A dog's best friend - Geoff Bowers' journey from SAS to dog centre owner
Abbie Napier meets former military man turned entrepreneur Geoff Bowers who has spent the past two decades trying to understand, and helping others to understand, man's best friend.
When former British special forces sergeant Geoff Bowers joined the police, he was given two choices: guns or dogs.
"I didn't want to hold a gun any more, so I chose dogs," he says.
That decision, made more than 20 years ago, would have a lasting impact, propelling him into a life devoted to man's best friend. In the past decade or so, he has founded and sold raw dog food company K9 Natural and kick-started Kuri, the one-stop dog centre near Christchurch International Airport.
His success is self-made, yet not without its challenges. Since he turned 15, his life has been "manic". But he's the first to admit that's the way he likes it.
These days, his time is spent ensuring his new project, Kuri, is a success. In between long hours keeping the business on track, he spends time with his family and elderly German shepherd, Bella.
Right now, he is living his dream, building a centre purely for the welfare of dogs. He feels he owes a great debt to dogs and he intends to repay it.
Born in Manchester, Bowers spent his first six or seven years in Salford – dubbed the Bronx of Manchester.
"My parents realised it wasn't a good idea to leave me there, so we escaped," he says.
By age 15, Bowers had given up on school and the only option open to him was service in the British Army.
The next 12 years were spent in the armed forces, six of those in the elite Special Air Service (SAS), seeing active duty in places such as Iraq, Ireland, Afghanistan and the Falklands.
In 1990, a parachuting injury laid him up in a Newcastle hospital where his future wife, Kiwi student Diane, had landed a job. He promised he would visit her in New Zealand one day.
"She didn't believe me."
The following year, true to his word, he went on an army training excursion to Aotearoa and "fell in love with the place". He left the military soon after, planning to "settle down" with Diane and daughter Samantha.
However, the army had other ideas and he was swiftly recalled to serve in the Gulf War.
BECOMING A DOG HANDLER
By the time he was released from service, moving back to New Zealand was financially out of their reach. He needed a job and "exchanging one uniform for another" was a no-brainer. His military training served as a fast track to joining a specialist British police department – dog handling.
From the moment Geoff started his new career, he balked at the methods employed by the police in training their service dogs.
"I couldn't get my head around why we used choke chains and force. In my view, the dog was there to defend me and it was my best friend.
His first police dog was an 18-month- old "gift dog" called Prince. He'd been given to the police because his original owners couldn't handle him.
He came equipped with a passion for biting and a strong will. Prince soon earned the title "Prince of Darkness".
"He was fantastic at his job, which was finding people and eating them. It gave me a better understanding of what dogs are capable of."
By the time he left the police force, Geoff had won the top dog handler award so many times they let him keep it.
Prince was still young when he was killed in the line of duty. Geoff was asked to help train other dog handlers. Insisting he didn't really know what he was doing, he took a year off to learn more about dogs and develop his own ideas for training.
His research took him to Alaska, where he spent three months with wolf expert Dr Gordon Harvey.
"My sole role in the police was to hunt people – legalised people hunting for a job – and the best hunters are wolves. That experience changed my life."
In Alaska, he learnt about the benefits of a raw food diet and the way wolves could work together and function as a family unit. Back home, he started testing his theories on his new police dog, Sam. The police started picking dogs as puppies instead of rescue dogs and the Bowers household became a puppy creche and dog unit.
MOVING TO NEW ZEALAND
Over the next decade, Geoff was paired with six full-time working dogs. But the appeal of life in England was wearing thin and in 2003 they moved to New Zealand where he joined the police force in Auckland.
But the move to the bottom of the world wasn't really about policing.
New Zealand, with its rich farming focus and smaller population, was the perfect place to start the raw dog food company he'd been planning since Alaska.
K9 Natural, a company well before its time, was founded in Canterbury in 2006 with Geoff's new business partners, Bruce and Judy Mayhew.
Despite the naysayers, the company grew, exporting to Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, the United States and Australia.
At home, K9 Natural won prestigious awards for exporting, entrepreneurial success and international business. Exponential growth inevitably meant taking on investors.
"That's when you lose control," Geoff says.
NEXT STEP, KURI
By 2013, he was spending most of his life on a plane, travelling the world promoting the brand. Geoff believed the next step was to create a training/day-care facility like Kuri, so K9 was sold, making his fortune in the process.
He started developing the Kuri concept, trying to secure a tenancy for a day-care, training, retail outlet and grooming business and kennels.
Eventually, he approached Christchurch City Council-owned company, Christchurch International Airport Limited, which had buildings near the airport with spaces available. The deal was signed and Kuri, Maori for "dog", opened in October 2015 – another huge business risk.
The centre has taken off and is rapidly outgrowing its premises in Orchard Rd, Harewood. The day-care business has grown more quickly than anyone predicted. Clients pay $30 to $40 a day for their dog to attend, with training sessions, playtime and naps all scheduled in.
"I was hoping to have 25 dogs a day by the end of the first year. It's been six months and we're at 33 a day."
Unlike other centres, Kuri assesses all prospective day-care dogs to minimise potential problems. About a third of dogs fail the assessment.
Overall, the centre has more than 1000 casual clients on its books, with a further 3000 in the database. Plans for kennels are well under way.
Once again, Geoff's business sense has paid off. In the face of doubters, both K9 Natural and Kuri have flourished. This high school dropout has achieved more in a few decades than many of us hope to in a lifetime. It is the result of graft, sacrifice and smart choices.
"It's fantastic. This is my passion," Geoff says.
Maybe now he finally feels closer to balancing that debt to his best friend.