We’re parked in front of our target, a two-story house perched on a corner lot, fringed with flowers and set on the sweetest oak-shaded street in Georgia. Owned by one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country, it’s a postcard for the family man’s American dream. There’s a basketball hoop in the driveway, a Lexus SUV parked alongside it and an expansive lawn that surrounds the home like a moat. “It’s time,” says Joseph Cinnante, 32. Handsome, compact and athletic, with shoulder-length hair and a manicured beard, he gets out of the car and begins to suit up in his protective gear, which he always wears when breaking and entering.
“What if he comes at me instead?” I ask.
“Just stay close,” he says. “I got you.”
We cross the street and move along the back of the property, toward the basement, narrowly avoiding detection by two joggers. The windows are locked, so Cinnante edges close to the door and turns the brass knob. Disco.
We hear it right away, toenails clattering on the hardwood above, an ominous growl, then an explosion of rapid barks behind a door at the top of a darkened staircase. Cinnante’s brown eyes flicker with delight as the door opens and Mako, a four-year-old Belgian Malinois, lunges at us from above, tethered to a leash held by Dr. Timothy Franklin. The surgeon stands tall, his eyes locked on ours, relaxed yet alert. He shouts commands at Mako, who is foaming at the mouth. “Attack!” shouts Franklin. Mako charges, launches into midair and latches onto Cinnante’s biceps. Cinnante pounds Mako’s flank and tries to shake the dog loose, but he just bites down harder.
Franklin stands like a proud dad at the top of the staircase, taking it all in. The week his family moved in to this house, it was vandalized. A mob of teenagers emptied 100 gallons of water through his front door in the middle of the night. The flood caused more than $20,000 in damage and sent Franklin rushing into the darkness, wielding a baseball bat and lusting for blood. His wife and two children had been threatened, and he was spun out.
“I honestly don’t know what I would have done to them,” he says, sounding like a guy who’s lucky the kids outran him. A few days after his house was vandalized, he began a search for a guard dog that led him to Canine Protection International, an elite executive-protection dog company, and Cinnante, one of CPI’s top trainers, who delivered Mako in four months.
Cinnante stares lovingly at Mako, who is still attempting to rip him apart. Despite the bite suit Cinnante can feel the pressure and pain, but it seems to transport him to the happy place he discovered when he was 16 years old and got paid a few bucks to let the first Belgian Malinois he’d ever seen tackle him from behind. That initial thrill—the addictive burn and wild animal adrenaline—was something Cinnante began to crave, and finding it over and over again led him to his life’s work: burrowing into and then building the brains of the deadliest, and some of the cuddliest, dogs on the planet.
“Okay,” Cinnante says, breathless as the dog continues to sink his teeth into the Michelin Man bite suit, his gums bleeding, bloody foam gathering in the folds. “That was excellent, Mako. Call him off!”
“Aus!” calls the surgeon. The dog hears it and seems befuddled for a moment. “Aus!” Franklin tries again and hits a remote that fires the dog’s collar, stimulating Mako with electricity to emphasize his point. Mako hustles over to his master to catch his breath when, with a flash of recognition, he realizes who he has just tussled with. It’s as if he has shaken off his preprogrammed rage like so much bathwater, and he begins to wag his tail.
The golden dog’s natural personality has returned. Sweet and charming, with his tongue hanging out of his gaping mouth, he rubs his head against Cinnante’s thigh. Cinnante prepared Mako at CPI’s kennel in the Boston suburbs for just such a moment, to defend his family against intruders and imminent danger. Cinnante kneels and gives his old pal a hug.
While our unofficial ranking of canine ferocity places pit bulls at the top of the list because of a common myth about having powerful locking jaws, German shepherds actually bite harder, and Belgian Malinois have those same jaws but are smaller and faster, with an endless motor. They will literally work themselves to death. That’s why they staff police and military units the world over. In fact, the first SEAL Team Six warrior to reach Osama bin Laden in that midnight raid wasn’t man, it was Malinois. And with increasing frequency, trainers are selling both shepherds and Malinois as protection dogs to private citizens who crave added security.
