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Foreign-Born Dog Soldiers 

U.S. police departments, including the SFPD, shun American-bred recruits for their canine corps

Wednesday, Sep 6 1995
Problem: one dead police dog.
Solution, San Francisco Police Department style: Pay a professional police dog buyer (yes, there is such a thing) to fly to the Czech Republic -- or Holland, or Germany -- where said buyer will find a foreign-born German shepherd to replace the similarly foreign-born Sendy, the furry hero shot dead by a homeless man in Golden Gate Park last month. Pay $5,500 for the dog. Spend up to $2,000 more for a police officer to fly to Riverside and spend some time training and bonding with the new recruit.

Sound pricey? Wonder whether it might be possible to buy a good dog without going international?

If you answered "no" to the latter question, you haven't fully considered the recent death of 6-year-old Sendy, resting in peace in a Napa pet cemetery, much to the sorrow of Officer Michael Koltzoff, Sendy's handler of three years. For among the dog set, almost nothing raises hackles quite like the American vs. foreign-bred German shepherd debate.

"Why go all the way to Czechoslovakia?" says Joan Ford of Fran-Jo Kennels in Ohio, a 35-year veteran in the German shepherd breeding business. "I don't know how this thing got started, but I know it's out of hand.

"All the police departments are thinking they've got to have a foreign dog," Ford says. "But there are a ton of good American working dogs here. The police just might have to look for them a little harder."

Lorraine Schowalter of Schowkrest Kennels in Montara chimes in. "You wouldn't believe how furious we are at such stupidity," says the 34-year German shepherd breeder. She is sick and tired of hearing that all American shepherds are mere window dressing compared to their foreign counterparts, which derive from German blood stock. "We have American-bred dogs in police departments all over the country doing just a wonderful job. Shame on them," Schowalter says to the SFPD, sounding as if she might hold a rolled-up newspaper in her hand. "Buy American," she says.

One reason departments don't, says dog trainer Julia Priest, formerly of the Antioch Police Department dog unit, is because they hire dealers who can make more money importing pooches.

"And in Czechoslovakia, the weak economy and the dollar situation is such that people can get more for the buck than they can in West Germany," she says. "A working-quality dog, a young dog, might go for anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500 in West Germany, and the same dog in Czechoslovakia might go for $800," she says. The importers, meanwhile, might charge $5,000 and up.

Comparable dogs in the States cost about $2,500 to $3,500, if you cut out the middleman, experts say. And if you buy American, you save $560 in airfare.

"There's a great deal more selection in Europe than there is here," adds Priest. "But good American dogs can be found. It's absolutely not necessary to go to Czechoslovakia."

So why are we?
"Part of the problem here is inbreeding," says Capt. Larry Minasian, head of the SFPD dog unit. "There's deterioration of German shepherds here, and over there you can get a better-trained dog."

Minasian's theory -- maintained by many dog experts, to the continued annoyance of U.S. breeders -- is that American breeds have been ruined with the help of the American Kennel Club (AKC), which awards papers to any puppy born to parents in its registry. The AKC issues its documents regardless of an animal's temperament, ability, or IQ. Add to that America's canine beauty-over-brains emphasis, its puppy mills and predilection for inbreeding, and the result has been retrievers that won't fetch, water dogs that can't swim, and bird dogs that wouldn't hunt a duck if it were boned and filleted in their food dish. Not to mention dingy Irish setters, snappish cocker spaniels, bulldogs with heads so large that bitches can't give birth without Caesarean sections, and moronic golden retrievers suffering high rates of crippling hip and elbow dysplasia, critics say.

"One parent could be a doorknob and the other could be a broom, and you could still breed those dogs and get the puppy papers," says James Germany, an appropriately named salesman with Canine Unlimited, a Tulsa, Okla., company that travels to Germany, among other countries, to broker dogs.

