One man and his furry, four-legged pal does Malaysia proud at international dog competition.
A puppy is like a blank sheet of paper, says veteran dog trainer Michael Lee Tai Seng. “It is up to us, trainers, how and what we want to ‘draw’ on it.”
He likens training a dog to building a house. To build a house, we need an architect’s plan; in dog-training, a trainer must act as the “architect” for his own dog.
Since he was a young boy, Lee, 43, has been passionate about dogs. He had his first dog when he was seven. He is constantly amazed at their ability to help others, for instance, in search and rescue work, as well as sniffing for narcotics and explosives.
“Dogs can contribute so much to our society,” says Lee, in an e-mail interview from his home in Padang Besar, Perlis.
Not content with being an “ordinary” dog owner, Lee, who is also a businessman, has gone on to participate in local and international dog sports and competitions since the year 2000.
Just last month, he and his Belgian Shepherd Dog (aka Malinois) named Mecberger Lassie took part in the 24th FCI IPO 3 World Championship in Malmo, Sweden. It was a jubilant moment when they emerged fourth in a competition that drew 124 teams from 36 nations! The overall winner was the United States, followed by the Czech Republic, and Spain in third place. The fifth place winner was Slovakia, last year’s champion.
In 2010, Lee had flown all the way to Finland to acquire Lassie when he was just a seven-week-old puppy, from his dog breeder friend, Jan Skogster. Since then, he has been training Lassie five days a week, to cultivate desired behaviours and eliminate undesirable ones.
“Good breeding and working line dogs are hard to come by. My friend, Jan Skogster, had a litter and I paid for a male pup before the litter was even born,” recalls Lee.
“When I arrived in Finland, there was only one male left – Lassie. I trusted the breeder for the quality of the working line pup and knew that I didn’t need to do any puppy selection. The bloodline is there – Lassie’s father is Mecberger Chortoryiski, the Fédération Mondiale du Berger Belge (FMBB) IPO 3 World Champion 2010. The rest of the work would be dependent on the trainer.”
Since Lassie was a puppy, Lee’s vision has been to train him to compete amongst the best of the best in the world. He worked on Lassie to bring out traits such as focus, love of work, speed and precision. He also taught Lassie to be creative and to be able to think for himself.
Those qualities are stated in the International Prufungsordnung (IPO) – or international examination guidelines – of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), that is, the international federation of kennel clubs.
Lee elaborates: “For example, in the off-leash heel work exercise, the requirement is the dog must follow the trainer on the left side with a very close, straight body position. It must be looking up towards the handler, with its tail wagging, have powerful strides and show a prompt reaction when the trainer makes a left, right or about-turn. The dog must also quickly and automatically sit when the trainer stops. The dog must, at all times, focus on the trainer. Most importantly, during the entire exercise, the dog must look happy and be able to work harmoniously as a team with the handler.”
In the FCI IPO championship, there are three levels of competition that reflect progressively harder levels of work involved – IPO 1 (beginners), IPO 2 (intermediate) and IPO 3 (advanced).
Each competition comprises three categories: Obedience, Tracking, and Protection Work. The full mark for each segment is 100 points. In order to receive a title or ranking, a dog must obtain at least 70 points (70%) in Tracking and Obedience and at least 80 points (80%) in Protection.
Last year, after tremendous hard work and effort, three-year-old Lassie was deemed ready to compete in his first international competition – the FCI IPO 3 World Championship 2013 in the Czech Republic. Next, he participated in the Fédération Mondiale du Berger Belge (FMBB) IPO 3 World Championship 2014 in Tuusula, Finland, on May 31 and June 1.
A different dog at home
Lassie is a Belgian Shepherd Malinois, which Lee regards as the best breed in the world for their working ability.
“I don’t know if you remember, when US President Barack Obama came to visit Malaysia, his security team brought a yellow-coloured dog to conduct a sweep of the area for explosives … and many people did not recognise what breed it was – it’s actually a Malinois,” says Lee.
“The name Mecberger is the kennel name to identify the origin of the litter whilst the names Lassie and Lulu (Lassie’s sister) mean that both pups came from the ‘L’ litter. This is also for identification of the pups which may share the same parents but were born at different times. The owner of Mecberger kennel is Jan Skogster,” explains Lee.
Incidentally, Lulu also competed in the same recent dog championship, representing Ukraine.
“The FCI IPO 3 World Championship is an annual ‘best of the best’ working dog competition. Lassie already showed his potential in his first international trial (last year) – he scored 94 points in Tracking, 93 points in Obedience but, unfortunately, he failed in Protection with 67 points. This was caused by his high drive and the strength he was exuding that caused him to be a bit out of control,” said Lee.
Then, at the FMBB IPO 3 World Championship – regarded as an international “best of breed” competition – held in Finland in May, their performance was hampered by the extreme cold. On the day of the Tracking event, the temperature had dipped to 5°C. It was also raining heavily. Both handler and dog were soaked to the bone.
“Poor Lassie had to track in the heavy rain which had washed away the scent after the track was laid. This caused him to make mistakes at the corner. He manage to get 89 points out of 100 in Tracking.
“In Obedience, Lassie performed very well but he made a mistake by not jumping back over the 1.8m A-frame during the ‘Retrieve Dumb-bell With 1.8m A-frame’ exercise. He lost many points because of this mistake, and scored 86 points.
“In Protection, we had to help him release and burn up some of his energy by training him with two rounds of routine bite work before we went in to compete in the field. Lassie performed very well at Protection, with great speed during Blind Searching exercise – active and pressure hold and bark, a very fast and strong bite, full and calm grip, a perfect out after bite and very good control. He scored 93 points. In total, Lassie scored 268 out of 300 points, and was ranked 35th in the FMBB 2014 world ranking,” enthused Lee.
When they are not preparing for competitions, Lee walks Lassie every morning for about 1km. The canine likes to run and Protection is his favourite work. Sometimes Lee takes him for a swim in a lake. In the evenings, Lassie plays with Lee’s children and sometimes they watch movies together.
At home, he is a very calm dog. Also, Lassie is not a picky eater but wolfs down whatever food is before him.
“He is just a simple dog when he isn’t training,” says Lee. “He is very good with my family, very well-behaved.
“He is also very clean. Since he was a puppy, he would not pee or poop inside his kennel or in our house or even when I travel with him to Europe when on some flights he has to stay in his airline-approved crate for more than 18 hours! He keeps his box clean and will only ease himself after I take him out of the box.
“He is just so amazing,” says Lee.
Lassie is by no means the only dog in the house. In fact, there are eight of them. A few are already old while a few others are retired dogs. Lee’s children have a Jack Russell to call their own.
“I’m currently training another puppy, a Malinois too. I can’t train too many as, for each puppy, I need a minimum of 3.5 years to train and get him ready for international competitions. I have no time for too many puppies as I myself have not that many 3.5 years to spare!” quips Lee.
Lee has plans for Lassie and himself to continue to compete on a global level. For now, his eye is on the next competition to be held next year. Watch out, Switzerland, here they come!
UPDATE: At the recent FCI IPO 3 World Championship, Mecberger Lassie scored 281 out of 300 points (Tracking: 96, Obedience: 94, Protection: 91).