Trainers like Cinnante comb the cities and villages of Europe, building relationships with top breeders, whose detailed genetic records span hundreds of years and who train shepherds and Malinois to compete in Schutzhund, a German dog sport, and French Ring Sport, an arguably more difficult version popular in France, the Czech Republic and Germany. Championship-level events in these countries draw tens of thousands of spectators to watch dogs compete in obedience, protection and tracking or agility exercises developed 100 years ago to maintain the desired intelligence, physical structure (yes, looks matter), abilities and temperament (so does personality) in the bloodline.
But nature is one thing. Nurture matters too, and these pups are trained to bite with the entire jaw—which is both a learned and a genetic trait—from the time they are six weeks old. When they’re two or three, the animals are sold for anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 to trainers such as Cinnante, who then import them to the United States and train them for an additional six weeks to six months, tailoring their behavior and abilities to dovetail with the lives of demanding clients with high disposable incomes.
Prices are so high it’s shocking, ranging from $35,000 to $230,000. To hear Cinnante tell it, what these new owners get is quite possibly the perfect animal. Like the best family pets, these dogs enjoy a snuggle and are good with kids, and when they play fetch, you don’t have to chase them down to get the ball back. But they have another layer of training too. If you want your dog to check on toddlers in the backyard, they’ll do it. Walk them off leash and they will never leave your side unless instructed. When you get home they’ll inspect every room in the house, clearing it the way a police dog might, before barking that the coast is clear. They pee and poop on command, and most important, they will attack and disable anybody who breaks in to your house or threatens your family.
The size of the protection-dog market is anybody’s guess, as there are no industry groups, nor any state, county or federal certification protocol to meet in order to become a dog trainer. That’s true for the folks who market themselves as simple obedience trainers at the local park or kennel, and it’s true for Cinnante and his peers. But according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the market is growing.
Harrison Prather, 64, has been in business since 1975. Back during the Vietnam War, he was drinking at an enlisted men’s club when a vicious brawl broke out. A team of MPs stormed in to restore order and took an ugly beating themselves. “Then the K-9 unit showed up,” says Prather. “We’re talking one guy with one canine, and that crowd parted like the Red Sea. That’s when it hit me. It was like a calling.” After the war a friend introduced him to a man who had designed the Department of Defense patrol-dog program. “I paid him $9,000 to work for him for 18 months,” says Prather.
Two years later he was training dogs for police departments and foreign militaries in England, France, Brazil and Colombia, but they were hard to please and paid little. On a lark he ran an ad in the Robb Report, and it didn’t take him long to realize its readers had money and liked to spend it. For the past 30 years Harrison K-9 has maintained a full-page ad in the magazine that grew his business, which grosses $4 million annually.
Even John Whitaker, one of Cinnante’s mentors and the owner and founder of CPI, Prather’s closest rival, concedes that Prather was a pioneer. “Harrison created the industry. He was the first to sell European dogs as protection dogs, and he understood there were affluent clients who didn’t want the same old guard dog. They wanted something more.”
A town laced with 900 miles of dirt roads lined with single-story brick homes and horse corrals, Aiken, South Carolina is the second-biggest polo destination in America. Prather’s clients usually fly in to the local airstrip developed for private jets carrying the polo-loving public. I fly commercial, so I make the long drive from Atlanta and am greeted by Prather’s charming facility manager, November Holley. She takes me to the kennel, which is half full with about 30 German shepherds yipping and barking. Patrick Ashley, 28, a staffer with a chiseled jaw and a buzz cut, rips off a hot whistle. Total silence. It is the loudest sound I’ll hear out of Ashley all day.
