A Breed Apart: From war zone to living room, elite protection pups can do it all
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The last place you would want to break into is the new business on 3510 South Highway 89. It would be suicidal.
At present, 21 guard dogs live on premises at Snake River K9. They have been in training since they were 28 days old. Some will be used to track murderers and rapists or sniff out survivors, bombs and drugs in the world’s meanest environments. Others, clad in Kevlar vests, night-vision cameras, and Doggles, will jump out of helicopters on missions with elite military teams. Most, however, will be placed with families who want the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the assault weapon on the end of their leash will give its life defending them.
The dogs are Belgian Malinois, Dutch Shepherds and German Shepherds. They understand but do not fear firearms. They are incorruptible, trained to ignore food or treats offered by a stranger. They are on duty every waking moment in the most extreme of conditions from minus 20 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. And when they are asleep, well, let’s just say you better be very, very quiet. These animals have been selectively bred for 65 years to know exactly what to do when an intruder walks onto their property.
Coming to America
When Jeff and Kim Greene stepped off the plane at JFK after a 15-hour flight from East Africa they were asked if they had anything to declare. They did: three dogs that would help seed the eight-year-old Kenyan company’s launch in the United States. Ridgeback, LLC, was headed stateside to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where it would be rebranded as Snake River K9. The Greenes were looking to introduce a kinder, gentler protection dog to a new client base and pizza to their twin boys.
“I’d traveled the world and been to a lot of rough places. I’d been in war zones. But nothing prepares you for Africa. Nothing. It’s a different energy. It feels edgy,” Kim Greene said. “Kenya was supposed to be a year or two, and we’ve done a lot of rough stuff, very honestly. Our phone rang every other night. Our search and rescue team is probably the largest and most active in East Africa. It’s intensive and just not the life for our kids that we intended. We didn’t want to be in the security business. We wanted to be in the dog business. But dogs take on the nature of full-time security there.”
Kim met her husband, Jeff, while in Kabul working as a policy advisor for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “Jeff was the head of the counter-sniper protection team in charge of protecting Karzai,” Greene said.
Jeff is a former Marine who crossed over to Army Special Forces. He worked with up to nine military dogs trained to sweep areas for explosives while on a private contract with Karzai. Kim couldn’t have cared less about dogs. She got poison ivy from one when she was seven years old and vowed to never touch a dog again.
The two married in 2006 and moved to Kenya. Jeff’s security details took him often to Mogadishu and other foreign lands. He suggested Kim carry a firearm while he was away. She said no. Then he mentioned a guard dog. She resisted.
“Long story short, we came home from Canada with two protection dogs – Dutch Shepherds. Those dogs worked with me in the house, and they were my security,” she said. “They proved to me that they can be around a mother and children and remain highly stable. They are just dogs. But they are a nice deterrent when you might have 16 people coming to the door with machetes in the middle of the night. It’s a pretty difficult environment there.”
The pair from Canada led to a litter and spawned a business that has now expanded to 130 dogs on 30-plus acres outside of Nairobi with 36 full-time handlers.
Landing in Jackson Hole
With her boys – Tor and Rhys – getting old enough to start grade school, Greene wanted to give them a chance to be “Yanks.” The couple started a coast-to-coast search for their new American home base in October. The first community on their eight-city checklist was Jackson Hole. They got no farther.
So impressed was Kim that when it was time to move on she dug in her heels. She recalled, “Jeff said, ‘Come on, it’s been four days, let’s check out Bozeman, Denver and the rest.’”
“No,” Kim said, “We’re done. This is it.”
The Greenes had planned to bring their lives and livelihood across the Atlantic by July. Eager to spend Christmas in Jackson Hole, however, they were packed out of Kenya in three weeks last fall, landed a house in the valley and enjoyed the first snowfall of the winter in their new home while searching for a place to set up shop. The opportunity came when Shaun King liquidized his Action Sports Polaris dealership and vanished in the night. The Greenes have moved into the space until next year when it is slated to be demolished.
