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A man and his dog: Mike and Harlie are fellow mentors to a cadre of canines

By LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Two years ago, Mike Mitchell met the dog who changed everything for him.

“Harlie was about a year old when I rescued her,” Mike explains. “She jumped, she bit, she pulled. It was like having a kangaroo and an alligator at the end of a leash.”

Training the energetic, very smart Belgian Malinois gave Mike a tremendous sense of achievement and joy, and led directly to his dog training business, K9 Shaper, which is thriving: since its founding last July, he has coached around 50 canine clients (and their humans). 

Mike had trained dogs for six years before meeting Harlie, so he wasn’t new to the techniques. “But Harlie was a whole other challenge,” he says. “She inspired me to start my business.” 

Harlie’s presence also reinvigorated Mike’s interest in the world around him, he confides. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran, he served in Desert Storm, and as a result of his duties, he carries the burden of PTSD.

“Then in 2014, my parents died within five months of each other. That was a difficult time,” Mike says. “It took a while and a lot of meditation to bounce back. But these days, with Harlie in my life, I wake up energized, glad to be alive. She’s a jewel.”

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Mike and his beloved Harlie

Now Harlie is his calm, collected partner and helpmeet in every way. At the moment, she’s socializing about eight puppies, adjusting their too-rambunctious behavior, teaching them how to retrieve, and so much more. 

“Ours is a praise-driven, mentoring approach,” Mike says. “We train whole families. You can’t just fix the dog, you’ve got to fix the humans, too, the adults and the kids. Show people on your street that you’re good neighbors.”

The two of them are not only in business together, they also volunteer together, providing free training for veterans’ dogs through the Veterans Canine Intelligence Academy, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization “dedicated to assisting Southern California veterans with disabilities and their families with high quality dog training free of charge.”

Mike tells the story of John, a veteran with injuries as a result of his active duty service.

“John’s life has been immensely enhanced by his assistance dog, Bo, a Labradoodle. John has a motorized wheelchair with tractor tires, practically a tank, that he uses on the beach, as well as a regular wheelchair. He’s also got a recumbent bike and a walker. No matter what, Bo’s there with him, trained to take on any challenges and provide support. 

“And then there’s Amanda, whose disability isn’t obvious, but put it this way, she’s no longer afraid to go out into the world because she’s got her service dog Bailey with her.”

Mike makes the point that “all dogs are emotional support dogs in their own way.” But he worries that the term “emotional support animal” is being abused by some people to get special treatment, diminishing the perceived importance of properly trained service dogs. 

“And that means sometimes people with qualified service dogs are challenged and questioned inappropriately, causing more stress to the individual,” he notes.

In addition to volunteering his time and expertise to the nonprofit Veterans Canine Intelligence Academy, Mike also donates a portion of his income to the organization from his for-profit K9 Shaper. 

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Harlie is a mentor to many puppies

The man has always loved dogs, but until he met Harlie, he hadn’t thought about starting a training business. 

“Things just seem to come to me as I go along,” he says. “Like joining the Marines – I really can’t explain why I chose to do that.”

For a long time, the native Iowan worked in operations planning and logistics for trucking companies in Atlanta, Georgia. Since then, he’s been a serial entrepreneur, and one with a sense of humor. “Back in the day, I started a gumball machine company, A Handful of Candy, with my sister,” he says. “That turned out to be not so sweet.

“I also founded Squeaky’s Window Service, did that for a while. Ran an ad agency focused on the trucking industry. Oh, also operated a hair salon with my then-wife. Went into real estate investing. Flipped houses with an ex-girlfriend.

“I moved to Laguna Beach in 2011. This place has been so good to me. I’ll never leave – nothing could make me leave!” He gestures around him. “I love this place.”

For five years, Mike manned Laguna Coffee Company’s booth at the Farmers’ Market, where he became known to plenty of Lagunans.

“There are so many ways to cross paths in this town,” he says. Sometimes literally, of course, when you’re a dog owner.

Then he joined a friend with a CBD business, marketing their wares, also at the Farmers’ Market, until County fees grew too high and “it stopped on a dime.”

“I also was a CERT trainer,” Mike says. “That was very rewarding, also getting to know the police and firefighters.”

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Top of the World is a favorite place to walk

Mike learned to surf and enjoys the art galleries. But he reserves his deepest love for the backcountry.

“After my parents died, I found consolation hiking in the wilderness, on a trail down off Dartmoor, which leads to a little ledge where I’d meditate. I spent a lot of time there healing,” he says. “Every time I passed a certain meadow, I’d picture a yoga class taking place there. 

“One day I showed my yogi friend Liz Campbell the meadow and she and I started sunset yoga hikes. That’s when I founded Backcountry Laguna, organizing guided hikes for locals and tourists. 

“I take people all over, into the Cleveland National Forest, Blackstar Canyon, and the Laguna Coast Wilderness Parks also, of course. Liz and I, I don’t think we missed one full moon hike for two years.”

Ever innovative, Mike’s inner entrepreneur proved useful. “I created a rattlesnake-finding device – a 12-foot painter’s pole with a tennis ball at the end.” Amusing as the device might have looked, it did the job. “We came across eight rattlers that day,” he says.

Now, unsurprisingly, versatile Harlie is being trained to detect rattlers and alert Mike to their presence. “Much better than a stick!” Mike says.

His favorite trail is Laurel Canyon. “There’s that gorgeous waterfall, and off Stagecoach, a massive oak tree – just standing there, you can feel its energy. I love seeing quail, and deer, and wildflowers, and I’ve been lucky enough to see bobcats four or five times on the Wood Canyon trail.”

Best time of day for Mike is just before dawn in the wilderness. “I love the evolution of the sunrise. You hear the birds start up a symphony.

“They’re in harmony. Then as the light changes, the sound breaks up, with the birds on alert. That time of the morning, I feel the possibilities of each day, and I am so thankful to be alive and healthy.”

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Nothing like the outdoors to please a man and his dog

In all his endeavors, Mike stresses his integrity is vital to his sense of himself.

We chat for a while about his daughters, Morgan, an ER nurse, and Rylee, a student teacher. “They’ve turned into wonderful adult women. I’m so proud of them.”

But Mike, who is a qualified AKC Evaluator and Trainer, finds it hard to stray too long from the subject of dogs. He’s excited about his K9 Shaper booth at the Farmers’ Market. 

He has also started “a parking lot for dogs” – a valet service of sorts. Visitors to the market can drop their dogs off while they shop, then pick them up when they are done.

Mike sees a great future for his business. “I can tell immediately, from the way someone holds a leash, whether a dog is trained or not,” he says. “Nothing worse than an owner who lets a dog follow its own worst instincts, foraging in garbage or pissing in the streets. It’s not good for anyone, least of all the dog.”

His expression turns beatific again. “Harlie changed everything. She’s the most magical thing that has happened to me. I know how much power and intelligence she has, and yet she allows me to steer her through life. That’s pretty cool.”

And with that, Mike, serial entrepreneur, U.S. Marine veteran, backcountry lover, and “uncle to many dogs,” leaves to mentor another family – along with their pet – determined, with his beloved Harlie, to teach them how to live their best lives together.