Canine Campus: Where top dogs are taught to plotz

By Lise Funderburg

Brooklyn Bridge
February 1996

Angelo Biondo clicks on his bullhorn. “Could I have somebody upstairs, please?” His amplified voice crackles down the steps of K9 Powerhouse, the kennel he opened two years ago in the industrial strip between 3rd and 4th avenues in Park Slope. One of Biondo’s assistants appears at the office door. “Who put Buster outside?” Biondo asks, slightly annoyed. “He’s creating a craziness with Mugsy.”

The dog world is filled with personalities, and Biondo, 41, makes his living negotiating that fact. Mugsy, an American bulldog (think The Incredible Journey) can’t board next to Buster, a pit bull, because both need a lot of, well, personal space. People come to Biondo expecting well-trained dogs. Since he specializes in powerful, uber-macho breeds such as Dobermans, rottweilers and German shepherds — some of whom grow to be well over 125 pounds — teaching obedience is much more than an afterthought for Biondo.

Amid relentless barking and the piercing whistles of his pet capuchin monkey, Ruben, Biondo picks up the bullhorn once again, this time for help with what could be considered an industrial accident: Jinx, a gangly rottweiler puppy, has been allowed to run loose in Biondo’s office, apparently after drinking vast amounts of water. Fortunately, these cement floors are mop-friendly — part of the bare-bones aesthetic Biondo inherited when he moved into this Butler Street warehouse, now redolent with essence du dog. No less important was the proximity to Brooklyn Heights, whose upscale residents, he figured, could afford his prices — about one thousand dollars for an older, “previously owned” dog and up to thirty-five hundred for pets fully schooled in obedience and K9’s forte, protection.

“We do a lot of rentals, too,” adds Biondo, who’s been training dogs for 22 years — mostly in Yonkers and Maspeth, for outfits with names like the Canine Behavioral Sciences Center and K9 Patrol Dogs. “It’s a growing business.” Customers range from contractors who use dogs to guard construction sites from vandals and squatters, to cash-laden businessmen who want protection while they make their daily rounds.

One is prompted to wonder how many of these “businessmen” are, say, drug dealers. After all, combine these animals’ reputation for aggression (sure, pit bulls are the number one dog in the country responsible for human deaths, an ASPCA spokesperson reports, “but lightning still does in a lot more people”) with their price tags (even yuppies have budgets) and you’re looking at a likely ancillary market.

“There is a percentage,” admits Biondo, who says he begins to wonder when a client pays in cash — fives and tens. But he stops short of judging who should have one of his dogs. “I can’t assume somebody to be a drug dealer because he has a cellular phone and beepers,” he points out.

What Biondo will do is exercise control in other, more subtle ways. He’ll steer families shopping for a rottweiler toward a female, for example (less stubborn, less huge). “I don’t believe a regular home needs an attack-on-command type of dog,” he says. “What a homeowner needs is a dog that has a natural ability to bark and be a deterrent.”

As a matter of general principle, Biondo resists requests from those who want to bypass obedience in favor of attack training; he responds by making the job ridiculously unaffordable. And when people want him to teach their dogs to kill, including flat-out requests like “Could you teach my dog to bite at the throat?” he tells them they’ve come to the wrong place. “That is when I have to draw the line,” he says.

Biondo and his assistant, Ernest Chambers, 22, demonstrate obedience with Duke, a handsome young shepherd. Duke heels closely, his head tilted up to Chambers so he won’t miss a single command. Using the Schutzhund training method (the same program used by the New York City Police Department), Chambers speaks in German (the language canines respond to best, adherents claim): “Hier! Plotz! Foos! (Here! Down! Heel!)” Biondo and Chambers reward Duke’s performance with pats on the head.

According to the Schutzhund school, Duke must first learn obedience, then tracking (frankfurters supply incentive), and finally what’s known in the trade as “manwork.” To demonstrate the latter, Biondo pretends to go after Chambers. The petting is forgotten; Duke barks and lunges at Biondo.

“Bring him down,” Biondo says, and Chambers walks Duke in a circle, repeating to him, “Friends, friends.” Duke hasn’t quite absorbed this lesson, however, and when Chambers brings him close to Biondo, he lunges again. “Plotz!” Chambers commands.

“He’ll come around,” Biondo says with assurance. “He’s still learning.”

Second time around, Duke is ready to be friends, and Biondo nuzzles him. “Dogs are fools,” he says. “They fall in love so easily.” Where dogs are concerned, Biondo seems just as foolish.