Ashley grew up with animals and spent his high school years mucking horse stalls for $25 a day. At 21, he came to work for Holley and Prather. He started by cleaning the dogs’ private cages, but within months he was on his way to becoming one of Harrison K-9’s best trainers.
For the next hour I watch Ashley and another staffer, wearing only a protective sleeve and playing decoy, work Axel, an athletic 90-pound black sable destined for one of the spectacular mansions in the mountains around Aspen, Colorado, where he’ll hike the high country with a new master. Axel is trained to obey English, German and sign language. He charges the decoy’s arm and bites down hard. When the dog is set loose a second time, Ashley calls him off before he attacks. The dog obeys.
“You can’t recall a bullet,” says Holley, “but you can recall a dog.” On the rare occasions when Axel fails to listen, Ashley doesn’t respond with anger, force or bribery. Unlike other protection-dog trainers, they don’t use electric collars at Harrison K-9, and they don’t use treats or toys as reward.
“They get rewarded through my praise and my affection,” says Ashley.
“There’s a lot of love, a lot of hands-on,” says Holley. “That’s what makes you a better trainer, to have that relationship with the dog, to make it your buddy, your partner.” Of course there are penalties too, but the only tool Harrison K-9 uses to modify behavior is a pronged collar, a barbed chain that with a slight tug distributes a pinch evenly around the neck. It looks like a Game of Thrones torture device, but Holley claims it’s more humane than a choke collar, and most vets agree.
Harrison K-9 sources all its dogs from one man, a top Schutzhund trainer in Germany. After the dogs arrive, Ashley or Holley brings them home for days at a time to see if they’re fit for a household environment. When they return to the kennel, they’re trained once daily for just 30 to 60 minutes.
The rest of the day the dogs relax, and they’re rather good at it. After the training session, Ashley and I take Axel to lunch in downtown Aiken, where the leafy streets are dotted with historic stone buildings. He sprawls at our feet as we lunch at a street-side table and Ashley tells war stories about delivering dogs to the superrich—like the time he delivered a dog to a Mexican mogul with questionable friendships and a heavily armed entourage. The dog, which Prather had sold for $65,000, turned out to be for the family’s protection in case their bodyguards turned on them.
Through it all Axel is sweet and approachable, and the gentleman at the next table can’t resist his exposed belly. He reaches down and starts to rub it, then notices the harness identifying Axel as a service dog.
“Are you training him to be a Seeing Eye dog?” he asks. Ashley demurs.
“Axel is a personal protection dog,” I say. “A trained killer. You can have him if you want. It’ll cost you only about $60,000.” The man laughs and keeps petting Axel, who basks in the attention.
“Please, who on earth would pay that kind of money for a damn dog?”
Imagine for a moment you’re a woman in public service. You work at the DMV or the welfare office. Maybe you’re a public defender or a mid-level hospital staffer. You’re not rich, but you own a home. You’re happily married with children, and you’re satisfied with your job serving the community. Still, not everyone you deal with gets what they want, because some things are impossible or even illegal. Over the years you’ve become accustomed to delivering bad news and the negative reaction it inspires. It’s never fun, but it hasn’t been life altering until you meet him. He seems so sweet and harmless at first. He wants you to bend the rules, but you aren’t going to risk your security for some charmer. You’re firm but polite and forget him almost as quickly as you file him away and shut the drawer. But he doesn’t forget you.
He becomes fixated and develops a plan to get back at you. He recruits accomplices, sends you a packet of information and leaves lurid and haunting voice mails detailing your rape, torture and murder. They involve electric probes and a slit throat. He’ll do the same to your children, he says. And your husband will receive photos and instructions on where to find the bodies.
You call the police and get a restraining order, and soon he’s arrested, but he’s held for less than four hours. The voice mails keep coming. “A sheet of paper isn’t going to stop me,” he says. His messages go on to describe your comings and goings. He’s watching you. You don’t eat or sleep. When you’re not at work, you stay home with the doors and windows locked and the security system on. You’ve become his prisoner.
