Marie Choo left a high-octane career in fashion and public relations to become a dog behaviourist and take charge of her health. Fitter than ever, she now runs gruelling distances to raise awareness and money for rescued dogs.

SINGAPORE (Dec 25): Marie Choo, dog behaviourist and avid runner, never thought getting a dog would change her life. Neither did she foresee how running, which she picked up after a health scare, would overhaul her life too. At the time, the style maven was heading her own public relations firm, called Alchemy Consulting. Work was flourishing and clients included drinks giant Moët Hennessy Diageo, but she found herself swamped. Her clients demanded every moment of her time and she had to be present at every media event or product launch that she arranged. “I was working longer hours than when I worked for others,” the 41-year-old says. “I was feeling very stressed.”

The idea of a dog came to her and she acquired a Shetland Sheepdog, a breed known for its intelligence. Choo then looked around for a trainer but did not find one that suited her. So, she decided to train her puppy herself by reading up on obedience training and watching YouTube videos. Seven years on, she has relinquished the corporate life and restyled herself as The Dog Alchemist, trainer and rehabilitator of canines. She has also swapped her Christian Louboutin heels for Under Armour sneakers and runs gruelling distances to raise awareness and money for dog shelters.

Her interest in dog welfare was sparked by a visit to an animal shelter in Pasir Ris. Choo was appalled by the sheer number of unwanted, injured and abused dogs as well as the cramped conditions. “The stench was overwhelming,” she recalls. She began helping out in her spare time, cleaning kennels and taking dogs for walks. In the meantime, she acquired a second dog, a rare blue-eyed Sheltie from a breeder in Australia. She also began to delve into the science of dog training and decided to equip herself with formal knowledge via online courses with the Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour and Training in the UK.

While volunteering at shelters, Choo discovered she had an aptitude for working with difficult dogs. At the time, she was helping out at Madam Wong’s, a shelter started by a woman who sold her flat to look after stray and abandoned cats and dogs. Choo offered to rehabilitate a dog and the shelter gave her Rocky, a mongrel with a tendency to bite. “I went in and just stood there. I respected the dog. I let it decide,” she says. She managed to leash Rocky and take him out for a walk. She has since had success with several rescue dogs that were very aggressive or traumatised.

Her approach towards dog obedience pivots on positive reinforcement. “I let the dog decide what to do by giving it motivation, through treats or affection. It’s about communication. It’s not rocket science,” she says. In 2013, despite the energy-sapping hours she had to put in at her PR firm, she set up The Dog Alchemist. As she juggled both, she increasingly felt a stark disconnect between her corporate life, which was peppered with red carpet fashion events and boozy late night parties, and her newfound vocation of working with dogs.

‘Running humbled me’
“I was feeling like Jekyll and Hyde,” Choo says. “And I was feeling depressed.” She decided to start exercising and opted for running, thinking it was easy. “I wanted to do a Forrest Gump and escape from what was stressing me,” she explains. However, she could barely complete 2km in the beginning. “Running humbled me. Being an overachiever, I thought I could be good at anything,” she says. Still, she pressed on, setting small goals for herself. Soon, she was doing 10km runs and even half-marathons.

Ten months after she first started pounding the pavement, she completed a full marathon in Tokyo. She challenged herself by saying “Go big or go home” and she chose Tokyo as it was a city she loved. It was tougher than anything she had done. “I used to be a nocturnal creature, doing my best work at two or three in the morning. So, having to wake up at 5am for a race was torture,” she says. At the 30km mark, she hit the wall. Crying and in pain, she almost gave up, but endured until she finished all 42km. She received her first medal and was utterly hooked.

Choo enjoys taking on challenges, even if it means swimming upstream, and plugging away at them in both her professional and personal life. Growing up, she was drawn to the fields of art, fashion and design. She enjoyed handicraft and made cards as well as paper dresses for dolls, which she sold to friends at school. “I knew I wanted to do something related to design,” she says. However, her mum persuaded her to pursue a diploma in banking and finance. “She said that’s where the money is. So, I did it for my mum.” Just before graduating from Singapore Polytechnic, she spotted an advertisement by luxury retailer Club 21 for an advertising and PR assistant. She applied, but the company took a while to make a decision. So, she doggedly called them. She got the job and stayed for a year and a half.

Choo then went on to do a degree in fashion product management at Middlesex University in London, where she graduated with first class honours. On returning to Singapore, she joined home-grown women’s casual fashion brand M)phosis, working in retail operations and marketing. “It was a small outfit, so I was forced to learn how to run shops, manage and train staff and hit sales targets,” she says. She also had to liaise with magazine editors to secure media coverage and organise fashion shows and promotional events.

