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Livingston couple breeds, trains guard dogs _ for a price

July 1, 2017

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) — A specialty dog breeding and training operation located northwest of Livingston recently opened its doors for a small tour, displaying some of their dogs-in-training, their teaching techniques, and reasons why highly trained protective dogs are needed in today’s world.

“We don’t sell fear,” Kim Greene, co-owner of Svalinn with her husband, Jeff, and self-described on her business cards as the “Alpha Female,” said. “We sell peace of mind.”

The Greenes are experts in the world of dogs — what motivates them and how to train them. The word Svalinn comes from Norse mythology, Kim explained. Svalinn is the name of the sword that stands before the sun.

Svalinn dogs are a mixture of the German shepherd, Dutch shepherd and Belgian Malinois breeds, Kim said during a tour of the facility offered to members of the Bozeman-based Prospera Business Network. About 20 people braved an unseasonably cool day in late May to hear about the company, meet some dogs and observe some of the protective behaviors the dogs are taught.

Svalinn dogs are known for being good family dogs, but also capable of defense if called for. Svalinn got its start in Kenya, where the Greenes moved after meeting in Afghanistan. Kim was fresh out of graduate school from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs when she landed a position in President Hamid Karzai’s office. Jeff was in the military serving as a Green Beret.

They began training dogs in Kenya — first for Kim’s protection when Jeff was away for work — and later for people with real security needs where firearms weren’t always the best line of defense.

“If people know you have a weapon, they come for it,” Kim said.

The Greenes also trained dogs for search and rescue, for the military, and even for conservation efforts in Kenya, where they can track poachers and protect rangers.

When it came time to return to the U.S., the family originally settled in Jackson, Wyoming. Jeff had decided he wanted to live in the West near Bozeman, Kim recounted, and a few years ago they found their place in Park County — 167 acres, favorable zoning, good public schools, “people you want to associate with,” and a large former equine facility already on site.

The Greenes have about 200 dogs out in the world and 50 dogs on the ranch in different stages of development. Each dog gets about 2,000 hours of training. Svalinn currently employees 13 trainers. The dogs are trained in all the basic commands, of course, but also in physical agility, watching and guarding, and full-on attack. The trainers suit up in a “bite suit” for the attack training.

Kim expressed concern about showing an attack photo out of context because the dogs are really family dogs first and great with children. In fact, during the tour, one of the visitors was holding her young daughter. When one of the dogs was heard whining, Kim realized it was because the dog loves children and wanted to get closer — in a friendly way.

“Every dog you can meet, you can pet,” Evan Lacenski, Svalinn’s director of training, said during the tour. “You can go right back to hugging it after watching it do protection work. They’re built from day-one to go into families, not to be attack dogs.”

No Svalinn dog in the U.S. has ever conducted a full-on attack, Kim said.

Do dogs ever not measure up to Svalinn standards?

Kim said one dog wasn’t doing well in protection training, but turned out to be a good tracker. But once he started sleeping in a child’s room, he started protecting when he had a reason to protect.

“There’s always a positive attribute,” she said. “And they always have a home here.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

OK, the price. A basic Svalinn dog costs $58,000, according to the Svalinn website. The cost includes three days of training with the new owner at the dog’s new home, a second in-person follow up, and a guarantee of the animal’s genetic soundness.

Most would-be buyers also visit the ranch, which brings a number of “high-worth” people to town, who spend several days, eat in restaurants and purchase other goods and services. Kim wasn’t able to estimate a dollar value her clients contribute to the local economy, but suggested most were not frugal travelers.

And some clients turn out not to be a good match for a Svalinn dog. If someone is more suited to a Labrador retriever, for example, Kim will help them find a breeder.

Two Svalinn dog owners agreed to be interviewed for this story. Tracey London, of Savannah, Georgia, said her husband, who is a cardiac surgeon, said he wanted a German shepherd and heard about Svalinn from friends. London agreed the price is high.

“I know,” she said. “I told my husband this is crazy. But you have a personal bodyguard with you every day for the rest of their lives. And for my husband to have that kind of peace of mind is priceless to him.”

London, who has two Svalinn dogs, recalled two instances where the dogs were mildly called upon. Her husband was followed into a shop by a homeless man, apparently mentally ill, who harassed him verbally. London was nearby, and her husband texted her to enter the shop with a dog.

“As soon as I walked in, he left,” London said.

Another time, she was sitting in her parked car watching her kids play in a soccer game. A man approached the car and started yelling at her.

“I rolled down the window and gave a command, and they leaped up and barked,” London said, and the man left. Her dog is also vigilant when they walk downtown, she said. Savannah has lots of nooks and doorways, and the dog checks out each one, London said

Another owner, Lisa Zelson, who lives part-time at Big Sky, said one time back East, a man got a little too close to her at an ATM.

“The dog got between us and kind of jumped at the guy,” she said, and that concluded the encounter, adding, “With us he’s like a huge lap dog. If anyone approaches me who is uncomfortable, he reads that kind of scent, and he gets quite protective. He’ll stand in front of me.”

OTHER SERVICES

Svalinn offers one day and multi-day trainings locally for regular people and their plain old dogs. But attack training is not taught, Kim emphasized. The schedule may be found online at www.svallin.com.

And with their military background, the Greenes understand about veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and how a dog can help. They try to donate one or two dogs a year to a nonprofit devoted to vets.

“We place the dogs with returning vets,” Jeff said. “We work with combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have TBI or PTSD. They may not have the money, but we’ll do a placement with a dog who wants to work with a vet.”

Jeff added that not all veterans require a “high-test” dog, but knowing a dog is standing by, alert, can help someone “cycle down and actually sleep at night.”

SENSE OF SECURITY

Kim emphasizes that Svalinn is not in the fear business.

“When people have had a traumatic event — a car fire, an IED, a child assaulted who doesn’t sleep — if you have had traumatic events in your life, an animal like this grounds you to the earth. For people who have felt vulnerable, this is your guardian angel.

“Most of our clients are not fearful, I believe they are being proactive,” Kim said. “They’re creating a ring of vigilance around themselves where opportunists are not going to see them in the same light. Every place in the world is the safest place in the world. Until it’s not.”

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Information from: Livingston Enterprise, http://www.livingstonenterprise.com

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