A man's best friend is his canine bodyguard, The Independent - 24th October 2008
Lazily curled up at the feet of his owner, six-year-old Edo gives every appearance of being the perfect family pet.
A Slovakian-bred german shepherd with piercing hazelnut eyes and a luxurious dark coat, he rarely takes his eyes off his master and is more than happy to roll on his back for a tummy rub with anyone brave enough to play with him.
Except Edo is no ordinary pet. He is £15,000-worth of security equipment - a highly trained attack dog capable of tackling anyone who threatens those he loves.
In America, well-heeled celebrities and families have long been willing to spend a small fortune on canine bodyguards, or "personal protection dogs" as the multimillion-dollar industry likes to call them. But with burglars this side of the Atlantic resorting to increasingly violent tactics in order to circumnavigate alarm systems, a growing market has also emerged in Britain for powerful pets that double up as 24-hour security with fur.
One of the largest suppliers of such dogs in the UK is run by Edo's owners, Charles Wall and his partner Gaynor Probert. Based in the Welsh countryside, their "A1K9" school trains hundreds of dogs for up to a year at a time in order to create animals that are both loving pets and capable defence dogs.
"What we create is a happy dog that is level-headed in all situations but one that, at the drop of a hat, will deal with any threat to its owner in an appropriate way," says Mr Wall, 44, who claims to have sold more than 400 dogs in the past 10 years, including one recently to the former racing driver Nigel Mansell. "Demand is increasing all the time," he adds. "We started off with half a dozen kennels at the back of the house, now we have purpose-built unit on the hill that houses up to 40 dogs at a time."
Half an hour later, on that windswept hill above the family home near Pontardulais, Edo is called on to demonstrate his skills by protecting his master from one of the world's most ungainly and undignified threats a terrified journalist awkwardly waddling towards them in a one-inch-thick padded "bite suit".
At Mr Wall's command, Edo takes up a defensive position and starts barking loudly. Undeterred, the foolish journalist steps within range, allowing Edo to pounce and deliver a frighteningly powerful bite to the right arm that would bring all but the strongest man to the ground. As soon as the bite-suit is off, he is soft as butter again, wagging his tail contentedly and pressing for another tummy rub.
It is this ability to confidently switch between being both an approachable family pet and a controlled defence dog, Mr Wall believes, that separates personal protection dogs from ordinary guard dogs.
"When someone thinks of a guard dog, the stereotypical image they have is of a dog in a scrapyard chained to a post," he says. "It's not the sort of thing you would put near a two-year-old child. My dogs are perfectly family friendly."
In order to ensure owners are able to control their dogs and bond with them safely they have to go through a three-day training course where they are taught various trigger commands to bring their pet under control. And unlike unscrupulous breeders who might sell a dog to anyone, customers can only purchase an A1K9 if they pass a test themselves.
"Most of the people who come to me have a perceived fear of crime or have been victims of crime themselves but I won't sell to everyone," says Mr Wall. "There are lots of people out there who would like to own a personal protection dog for the wrong reasons. My radar is usually pretty good at picking up those kinds of people on the telephone but there have been times when I've simply refused to sell a dog to someone because I don't trust them. They are the kind of characters that I train our dogs to protect people from and I'd rather lose 10 sales than sell a single dog to the wrong person."
The dogs themselves, primarily german shepherds and dobermanns, are certainly not cheap, ranging from £5,000 to £15,000 and more for some specialist requirements. The company has also just taken on a public relations company to help market the dogs to high-net worth individuals primarily based in Europe and the Middle East.
One of the most expensive dogs Mr Wall has sold was to a Scottish man who worked for a natural gas company in eastern Russia and needed protection from criminal gangs targeting Western businessmen. The german shepherd, named Taz, had to be trained to work under gunfire. In a letter to Mr Wall four months after Taz's arrival in Russia, the owner wrote: "Taz is doing great - nope, better than great. So far he has taken down four persons, one was armed with a metal bar - no damage to Taz."
According to Mr Wall's partner, Gaynor, who also trains the dogs alongside the company's five full-time staff, wives are often the customers keenest on buying a protection dog, particularly if their husbands spend a lot of time away from the house. "Having one of these dogs around is wonderfully reassuring, especially when Charles is gone," she says. "You are able to go to bed at night with a lovely safe feeling, knowing that somebody is always looking after you."
The law on dogs mauling intruders is a somewhat grey area but Mr Wall believes most of his customers are far more concerned with their safety.
The sales pitch? "Criminals are using increasingly violent tactics to rob houses where they will often take the wife or kids hostage in order to override an alarm or crack into a safe," says Mr Wall. "It's an increasing problem and it's not going to go away."