Canine expert Luiz Vasconcelos is living his best life – and can help you and your pooch live yours.
WORDS LAURA TUCK / PHOTOS BRYDIE THOMPSON
Luiz Vasconcelos walks into our interview in his full training get-up, ‘Go Dog’ emblazoned on his clothing head to toe. When he says he has an almost telepathic connection with canines, I don’t doubt it for a second.
“I can look a dog in the eyes, then think in Portuguese and speak in English to its owner,” says Luiz. “It’s a pretty special translation from canine to human language. I’ve loved dogs for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I’d read my father’s books about animals and spend every possible minute surfing, hiking and playing with my dogs. When I received my first pay cheque after completing my studies, the first thing I did was buy a purebred German shepherd – and it was the best investment of my life. When I walk down the beach, dogs seem to run at me from all directions!”
The Brazilian animal guru is the first person in New Zealand to receive a Canine Athlete Specialist certification. He’s competed in global competitions and worked alongside international police, fire and search-and-rescue squads to save human lives. He’s now making his mark in the Bay of Plenty with Go Dog NZ, his business specialising in puppy training, behaviour modification, canine adventures and extreme sports. If you keep an eye on our local streets, you may just see musician Tiki Taane and his pitbull whizzing past on a skateboard, thanks to Luiz’s coaching.
Luiz grew up in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, a vibrant metropolis with more than 12 million residents. “I love Brazil, but I wanted to get away from the chaos,” he says. He and his partner Iris, a nutritionist and pastry chef, arrived in Tauranga three years ago. They fell in love with New Zealand, but Luiz found it tough to feel at home without his five beloved dogs here with him.
“Leaving them behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had dreams for those dogs. I wanted to be selfish and leave them with my mother so I could see their faces again one day, but I knew they deserved new owners who would love them and who believed in the training as I’d done. So, one by one, I said my goodbyes.”
Not long after settling in Tauranga, Luiz was offered a job in Blenheim, so the qualified environmental engineer (who topped his class at one of the best universities in Latin America) moved south. “The engineer salary was more than I’d ever dreamed of in Brazil, but Iris and I realised two things very quickly: that we loved Tauranga, and that working with dogs was my calling,” he says. The pair returned to their happy place and Luiz launched Go Dog NZ.
Brazil is the destination for specialised dog training. Every year, thousands of canine enthusiasts from all around the world visit to learn from the best of the best. Luiz has completed courses with leading trainers like Ivan Balabanov and Mario Verslype, and provided dog training to the Brazilian Army and Marine Corps, US Army and SWAT teams, LA Police and National Geographic. He casually mentions a few other career highlights, such as being selected to join the Red Cross dog security team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
“It was a huge honour,” he says. “I was still working as an engineer at the time, so I had to get a whole month off to go to Rio. I got to meet some of the greatest dog trainers – and footballers – of all time. Between games, we’d do training sessions with the army, but we always had to be on high alert. I was so proud of my dog, Bope [pronounced ‘Boppy’]. He was named after Brazil’s elite police squad and he really lived up to it.”
In Brazil, Luiz bred what are widely considered to be the best working dogs in the world – German shepherds, Dutch shepherds and Belgian malinois. “My dogs competed in international competitions and helped emergency response teams,” he says. “I remember a couple of times being called late at night to help find people lost in the forest. There’s no better feeling than giving a dog a command and watching him shoot off to save someone in trouble.”
Belgian malinois are quite rare in this part of the world, so you can imagine Luiz’s joy when he returned to Tauranga after his stint down south and connected with a local breeder who shared his passion. “I was in Brazil visiting family when she told me the news that there was one puppy left in need of a new home,” he says. “After more than 24 hours of travel, I raced from the airport all groggy and jetlagged to meet them. When I first saw Bravo [pictured below], it was hard to hold back the tears. I finally got the puppy I was longing for, and he’s so much more than I ever expected.”
Luiz takes his career, and Bravo, very seriously – so much so that I’m asked to refrain from cuddling Bravo during our interview. “Bravo is a working dog, so people and other animals must be neutral for him. I train him with other people around, but I don’t allow him to interact with others at this stage.”
Bravo will be right by Luiz’s side when he joins New Zealand Land Search & Rescue as a trainer, having been headhunted to join the team, and when supervising training sessions at Mount grooming and photography company ShowDogs. “I raise my dogs with a lot of balance,” he says. “We start training for sports and obedience, then we focus on specialised areas like search and rescue. With my environmental engineering background, I’d love to eventually work with the Department of Conservation to help track endangered species like kiwi.”
Luiz says New Zealand is yet to catch on to the fact the Belgian malinois is fast replacing the German shepherd as the globally preferred working dog for many industries. “Like I’ve done in Brazil, I’d love to eventually introduce the Belgian malinois to local police departments.”
There’s no denying Kiwis love dogs, but by international standards, there’s room for improvement in the way we train our pups. “Tauranga is a great place to have a pet but I often see people on the beach who don’t have control over their dogs, which is a worry because, by law, you must be in control of your dog at all times,” says Luiz. “It usually comes down to a lack of knowledge, which is something I’m trying to change.”
Thanks to Luiz’s unique skills and undeniable passion for dogs and their wellbeing, Go Dog NZ’s client portfolio has grown quickly. He has just the right touch with puppies and offers a range of progressive services such as K9 Adventures. “Dogs love being in the wild, so I take them on safe, tracked adventures around the Bay, which is a great option for busy owners who work full time,” he says. “Before heading out, I establish a bond with the dog, and we use tracked collars from America, the best in the world, as a safety precaution.”
At the end of each adventure, Luiz provides his clients with a memento in the form of a map that outlines their dog’s movements. Super-keen owners can even track their pet online in real time via GPS.
Luiz is also the only dog trainer in the industry who offers extreme sports coaching to help clients run, swim, hike, rollerblade – and in Tiki’s case, skateboard – with their canine companions. “I teach people how to enjoy all sorts of activities with their dogs that push the conventional boundaries and allow both dog and owner to learn, face challenges and succeed together,” he says.
Happily for his clients, Luiz is naturally gifted at most sports. “I’ve surfed since I was a kid, and the Mount has great waves for dogs, so I’m hoping to organise a canine surf competition,” he says. “The surf culture is really strong here and locals love their dogs, so it’d be a great way to combine the two.
“My goal for Go Dog NZ is to create fun and engaging opportunities for dogs and their owners to enjoy life together, because the relationship between dog and human is one of the most beautiful in the world. Like any other special relationship, you can learn to read each other with a single look, as if you’re sharing a secret that no one else knows.”