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Elite service dogs trained in West Virginia

May. 12, 2013 @ 09:13 AM

WILLIAMSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — The rolling terrain of Greenbrier County is perhaps best known for its golfing or hiking opportunities.

But Mike Suttle uses the 4,000 acres of fields, forests, creeks and caves near his family farm in Williamsburg to help people find their unicorns.

Suttle doesn't peddle horses or fairy tales. He sells working dogs, some of the best in the world.

The best of the best working dogs are known as unicorns in the business. They can find drugs or dead bodies, take down an enemy or rescue a victim. They are social but willing to die with their jaws locked on a suspect at a moment's notice.

Suttle runs Logan Haus Kennels, one of three kennels in the country that can deliver dogs to the nation's top clients. His specimens draw the elite to Greenbrier County.

"More than once we've had Special Forces land their helicopters out here in the field, test dogs and fly away with them," Suttle said, pointing to a spot a few hundred yards from his kennel.

Law enforcement used 14 dogs purchased from Suttle in the recent massive manhunt for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. That brought CBS' "60 Minutes" to his kennel and his work to millions of viewers.

National television doesn't impress SEAL Team 6. That takes time, tennis balls and hot dogs.

Suttle loves metaphors and analogies. People understand sports, cars and other people better than dogs. It helps him explain what it's like to find, buy and prepare dogs for U.S. Customs and police forces across the United States.

The average pet is not cut out to be a working dog, just like the average person couldn't take Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.

"If a scout goes out and says, 'I want to find the next Michael Jordan,' he can't just walk in to any high school and say, 'We're going to train you to be the next Michael Jordan,' " Suttle said.

Typically he looks for two types of dogs: Belgian Malinois — pronounced mal-in-WAH — and German Shepherds. Clients prefer the smaller, nimbler Malinois to the heftier shepherds, Suttle said.

Breeding plays the biggest part in creating the best service dog. Those that are faster, stronger and more aggressive are expected to have puppies that also show those characteristics. For Suttle's clientele, that means going to Holland.

"There are lots of people who sell Chevrolets, and you can get Chevrolets in lots of countries, including America," Suttle said. "If you're looking for Lamborghinis of the dog world . . . you go to Holland."

For centuries the Dutch have bred and trained dogs, maintaining bloodlines that produce highly effective specimens, Suttle said. It's called the KNPV standard, an acronym that loosely translates as the Royal Dutch Police Dog Association standard.

In a busy year, Suttle said he's in Holland every six weeks. Dutch breeders know he's coming and prepare their best for him. Suttle goes through the potential candidates, looking for several traits in particular.

First, the dog needs to be social and confident in any environment. A crowded airport with slippery floors shouldn't deter the dog, Suttle said. Dogs also must show an insatiable desire to play with, hunt for and retrieve any object. Suttle calls it "prey-drive," the genetic urge to hunt for dinner.

Third, Suttle seeks a dog that wants to fight.

"Whenever I'm testing a dog, I need a dog that's incorrigible, that no matter what I throw at him, he's going to stay in the fight," he said. "He either has that or he doesn't."

He will run dogs through a few tests to identify these characteristics and narrow the field. A run of the puppy-mill dog might not stand a chance of working with a police force, but there's a high likelihood any specimen Suttle brings back from Holland will be successful.

The dogs he brings to Williamsburg are typically 14 months to 36 months old. Some have varying degrees of prep work already instilled while others are "green as grass," Suttle said.

Holland, which is about the same size as West Virginia, can't produce top-quality dogs fast enough for global demand. Suttle purchased a few Dutch dogs for breeding, but of the roughly 10 litters produced at his kennel every year, only a handful are chosen for the most rigorous training. It wouldn't be practical or ethical to keep more.

"I'm not going to sell a dog that's not going to do what it's supposed to do. I guarantee I've given away more dogs this year than any other (kennel)," Suttle said.

It's what helps set him apart in the dog business, he said. When his dogs are finished with preparation, they're ready for anything.

Rudy can't have tennis balls. The 2-year-old Belgian Malinois tears them up or eats them too quickly.

Instead, Suttle trains him with copper pipes. The dog strains at his leash, desperately trying to grab the pipe with his teeth. He already has one pipe in his mouth. If there were 10 pipes in the room, he would want all 10, Suttle said.

