Ivan Balabanov, The Road Less Travelled
Ivan Balabanov is a x7 AWDF National Champion, x5 AWMA National Champion, USCA National Champion, FCI World Champion and FMBB World Champion. He achieved these championships with dogs of his own breeding, Ot Vitosha working Malinois. He is a trainer to competitive dog handlers and an author. He is a self-described ‘dreamer’ who above all is a student of animal behavior and an animal lover.
My intention for this article is not to write about his accomplishments which are easily found on the internet, but instead, explore his life experiences that shaped his journey in dogs and his life. To my surprise and delight, he accepted my invitation for an interview.
Disclosure: this is not a short article. Ivan's story is full of so many fascinating events that shortening it could not have done it justice. I suggest you grab your favorite beverage, settle into a comfy chair and take a few moments to soak in his amazing story. Trust me, it's worth it.
2016 AWDF Championship podium with Ebor Ot Vitoaha
I met Ivan in early 2001 in Northern California at one of his seminars. It would be the first of many that I would attend. Mainstream training methods nearly two decades ago were crude by today’s standards. Ivan was a counter culture personality to the mainstream methods and perhaps a peak into future methods that have since been adopted into the training systems of many of today’s top IGP competitors. Ivan is soft spoken and cerebral. His concepts are based on decades studying a variety of animal behavior as well as practical training. He is sophisticated, nuanced and very precise in his language and concepts regarding training. Perhaps what stands out most is his unwavering belief in ensuring the dignity of the dog when training. The second thing you will surely notice is his mischievous sense for fun.
The way I came about attending the seminar was through my early Schutzhund mentor Ajay Singh. That one seminar tilted my understanding of dog training on its axis. When I walked on the field for a turn with my dog, Ivan saw my stiff handling and stopped me. I was so serious and focused. He instructed me to relax and play with the dog. I didn't really understand but complied. He suggested ideas to play in better harmony, to remove conflict and build the dogs desire to offer behaviors. It was a break through moment for me and had a profound effect on my training philosophy going forward. At this point, my experience was limited to having titled a single dog to SchH3. We hung out after the seminar chatting. I was admiring his female Malinois named Cindy when he asked “Do you want to work her?” I immediately replied “Yes!” I was thinking he meant in obedience but then he handed me a Gappay sleeve, a stick and said “Run as fast as you can, I’m going to send her.” I had never caught a dog and was certain I was going to get bit on the ass but i did it anyway mostly out of morbid curiosity. I caught her doing a sort of escape thingy and in the background I could hear Ivan laughing and yelling “Good, Good!” . I slipped the sleeve and jogged back with a huge smile. It was a hell of a first impression.
Ivan was born in communist era Bulgaria. He lived in a small border town called Sofia on a large property that had a number of homes that his extended family lived in. This arrangement was customary in old world Bulgaria where Aunts, Uncles, Cousins and extended family would all casually flow from house to house. There was always activity and kids playing in the yard. From the youngest of age, Ivan had an affinity and connection with animals. There were stray dogs in the village and Ivan would continually try to adopt them only to find that they had disappeared in the morning. His parents would pretend to look puzzled and it was always a mystery to young Ivan. The stray dogs he came in contact with were street wise and would generally avoid people, yet Ivan had a way of finding a connection. He would study the pack behaviors, hierarchy and routines. He would try to anticipate the behaviors. His dad worked with border control and at dinner would tell stories of border patrol dogs that filled his imagination. Ivan was not allowed to own a dog and the combination of the stories, his love of animals and being prohibited from owning them set deep roots of desire. A fascination for working dogs started to emerge. At that time there was no internet or and his remoteness meant they rarely had access to dog sport magazines. His world view of working dogs came from folklore and seeing border patrol and police dogs. However, somewhere inside he knew this was his future.
Archive photo of Ivan. He had a toy dog, because he was not permitted to have a real dog.
In the late seventies his family relocated to Libya where is Dad had an assignment as an engineer. When they settled in their new home, he found a shepherd mix guard dog at a military airport that had puppies. Ivan would visit the dog daily and try to talk through the fence. But mostly the dog would try to eat him. Eventually, he built a relationship with the dog and dared to lift the fence and take a puppy. Ivan was now a dog owner, his name his new puppy Leon and now Ivan could be a dog trainer!
