Foreign-Born Dog Soldiers

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

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.).

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