“Jackson is the place we want to be that has the right values, the right environment, the right people for raising our family. And I think we have a tremendous value-add for the community, like with our search dogs. I think there is a lot of opportunity to – not to take over – but to contribute to what’s here. And everybody has a dog here. Everyone has the opportunity to do stability and socialization training with us. The sale of personal and family protection dogs is our bread and butter and while they won’t necessarily go to people in the community, there are a lot of people that have second and third homes here that are, quite frankly, our potential client pool.”
Living in Jackson Hole
The Greenes already have made great strides integrating themselves into the community. They reached out to the county’s Search and Rescue team, offered the use of dogs to locals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and will begin boarding and training area dogs at their facility. When the Greenes learned that Sheriff’s deputy John LaBrec lost his service dog, they gave him one of their best trackers, a German Shepherd named Grace.
“We gifted a dog to Deputy Sheriff LaBrec because he had lost his dog, Deuce, now over a year ago,” Greene said. “Obviously, when we start giving away dogs it starts costing a lot of money; but from time to time, for PR purposes and because we think it’s the right thing to do, we donate dogs.”
Feeding dozens of dogs at Snake River K9 will be a challenge, especially if the Greenes want to stick with their philosophy of serving raw meat every other day.
“We treat our dogs exactly like African wild dogs or lions,” Greene said. “They don’t eat everyday and certainly not twice a day. They eat every second or third day and they gorge when they do eat. They get drive when they are hungry again, and we use that in the training.”
In Kenya, Ridgeback is the third largest purchaser of beef from a local cattle farm, behind only two grocery store chains. Greene said she talked with Cody Lockhart about feeding his cows to her dogs, but for now she’s altered the African feeding model a bit.
“All of our dogs are on Mulligan [Stew] now,” Greene said. “We don’t feed kibble. Most of that stuff is full of garbage. It’s like eating McDonalds everyday; it will kill you. We want the longest life span we can get, and we think raw is the best option for that. Here in America, as far as we can tell – and we looked at everything under the sun – it just happened that Mulligan’s was here in Jackson. It’s as close to raw as you are gonna get and the dogs are doing great on it. They really are. So we are in partnership with them. I just shipped about $8,000 worth of Mulligan’s up there to Uganda where we are setting up search and rescue capability for the Uganda government. That’s how much we believe in it.”
BRED FOR BATTLE
The only breeds you’ll find at Snake River K9 are German and Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois. Dutchies are preferred over the Germans because they are less needy emotionally, according to Kim Greene. But the dog of choice for K9 units in law enforcement and military ops everywhere is the little-known Belgian Malinois. The breed was nearly unheard of until a Mally named Cairo achieved fame for being in on the SEAL Team 6 takeout of Osama Bin Laden two years ago. The Mally’s drive, intensity and focus are virtually unmatched anywhere in the canine world.
“No one knew about the Malinois up until 18 months ago when one was with the guys that were in on the Bin Laden hit. We know them. [My husband] Jeff was in the military with them,” Greene said. “We all gravitate to the same dogs for the same reason. They are a high-speed dog, and they are smart. Because if you are pushing into a room for an asset like that, you want that dog and no other.”
Greene said her Mallies in Kenya would not be suitable for placement with families, but a Malinois raised and trained up at her Jackson Hole facility would make a loyal and dedicated family protection dog.
“While it’s really sexy to say ‘my dog was trained for the military,’ that’s not cool because once you’ve brought a dog up to that level, it’s really hard to dial them back down and take the edge off,” Greene said. “It’s important to remember that our kennel in Kenya is for a really intense environment with the intention of placing high-energy, hard-hitting dogs with law enforcement, military, and families in a very inhospitable culture.”
Greene said German Shepherds make excellent family dogs as well but advises against buying one in the United States.
“Everybody loves a German Shepherd, but in challenging environments from extreme weather to whatever, they are not the dog of choice. They are not as robust. They just aren’t,” Greene said. “For a family dog they are great. But the German Shepherds in America have been bred in a terrible way. Everyone thinks they are supposed to have this slanted, inclined back and they’re not. They’re supposed to have a straight back. So if you see an incline, you’ve got hip dysplasia, and I think it’s nearly impossible to find one in America without that.”