As the puppy matured Ivan began protection training. His dad had limited experience with dogs from having watched border patrol dogs being protection trained and tried to share what he had seen. In the early sessions Ivan would wrap a rag around his arm and create movement to get the dog to bite. He would work the dog off leash in the woods, progressing to wrapping his body in towels and sheets for leg and arm bites on command.
Archive photo, Ivan getting his start in Ring in Belgium.
One day while walking off leash on a trail in the woods, Leon alerted to something ahead. His hackles went up and he switched into protection mode. Ivan was thrilled to see his training being put to test, got caught up in the moment and sent the dog to get the ‘bad guy.’ He instantly realized his huge mistake and almost soiled his pants. He ran home as fast as he could and hid in his room. Later that night his father came home with the Big Boss from work. They were looking for Ivan’s dog. Ivan was shaking in his shoes when he came out of his room when they called his name. The Big Boss told him his dog had bit one of the workers in the butt. He checked out the dog and said that Ivan could keep the dog on condition that he would keep it on a leash.
In 1980 his family returned to Bulgaria. Ivan learned a trade as an electrician and could now support himself. He got a Collie/Shepherd mix and began training with a working dog club. He passed the military trial test which would become Ivan’s first dog title. At the club he would hear stories of amazing Malinois working dogs from Belgium and big Schutzhund trials in Europe. People would visit the club and describe the dogs and training. He never actually saw one but from tales he would hear if fromed a mental image of something really cool. One day while leafing through a Dog Fancy magazine in a store, he finally saw a Malinois dog in an advertisement in the back pages. It was love at first sight. He voraciously researched the four types of Belgian Shepherds and decided he needed a Tervuren because they looked like his Collie/Shepherd mix. He also set his goal to move on to Belgium because that seemed to be the center for the highest levels of dog sport training.
Relocating to a country where you don’t know anyone, let alone speak the language is daunting for anybody. But in the context of leaving the communist block, well, it takes on another level of difficulty. He would have to sneak out, jumping trains and crossing borders, risking getting caught by the border patrol. He never knew what would happen if he got caught, but knew it was not good.
Pause here and reflect: Ivan was going to escape the communist block because he learned of a breed of dog in the back of a magazine while standing in a store, and decided that training them was his calling. He would risk all to make that happen. And do so he did! In reality, he made a point that this was not even a choice, he could not see an alternative.
He knew that for him to train at the levels that he knew he could, he would have to go where the training was the best. He jumped a train with a sack containing some cloths and his electrician trade tools and crossed over the border. But then the train took a path back to the communist side. He realized the train was taking a zig-zag path, crossing the border repeatedly. Each time stopping for border agents to look in the trains. It was a terrifying experience but he finally made it to Germany. He had some money from his electrician trade work to help him pay his way and made his way up to Belgium where he was accepted as a political refuge. He was offered assistance by the Belgian government but he respectfully turned it down. His pride would not let him accept assistance and he soon found work as an electrician. In the beginning there were some shady people that tried to take advantage of his vulnerability in his unfamiliar new surroundings. He was not surprise to have to deal with the street element, having dealt with what he did to get there, he felt he could handle the challenge. But things would not come easily for a young man, without a support network and unable speak native Flemish or even English. This was a period of part adventure and part life’s hard lessons. Eventually his trade work enabled Ivan to get an apartment set up a new life. Learning about life in Western Europe, for someone from a small village in Bulgaria, was like drinking from a fire hose.
Despite the excitement and craziness of this period, Ivan stayed steadfast determined to be a dog trainer. He rode a bicycle to watch the working dog club training and knew everything he had done to get there was worth the price. The concept of dog trainer in Europe at the time was not considered a livelihood providing occupation. It was generally considered a hobby. Taking this path would mean having humble means. Ivan had no possessions, no car, not even a bed. But he had an abundance of drive in his quest and saved enough money to buy a Malinois from most famous kennel in Belgium called Des Deux Pottois which is owned by Luc Vastenrugge.
Luc spoke to Ivan through an interpreter and the entire process seemed painfully slow. Ivan saw a dark pigment Malinois with black mask and fell in love. Luc had other thoughts. Having listened to Ivan’s enthusiasm, he decided he should have one particular high drive female with white socks that he felt would make a better competition dog. Ivan was disappointed. Seeing Ivan’s reaction, Luc suggested that Ivan take both dogs for two-weeks, and then decide which one he would keep. Ivan took both dogs and two weeks later returned the dark pigment dog. He named his new dog Nakita and together they would later compete at the 1994 FCI World Championship. But wait...that came later.
