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GORHAM — He is surrounded by people and toys and interesting furniture, but Echo’s focus never shifts from the two guys in padded suits.

Sophia Burns of Buxton patiently waits for her dog’s turn during a recent Northeast Protection Sports group meeting Jan. 7 at North Edge K9 in Gorham. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

The 2-year-old Dutch shepherd has been in this situation before. He knows what he is about to be allowed — encouraged — to do.

So when owner Rozalynn Parkhurst orders,”Get him,” Echo leaps forward to grab the padded arm of one of the instructors, growling and biting.

He hangs on with such power that his back legs barely brush the ground.

On Parkhurt’s command, Echo lunges at the other padded instructor.

“Good boy,” she said, patting her dog’s side as he is latched onto the guy’s arm, again growling. “Good boy!”

Guiness, a Belgian Malinois, waits for commands during a recent Northeast Protection Sports group meeting at North Edge K9 in Gorham on Monday night January 7, 2019.

As dog obedience groups go, this one is unusual.

“I’m hoping he goes all the way to the top,” said Parkhurst, who lives in Richmond.

In this case, the “top” is the upper level of protection sports, a little-known dog obedience competition that tests how well dogs perform in surprise attack scenarios. Think of the kinds of situations for which guard dogs or police K-9s might be trained: carjackings, owner protection, running down bad guys or girls.

But instead of guard or police dogs, these are family pets and their civilian owners.

Dominic Rozzi, a retired Portland police officer, started Northeast Protection Sports and the obedience group 10 years ago. His goal: Give owners and their dogs something different to do together.

The club went dormant for a while, but was revived a couple of years ago when demand picked up. Today, the club has about 20 active members, and so many people are interested in the sport it might soon add a second gathering each week.

Gunner, a Staffordshire Terrier looks up to his owner, Lisa Seal of Steep Falls for a command during a recent Northeast Protection Sports group meeting at North Edge K9 in Gorham on Monday night January 7, 2019. (SUN JOURNAL PHOTO BY RUSS DILLINGHAM)

Rozzi owns Detector Dog Northeast in Windham, where he breeds and trains dogs for police and personal protection.

“This is what you look for and this is what you want,” Rozzi said as a 4-month-old Belgian Malinois bounded happily into the room and proceeded to play a fierce game of tug of war with one of the instructors, his puppy growl sounding like the baby version of Echo’s.

After years in protection sports, Rozzi has a list of characteristics he seeks in a dog, including confidence, drive, nerve, focus and openness to new situations. The best dogs, he has found, have been socialized from weeks old.

“If the dog comes in here and the dog is afraid or not happy about something,” Rozzi said, “you can try to put obedience on the dog, but the dog is never going to be free enough to do what you want it to do if they’re worried about their environment.”

People come from all over the state to participate in the group that is part obedience class for the dogs, part advisory for the humans. Instructors — those guys in the padded suits — are all experienced police K-9 handlers and trainers.

“We’re very experienced and we’re very careful,” Rozzi said. “One of the things we don’t do is we don’t push a dog beyond its means. When it’s ready, it’s ready. And when it’s not, it’s not. We take the steps, and if it takes longer, it takes longer.”

Rozalynn Parkhurst of Richmond walks with her 2 year old dog Echo as he ignores trainer Tom Chard until she commands him to attack him during a recent Northeast Protection Sports group meeting at North Edge K9 in Gorham on Monday night January 7, 2019. (SUN JOURNAL PHOTO BY RUSS DILLINGHAM)

Dogs range in age from a few months to a few years old. Most are traditional police breeds — Belgian Malinois, Dutch shepherd — but a few others also participate. On a recent evening, Lisa Seal brought her 8-month old Staffordshire terrier, Gunner.

“I wanted to find a group to work with so I could have incentive for, basically, obedience, but I like bite work, too,” said Seal, who lives in Steep Falls. “I’m not sure how far I want to go. I’m evaluating.”

The group sometimes meets at Rozzi’s Detector Dog Northeast in Windham. More often, the group needs greater space offered by North Edge K9, owned by dog trainer and club instructor Christian Stickney.

During the meeting, only one dog is allowed inside at a time, mirroring the rules of competition.

Exercises vary depending on the dog’s age, experience and training. On a recent evening, a puppy clamored through a kiddie pool filled with plastic bottles to reach the instructor who was waiting to play tug of war. A few minutes later, an older dog took over the room and lunged on command at a padded instructor who was lumbering toward him.

When they are done, all the dogs — puppies and adults — prance out of the room, tails wagging.

Many are family pets who live safely with children and accompany their owners in public, but can bite on command.

“I take him shopping to Freeport, and he goes clothes shopping with me in the dressing rooms,” Parkhurst said of Echo, who practiced attacking two instructors.

“He’s petted by, like, everybody. He’s probably the most social, all-around clear dog I’ve ever seen. I can read him really well, and he has a clear and defined switch, as we call it. He knows when he’s here and when he’s (somewhere else).”

Maine has one or two protection dog competitions each year, usually in summer or fall. Competitions have three levels. As the levels go up, distraction and intensity increase for the scenarios, such as an attack or a carjacking.

It can take years of training for dogs to reach the top tier, if they ever do. Winners at the lowest level get a certificate. At the highest levels, they earn trophies.

Some owners stop before that point, content with the basics. Others seek to reach the top.

Parkhurst’s Echo passed the first level last year. She now has an eye on the second. level

Parkhurst has raised dogs before, she said, “but not dogs like these.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].

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