It was as a garage-based pet shop two years ago that Manalo K9-Vigilant Canine Services International began breeding and training dogs for K9 teams in the country and abroad.
In 2007, veterinarian Abel Manalo, founder of Manalo K9, started a pet shop business just as he was settling down with his wife. The newlyweds were expecting their first child, and his food and beverage distribution dealings were looking too stressful. "I wanted to stay at home. I didn’t like having to make the rounds in hotels and restaurants," he said.
He decided to shift to dog breeding, a side venture that he had pursued since college after a fellow student at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) sold him a female rottweiler, which he bought with his savings of P15,000.
With P10,000 in start-up capital, his dogs, and whatever tables, aquaria, and other supplies the he could get his hands on, Mr. Manalo set up a pet shop in his garage — but only as a way to pursue his passion for canine care. "Puppies sold better than fish or birds," he said. "The pet shop was a front to call attention to the dogs."
Sometime later, a trainer-friend visited the shop and offered to teach Mr. Manalo’s house help, Alfie, dog training. When the lessons were over, Mr. Manalo saw that with his own knowledge of dogs, he could make something else out of his home business. That was when he decided to offer obedience training.
At first, he offered the service to friends. From the industry standard of roughly P8,000 per course, he dropped the price to P5,000. "Just to test the waters. The clients were happy, and I was pleased," he said.
MANALO K9-VIGILANT Canine Services International at work
Mr. Manalo started to place ads in pet shops and veterinary clinics, and within eight months, the training service was raking in around P100,000 a month.
Soon, Mr. Manalo met Leo Escobedo, another dog trainer who came into his shop looking for detection dogs. Mr. Escobedo, who was connected with a K9 service company that had trained with the Coast Guard, Philippine National Police, and SWAT, suggested that he and Mr. Manalo team up for a detection and handlers’ training course, with Mr. Manalo’s own dogs as their first students.
Videoclips of the dogs’ training sessions, which he uploaded on YouTube, the popular video sharing Web site, elicited many favorable comments, which in turn encouraged him to post more videos, particularly those of dogs learning new commands. "It was just for fun; my wife made home videos of me with the dogs. It was just showing off. It turns out, that was marketing already."
But his YouTube posts also attracted unwanted attention from other trainers, including a person he considered his mentor, who criticized his technique.
"I thought this was supposed to be a happy, friendly business, getting clients to enjoy being with their dogs," he says. "But I guess, among different trainers, it really was just business."
His videos did yield new opportunities. One of his viewers, an employee of Selective Security, an agency that supplies explosive detection dogs to malls and other large establishments, asked him to train K9 teams for the new wing of the Taal Vista Hotel in Tagaytay.
This led to more business deals, with Manalo K9 being asked by a nearby outlet of supermarket chain Shopwise — where the dogs practise their new skills — to help it secure its big events, and by the Rizal police to help it inspect abandoned packages and cars at shopping malls and gas stations. While the Philippines has been using locally trained K9 since the 1940s, it sourced most of its K9 requirements from abroad — a trend that Manalo K9 is now trying to change.
CHANGE OF BASE
The growing venture, however, also meant a growing number of dogs in Mr. Manalo’s backyard — around 30 to 40 at a time — and more neighbors who complained about their incessant barking. After being summoned by the local barangay to at least three hearings, Mr. Manalo moved his business to a 1.7-hectare leased property in Angono. The lot includes private barracks for the dozen or so resident handlers/trainers and an in-house veterinarian.
The local K9 industry is yet to be professionalized, and Mr. Manalo’s group, like other local K9 trainers, is still subject to inspection by the Philippine National Police. The dogs, however, have already caught the attention of K9 experts from abroad. In February this year, a YouTube viewer, Kelly Jean Maguire, showed interest in Mr. Manalo’s dogs. She and two other Americans flew to the Philippines and toured Manalo K9 facilities in Angono. "I thought she was just going to buy a dog."
Ms. Maguire’s party turned out to be from VCSI, one of the biggest K9 services in the world. Headquartered in Las Vegas, the agency also has offices in Kabul, Afghanistan and in South Africa.
A person in the group, VCSI CEO Buck Dikes, took Mr. Manalo aside and asked if they could form a kind of team agreement. "Of all the trainers they saw, we were the ones they liked. The others they found difficult to deal with," Mr. Manalo said.
Manalo K9 has been under the VCSI umbrella as Manalo K9-VCSI since March. They train VCSI dogs from South Africa and have been improving their facilities and techniques to comply with US military standards.
To teach its dogs to withstand extreme environments, the K9 agency has sought the help of a top K9 trainer who has experience in high-risk areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Among other things, they now have the capacity to perform water detection, used in cases like checking sinking boats for people trapped inside.
Manalo K9 serves as a cheaper alternative for the big K9 market in the US, where professional dog training is costly. This year or next, they will be supplying police dogs to California.
But if Mr. Manalo had his way, he’d rather that his dogs, which he likens to human overseas Filipino workers, stay in the country and improve local security. "Instead, they are sent abroad, where there is greater demand for them," he said.
While the country still has a long way to go before its K9s reach international acclaim, breeders like Manalo K9-VCSI are beginning to catch up to global dog training standards. Recently, Mr. Manalo has been training with the Armed Forces of the Philippines to bring the military dogs up to snuff.
What still needs fixing is the lack of professionalism in the local field. Mr. Manalo says he has been repeatedly frustrated by breeders who fake their dogs’ pedigree papers. Also, working closely with government agencies means that he often gets snagged in red tape.
Mr. Manalo has told soldiers, policemen, and other trainers that he would rather train for free than deal under the table. Being a VCSI affiliate also means that engaging in corrupt practices would affect not just Manalo K9’s local transactions, but its integrity to international security and military groups. "Corruption only hinders the growth," he said.
Mr. Manalo eventually closed the pet shop to focus more on the training business, in part because it was turning out to be more profitable than selling pups.
Mr. Manalo, who studied veterinary medicine at UPLB, was involved in different businesses prior to his K9 training school. He says he is glad for his initial forays as it allowed him to pick up important business skills, such as accounting and marketing, despite not having a degree in the field.
"I went into pre-need and other businesses because they said that’s where the money was. But once you’re doing what you love, the money comes to you," he said. He doesn’t discount the edge that his vet training gives him either. "I know more about dogs than those [in the breeding/training business] who aren’t vets," he said.
When he was still new to the business, Mr. Manalo recalls a cousin scoffing, "That’s just a hobby." But he told himself, "No, I can make this grow." The legions of the dogs he has trained will bark in agreement.
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