From Special Forces to doggie Disneyland king
If you ever wondered what dog heaven looks like, it's a 13ha purpose-built farm on the NSW Central Coast.
Here, five days a week, a busload of dogs arrive from Sydney to live out the best day of their lives.
They tear up hills, herd balls, dive into dams, chase giant bubbles and tackle agility courses at Australia's most distinctive doggie daycare.
And behind this canine utopia is a former elite military serviceman who credits the dogs and farm for saving his life.
Luke Evans and his wife Sam created Doggie Daycare Farm Trips three years ago to give city dogs the chance to have a full-on farm experience.
For Luke, who'd spent 11 years in the navy as a clearance diver and special forces operator, its also been a form of therapy.
The Brisbane native, now 37, left home at 19 to join the navy and completed three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan before retiring.
"I was part of a specialised team that would be sent into a hostage situation after negotiations either failed or broke down to neutralise the terrorists in order to save the lives of the hostages," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
"I was definitely at the pointy end of the military where you're trained for action."
Retiring with multiple injuries, like many veterans, his transition to civilian life was tough.
"I went through a pretty big identity crisis leaving the military. All the skill sets I had, as soon as I went into civilian life, were useless, and that's all I'd known as an adult," he said.
"I developed a personality and way of suppressing emotions that made me very effective at my job but I found I really struggled when I came home."
If he'd served an extra year, he would have been eligible for transitional support from the navy to retrain for a new career. Instead, he had only his savings to depend on.
"I struggled day to day making connections with people, I didn't feel like I could relate to anyone outside the military. But I soon realised I never had that problem with dogs," he said.
"I just thought I need to do something with dogs, I wanted to be my own boss and just be free with these guys in the open environment, that was my happy place."
Luke became a Alpha Canine Dog Trainer and handler, and with Sam, began a dog walking and behaviour business that grew into the farm.
"I can't really describe it, I've always been able to connect with dogs. I feed off their energy, when they're excited and happy, I feel excited and happy, I can be in the moment" he said.
"The only reason I'm here today is because of the dogs. The dogs saved my life."
Sam and Luke designed the farm not only for their family of two young daughters and three motley dogs, but as place where dogs could experience "what they would want for their most ideal day".
The Farm, as Luke calls it, isn't like other dog daycares, and not every dog is right for the farm either. He runs a pack of 30-40 dogs at a time (including boarders who stay with the family) through a day of intense activities where they build social skills, agility and confidence.
"We're very intense here and as they all come regularly, they learn to focus on the right thing, while being as happy and free as they can be in a way that's healthy," he said.
"It's important for dogs to just let their hair down and be dogs, and be in a natural environment where they can let loose and not be restricted by being on a lead and walking on a concrete footpath, where they're not allowed to go up and say hello to different dogs in the street.
"Here they've got the ultimate freedom while learning to behave appropriately."
There's also no doubt who's top dog - the pack follow Luke around like a celebrity. There's no tussles or fights either. Luke guides the dogs in how to behave and interact with the confidence they've got nothing to worry about, he's got their back.
"You have to be strict in the way of protecting the pack, so I'm the pack leader and they're all part of my pack.
"If they've got a problem they come to me and I sort it out before either a dog has to react or defend themselves and that's built off a relationship built over consecutive visits."
The feedback from owners is a happier, more confident dog at home, although they're pretty stuffed when the bus drops them off.
"My life now is just complete bliss really, my family is amazing, the dogs are amazing, the clients are amazing and its all come from trying to give these dogs the best time they could have," he said.
ABOUT FARM TRIPS
● Doggie Daycare Farm Trips has limited availability but if you'd like to enrol to be on their wait list for 2020 click here.
● Because they run a pack of 30-40 dogs playing exciting but also intense activities, not every dog is right for Farm Trips and they are strict on assessment.
● The farm is private property, so check them out on YouTube to enjoy all the action at the farm, plus training tips, recipes, and insights into behaviour and some of their dogs.
● You can also check them out on Facebook.