A canine trainer's dogged devotion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am

Felix Ho is a man who loves dogs so much he moved countries for them.

The Hongkonger relocated to Belgium five years ago so he could pursue his passion: dog training.

For the past 10 years, the 33-year-old has honed his skills as a dog handler and is ranked 16th in the world for training working dog breeds such as German shepherds.

'Some people are dog lovers. I'm a dog-training lover,' Ho said from Belgium.

Next week, he will represent Hong Kong at the world's most prestigious competition for dog trainers, the IPO world championships being held in Finland this year. IPO stands for International Prufung Orden, meaning International Working Test.

The event is organised by the World Canine Organisation, and tests the abilities of a dog and its handler in three categories: obedience, protection and tracking.

'Dogs are very responsive to humans,' Ho said, adding that it takes about two years to fully train a dog to competition level.

Patience and self-awareness are key skills in training a dog. 'You have to put yourself in their heads,' he said. 'The only way to teach him is to think like a dog, see things like a dog.'

Ho said he liked the honesty of dogs. 'What you see is what you get, if you know how to read them,' he said. 'There's no deception.'

When Ho was eight, his father bought him a German shepherd puppy but the family had to return it because it was too difficult to keep in their small home.

At 16, Ho went to Australia to pursue a degree in biological science. He made plans to become a vet but changed his mind when he realised medicine did not interest him. 'I realised that I wanted to learn about animal behaviour, not be a doctor.'

By this time, he was living by himself so bought his first dog, an Alaskan malimut, but returned it because it was not suited to training. 'Even at that time, the trainability of a dog was still more important for me than the dog himself,' he said.

Ho bought and sold three more dogs before settling for a Belgian malinois, a breed of sheep dog.

He will compete this year with his 4 1/2-year-old Belgian malinois called Eclipse.

Competitors and their dogs must score at least 70 out of 100 in each of the three categories, which include obeying instructions and sniffing out a track that someone has walked in an open field an hour before the event.

'It's not hard to train a dog, but to train them to do something perfectly, that is difficult. The dog has to do it with style, speed, precision and with a happy attitude.'

Ho describes himself as a professional athlete in a sport that originated in Germany more than 100 years ago. 'It's fascinating. It's like asking a teacher why do you like teaching, it's about satisfaction.'