Greene said the Dutch Shepherd fits nicely, temperament-wise, between the Germans and Mallies. Dutchies also are used heavily in special ops for their unique ability to “disappear” at night. The brindled coat (most Dutch are brindled) doesn’t show up well on night-vision goggles and cameras. “If you put Doggles on them, you cannot see them in the dark,” Greene said.
Greene said her company’s unique breeding program sets Snake River K9 apart from her competitors who don’t breed inhouse.
Greene said, “We purchased an old line breeding program. We know the genetics, so we know how they are going to behave. These lines are known to be tried and true throughout history, back to WWII where these dogs have been utilized in really intensive military and search capacities for multiple generations.”
Result-oriented breeding for working dogs usually produces consistently healthy dogs, in Greene’s experience, unlike the ribbon-obsessed kennel club crowd. None of her brood would win a thing at Westminster, but they could kick it’s ass in a street fight.
“The challenge in the U.S. – and the kennel clubs have their purpose, they really do – but overbred anything doesn’t work out that well. And when dogs have been bred for showing and aesthetics you get some pretty loopy dogs that you don’t always know what’s going on in their heads. Not to say you don’t get a couple good ones, and they might be beautiful specimens but as far as robustness, we have almost no vet bill. And I have 132 dogs in Kenya.”
Greene said there is nothing, really, the Dutchies and Mallies can’t do. Almost all of her dogs track or scent in some way.
“Bloodhounds, for instance, are known to be good trackers but they are generally cold scent dogs, meaning their nose can pick up scent that’s upwards of seven days old,” Greene said. “We traditionally would say that German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois are warm-scent trackers so they would need to start within 48 hours to stand the best chance of success. But what certain military units are finding now is completely unheard of. They are doing post-60-day tracks in urban environments, stretching the belief system of what we thought these dogs could do. I think we can’t even begin to appreciate the full capacity and capability of dogs – vision, hearing, scent, decision-making.”
Can these breeds track better than bloodhounds? Maybe not, but they’re more useful when they arrive at the scent-maker.
“When they find what they are looking for what do bloodhounds do? They bay and make a lot of noise. That’s all they do,” Greene said. “When you are tracking a perceived hostile target you want capability when you get there. You want to be able to hold them where they are or defend yourself. Because when you are looking for a bunch of bad guys who have come in with AK47s and raped a bunch of kids and now they are out there somewhere … you don’t want bloodhounds with you, I can promise you that.”
A breed apart
The Greenes’ dogs are different, and they know it. And other dogs know it. Greene stresses that her dogs are just dogs; lovable pets. They are well adjusted to any social situation and perfectly safe around kids. They enjoy being loved on and petted like any other dog, but all the while the intensity – Greene calls is “seriousness” – is always there.
“These dogs just carry themselves in a unique manner,” Greene said. “They act different, because they know they are different. People pick up on that and so do other dogs for that matter. When I walk these dogs around here, all the other dogs treat us very differently. They will cower or puff up or pee themselves, and the owner always says, ‘That’s strange, he never acts this way.’ Well, they recognize there is something different about our dogs.”
Greene continues, “Even our little Bull [an adorable 16-month-old Dutch]. You can go up to him and pet him and stroke him and wrestle with him, but all the while you can just kind of tell, he’s a dog that means business. That intensity never comes down.”
When asked to defend her breeding program to the significant number of dog-lovers who bristle at the thought of adding more canines into a world already over-populated, Greene has a ready reply: “It’s apples and oranges.”
“To those people I would ask, ‘Did you have your own children?’ Because there are a lot of kids out there that need homes. I can point you in the direction of about 10,000 orphanages in Kenya that you could go and have the feel-good of taking a child and giving it a home. That doesn’t mean it’s the right choice for everybody.