In Germany, breeders take into account temperament, intelligence, and ability to perform, critics say. Highly valued there are shepherds that have won Schutzhund (protection dog) titles: The marks of honor are awarded to dogs that pass rigorous tests challenging their character, obedience, steadiness under gunfire, tracking and scenting ability, and courage. (The latter test involves a "bad guy" who after being tracked by the dog turns around and runs at it full speed while brandishing a stick.)

"If the dog wavers and refuses to bite the person, and bite him well, then he fails the test," says German.

In addition, German says, shepherds from Germany are subjected to X-rays in order to root out crippling hip dysplasia (this practice is also done in the U.S.), and they undergo a confirmation and suitability test that grades them on how well they meet breed standards (this is not done in the U.S.).

But -- the controversy continues -- German shepherds from the mother country tend to be bred for more aggressive behaviors than American-bred dogs. And they're mostly trained to "find and bite" instead of "hold and bark," says Julia Priest, president of the Contra Costa County Schutzhund Club. Find-and-biters keep criminals from running away by chomping down; hold-and-barkers find criminals, bark to alert their handlers, and will only resort to eyeteeth if the criminal tries to bolt (note: The SFPD owns the find-and-bite variety).

"I had a police officer call me for help because he had a dog from Germany that would attack, but you couldn't call him off," says Ford. There's some prejudice going on here, Ford adds. "If it was an American dog that failed, you'd have everyone screaming about how terrible American breeders are and how unfit American dogs are," she says. "But that doesn't happen when it's a German dog."

Some police departments, adds Priest, decide they want to switch from the barkers to the biters -- and instead of retraining their dogs, they dump them and buy new ones. One department, Priest recalls, recently did just that -- and sent officers to Denmark to find new dogs.

Other hund-hunters buy dogs from as far afield as China. The man in charge of Adlerhorst International, the Riverside company procuring pooches for the SFPD, regularly travels to Europe to meet with breeders and their dogs from the Czech Republic, Holland, and Germany. The Chinese dogs present a challenge.

"We have to have an interpreter to give the dogs commands," says Karen Schroeder, Adlerhorst office manager.

So is all this a doggy boondoggle -- particularly considering the fact that the U.S. now holds a growing number of Schutzhund-trained dogs?

Absolutely not, say experts who routinely deal with police departments. In fact -- just to make this issue more confusing -- some believe the SFPD's $5,500 isn't nearly enough to buy a good dog. From overseas, of course.

"We've trained over 1,200 police dogs and supplied more than 150 police departments," says German, whose clients are scattered throughout the Midwest and the South. He says he goes for Germany-bred shepherds. "And I can tell you, you can't get much of a dog for $5,500," he says. "You really need about $10,000 for a good, dual-purpose dog," which can sniff out both bombs and bad guys.

Indeed, the money invested in these animals can be mind-boggling, says Priest. "I saw a really famous German shepherd," she says, "sold to the Japanese for half a million marks," or about $350,000. Priest believes the SFPD should only need to spend one-one-hundredth that amount for a Sendy replacement.

But the fact is, no dog could really replace the shaggy Sendy.
The dog died in a hail of gunfire just past midnight, Aug. 19, after a 52-year-old homeless man, packing a .357 Magnum, shot and wounded two fellow transients camped in Golden Gate Park. When police arrived, the suspect hid in some bushes, and Sendy was sent to flush him out. The dog did so without hesitation, but gunfire followed. Sendy, though shot several times, bit hard onto Thomas Patrick Wolf, who kept shooting: One bullet hit Officer Michael Toropovsky in the thigh, another hit a homeless man in the wrist.

Sendy's bites distracted Wolf and gave Toropovsky time to get away, says Capt. Minasian, who calls the dog a hero.

The long-haired German shepherd was buried at a simple ceremony; eight people attended. A plaque honoring Sendy will soon be installed at the Hall of Justice of the Police Academy. And the Police Officers Association has set up a Sendy II fund and asked for donations.

"What we are looking for is quality," says Capt. Minasian, seeking to reduce things to the simplest possible level -- where, in the dog world, they almost never stay. "What we need," he says, "is the best dog we can get.

About The Author

Amy Linn


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