Even without the costume, my alter-ego doesn’t fall very far from what my RLSH personality does. My life (since a very young child) has revolved around animals and given that I own a K9 Academy, “The Handler” was born in a very natural way.
I am fortunate enough to have been able to choose from dogs all over the world, but my Malinois, Gio, was the easy choice as sidekick. But why him? There are certainly bigger breeds, more intimidating looking dogs, and for those of you who have met him in person, well… he is just a love-bug! Many times I have been asked if he would “actually” defend me. Would he really bite somebody if the need arose? Does he understand the difference between friend and foe? The answer is yes, yes, and proven yes.
During HOPE 2011, K9 G.O. (that’s his code-name) traveled with me to the event, stayed in the Hero House with a big group of RLSHs, walked through massive crowds at Comic-Con, joined us while walking on San Diego’s streets when we gave food and supplies to the homeless, sat through a movie premier, and went to an after-party dinner at The Hard Rock Hotel. All of it while being polite and sweet to everybody, including people in funny costumes and more than a few masked RLSHs. Sounds great, right?
On our last night however, while coming back from one of the events, Gio and I were sitting alone on the side of the street waiting for the rest of the group to join us. All kinds of people were stopping and commenting about the dog, and he was relaxed and happy. Life’s good; that is until a young man with dubious motives back-tracks into his own steps to come speak to me. The man was clearly intoxicated and started to say things that made me uncomfortable. Immediately Gio sensed my tension and went on alert. I warned the man to keep his distance from me and go on with his business; he didn’t listen. Instead he took another few steps towards us. Sensing danger K9 G.O. stood up, got between me and the man and started a deep rolling growl.
“My dog is not really happy with you right now,” I said, “do yourself a favor, leave us alone and keep walking.”
He mumbled some curse words and got a little closer. I didn’t have to say a thing, Gio let out a couple of deep warning barks accompanied by a flash of teeth and the pushy stranger went rapidly on his way.
This is the ideal picture of a personal protection dog. A friendly companion that is NOT a liability. A partner that will give you the extra layers of deterrent you need to stop an assailant. Notice that I am calling them “personal protection dogs” and not “attack dogs”. Their goal is to help you avoid confrontation, to never have to get to the point of actually having to bite someone to defend you, but if it comes to it, to immobilize the attacker and not “destroy” them. Even with the adrenaline rushing through their veins, they must be able to listen to you and follow your instructions, while your job is to never steer them wrong.
So how do you get to this balance? Is it nature or is it nurture? Really, it’s both! First you have to pick a good dog that naturally has certain characteristics that will flourish in the right environment. You can’t make a pear tree bear apples, so begin with the right “seed”. There are certain breeds that tend to do better at following directions; shepherds, for one, were bred to work directly with a human, and therefore they would be my first choice. But just because you choose a dog of a certain breed does not mean you’re set.
Dogs are as individual as people, and therefore you need to make sure the particular dog you are choosing has the motivation and willingness to do the work. If the dog doesn’t have the “heart” to enjoy the process of protection training then you don’t want to force him to go through it. Many times you’ll find a dog of the “right” breed that just doesn’t have it and a dog from the “wrong” breed that will be absolutely perfect! So be prepared and stay open.
Not to be shallow, but looks are important too. Your first line of defense is the “intimidation factor.” Realistically, you don’t want to have to send your dog to bite somebody, so even if the dog was a big softy, having a dog that looks as if he could hold his ground is better than having a very aggressive dog that looks extremely approachable. Remember you want a protector, not a liability.
In the same token, for you to ensure that your protection dog doesn’t become a danger for your family (or society in general) the first thing you want to do is to SUPER-socialize your puppy. Even in the dog industry there is a false belief that in order for you to have a dog that will protect you, you need to have him isolated and that the only person he should like is you. Actually, there’s nothing further from the truth.
A dog that is not properly socialized becomes insecure around new people and therefore becomes very unpredictable. You want the dog to be confident, and like a good martial artist have the underlying understanding that he has the power to crush the bad guy and the clarity of mind to try to avoid “teeth-on” confrontations. Properly raised and trained protection dogs are safer and less likely to bite than your average dog.
Picking, raising, and training your own protection dog is not an easy task. You have to pour yourself into it, and not everybody has the time or resources to start from scratch. Fortunately, dogs are very adaptable, and is possible to get an adult dog that an expert has already trained. I have searched for, and then acclimated dogs for families for years, and if you were to ask the owners I can assure you they all would agree that there is not a more loyal dog than their own.
There are certain advantages to picking an adult dog over a puppy. There is less of a gamble about the health and temperament of the dog once they reach maturity, and it’s easier to pick a good match for you with this element already in place.
Independently of which route you take, adult or puppy, fully-trained or self-trained, pure or mixed-breed, there is one element you must not forget; your own training. It is up to you to keep you both working as a team, to keep your partner in shape and keep both of you out of trouble.
Your dog will protect you with his life, and you must give him or her the reverence that a selfless act like that deserves. Understand that having a protection dog gives you a lot of power… and with great power, comes great responsibility.