Then one day a colleague suggests you get a dog, and not just any dog. He slips you the phone number of the trainer who helped him, and soon you meet Cinnante for dinner. He’s flown in from Miami to quiz you about your habits and hobbies. “I want to help you,” he says, “but I’m not here to sell you a dog. I’m giving you a member of your family.”
The price tag is $65,000.
That night you crunch numbers. You factor in the cost of a security detail, years of therapy and lost liberty. Under the weight of stress and fear, the price shrinks to manageable. By morning, there isn’t a question left in your mind.
Over the next several weeks Cinnante e-mails photos, videos and written updates about the German shepherd he has found for you. You don’t know this yet, but unlike other outfits, Cinnante lives with the dogs he sells through Advanced Canine Solutions, the company he launched after leaving CPI. Like a Method actor, Cinnante has molded his life to yours so the dog will become attuned to your habits before it even meets you.
By the time Cinnante delivers Brutus, you’re emotionally invested. Cinnante spends four days training you to control the dog, which involves a litany of commands. You start with simple ones—sit, stay, lie down (which the dog obeys in English, French and German)—before you learn how to make the dog circle and defend you. You order attacks and call them off, then stand outside as Brutus inspects your house and barks to let you know it’s safe to come inside. Cinnante is patient and kind, and Brutus is adorable and doting. Wherever you go, he goes. He watches while you bathe and while you sleep. When you make breakfast or water the garden, the dog is there. By day four you feel more like yourself than you have in months.
At the airport, Cinnante offers one more piece of advice. “Unless you’re under pressure, don’t turn the dog loose. He’s not here to attack someone. He’s here to defend you.”
One afternoon you see your stalker on a city street. He stands 50 feet away and glares at you. You lock eyes with him, then look down at Brutus, and both you and the dog look up at your stalker. Flustered, he disappears, and you never see him again.
That’s a true story. Before I met the client and her dog under the condition of anonymity, I’d considered protection dogs to be souvenirs for the one percent. Sure, the surgeon in Georgia was building his nest egg, but he was still highly compensated. The woman with the stalker wasn’t. She was an average, middle-aged, middle-class American who needed help.
Prather tells me a story about a client in Virginia who bought a dog 15 years ago. “She had an estranged husband who said he was going to kill her,” says Prather. One week after Prather delivered the dog, the client’s ex crawled through the back window in the middle of the night. “He was carrying a big O.J. Simpson knife, but that dog got him right square in the middle, if you catch my drift.” The would-be attacker went to the hospital first, then state prison.
Such episodes are rare, however. Of the thousands of dogs Prather has sold, that is the most glaring instance of self-defense he can recall. For most clients, a protection dog is simply a deterrent or just another wonderful toy.
Consider Jose E. Souto, a Cuban immigrant who, after selling at peak value one of the biggest coffee companies in the United States, moved in to Ray Allen’s neighborhood and the mega-yacht tax bracket. Cinnante and I meet Souto at his Italianate villa in Coral Gables, perched on the lip of Biscayne Bay, where he parks his yacht. His villa is stocked with art from such giants as Fernando Botero and Eugène Boudin, a mentor to Monet. He has a screening room, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, and he has Denzel, a 100-pound German shepherd that may be Souto’s favorite plaything.
We are here to put the dog through his paces, and it doesn’t take long for Cinnante to see that Denzel, who spends his days lazing on cool marble floors in his south Florida palace, is out of practice. Souto originally bought Denzel from CPI to keep his new wife company while he was away on business. Upon delivery, Souto was shocked to meet a friendly dog without a hint of aggression, but when it came time to show off Denzel’s protection skills, Cinnante turned the dog on.
“All of a sudden, he was transformed,” says Souto, beaming.
Denzel has never been called into duty, and over the past four years Souto hasn’t maintained the dog’s skills. But after a few minutes with Cinnante, the dog sharpens up. Souto invites me to handle him next.
