VICTORIAN Luke Hura has trained a star-studded menagerie for the small and silver screens, not the least being Koko, the red cloud Kelpie who portrayed the eponymous character in the widely acclaimed Australian film Red Dog.
In his 36-odd years as a trainer, Luke has worked on numerous Australian productions, including Blue Heelers, Halifax and The Man From Snowy River, to name only a few, but counts his experiences working with Koko and the cast and crew of Red Dog as some of the most amazing.
"Red Dog, I think, is one of the most incredible films I’ve ever worked on," he said.
"It’s a very moving film with some incredible messages and it’s those sorts of movies that bring out a lot of emotion in people - I learnt some mind blowing things from Red Dog."
A three-year-old house dog, Luke said Koko had no previous film or stage experience. An Australian champion show dog, Koko had never even been taught to sit.
By the time filming began, Luke had taught Koko more than 60 commands.
"I worked with Koko on and off for about 12 to 14 months before we started filming," Luke said.
"I did a lot of work with him for his audition, which
was shot fairly early on and was used to get finance for the film.
"Once we had the go ahead on the finance front, I worked with him a bit more to get him ready for the film."
As well as having to start from the beginning with the more basic commands, Luke also had to teach Koko some more unusual commands, some of which, he said, most people wouldn’t consider to be tricks.
"Koko had to learn to bark really well on cue, and there is one scene in the movie where he pushes Rachael (Taylor, who played the character of Nancy in the film) off a bus seat, which took about three weeks for him to learn," Luke said.
"But there are some natural dog things I had to teach him to do on command as well - things like walking slowly, stopping, looking and jumping in and out of vehicles."
During the training, Luke said he was always on the lookout for what he calls "magic moments".
"When you’re training a dog, they will have a particular reaction or facial expression when they do something - you have to look for those because when the director needs the dog to make a particular expression, you know what you need to get the dog to do so he makes that face," he said.
Starting out as an obedience trainer in 1975, it was a suggestion of Luke’s talent by a friend in the film industry that gave Luke the foot in the door to the world of television and film.
His first job for television was training an Australian terrier to bark and dig a hole on command for a Victorian building co-op’s television commercial in the 1980s.
Since then, Luke has trained thousands of dogs, as well as cats, pigs, rats, sheep, cows and chickens (chicken training, he quipped, is "a fowl job").
"I used to think different breeds of dog would train better than others, but there have been some dogs I have really been surprised by," he said.
"I’ve trained some dogs you would never think would train well - bulldogs, bull terriers and even a bloodhound.
"In every breed there are the unique dogs who will understand you and will learn faster than others. The same goes for dog breeds that you would consider easier to train - there will be ones who don’t want a bar of you."
With any kind of animal the key to training them was to make them comfortable around you - holding them and handling them properly is a must to make them feel safe and be calm in your presence, he said.
"With the chickens, I would hold them and handle them a lot; once they became comfortable, I would hand feed them with pieces of grape and use a clicker to train them - most trainers use clickers for dogs, but I’m more inclined to use them with animals other than dogs.
"There are some trainers who use fear with the animals to create dominance, but in my opinion this is not only a terrible thing to do for any animal in any situation, but it makes training them far more difficult - if the animal is always wondering if you’re going to hurt them or yell at them, they won’t be totally focused on what you are trying to teach them."
Luke said through the years he had the opportunity to work with some very talented dogs and has learnt a lot from the animals.
"Bouncer the Labrador from Neighbours - he gave a lot of people a lot of joy," he said.
"Kyla, a Border Collie who was one of my first dogs; Blue, who played the Blue Heeler belonging to John Woods’ character on Blue Heelers; my Jack Russell, Forest, who was one of the most experienced film dogs in Australia - he did his own movie, Paws, in 1996."
These dogs, Luke said, lived to some impressive ages: Blue lived to be 18, Kyla was 17 and Forest, who died only last November, lived to the ripe old age of 16 and a half.
Bouncer, unfortunately, died prematurely from leukaemia at the age of eight, Luke said.
"It was an incredible experience working with these dogs, and with Koko - watching them through the years, watching how they learn and how they do things," he said.
"If people are open to it, they can learn so much from their animals, especially during the training process."
As for plans after Red Dog, Luke said he is considering taking up some offers and working overseas.
"I have had overseas offers before but I have decided to stay in Australia - I don’t think I was ready for it," he said.
"A lot of the time I have trouble working with other trainers whose methods I don’t agree with - if I’m working I like to be in charge, so I know the animals are being treated and trained how I like it.
"I think that I’m ready to take that step now and head overseas."