"If they don't have a ridiculous degree of intensity for a toy, they're never going to search for an extended period of time for the toy. So we pair the reward with the target odor," Suttle said.

The hard part isn't piquing a dog's interest — genetics kick in when the dog sees a tennis ball. The challenge is to teach the dog that it's worth finding something or performing an action to get that tennis ball.

Suttle likens the idea to a person earning a paycheck. An employee works to receive a check that eventually can be turned into cash. A dog works to find cocaine, for example, so that it has the chance to play with a tennis ball.

When he's training his dogs to search for drugs or explosives, Suttle equates finding the illicit substance's odor with a reward. Many times, it's a tennis ball. For other dogs, it's hot dogs.

It's just as important for the dogs to know the illegal substance, not the reward, is the ultimate goal. If a dog indicates there's something illegal in John McEnroe's trunk when it's really full of tennis balls, nobody wins, Suttle pointed out.

He uses a system of plywood and PVC pipe to train his dogs on a variety of scents. He places different items with distinct odors — mint, dog food and marijuana, for example — in T-shaped tubes on the back of the plywood wall. Then he has the dog search for the "target" odor, making its way from one PVC faux-hiding place to the next.

The dog knows it will get the chance to chomp on a ball or tasty treat when it pinpoints the target. Once it's found the substance, Suttle has it hold its nose on the source. Suttle lets the dog see the reward but doesn't give it to the dog yet.

A trainer — in this case Suttle's intern, Meredith Holland — pushes a clicker to let the dog know it is correct. When the clicking sound is made, the dog has the chance to bite the ball. After a few bites, it gets to play briefly with the ball before Suttle takes it back and starts again.

There are similarly intricate training methods for other potential working dog duties. Suttle has access to abandoned hospitals and closed schools in the county, which helps as preparation work ramps up.

If a dog starts to show a certain aptitude in one particular area, Suttle knows to steer a dog toward that particular line of work.

"If you're raising a son, and he's really slender and he's short but he's fast as lightning, you're probably not going to try to mold him into an NFL linebacker. You may try to mold him to a track star, for example," Suttle said.

Unicorns show more than aptitude. They genuinely enjoy their work.

That doesn't mean they're nasty or unfriendly. It just means, when push comes to shove, the dog wants to chase down a man in a dark warehouse.

"That's the big misconception: a dog doesn't have to be aggressive to put you in the hospital. He just has to be committed to biting . . . and he has to enjoy it," Suttle said.

From his days as a boy driving a dogsled through the mountains that surround his home to spending time around detection dogs as a Marine marksman, Suttle hasn't been able to avoid canines. They've always been in his blood.

Since starting his business in 2006, they've bolstered his bank account, too.

A puppy goes for $1,200. "Entry green" dogs, with little prep work, sell for $4,500. "Green dual purpose" dogs fetch $6,500, and those destined for special operations go for $12,000 or more. He has sold about 1,000 in seven years, most outside West Virginia.

"When I buy a dog, I'm probably paying more for a green, untrained dog than most department budgets in West Virginia will allow them to pay for a fully trained dog," Suttle said.

It can cost Suttle as much as $10,000 to buy and train a dog. With one other employee and two full-time interns, everyone works around the clock cleaning, feeding and getting bitten. Dogs still need to eat on Christmas.

People can board their dogs at his kennel. He'll train the family cocker spaniel not to run away every time it smells a rabbit. For a pretty penny, he'll train dogs for personal protection, too.

But he's not in it for the money.

On April 26, 3-year-old Belgian Malinois Pakjo broke his neck while subduing a suspect for a police department in Utah. It survived and is expected to recover after emergency surgery in Las Vegas, according to local media reports.

Suttle sold Pakjo to the department, the third time he had delivered a dog to them. He heard about the injury through an early-morning text message Friday. The dog's new owner told Suttle that Pakjo saved lives.

"When a dog stays, it's not making us any money and not doing anyone else a service," Suttle said.

"I take a lot of satisfaction in knowing the dog didn't come from anyone else but us."

He wants to feed his family — he has two sons and the kennel is named after the older one, Logan. He wants to serve his country. And he wants to do it from West Virginia.

Even if it means he gets nibbled on every now and then.