I take the dog’s collar as he sits calmly by my side. When I say “Steck,” sweet, pudgy Denzel begins barking with ferocity. Cinnante nods, and I issue my next command: “Attack!” I let go and Denzel barrels toward Cinnante, who’s wearing his bite suit and takes the punishment with glee. Souto watches with a giddy smile. Denzel is soon spent and happily collapses on the cool marble of his daydreams. That night Cinnante and I meet at a swank raw bar in midtown Miami. He laments Denzel’s current physical state. “He needs to be worked. Ferraris need to be tuned up,” he says. He confesses that many clients let their dogs get out of shape, and sometimes he suggests they put them on treadmills for exercise. Considering the lazy factor inherent in all humans, I wonder if his clients aren’t wasting their money.
CPI’s website is stocked with video testimonials from rich guys flaunting cuddly killers. Among the videos is one from best-selling romance novelist Nicholas Sparks, author of The Notebook. He has two dogs. Another comes from Steven Seagal, who has bought several protection dogs over the years. Harrison K-9 made international news when it sold a German shepherd to a Minnesota man for $230,000 after he sold his debt-collection firm for millions in a deal that closed mere weeks before the stock market crash. Souto, for one, is philosophical about his motivation. “I’m not perfect,” he says, “so I look for material things.”
Cinnante doesn’t bother with such questions. “My job is to serve, not to judge clients for why they bought their dogs,” he says. “I’m here to bring them something amazing, something they haven’t seen before.”
Colombian and Cuban by descent, Cinnante was born in Spain to a couple in the upper echelon of the cocaine business. His mother was a 24-year-old flight attendant when she met and married his father. Together they used her knowledge of airlines and airports to become elite drug smugglers.
His parents split when Cinnante was four years old, and his mother married a rival lieutenant in another cartel. The pair traveled frequently and often left Cinnante to his own devices, which instilled in him an independent spirit and a strong will. By the time Cinnante was in middle school and his mother had left the drug business, he’d become a young man in a boy’s body.
He got his first working dog when he was 16 and enjoyed teaching it tricks. He took it to a dog-club event in Miami to learn more. That’s where he met a local K-9 officer with a Belgian Malinois and got attacked for the first time. Soon after that the cop offered Cinnante $50 to break in to his house to further sharpen the dog’s skills. Other dog owners started doing the same, and soon Cinnante had a nice little after-school enterprise breaking in to homes with permission.
It was his ability to test and evade dogs that made him so popular as a fake burglar. By the time he turned 20 he was one of the best decoys in stateside French Ring Sport and was earning clients and star turns at events around the world. His secret? He loved it. There was something about the attack that thrilled him, and after we broke into the surgeon’s house to test Mako, he showed me why. That’s when I donned the bite suit for the first time. Cinnante took the leash. I was barefoot, which concerned me, but Cinnante built a barricade around my lower half to protect my vulnerabilities. He also gave me a last piece of advice: “The dog will lunge for whatever part of the body you offer first.”
Mako barked, growled and foamed at the mouth. Then he attacked and headed around the barricade, straight for my bare feet. I lunged forward to defend myself with my elbow, and the dog leapt at my arm, nearly tugging me to the ground. I felt a burn as his teeth dug farther into the material, into my skin. Cinnante called the dog off for a break, then sicced him one more time. This time Mako latched onto my upper arm. I spun, his feet dangling above the ground as he tried to pull me down. Gravity was his friend. By the time Cinnante called him off, I was bent over, gassed and thrilled but also relaxed, as if the dog’s adrenaline and endorphin rush had been transferred to me.
Cinnante eventually caught the eye of Ludovic Teurbane, a former professional lightweight boxer who’d become a heavyweight in dog sport. He took Cinnante to Europe, introduced him to breeders all over the continent and showed him how to select the best dogs available. Cinnante returned from his second trip with four dogs, and his training career was launched.
