best litter of pups I’ve ever seen). I found myself up a seriously stinky creek without any land in sight and stuck in the mud – nevermind without a paddle there wasn’t even a boat.

Good Friends

I reached out for help to my very amazing friend Natalie, well I didn’t need to do much reaching, Nat  (who trains dogs to help disabled people) was there because she’s just awesome like that. Without Natalie I know I wouldn’t be here today. But I digress (the memories of that time still haunts me). I had these puppies with no homes and I knew that I had to do things differently. I couldn’t raise these babies to become monsters like all the other Malinois. I had to teach them how to think, be responsible and respectful little dogs. I had to go against their very nature!

Natalie showed me how. Luckily all my puppies found great homes (well, except one, but her irresponsible owner killed her less than a month after he got her, but we won’t talk about that any further, I’m still furious). The rest are ALL of them successful. 80% of the pups are now serving as working dogs in the Military (one even made the special forces – I’m ecstatic) or Police and the other puppy is the apple of her human’s eye and has turned into a fabulous Malinois. I couldn’t have wished for a better outcome, despite the very difficult circumstances I found myself in. Mentally, it took me a long time to recover (and I’m still not 100% and I’m not sure I ever will be) and it cost me Delta, it is bittersweet because though I lost her, she has since become a dual purpose MWD, and I couldn’t keep a puppy from a litter that took every ounce of my mental and physical strength to raise but after all that stress I was in no position to raise a Malinois puppy either.

The Price of Experience

One of the biggest lessons I learned was that every dog is different. You can’t expect to train all dogs using the same methods, tools or processes. And if you insist that there is only one right way, or that dogs should adhere to a human code of ethics that we’ve somehow come up with, we still have a lot to learn. Dogs are amazing creatures. I’ve seen some nut out problems that put most humans to shame. I’ve met dogs that try to drown other dogs (and even one that pushed his owner in the river then stood on her). Yes, really! These arrogant dogs are out there. I love every one of them!

A fortune later (yup that’s what I spent on coaching and training and life experience) as well as a record number of lessons from blind ambition (seriously I would have preferred a physical beating – though I’d be none the wiser). And giving up the best dog I’ve ever had as well as the sports I worked so hard towards. I’ve lived to tell the tale (almost not). The price I paid for my experience was very high, but it has given me the tools and ability to effectively help many people with their own dogs. I love having the privilege and joy of seeing dogs go from embarrassing, worrying and frustrating their owners to seeing owners being able to finally enjoy their dogs!

Did you find this story helpful?

Did you find this blog post interesting? Leave me a comment below and tell me what you learned and how you plan to change something you are doing now because of this post!

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Hey, I’m Luzelle!

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4 thoughts on “A Dog Trainer’s Journey

  1. This is a fabulous, brilliant post – a bit like the trainer 🙂 Whatever path to get to where you are now, your students are SO lucky to have them helping you with their dogs. What a journey you went on! Brilliant post.

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