A Dog Trainer’s Journey

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

A Dog Trainer's Journey. Zak my first dog with his frisbee in his mouth.
A Dog Trainer’s Journey. Zak my first dog with his frisbee in his mouth.

Before I first got Zak (you can read the story of how Zak got to weasel his way into our hearts and taught me all about handling embarrassment when you sign up to our newsletter – oh and you get an awesome worksheet 5 simple ways to get a handle on your dog’s behaviour – click here) 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 was still woefully unprepared, 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, click here to get it sent to you).

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. I was left feeling frustrated, embarrassed and disheartened. I thought Zak would never amount to an obedient dog because he was a rescue. Surely 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 back in the UK) who planted some seeds to steer me towards dog training, particularly Schutzhund/IPO.

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 other ideas and started sniffing the ground. Which was odd but I 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 in my education to help Kaz, I started making videos of our training. I had also started running a training group to help others. My videos got some attention 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).

Further Ambitions

A Dog Trainer's Journey. Delta and I at a Forrest Micke seminar.
A Dog Trainer’s Journey. Delta and I at a Forrest Micke seminar.

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 (act 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 loving every minute of it (Malinois owners tend to be masochists, and slightly unhinged. Delta can singal 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

A Dog Trainer's Journey. My Box of babies! Oh how I miss these guys!
A Dog Trainer’s Journey. My Box of babies! Oh, how I miss these guys!

My ambitions resulted in me making some not-so-smart-choices. However, these choices did result in me becoming a better dog trainer. I ended up working with many, many different and difficult dogs. Dogs that were known for chasing 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 regain her love for competition heeling after her previous two owners failed her. I also got the opportunity to get to know 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. I was up a stinky creek without any way to get out of it.

Good Friends

I reached out for help to my very amazing friend Natalie, well I didn’t need to do much reaching, Nat was there because she’s just awesome like that (who trains dogs to help disabled people). Without Natalie I know I wouldn’t be here today. But I digress. 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) and ALL of them were successful. 80% of the pups are now serving as working dogs in the Military 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 it cost me Delta, who has since become a dual purpose MWD as well, and I couldn’t keep a puppy from a litter that took every ounce of my mental and physical strength to raise.

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 we insist that there is only one right way, or that dogs should adhere to our 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. Yes, really.

A fortune later (yup that’s what I spent on coaching and training) 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!

Hey, I’m Luzelle!
I transform dogs – whose owners are totally over their dog’s bad behaviour – by coaching the dog’s humans to bring out their dog’s inner sparkle! While having a ball and feeling in control!

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