After a year and two months, she moved to bods.bodynits, a local fashion label that specialises in active wear. She was based in Shanghai and had to take charge of visual merchandising, day-to-day retail operations, establishing new outlets and creating brand awareness. For a young woman building her career in the fashion world, it was an unparalleled experience. However, it was also overwhelming. “I didn’t like the working culture and the mentality of the locals. It was not similar to Singapore and was a big culture shock after my four years in London,” she says. She lasted a year before moving back home. A few months later, she clinched a job at FJ Benjamin, the fashion retailer owned by the Singapore-based Benjamin family. It turned out to be her most rewarding career move.

She handled marketing communications for the group’s brands, which included Gap, Banana Republic, RAOUL and Guess. While the company did not have as much financial muscle to splash out on events and advertising as global fashion names, she was given plenty of leeway by Douglas Benjamin, the group’s chief operating officer. “I had big dreams and Douglas allowed me to do things. We had a good collaborative relationship,” she says. To secure extra funds for product launches, she struck deals with credit card companies and banks in return for exclusive deals for their clients. She organised a fashion launch in a Mercedes-Benz showroom, hired trapeze artists from Club Med for entertainment and brought supermodel Naomi Campbell to Singapore for a Valentino show.

Importance of connections
The work was intoxicating, but also relentless, and after close to four years, Choo felt burnt out. She decided to leave FJ Benjamin and take a break. She began thinking about striking out on her own. “I just wanted a simpler job where I could work from home,” she says. Alchemy Consulting was the result of that and the business took off early on. “What I learnt was that connections are very important in this line,” says Choo. She had built a relationship with Moët Hennessy Diageo, which supplied alcoholic beverages for the parties she used to organise at FJ Benjamin. They gave her new firm a retainer. Meanwhile, an ex-colleague had moved to shirtmaker Thomas Pink, owned by LVMH. Choo soon secured their business too.

The accounting and finance courses she studied also came in handy, as she could read P&Ls and manage budgets. “In retrospect, I have to thank my mum because the banking and finance diploma helped me manage my own company,” she says. The trouble was, she was working harder than ever. “The first three years of starting a business, you have no life,” she laments. She began to reclaim some balance through her work with dogs and running and eventually shuttered Alchemy Consulting in 2015.

Although running did not come easily to her, it helped that she was eating clean. That was prompted by a health scare just before her wedding in 2011 that eventually required surgery. Her sister had also developed giant cell tumour, an uncommon form of bone cancer. Choo began by learning about food sources, then switched to eating more organic food. Over time, she gradually cut back on meat and processed food. She is now largely on a plant-based diet, occasionally taking seafood. She also avoids dairy products. Phasing out meat resonates with her growing passion for animal welfare and environmental sustainability. She now gets her protein from tofu, tempeh and superfoods such as chia seeds and hemp hearts.

“My taste buds have changed,” she says. Instead of foie gras, she now prefers vegan burgers, and instead of wine, she enjoys fruit smoothies. Being a vegan also gives her more energy and helps her body recover from intense workouts more rapidly, she reckons. She trains six days a week and has gone on to run the New York and Berlin marathons as well as the challenging 50km TransLantau trail race in Hong Kong. She is currently preparing for her first 100km ultra trail run in Australia and a half Ironman. That has meant adding elevation training to her regime as well as learning how to swim freestyle, which she only mastered this year. “I like taking on challenges. Trail running forced me out of my comfort zone as I had to overcome my fear of the dark,” she says.

Choo’s fitness journey has been such a standout that she was made a brand ambassador for sportswear brand Under Armour. She has also got herself certified as a fitness trainer and hopes she can inspire others to push themselves physically and mentally. With every race, she canvasses for donations and channels the money to various shelters, including SOSD, Madam Wong’s Shelter, Oasis Second Chance Shelter and Uncle Khoe’s K9. She is also on a mission to get people to be good dog owners, adopt dogs and refrain from buying from puppy mills, some of which she says are so abominable that puppies are forced to sleep standing up. Her love for dogs and running have turned her life around. The former fashionista might have taken on both to escape the pressures of her previous life, but dogs and running appear to have serendipitously rescued her.

Sunita Sue Leng, formerly an associate editor with The Edge Singapore, loves dogs and running (short distances)

This article appeared in Issue 811 (Dec 25) of The Edge Singapore.

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