About 10 yards away was a small, young but fully-grown Dutch shepherd, a type of working dog similar to a German shepherd. She barked at me but obeyed the restraints of her handler.I took a position with my knees bent and feet spread apart. My right arm was covered by a massive glove. My arm was bent at the elbow as if it were holding a shield with which I could deflect the dog.
“Come on!” I shouted at the dog, Chili, in the most aggressive and threatening voice I could muster.
The handler let go of the leash, and she bounded towards me. She crossed the distance in seconds that seemed pass in slow motion.Chili leaped up at the last second with her jaws open and firmly closed them on my arm, where I felt an uncomfortable pressure despite the protective clothing.
She kept her jaws firmly clenched on my arm, even as I swung her back and forth with my arm as I lifted her off the ground and even attempted to pry her off with my other arm. All the while my jacket was beginning to come undone.
Although nervous that I might fall and expose my uncovered face and neck or that the coat would fall off, I smiled as I struggled with Chili, enjoying the flood of adrenaline.
After about 30 seconds, the handlers pulled Chili off to give me a short break before the next round.
“This will work better if you stop smiling,” said Brandon
Richardson, who was photographing my bout with the dog.
Richardson, who proposed that I try the bite suit, owns a company called Latigo K9, which breeds, trains and sells personal protection dogs in Nosara, Guanacaste.
Richardson insisted that wearing the bite suit is essential to understanding dog training, and he described how his first experience in a bite suit was what made him decide to stop training dogs as a hobby and start doing it as a profession.
“Once I did that, I just fell in love with it. It’s the funnest thing ever,” he said. “One, it’s a great adrenaline rush, and two, you’re interacting with a dog and an animal in a way that you never have before.”
Founded by Richardson four years ago, Latigo K9 trains Belgian Malinois and Dutch shepherds to become personal protection dogs for families and individuals.
The training process harnesses three parts of the genetic disposition of dogs that were bred for shepherding and housework over hundreds of years, according to Richardson: a strong sense of loyalty to an owner, a drive to perform some sort of active task and a need for praise from an owner after a job well-done.
The process starts when a puppy is two months old and can last up to two years. Fully trained, the dogs are sold for an average price of about $10,000, but Richardson says that the final product is very different and of a much higher quality than similar dogs in the United States. In the north such fully trained dogs often sell for much more.
“The difference is that most of what goes on in the United States is sport training,” he said, describing a sport called Schutzhund.
Richardson said people living in Germany have been breeding and training dogs for thousands of years to work and fight as far back as when Rome was trying to conquer Germanic tribes. The practice was perfected in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 40s, he said.
Schutzund, or “protection dog,” was the name of the tests that the German military put dogs through in order to determine if they had reached the highest level of training and performance.
“Unfortunately, it was the Nazis who had the time, the motivation and the opportunity to really perfect it,” he said.
However, Richardson says the method has become watered down over the years into a breeding and training process elsewhere that only prepares dogs to attack a gloved person in a field under specific, controlled circumstances.
Many of these dogs are sold for high prices for a variety of uses such as protecting individuals or homes, guarding private businesses, finding drugs on police raids or acting as combatants with military personnel.
“The top Schutzhund dogs are very well trained, but they’re very well trained to do a very specific job,” said Richardson. “The problem is that they then try to use those Schutzhund dogs and titles as proof that that dog is a worthy police dog or military dog. The reality is that it’s apples and oranges.”
“Our philosophy is more train how you fight or train how you live,” he added.
Dogs accompanying soldiers on combat missions and police on raids have very different roles than dogs walking with their civilian owners to the grocery store, and private protection dogs must be able to remain calm and composed until there is an actual threat, he said.
If an owner were to lose control of one of these dogs, the consequences could range from scaring friends and neighbors, incurring lawsuits or injuring innocent bystanders and children.
“The dogs also need to be able to tolerate children and other people and other dogs and cats and everything that the world throws at them,” said Richardon. “We’re trying to take a very intelligent animal and train it to do a very difficult job, which is essentially telling the difference between a good guy and a bad guy.”
For Richardson, the trick is to develop a command given by the owner that flips a switch in the dog to turn on aggression.
“When it’s off, the dog is taking direction from the handler and moving through the world with that handler,” he said. “When it’s turned on, it needs to be very, very fast and very, very effective.”
Although training the dog is the longest part of the process, an equally important part is training the owner how to communicate with the dog, he said, adding that the owner should only have the dog attack the person when his life is in danger.
