Asko is an Angel!
All the while his vibrant eyes beam up at me, He is Ready to Protect me
Forbes Life, Feature Article Holiday Issue
Asko is an Angel! Well, all right, Asko is a dog, technically — a huge, panting, 110 pound purebred German shepherd. But still: When he sits, he leans into my leg, rubs his cheek against my knee and pushes his fanny toward the heel of my foot. His tail does a happy windshield wiper wag. He gently nudges my hand, licks my fingers and, though we met only a couple of hours ago, he obeys my every command. All the while his vibrant eyes beam up at me, dancing with loyalty and love. An absolute angel.
And then, bless his heart, when I point to that young woman across the room, he rushes toward her and tries to rip her arm from its socket with a ferocity forged in the fires of hell. Angel Asko is a devil dog, too.
The combination of angel and devil makes Asko a valuable pooch. This weekend a well-to-do family from White Plains, New York, will claim Asko as their own. Asko’s price tag: $42,000.
That sum, impressive as it is, places Asko in the middle of the pack for Harrison K-9s*, some of which sell for as much as $55,000 and none for less than $25,000. For years Harrison Prather, founder of his eponymous K-9 service, trained German shepherds for military and police work until he glimpsed a new challenge in an unmet market niche: wealthy owners who needed a dog not only for security and protection but also as a safe and reliable family pet. Prather went upmarket, and today Harrison K-9* sells an average of 130 dogs a year, each trained to the specifications and needs of its new owners at the 25 acre compound of Harrison K-9* outside Aiken, South Carolina. Customers come from Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, and include an impressive number from the worlds of entertainment, politics and professional sports (almost all of whom, alas, deal with Prather on a guarantee of anonymity).
“We have a pretty high-profile lifestyle, we’re recognizable and we’ve had security problems in the past,” Hecker says. “We’ve got three different houses, and the dogs go with us everywhere, on our plane. We seldom use a bodyguard anymore. We don’t need guns, plainclothes personnel-none of that.
“We needed a dog that could separate his protection duties from day-to-day life,” says Dennis Hecker, a Minnesota entrepreneur who owns a pair of Harrison dogs. With children ages 5 and 12, as well as grandchildren from a previous marriage, Hecker was particularly concerned that any guard dog be sensitive to the rhythms and demands of his family.
“At the same time, we have a little girl who wants to play with her dogs constantly. She crawls in their cage and rubs their belly. We call our grandson ‘crocodile guy’ because he likes to get them down and pry open their mouths. They’re totally sweet.
“Then, if we give the right command, the dog turns into Norman Schwarzkopf I mean, you take one look at him and you’d have to be just dumb as hell to even…
Hecker chuckles. He doesn’t need to finish the thought. I’ve seen Asko~ teeth.
HARRISON PRATHER RECALLS WHEN he was first bitten, so to speak, by the passion for German shepherds. He was in the Army during the Vietnam War. One night at the enlisted men’s club, a brawl broke out. MPs arrived to break it up and decided to join the melee instead.
“Nobody’d pay attention to the MPs anyway,” Prather told me. “Everybody knew they wouldn’t do anything. It was a free-for-all.
“And then a canine team showed up. One man, one dog. And everything stopped. That was my first exposure to working dogs. I was thrilled by what they could do. 1 said, ‘This is my calling.”‘
After mustering out and graduating with a degree in business from the University of South Carolina, Prather apprenticed with a handler who specialized in training military and police dogs for tracking and patrol work. Eventually he started his own security dog business, and before long realized that whole aspects of the dogs’ nature were being ignored.
“Anybody can train a dog to be vicious,” he said. “They’re born and raised to bite. They naturally have that power. What you want is to control that power. Power without control is nothing.”
We were sitting in his wood-paneled office tucked at the edge of a stand of Pine and Hardwoods. Hung on the wall behind him was an oil painting of Honcho, now deceased. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without that dog,” he said, flexing the gold band of his Rolex. “Honcho showed me the possibilities. He was huge-like an oak stump with legs. Head the size of a basketball. But he was so gentle. A gentle giant.”
Honcho’s been dead for 17 years, but Prather pays tribute to him by producing gentle giants in the Honcho mold. Harrison K-9s* come from a single source in Germany, where they’ve been certified by Schutzhund clubs-kin to the American Kennel Club, but more tightly regulated in the German manner, with Teutonic guarantees of quality control. By the time the dogs are selected and flown to Aiken, they’ve lived for at least two years with German families and been trained in the fundamentals of obedience.
Once in the compound, Prather’s trainers mold them to a client’s specifications. They can be taught to track your kids, case
your house, run an obstacle course, even to avoid poison food set out by a malefactor — everything but pick up the dry cleaning. The buyer of one recently sold dog, for example, wanted him to serve as both companion and guard to his invalid mother. To accustom him to his new situation, the trainer worked from a wheelchair, a simulated IV trailing alongside.
Prather instills the gentleness in the giants by hiring female trainers almost exclusively. The training is directly overseen by November Holley, a diminutive blonde and mother of two who’s worked for Harrison K-9* for 13 years. The feminine touch is essential to training the dogs, she told me.
A woman can’t bully a dog like this,” Holley said. “I’m just not physically strong enough. These dogs are as big as me-one gets up on his hind legs, he’s looking me in the face.” So she trains the dogs to respond to commands without brute force-verbal and manual signals that wives and children can use when the dogs are in their new homes. “If I’m going to get him to do what I want,” she said, “I need to be able to count on the dog’s intelligence and on the bond I have with him-just like the client will.” For the same reason, the trainers often bring the dogs home at night to play and sleep with their own children.
