When one thinks about the centers of law enforcement, Buffalo Township not only doesn’t jump immediately to mind, it’s not even part of the conversation.
However, for many law enforcement agencies, Buffalo Township is a destination to add a key component to an agency’s arsenal.
Steve Pearson is the owner of Performance Kennels, which trains dogs specifically for use by law enforcement agencies, including the Wright County Sheriff’s Office. One of Pearson’s trainees – K9 Vader – retired today from the Wright County Sheriff’s Office and he is becoming a relic in the field of elite K9 officers. Vader is 100 percent German Shepherd. You aren’t seeing as many of those anymore and Pearson has seen firsthand the changes in the dog breeding industry.
Twice a year or more, Pearson travels to Slovakia to handpick the dogs he wants to train. The field is changing as geopolitics, innovation and genetics have combined to create and change the industry.
“The breeds of dogs that have been used over the years has changed with the times and has followed history,” Pearson said. “When the German Shepherd breed was created in the late-1800s, it was created in a portion of Germany that is now in France. In the early 1900s, part of the world was breeding the dog for their looks, while others found out these dogs weren’t just good for herding, they could really work and that’s where they started to be used by law enforcement and the military. Those that used these dogs as workers the most were in Eastern Europe – East Germany and the Soviet Bloc countries. After World War II, the Germans abandoned their kennels in the east where all these German Shepherds were bred and they essentially came under control of the Soviet countries.”
Because of the secrecy of the Russian Bloc system, generations of working dogs were bred and trained without the rest of the world having access to them. Most Shepherds were used as border patrol animals to keep people in those countries from escaping to the West.
This system remained for decades – until the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Soviet Union fell and countries that had been under their control for more than 40 years were now independent states. As a result, thousands of dogs that had been bred to serve as border patrol animals didn’t have a work-related purpose.
Where U.S. law enforcement and handlers like Pearson became involved in this industry began with the global expansion of the Internet. After years of unavailability, the elite law enforcement dogs that had been bred for decades in relative secrecy became available to Western countries.
“The expansion of the Internet gave people in these former Communist countries a chance to do business – big business,” Pearson said. “Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia – two different countries. Most of the best dogs were in Slovakia and suddenly the exportation of these working dogs to the U.S. and around the world became a big business.”
However, it was another landmark event that changed the playing field once again for the breeding of working dogs – the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001.
The security of the world changed on that day as a weakness to defend its own people was discovered and executed by the hijackers of U.S. commercial airliners that used them as weapons of destruction. The global need for more security, including dogs capable of detecting explosives and drugs, became greatly heightened.
“After 9/11, the number of dogs that were available for training that had the quality working bloodlines for law enforcement and military training just went in the tank,” Pearson said. “The worldwide demand for these dogs skyrocketed. Suddenly, everybody needed bomb dogs. They needed more dogs at the airports, in New York City, in office buildings, parking ramps, etc. The Malinois breed started in Belgium and was more of a Western European dog – a very high drive, but a very different dog in the head than a German Shepherd.”
The combination of these two breeds led to the breeding of a hybrid, incorporating the drive of the Malinois and the ability of the German Shepherd to create a cross of both breeds. Pearson said the vast majority of working dogs in law enforcement and the military now are a Malinois/Shepherd cross, including about 60 percent of the dogs he brings back from Slovakia.
“It’s a very good example of what a cross can do,” Pearson said. “They have crazy-high drive, but are super-social and super-clear in the head. That’s what you want. Sometimes you get a little more Malinois than you want. Sometimes you get a little more Shepherd than you want. Generally speaking the cross has worked well, because there were enough stable Malinois dogs or good German Shepherds to go around.”
Slovakia remains the hub for breeding dogs for use by law enforcement and the military and it likely isn’t going to change any time soon because of the storied history of success. Pearson made an analogy as to why Slovakia and other former Soviet Bloc countries remain the epicenter for those specialized breeds
“If you were making a blockbuster motion picture, you could pretty much make it anywhere,” Pearson said. “You could make it in Minneapolis or Miami or wherever. But would you? No. You would go to Hollywood because that’s where the people are that do that for a living. That’s where the best are. You can buy a North American German Shepherd and make it work, but if you need volume, you’ve got to go to the factory to give you the best chance of having a successful dog.”
For the same reason, it may be why law enforcement has embraced the K9 officers that Pearson has selected and trained. He hasn’t gone Hollywood in the dog training business. He’s brought Hollywood to Buffalo Township.