Posted: 12:00 AM

This sport’s bite is worse than its bark

With schutzhund, in which dogs develop protection skills, ‘man’s best friend’ may also be his best line of defense.

By JASON SINGER Staff Writer

SACO – Levi seemed like the perfect gentleman. On a recent humid morning, the 3-year-old German shepherd posed for pictures with his owner, happily wagging his tail in the early-morning sun. Afterward, he cozied up to several bystanders, letting them scratch his shiny, black-and-tan coat.

Doreen Metcalf and her brother, Don Saucier, conduct a training exercise in the sport of schutzhund with a German shepherd at their farm in Saco.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Doreen Metcalf breeds and trains dogs such as Levi, a 3-year-old German shepherd.

Additional Photos Below

But when Levi’s trainer yelled “revier!” — a German dog-training command meaning “search” — the lean, sinewy dog exploded through the training course.

He galloped around every impediment, searching for intruders. When he found one, he cornered him, bared his razor-sharp teeth and barked incessantly.

For a few seconds, the intruder froze. And when the intruder tried to run, Levi sunk his teeth into the intruder’s heavily padded arm. The dog didn’t let go — despite whacks from the intruder’s stick — until Levi’s trainer yelled “platz!”, a German command that means “down.”

Within seconds, Levi reverted to the family-friendly, picture-posing pup from just a few minutes earlier.

“That’s the beauty of them,” said Doreen Metcalf, Levi’s trainer and head of the Maine Schutzhund Club. “They’re great with people, and they’ll keep you safe.”

Schutzhund — which means “protection dog” in German  — is a sport that measures the physical and mental capabilities of police-type dogs. It consists of three phases: tracking, obedience and protection.

Levi and others like him have many of the same skills as the dogs used in elite military units such as SEAL Team 6, which brought a dog along on the May raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. One of Metcalf’s dogs now works for the Bangor Police Department.

Schutzhund emphasizes controlled aggression and top-notch people skills over the wild ferocity sometimes exhibited by other animals.

Schutzhunds, however, don’t come cheap. While a German shepherd from a pet shop or breeder will often go for a few hundreds dollars, Metcalf sells well-trained dogs to breeders, police departments and individuals for as much as $7,000.

She also trains other people’s dogs for $1,000 per month. A woman from New York just sent her two German shepherds — Max and Ruby — for two months of training.

The dogs can go for much higher prices, too. If the dogs have good bloodlines and excellent hips, and if they score in the 90s on a 100-point scale at national competitions, they can go for as much as $20,000 or $30,000, Metcalf said.

Monty Ellison, 40, whose Belgian Malinois trains at the Maine Schutzhund Club, said German shepherds with great bloodlines, great hips and Level 3 ratings — the highest possible schutzhund certification — often cost more than $50,000. Earlier this month, The New York Times wrote about an executive who paid $230,000 for his schutzhund-trained dog.

Ellison said a well-trained schutzhund provides unparalleled companionship and obedience, in addition to protection. And if owners have the time and know-how they can recoup the high cost of the dog by selling its litter, he said. German shepherds have as many as 10 pups per litter.

Wayne Curry, who trains high-end dogs near Olympia, Wash., concedes the price tag is steep. But for wealthy Americans like top executives or entertainers, the price is justifiable, even for the most expensive schutzhunds.

“When you compare the costs of a full-time bodyguard versus a dog, the dog makes a lot of sense,” Curry told The New York Times. “And the dog, unlike the bodyguard, can’t be bought off.”

In Saco, at the only schutzhund club in the state, the owners and Metcalf don’t deal with the highest-priced dogs. Metcalf is more interested in training happier dogs, she said, than the ones who score in the high 90s at national and international competitions.

Michael and Carol Crosby, whose two Doberman pinschers — Paige and Argos — also train at the club, aren’t in it for the money, either. Their dogs love schutzhund. It keeps them “well-balanced, happy and fit,” Michael Crosby said.

For some people, a gun or security system makes more sense, club members said. But for people who don’t like guns, or who want companionship in addition to protection, schutzhunds are an excellent option.

“If you’re a woman jogging in the park at dusk, it’s reassuring to have one of these guys with you,” Metcalf said. “You’re not a target if you’ve got something like this beside you. You’re just not.” 

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be contacted at 791-6437 or at:


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