“We won’t sell you a dog that’s going to be around your kids unless the dog’s already been around our kids,” she said.
TO PUT IT ANOTHER WAY, the dogs are trained to be “wimp-proof” It’s not a technical term; I just made it up. But I know what I’m talking about. At my daughter’s insistence, several years ago our family bought a fluffy dog — a creature just large enough to get wedged between the pads of one of the paws of a Harrison K-9. Our relationship, owner to dog, has been fraught. Although chances are good that I could take this 15 pound bichon frise in a fair fight, he will do nothing I ask him to do, only what I ask him not to do. He senses my own uneasiness with discipline and force. He thinks I’m a wimp.
Would a Harrison K-9* have the same problem-or rather, would I have the same problem with a Harrison K-9*? Holley offered to put me through a truncated version of the training that every new owner undergoes. The program normally lasts two days. Sometimes the clients fly to Aiken to train with their new pet across the open fields and through the woody thickets of the Harrison K-9* compound. More often the dog is delivered to the client’s house by a pair of Prather’s trainers, who introduce him (or her) to the new family and teach its members the commands and signals the dog relies on. (Bringing the trainers to your house is pricey: $ 1,900 a day, for two trainers, plus expenses-although, as Prather says, “price has never been a sticking point with our clients.”) My training began with “leash work. The leash, however, was attached to a bucket of rocks. “You’ve got to get comfortable with the commands before you work with the dog,” Holley told me. “Other-wise the dog will just get confused while you’re trying to figure them all out.” At her request I treated the bucket like a dog, tugging its leash and walking around its inert bulk and speaking sternly to it in German. All commands-there are only a handful of them-are given in Prather’s version of German, and each is spoken in tandem with a hand signal, for emphasis. “Blieb!” I would bark, thrusting palm outward: “Stay!” And the bucket stayed. But then so did Asko, when we were introduced. I petted him. We walked around, stopped and started. Within half an hour, he would sit when I said “Sitz!” (tapping my hand on my left leg) and lie down when I said “Platz!” (right hand swept downward in front of his nose). His tail did its windshield-wiper wag. At this point in normal, nonaccelerated training, Holley said, the dog would be left overnight with the new client and his family. “They’ve seen how gentle he is,” she said. “They’ll play with him, sleep with him. And then, the next day — well, I want you to fall in love with the teddy bear before I show you the alligator.” This is when I met Nika, an apprentice trainer who appeared in a padded mugger suit, her left arm heavily armored in a reinforced sleeve. I noticed she avoided eye contact with Asko, which seemed to put him on edge.
“Nika’s the bad guy,” Holley said.
Suddenly Nika fell to a feral crouch and made a feline hiss. At Holley’s instruction, I hissed too, to Asko: “Pass auf! (“Watch!”)
I was trying to sound more like Hermann Goring than Colonel Klink. And sure enough, Asko thrust to the end of his leash and danced a semicircle in front of me, his new pal, and directed a series of bloodcurdling barks at Nika. The leash was taut as a trout line. By the look of it I’d harnessed a hurricane, but Asko never strained beyond my control. When I barked “Aus!” (“Let go!”) Asko fell silent and retreated immediately to my side.
We repeated the exercise, Nika slowly advancing each time, until finally Holley let me yell “Pack Ihn!” (“Grab him!”) I let go of the leash, and Asko’s fangs were at once buried deep into Nika’s sleeve. Nika raised her arm, and he dangled blissfully. “Aus! “I yelled, and he was back next tome, looking into my eyes for approval. I petted him. He whimpered.
The final proof of my complete command over Asko came when Nika, now fully established as the bad guy, approached him. “Blieb! ” I said several times, and Asko stayed put. Nika cuffed him around the jowls. “Blieb!” 1 repeated. The firehose swung to and fro. Nika cuffed him again Asko looked up at me, awaiting instruction (please please please can I eat her?).
“Blieb!” Asko stayed, and Nika withdrew. In a final friendly gesture, she tossed him her protective sleeve, which he dug into with unmistakable satisfaction. After a time, Nika led Asko, the two of them once again good friends, back to the kennel.
The sense of confidence that comes from commanding such a superbly controlled animal is difficult to describe, especially for someone who’s used to being bullied by a bichon. The confidence must be especially welcome to a father or mother who can plausibly envision circumstances in which such an animal would be necessary or useful — as I, having neither riches nor a high profile, cannot. Of course, when my daughter starts dating…
“It’s just a sense of complete assurance,” Dennis Hecker, the Minnesota entrepreneur, told me. “It’s even better knowing that in a confrontation you’d rarely have to escalate from “Pass auf!” (Watch!) to “Pack lhn!” (Sic’em!)
“The dog all by himself is enough of a deterrent, psychologically and physically,” Prather told me. “This primal fear goes all the way back to the days of the saber-tooth tiger, when we humans were on the menu. These bad guys, they know the cops won’t shoot’em. They know the alarm system’s just a noisemaker. But they see that dog, and they think, well, there’s a lot of other big houses I can break into a lot of other rich people I can get at.”
…And a lot more clients for Prather to do business with
A Harrison K-9* German shepherd is a wonderfully warmhearted, kid-friendly companion. It is also 110 pounds of teeth, muscle, and passionate loyalty. Who better to look after the family while you’re away on business?