By the time he was 21 he already had a growing business in south Florida and a reputation to match, but John Whitaker enticed him to Boston with a job offer and a promise to teach him the most advanced protection techniques in the industry. Whitaker’s love affair with canines began when he was a bullied 15-year-old in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. His solution was a rottweiler. “You don’t get bullied as much when you have a protection dog by your side,” he says.
He soon began to train German shepherds and found that breeders in East Germany produced the most impressive animals. He was just 21 when he negotiated an exclusive deal with the East German government to import German shepherds into the United States.
After the Berlin Wall crumbled Whitaker hooked up with German SWAT teams that trained dogs to enter hostage situations and attack the gunmen without posing a threat to hostages. The SWAT teams were known to sometimes slice the dogs’ vocal cords to make them stealthier. He also saw the police dogs perfect the wachen, or “guard,” exercise, in which the animal positions itself between its handler and the threat. It’s not just the positioning (in which the dog sticks to the master’s side and points in the direction of the threat at all times) but what the dog does next that is intimidating. It turns on, which means it begins to bark with gums raised and canines exposed. It’s not a single bark either but a loud, rapid-fire fit that will raise the hair on the arms and stoke fear in the heart of the attacker. Sometimes the dog foams at the mouth, and often this display of strength and ferocity is enough to drive any bad guy toward retreat. Otherwise it may get worse.
Inspired, Whitaker contacted folks he knew in the executive-protection field, including bodyguards for the Saudi royal family, to see where a dog might fit in an overall security detail. Next he developed a system of informal and formal commands that enable handlers to speak in a pleasant tone and have the dog obey.
At CPI, formal commands must be obeyed without question, and if they aren’t, a reprimand is issued in the form of an electric jolt.
Prather has a problem with remote collars. “Our dogs are working because they want to please you,” he says. “Those other ones are working because they’re scared to death you’re gonna fry their ass.”
Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, agrees. “There is no reason for remote collars,” she says. “If you use positive reinforcement, you don’t need to use pain to train.”
Whitaker dismisses such statements. “The way we train is the most humane,” he says, “the most compassionate. The reality is most trainers don’t produce functional results. We do, because we link tremendous amounts of pleasure with obedience, and we use stimulation at low levels as a consequence. There are 127 levels on the collar. We start at one, and most dogs begin feeling it at 10. That’s exactly the same kind of stimulation chiropractors use in therapy. Then we increase it to levels that can be unpleasant but not overwhelming, which makes obeying both pleasurable and habitual.”
Whitaker believes Prather’s dogs lack sound protection skills. “They sell sport animals, and training for dog sport doesn’t prepare them for everyday life,” he says. “Our dogs have a very high level of long-term performance without further training. Off leash, they obey the first time, every time. If they don’t, the dog is not trained.” It’s true Whitaker’s CPI offers maintenance packages, but according to Whitaker the packages “maintain a very high level of training at the highest level” but aren’t necessary to preserve the dog’s protection skills.
Jim Alloway, president of the United Schutzhund Clubs of America, the largest dog-sport association in the U.S., isn’t buying it. “There’s no such thing as a dog that’s trained and boom, you’re done,” he says. “You’ll always need maintenance.” Bonnie Beaver, a professor at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, agrees. She believes if the dogs’ training isn’t maintained they lose it, which can be dangerous. “If the owners aren’t practicing,” she says, “the dogs don’t shut off as easily.”
“It’s really important the dog is constantly maintained by its handler,” says Bernstein. “If a dog is trained to be lethal, it can be lethal. It’s like having a loaded gun in the house.”
Horror stories are hard to find, but they’re out there. The worst happened in 1995. California K-9 Academy, a company that still exists under new ownership (it ignored repeated interview requests), sold a dog to a 27-year-old Los Angeles woman. When she took its muzzle off during routine training, the dog mauled her, biting her face several times. She required reconstructive surgery. California K-9 had a poor reputation among its competitors at the time, and dodgy outfits still abound.
