Warren Pole talks to Charles Wall, the owner and trainer of a squad of superdogs, popular among the wealthy for providing top-notch protectors and the most friendly family pet.
'Superdogs' that are a best friend and defender of the home
Suddenly, the overpowering stench of dog from the well-used giant "bite suit" I'm wearing vanishes as my senses instead focus on the powerful German shepherd now heading towards me at pace. Like a target with a missile locked onto it, I know running is futile - not that I could manage more than a useless shuffle anyway, thanks to the cumbersome suit and its stifling heat. Heart pounding and adrenaline flowing, I wait for the inevitable. There's a final scrabble as the dog's back paws dig into the soft field one last time and then silence as its outstretched airborne form hurls itself, jaws first, at my body.
The impact as it canons into me is like being hit with a cricket bat, while the crunch as those heavy jaws clamp into my armpit sounds brutal. I have a split-second to offer up some quick thanks to the makers of the bite suit, without which the flesh, muscle and perhaps even bone of my right upper arm would be dog food, but these thoughts are swiftly interrupted as I realise the impact was just the start. Because with the bite suit having guarded against real injury (although I'll have bruises later), I'm not writhing on the floor as expected and now the dog, still locked on with those powerful jaws, is flinging its body hard from side to side in an effort to take me down. It doesn't take long.
"Leave," calls the dog's owner and trainer, Charles Wall, calmly. In a heartbeat, the dog drops from my arm and happily trots over to him before sitting calmly at his side as if nothing ever happened.
Welcome to the world of personal protection dogs, canines trained to the highest level. Costing as much as £30,000 (Dh170,000) each and managing the seemingly impossible dual roles of powerful protector and friendly family pet with ease, these animals are increasingly becoming the four-legged friends of choice for well-heeled families as tough economic times make the wealthy more targetable than ever by people who tend not to knock before coming in.
These animals certainly aren't cheap, but the benefits can be enormous. They don't fall fast asleep like security guards, they can't be bypassed like alarms and, as I now know from painful experience, they certainly can't be jumped over like a security gate.
Wall's business, A1 K9, in Swansea, UK, has been training and supplying these dogs for nearly 20 years to clients around the globe.
"We've currently got dogs in 31 countries," he says, "everywhere from Europe to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait".
Reclining in the peaceful confines of his office and now happily out of the bite suit, I learn more about these animals. At the same time, the very one that was hell-bent on tearing me limb from limb just a few minutes ago is now happily dozing at my feet after Wall's gentle command of "friend" was uttered while he pointed at me. It only breaks from its doggy dreams to occasionally lick my hand.
The transformation is quite something, but I'm still sceptical an animal can genuinely be both a doting family pet and a controlled, snarling ball of aggression at the same time. Wall says it all starts with selection.
"This is the most important part. We select the right candidates when they're about a year old, enough for their temperaments and characters to be obvious - these are the two things that can't be changed with training.
"Through our own unique ways of doing it, we then teach these dogs to defend when needed. As part of this, we instill a very high degree of obedience, and this is the brake, if you like - just as you wouldn't want a fast car with weak brakes, so you wouldn't want a dog like this without exceptional obedience."
It's a fair point and it seems to work. Wall's clients include a number of people who've invited his dogs into the heart of their families and are wealthy enough to put him out of business if one of his animals so much as messed with a hair on their children's heads. But not only is he still in business, but that business is booming, and customers come back for their second and third dogs -a testament to just how effective these animals can be.
The serious side of their role is just that, however, and there can be no flinching when they need to get to work.
Wall tells me about one client "who's on his local police's rapid-response alarm because of the sensitive nature of his work and he wanted a dog because, as he put it, 'while the police are guaranteed here in 13 minutes, I could be dead in three'."
This isn't an unusual example - there's the oil executive who went to work in Siberia's wild west and whose dog had to "neutralise" two people in as many months, or the dog whose owner recently bought it a stab vest. The list goes on and underlines the point that, when required, these are very serious canines indeed.
But it's not all work because, given the nature of the folks buying them, when they're not on duty, these dogs live a lifestyle anyone would envy. After all, they become as much a part of the family as any other cherished pet would and so wherever the family goes is where they go, too.
As such, they travel by private jet, superyacht, supercar and helicopter (Wall has a helicopter landing pad at his facility after so many clients asked if they could land there when collecting their dogs), live in mansions and on private islands and, in some cases, even have their own servants.
These unusual lives come with their own unusual challenges for Wall and his team, who spend as long as is needed helping clients adapt to their new pets and vice versa.
"We always have between 20 and 30 dogs at any one time here," says Wall, "and we have so many because different clients need different things and, just as people are individuals, so are dogs. Our job is to match the two together perfectly.
"So if a client has a yacht or a plane, for example, we'll make sure the dog they have is going to be happy in those environments. We'll also spend time on site with the animals, helping them adapt. Yachts are a great example here because simply crossing a gangplank suspended over water isn't natural for a dog - they're more at home in the water than floating on it. So we'll train them for that just as we would for anything else the customer needs - including sourcing boat shoes for a dog recently, as the client had teak decks on his yacht that he didn't want scratched."
Ironically, given that their work involves facing down dangers most of us would run a mile from, one of the most dangerous situations Wall's dogs can face at work is one we'd consider completely innocent - a swimming pool. Unsurprisingly these are very common among Wall's clients, but as he explains: "If the dogs fall in, they can swim out again just fine, but only if they've been shown before where the stairs are." This training is now a core part of any handover to a client with a pool, so Wall and his team always pack their swimming trunks just in case.
With all of this, it seems we can now safely add another "super" to the lengthy list of superlatives attached the wealthy. They've already got supercars, supermodels and superyachts, now they've got superdogs, too.
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