Under sunny skies at Mirabeau Park in Spokane Valley, Nick Lunga is living his dream.
He spun, twisted and shouted as he attempted to break the hold that a very determined German shepherd had on the chew toy in his hand. His efforts proved fruitless.
“Bad guy, don’t move or my dog will hurt you!” warned Lunga’s wife, Jacqueline.
Lunga fell to the ground and the dog stood over him, his ferocious barking echoing across the park. A few minutes later, that same shepherd was lavishing Lunga with love.
The Lungas own and operate I-Guard, a German shepherd breeding and dog training business in Otis Orchards. That seemingly fierce animal is Uno, the couple’s award-winning shepherd.
In July, Uno received a special performance award for his exceptional work in protection and obedience at the 2011 USA Sieger Show in Dallas. More than 250 dogs from across the U.S. competed. I-Guard entered six dogs in the competition and four came home with trophies.
Last week, Uno and his owners demonstrated why he earned special attention. The dog stood silently next to Jacqueline as Lunga sauntered by. “He understands normal behavior,” Lunga explained.
But as Lunga began to approach rapidly in a more menacing posture, Uno barked out a warning. When Lunga continued to approach, Jacqueline whispered a command and the dog launched himself at the perceived threat.
At another command from Jacqueline, Uno released his hold on the chew toy and resumed barking. “That’s called bark and hold,” said Lunga. The dog will stand guard and continue to bark until he’s told to stop.
Later, from beneath the shade of a picnic shelter, Lunga shared his dog training and breeding philosophy, with Uno at his feet. He said you won’t find rows of kennels or cages at I-Guard. In fact, Uno sleeps in the couple’s room each night.
“Our female dogs are fostered out – they have families and live with friends or clients,” he said. “If I kept them in cages like a lot of breeders do, they will have all kinds of issues. These are pack animals and early socialization with humans is important.”
Indeed, the Lungas’ three children ages 6 to 11 play an active role. “Our kids handle the puppies right after they’re born – even before they nurse.”
Lunga traces his love of dogs to his childhood in the Ukraine. “I had the pleasure of training a herding dog with my grandpa,” he said.
Jacqueline said, “He’s had a passion for shepherds his entire life and 10 years ago we were able to turn it into a productive business.”
It’s a business that also benefits the community. “We’ve donated a couple of dogs to the Spokane Police Department and Nick goes out to train with them almost every week,” she said.
In addition to personal protection, Lunga trains service dogs and does basic obedience training. He described one of his most challenging dogs. A desperate owner called him because she was going to have her beloved border collie put down. The dog had bitten several people and suffered from territorial aggression issues.
“The dog hated everybody but her family,” Lunga recalled. After eight weeks of intense behavior modification he said the once antisocial animal became a social butterfly.
Not all dogs have such severe problems. Kelly Woudenberg, of Coeur d’Alene, called I-Guard because her German shepherd lacked self-confidence. “Gretchen is a lovely dog, but she was very timid,” said Woudenberg.
She laughed. “Nick came out and did an evaluation and the first thing he did was put her in the water off the dock!”
Gretchen panicked. But the second time she hit the water she began to swim. “Now, I can’t get her out of the water!” Woudenberg said. “Swimming really improved her confidence.”
The dog recently boarded and trained with Lunga for a couple of weeks. “He works your dog out in public in real-life situations,” Woudenberg said. That was especially important for her. “We take our dogs everywhere.”
Though Jacqueline has watched her husband train many dogs, she’s still amazed by the process. “He gets into the dog’s head and is on the same wavelength,” she said. “I really think Nick has a gift.”
Lunga said he believes Uno has great things ahead of him. “Uno’s dad was the 2006 Universal champion,” he said. “We’re planning to compete in nationals in November and move on to the Universal show in Austria.”
Uno sighed and laid his head on his paws, but his ears flickered when he heard his name. Lunga reached down and rubbed his head. “This has been my dream since I was a kid.”
Jacqueline smiled at her husband. “I honestly don’t think it’s work to him.”