“Anybody that is looking for a pet dog, I highly, highly encourage them to look at the various shelter options. And not to say you cannot train those types of dogs in protection, but a pet is a different relationship than what we do. We are breeding, raising and training very high-end assets. Period. These dogs offer a level of comfort as well as capability, God forbid you ever need it. And that is very different than a dog you can get at a pound. It’s just not the same.”
TRAINING FOR RESULTS
Don’t call the stock at Snake River K9 “attack dogs” in front of Kim Greene. She doesn’t care for the negative connotation and a junkyard dog doesn’t retail for $35,000 to $75,000, and up. These are highly honed personal and family protection dogs. They will dismantle an intruder on command, but, more importantly, they will stand down when instructed.
“When people think of personal protection dogs they think of an ‘attack dog.’ That’s not what we do, and that’s very bad vernacular,” Greene said. “Maybe people have seen those types of dogs used with police and military, or seen a neighbor who has a really nasty dog. An attack dog in my mind is a dog with no training or stability behind it. It is just a vicious dog that was either innately that way or was treated really badly and was encouraged to be a terrible thing. If you don’t have verbal control over your dog, the fact that it has the capability of biting is a dangerous thing. So we always come back to obedience, and stability.”
Just how well are these dogs trained? By the time they are polished enough for placement with a family, the Greenes’ dogs can be called off of attack at any time – even a split second before they make contact.
Greene said, “You have to have that level of control. It’s America, we’re a litigious society, and it’s the right thing to do. You have the right to defend yourself, but if the dog does legitimately deploy on someone you are not looking to cause terrible bodily harm, even if YOU might want to in the heat of the moment. You are looking to eliminate the threat. Dogs shouldn’t be here for sale in America if we can’t do that every time. Period.”
Better yet, while Snake River K9 dogs are trained to deploy on a one-word command (don’t ever say “take” in front of them unless you want to see teeth), they have been put through enough mock scenarios to fine-tune their inherent intelligence to the point they already know who the bad guy is and what they should do about it.
“I can put four guys in a ‘bite suit’ out in a field,” Greene said. “I’ll assign one of them to think bad thoughts about me, and it has to be real animosity. The others, I will just say, ‘look menacing.’ When I deploy my dog he goes to that guy with evil intent every time. They absolutely pick up on that.”
Greene is happy to share her company’s training secrets, even if they’re just not all that exciting. “What we do, in a lot of ways, is not all that sexy. It’s not magic,” she said. “If we are doing our job right, it’ll probably look boring to the outsider. It’s boundaries, it’s consistency, it’s follow-through. The same principles in raising good kids. Exactly the same.”
Snake River K9 will be happy to put your dog through their regimented training routine. They ask for a three-week minimum but would like a month to see guaranteed results.
“I can’t turn most dogs around in under 30 days. I gotta be honest,” Greene admitted. “Often with a dog that’s got a lot of bad habits and bad manners you need the fifth week. I’ve done this enough to know that three weeks is often too short and five weeks is about perfect.”
Greene advises that good trainers/owners need to be firm with their dogs. Too many run wild because the dog thinks it’s the boss.
“We call our training ‘one direction, one correction,’” Greene said. “I tell my dog to sit, and I expect that dog to sit, whether it’s by my side or 50 yards away. If I tell him to sit and he doesn’t sit, I have to go to him, get a hold of him and physically make him sit. It’s follow-through and you have to be committed to doing that. Don’t get in the habit of repeating yourself with a dog. What’s worse than being in a restaurant and the mother is constantly saying to her kids, ‘If you don’t sit down we are going home right now,’ over and over? We call it having a conversation or having a vocabulary. Don’t do it. You tell, you don’t ask. You say it once and give them the opportunity to respond. If not, a step in their direction is usually all it takes to get compliance.”
Though Greene’s business cards proclaim her to be the “Alpha Female” of the company, it’s not about showing the dog who is boss through intimidation.
“With really hard-headed dogs there is a philosophy that you need to dominate. That you have to be the dominant one and ‘What I say goes.’” Greene said. “That said, remember you are building a bond, a connection, a chemistry. And any dog has to want to work for you.”