“There’s no doubt that it’s a danger if you use it the wrong way,” said a customer named Andrew, who only gave his first name. “Deploying is something you would only do if your life was in danger to give you time to get away.”
The dog’s breeding and training are meant for that moment of danger, when the dog will put its own life in danger to save its owner without hesitation, they agreed.
“All of your stuff can be replaced. Your dog can be replaced. You cannot,” said Richardson. “That’s how we operate.”
The process leading up to that point begins with breeding.
In order to harness certain characteristics that are genetically carried on through shepherding dogs, a breeder must know the genealogy or bloodline of every dog through many generations, Richardson said.
He explained that many of these types of dogs sold by companies in the United States are marketed to the U.S. customers as “European imports” and sold at a higher price under the assumption that European dogs are better. But he said that these dogs are mixed with other breeds and have lost many of the genetic qualities necessary in shepherding dogs.
“The reality is unless you control the breeding and you know the bloodlines, where the breeding comes from, then every dog in every litter is a surprise,” said Richardson. “This dog isn’t just his mother and father; he’s every mother and father down the bloodline behind him.”
The next step is training.
For puppies at Latigo K9, this process begins about two months after they are born, which runs contrary to a major school of thought that dogs should not start protection training until they are a year old, especially not bite training.
“That’s like saying don’t start raising your kid until they’re 16 or 18,” said Richardson. “The dogs from the day they’re born, like us, are learning . . . so if you wait until they’re a year old to begin their training, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
He gave this outline:
From day one of training, Latigo K9 makes sure that each dog is exposed to different types of stress, not only to make the dog familiar to certain situations, but more importantly to make the dog able to operate in the same way under the any kind of stress.
These stresses in training can take many forms, such as climbing on playground equipment as a puppy, having to swim across a lagoon or having to keep calm and focused in the presence of fire, gunshots and explosions.
“If you can train the dogs to operate and receive direction under stress, it doesn’t matter what that stress is, they will perform,” he said.
During that process, Richardson and his staff train the dogs only to perform tasks for praise, giving them compliments when they do something well. In contrast when the dogs do not perform a task correctly, they stop the dogs and reinstruct them. They never punish the dogs, he said.
“Our philosophy is based on ‘we don’t use toys or treats or anything like that to bribe the dog,’” said Richardson. “All the dog works for is praise from the owner.”
When it comes time to put the dog with a customer, pairing that person with a dog and training that person how to handle and communicate with that dog is just as important as training the dog, Richardson said.
Richardson said he sits down with each potential customer to discuss whether that person’s lifestyle, whether that person has a family, where they live and what they want the dog for in order to find the best dog for those particular tasks.
On rare occasion, Richardson has had to be strict and be more selective in to whom he can sell dogs because some potential customers do not realize that the customer needs to train and bond with the dog over time.
“For a client buying a dog there’s a significant time investment. There’s a significant work investment as far as learning how to use the dog properly for it to be effective,” said Richardson. “We are as concerned about our dogs’ well being as our clients’ well being.”
“The idea is that to train better dogs, we have to be better humans,” said Richardson. “If you can’t be patient with your wife or your child, you’re never going to be patient with your dog and vice-versa. So the dogs are a reflection of ourselves, and that can be very hard for people to take.”
In order to train the owner and see how the dog and owner bond together, Richardson very strongly encourages customers to attend a two-day training session where he and his staff give a thorough tutorial on how to handle and communicate with the dog. However, Richardson says that most people end up coming back for more training willingly and begin to take training into their own hands.
One customer at such a training session, who preferred to be simply called Elliot, said that he bought his first dog after his home in San José was burglarized and now he has purchased two and brings them both to training sessions.
“I sleep better at night. And now I got into the sport, I bought the bite suit,” he said, also adding that he trains his dogs, Mambo and Becky, in agility.
Andrew started out afraid of dogs ever since he was bitten by one when he was a child. During his first training session he stood on top of a car in order to observe the dogs from a safe place, he said. Now he also owns two dogs, which he also brought for extra training.
“As you get more and more used to being around the dogs, you feel more and more comfortable with them, and it just clicks even better,” said Andrew.
This form of intimacy grows quickly and naturally between most customers and their dogs, bringing the customers back for more training and more dogs and also getting them involved in training with their dogs by themselves, according to Richardson.
“In this day and age with technology and Facebook and how removed we are from nature and real life, the dogs provide an opportunity to engage with something that forces us to be honest with ourselves, and it’s very natural and real,” said Richardson. “The dogs will give back to you 100 percent all the time.”