Ivan shares the moment with the person that he got his first Malinois from: Luc Vastenrugge
2017 FMBB World Champions Ivan with Qenny Ot Vitosha. Le Toquet, France.
Nakita was a super dog. Because Ivan didn't have a car, he would ride his bicycle with the Nakita running alongside from his apartment to the training ground. They would both be winded by the time they got to the field. She exceeded his expectations in the work and they both thrived with the exposure to advanced training and access to quality helpers. It was a dream experience to compete and also to be able to work on his craft as a decoy in Ring and Schutzhund. Two years after his arrival in Belgium his political refugee status expired and he was he was asked if he wanted to stay and become a Belgian citizen or would have to leave. He wanted to see more of the world and chose to leave.
Archive photo: Riding his only transportation, his bike, to club training in Belgium.
This was his first Malinois. Nakita Des deux Pottois.
For reasons that he didn’t fully understand, Ivan decided on the United States as his next adventure. He applied for immigration and was accepted. He chose San Francisco because of what he had seen in movies. (Seriously, he said that). The immigration department offered Ivan some programs intended to assist him get to his feet. But Ivan declined the government assistance. As he explained why, it was clear that he took pride in never having accepted help from host countries. Things were not so smooth at the beginning. Housing in San Francisco is very difficult to find and finding an apartment that allowed dogs and for someone with no job or credit was next to impossible. But somehow, he found a German woman who had a soft spot in her heart. She initially said no, twice. Then on the third ask, she consented to renting.
Ivan was looking for electrical trade work when one day he saw a van with a guide dog business sign on it's sides. Curious, he followed the van back to their office, walked in and looked around and just knew that this was what he wanted to do. He asked to speak to the manager, whereon he proclaimed “I need to work here!” They were shocked by his forwardness and not fully understanding his motiviation, they politely explained that “This is not how it works, thank you, good bye.” Ivan was persistent and continued to return repeatedly asking for work, offering to do whatever it took to work there. A few weeks of this and he was hired but limited to cleaning kennels and doing chores. Management eventually recognized Ivan’s training skills and feel for dogs, and then quickly advanced to become one of the trainers.
The work was extensive and left little time for his own dogs. But he had his feelers out and learned from DogSport Magazine of a roaming Schutzhund club that featured Dean Calderon. He went to Contra Costa Schutzhund Club for one of the sessions and this was his first taste of Schutzhund in the U.S. His dog was cross trained in Ring and kept biting Dean on the leg and crotch. Dean was getting twitchy, not knowing where on his body he would be bit next. It was fun and he started to build his network in the sport.
The guide dog training was a blessing because of the steady income provided the ability to build credit allowed him to get on his feet. But the rigid structure and time needed for training guide dogs was holding back his sport dog training. He found work as an animal behavioralist at the San Francisco SPCA that allowed more flexibility. The work involved evaluation and rehabilitation of problem dogs and offered a good balance that enabled him to put time into his increasing involvement in Schutzhund. He had begun traveling and doing seminars.
2018 AWDF in Galt, CA. Ivan with J.Ice Ot Vitosha at the end of back-half protection with helper Markus Hampton.
Some of the struggles he encountered had to do with the mindset within the sport. Having come from Belgium where there was a maximum commitment to training and competing, he had a hard time accepting that some people wanted to just train as a hobby and were not that serious. He also became aware that ‘Alternate Breeds’ did not have the support of some judges in the U.S. at championship level compared to what he had experienced in Belgium. He would usually earn one or two V scores but just couldn't string it together in all three phases. He kept his belief in this program told himself he would just raise his level.
1994 was a good year for Ivan. He went to the FCI World championship in Finland with Nakita and placed 12th which was the best ever USCA placing at the time. But it was not until that 2000 he had his break-out year and won the AWDF National Championship and earned FCI Vice World Champion. But it would prove to be just the beginning.
While achieving 17 national/world level championships has been satisfying, more important for Ivan was the validation of his life work. His work has been guided by a philosophy whose core attributes is harmony with the dog, letting it learn without conflict and respecting the dignity of the dog.