“There’s no certification for dog trainers,” says Beaver. “It’s a big problem for the industry, and it’s a big problem for the public.”
Harrison- and CPI-trained dogs have never harmed anybody in their households or communities, but the dogs I visited weren’t as sharp with their owners as they were with trainers. And there are other issues to consider. Mako, the Malinois I met in Georgia, suffered a persistent infection in his foot that had still not healed when we met, despite frequent visits to the vet. Jose Souto’s dog in Miami had a prostate infection at just six years old.
Sandy Bentley, a Harrison K-9 client (and former PLAYBOY model) I met in Westlake Village, California, has two German shepherds and recently made a trip to Aiken to visit a forthcoming addition. One of her animals was in rehab recovering from hip surgery. Harrison, CPI and Cinnante’s Advanced Canine Solutions all claim to incorporate extensive veterinary checks, X-rays and bloodline evaluations before they import a dog from Europe, but if injuries and illness can strike even the highest-caliber and most-vetted animals, what about dogs from lesser breeders and trainers?
Then there’s the question: Are protection dogs even necessary at all? Set aside the stalker cases and the surgeon whose house was vandalized and you’ll find the vast majority of protection-dog owners are über-wealthy people with no credible threats. Sure, income disparity is at its highest since the Great Depression, but violent crime is at a 42-year low. Why then are so many people adding that extra layer of security? Is it fear bordering on paranoia?
“I don’t think it’s a matter of paranoia or threat. It’s a matter of what-if. Home invasions do take place, and what then?” Whitaker asks. “Our dogs deter crime, they detect crime and they defend.”
But Beaver says all dogs deter, detect and defend. “Many dogs will instinctively protect their owners if the owner gets into trouble,” she says. “If the owner is emitting fear pheromones, which have an odor humans can’t detect, the dog is going to be there. Fear pheromones will drive almost all dogs into attacking an intruder.”
Cinnante disagrees that most dogs are equipped to handle serious threats. Many of those he evaluates, including some champion dogs in Europe, don’t pass his tests. If a dog passes the medical exams and Cinnante’s eye test, he’ll examine it in a number of other ways. In one test, Cinnante places the dog in a dark room by itself for 15 minutes before entering, using intimidating eye contact, sharp movements and threatening body language to see how the dog responds.
“Not just any dog is equipped for protection work,” he says. “You’d be surprised how many tuck their tail and look for an escape. Some even piss on themselves. But that’s okay. I love finding that diamond in the rough.”
Alex certainly qualified. On the day before the summer solstice, I meet Whitaker and Cinnante in a Malibu park to test their latest gem. Alex is a black German shepherd, one of two Whitaker brought to a hedge fund manager who was looking for that extra layer of protection at his beach estate. Cinnante, who just moved to southern California, still works for CPI on a contract basis and is here to help train the client. I’d hoped to witness the dog delivery, but the finance guy nixed it. To assuage my disappointment, the guys promised me another session in the bite suit.
I’d suited up with Mako in Georgia, but that was in a confined space and the dog couldn’t get a running start. This time I’m on a vast manicured field on the bluffs above the Pacific. A layer of low clouds obscures the falling sun. Unlike the other protection dogs I’ve met, Alex is in a surly mood when he arrives and growls at me as he gets out of the car.
“He’s a serious guy,” says Cinnante.
He doesn’t present the easy charm I’ve come to expect, but I like that he’s angry. Ever since that first session, I haven’t been able to forget the feeling of being attacked. There was something primal about it. It made me growl and resist and inspired in me a twisted Fight Club impulse to shatter the numbing shell of the day-to-day with the real risk of bodily harm. It turned me into an animal.
This time Cinnante has a camera and Whitaker handles Alex, who is still growling as I take my stance.
“Platz,” says Whitaker, and the dog lies down about 30 feet away. We lock eyes for a long beat before Whitaker issues his final command: “Attack!” The dog comes flying.