Best Friend for Hire
by Kurt Opprecht

for The New York Times, March 3, 2002

When people are insecure, they sometimes turn to a friend or turn to man’s best friend. But a dog is a lot more than just a friend, and a lot more than just a sentry. As the Whipple trial now playing out in Los Angeles makes clear, in the wrong circumstances, someone’s faithful companion might be someone else’s killer.

Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, the owners of two dogs that killed college lacrosse coach Diane Whipple outside her apartment in San Francisco last year, are on trial for involuntary manslaughter; and in addition Knoller is charged with second-degree murder in the incident.

To Angelo Biondo, dog trainer and owner of K9 Powerhouse Kennels in Brooklyn, fatal maulings such as this are clearly a consequence of poor training. "A dog is an asset to a family. The fact that they’re trained makes them one hundred times better," he adds, "I treat my dogs like they’re family."

Biondo says that there is an increased interest in guard dogs since September 11, adding that dogs are often the most economical security option, since one canine can be as intimidating as several human guards. In fact, K9 kennels has Rottweilers and German Shepherds available for monthly rental, trained to attack on command.

But animal advocates question the necessity of breeding and training canines for viciousness. John Snyder, a director at the Humane Society of the U.S., says that barking is usually a sufficient deterrent to crime. "Do we really want dogs that bite to attack?" he asks.

The Humane Society is not opposed to guard dog training, but it does not promote the use of animals strictly for personal protection, not to mention renting them out. In fact, in his 27 years in animal advocacy, Snyder has never heard of protection dogs being rented.

"This is risky business," Snyder says. "If I take an attack dog home after receiving one or two days’ training, and I give the wrong signal or the wrong command and don’t know how to stop the dog, it’s like starting a car and not knowing how to stop it."

Mr. Biondo says K9 turns away anyone who wants a dog for the wrong reasons, because the liability risk is too high. "A woman came in last week who told me she was having trouble with a guy who was stalking her," he relates, "I said, no, you don’t need a dog, you need to call the police. I wouldn’t rent her a dog, no way."

The typical client of K9, according to Biondo, is a contractor or builder who wants a dog to patrol a construction site. While he was building his home on Staten Island, Rick Assini rented Rex, a German Shepherd, from K9. Assini says Rex worked out well for him even though the initial training was brief. "I went down and I worked with them a couple of times, with Angelo and the dog, and he said, ‘That’s it, you’re ready, take the dog.’"

Mr. Biondo’s dogs are trained to follow specific commands, from "sit" and "stay" to "watch," "attack," and "release." "Nobody trains a dog to kill, except idiots and drug dealers," he says.

Mr. Snyder and Mr. Biondo agree that the Whipple death was an aberration, but animal advocates are pressing for a different attitude toward dog breeding and training. Mr. Snyder said, "There’s been a lot of discussion and some research done on this and the problem is not getting better, it’s getting worse."

 © Kurt Opprecht, 2002

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