2016 AWDF Championship, Chicago, IL. 1st Place with Ebor Ot Vitosha, Working back half with Weston Kester.
Along the way Ivan developed a deep feeling for the importance of improving the Malinois breed in the way that Luc Vastenrugge had done so before him. Luc helped him understand the breed and blood lines. Luc had books and notes like an old scientist and this was the correct way in Ivan’s opinion. He founded Ot Vitosha and went about with the same conviction he did with his training. At one DVG National Championship, Ot Vitosha dogs swept the podium and many dogs have gone on to not only podium at Nationals, but win championships. Ot Vitosha is the name of a Mountain near his childhood city. He strives for focus, sound genetic temperament, and happy disposition while trying to maintain the proven blood-line that he grew up with. He knows the dogs and has worked the dogs in the blood lines going back 12-generations. He finds both breeding and training equally interesting.
In the early 2000’s while traveling for seminars, Ivan found a property in Florida that would be perfect for a kennel. A number of fortunate events happened at the right time that enabled him to purchased it. It was his ultimate dream. He loaded his dogs in a van and moved. An experience he had become familiar with. But this time he knew the days of living in an apartment with a ton of dogs was over. This was to be a new and exciting beginning and is where he lives today.
I asked Ivan for advice to a newbie in the sport:
“The starting point is to have to have goal and desire, without it you will be doomed to will fail. The sport is not easy and nothing will be handed to you. If you have the dream and are willing to chase it, then nothing can stop you. When it comes to training, if you don’t like something, stop and ask the training director- don’t just go along. If you don’t like what is happening to your dog, then it’s not the right thing. It doesn’t take a dog trainer to tell if the dog is treated with dignity or not. The problem with the sport in some corners, is that for some pursuit of scores makes it ok to mis-treat of the dog. Always place the well being and dignity of the dog first.”
Ivan’s life has been led from the very beginning by a love of dogs. His journey has at times seemed to have little certainty. He stood alone on the cliff and took a leap of faith and landed safely living life he had dreamed. Imagine his life if he had listened to those around him and not taken risk. We have only scratched the surface, his journey also included training government dogs, police dogs, dogs for the Air Force and Ring Sport. Today his influence on IPO, whether it be training, philosophy or blood lines is profound. He currently travels world-wide performing seminars and sharing his concepts.
J.Ice Ot Vitosha in back-half protection with Marcus Hampton at the 2018 AWDF National Championship in Galt, CA.
Ivan & Ibor Ot Vitosha on their way to winning the 2016 AWDF Championship.
Ivan and Ebor Ot Vitosha were the last dogs on the field for protection at the 2016 AWDF Championship. Ivan needed 97 points to win.
The moment Ivan hears the 97 score and realized he has won. Protection judge Randall Hoadley.
Immediately after Ivan's protection critique, he rushed to hug his friend and fellow competitor, Mario Sergio Gomes.
A single point separated the two. The friendship was bigger than their rivalry.
Ebor Ot Vitosha winning the 2015 AWDF Championship in Farmington, OH. Back-half helper Waine Singleton.
Ivan and national level helper Marcus Hampton discussing helper work while observing the competition
at the 2019 AWDF Championship in Little Rock, AR.
Author with Ivan. 2018 AWDF Championship Galt, CA.
Brian Aghajani is a freelance photographer based in Houston. He began his fascination with dog sport in 2000, has titled three dogs to IPO3 and competed in a handful of national IPO championships. He is an official photographer for most National IGP/Mondioring competition including the USCA, GSDCA, AWDF, AWMA and USMRA as well as the WUSV World Championship. Follow him on facebook
Great article. Love to read about journey of how great trainers made the dream work. Hadn’t heard of Ivan not being involved in this sphere of dog work. But someone commented on one of my Instagram training films on how similar our training philosophies were. So always study other trainers and checked him out. During the lockdown l will check out YouTube for some films to study. Thanks again for the interesting article.
There so much to learn from Ivan's experience.His story has acted as fuel for my dreams as a dog handler,his focus ,determination,endurance indeed nothing is imposible the sky is the limit.
Great article Brian, just like you photographs Love Ivans story. How wonderful to be doing what you love.All of the sacrifices he made to get where he is what an inspiration.
Have had the pleasure of watching Ivan at several events in Florida, but due to circumstances not currently able to work a dog. I follow and keep up with the sport thru articles such as yours and the great access of social media. Amazing backstory about Ivan and very inspiring!!
A newbie to dog training and introduced to Ivan’s Philosophy of dog training through a friend. Nice to know the history of a good great trainer. Looking forward to learning more of his training methods that won him so much Success.
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