In the early part of 2011 we bought a home on the outskirts of town, 40 acres of land. Beautiful, quiet, remote and well... remote. I had 4 kids under the age of 10 and a husband who travelled ALL THE TIME. We started renovations and would drive out there all the time to check on the progress. It was after one of those trips and something that was left in our mailbox that my husbands said to me, "you're getting a protection dog or a gun, you pick."
He had been researching this trainer and his business out of Ocala, Florida ever since we had purchased the land. A man and woman who together imported German Sheperds from Germany and then trained them at their ranch in Florida.
At first I said NO, I didn't want a shark on a leash! I was used to labs, I didn't want a dog I had to put away every time the kids had friends over or a dog who wasn't predictable and may accidentally attack someone who wasn't a bad guy.
"Just talk to him will you?" my husband asked? "Speak to the trainer and ask him all the questions you are asking me, give him all these 'what if ' scenarios you are asking me." I agreed and the phone call was arranged, I learned quickly that this protection dog business is not a simple one.
"But what if.... what if a kid opens the door I haven't let in? What if the kids are play fighting? What if I don't see the mailman coming up the drive and he's off his leash? What if he doesn't listen to me and just does what he wants? What if someone puts their hand over my mouth and I can't say the commands? What if I'm knocked out?"
Pretty sure this conversation was not something Raul Hernandez had bargained for that day, some suburban house wife and all her panicked questions when he'd been used to dealing with law enforcement or political transplants looking to protect their families in foreign countries. But these were MY "real life" scenarios and questions and he graciously answered every one.
"If any of your concerns come true then I haven't trained him properly, he will not be unpredictable and he will always do what you tell him to do. The commands are the ideal scenario but they are not necessary, he will know what to do, always."
Over the next couple of months my husband would see a new dog Raul would post to his website and text him to say, "what about that one?" Raul would usually respond, "not for a family." These denials from Raul were probably what built my trust in him, these dogs aren't cheap and he could have sold my husband one earlier than he did, but he chose to wait till the match was perfect.
Late summer came and my husband got a text from Raul that said, "If you are still interested, I just came back from Germany and have a dog that's perfect for a family. His temperament is not one of a police dog (hyper 24/7) and his demeanor is ideal for children. If you want him, I start training him to be your family dog."
He included some video and photos and well aside from the fact I saw him try to rip someones arm off his photo was the most handsome dog I had ever seen.
At Rauls ranch in Florida the dogs stay in kennels while they are being trained and re-homed. It is acres of rolling hills and if you love dogs it would literally be your paradise. Once we said "yes" to Hugo (who's name was Jazz at the time) he was brought from the kennels into the family home where he lived and was trained as though he was in our home.
He was around cats, children, small dogs and visitors. Rauls wife Colby, took over the training so he would view the female (not the male) in the house as the alpha.
We moved into our new house in December but still had construction being done daily on the inside and outside. Raul and Colby said they wanted to keep him until that was finished as they didn’t want him to think a bunch or random people in the house was normal.
We got through winter and I had to have an unexpected knee surgery in March that left me on crutches for 3 months! (have you ever walked a dog on crutches?)
If you ever read my blog post on seizures it was the day after this said knee surgery I had my first one. It was only a few weeks later Hugo came to live with us, probably not the most ideal time for me physically to get a new dog but it turned out to be the best medicine in the world.
He was 3 when he came to us and appropriately named HUGO BOSS, it's not confusing for them because they are not trained with their names, only commands.
Raul and Colbie made the 13 drive from Florida to Tennessee and there he was. Handsome, large, obedient and in love with... his trainer, Colby. I was used to labs and retrievers who love everyone they meet. German Shepherds aren't like that. They are fiercely loyal, and selective. They have ONE true love, one person they aim to please and that person was not me.
"What have I done?' I thought, "this dog doesn't even like me."
We spent that afternoon going over all of his basic obedience commands, all spoke in German. Everyone always asks if he has an "attack" word. The answer is yes and also yes it is a German word. The only people that ever knew this word were myself, my husband and our babysitter. Yes the kids begged to know but I didn't fully trust that one day they would get the urge to say it just for fun.
They showed me what he was capable of but told me all they wanted me to work on for now was basic obedience and bonding with this dog. The commands were secondary to the bond - they went hand in hand and although he does have an actual word to attack, what I have realized over the years is that the word is not necessary. Hugo protects who he loves, word or no word. After Raul and Colby left Hugo would spend the next days sitting at our front door. Did he want to go for a walk? No. He was trying to go after her, out the door he had seen her leave. It literally broke my heart. "DO NOT BABY HIM" she said to me when I called to tell her, "he will be fine." Well that's not really how I deal with dogs so I would sit with him and pat him and say in my most used baby voice, "do you miss your mother?" "I'm so sorry for you".... Hugo took to my babying of him after all and it was only a few days later that he started to warm up to the idea of me.
I spent the next few months just bonding with him. Walking him, taking him everywhere I went in the house on a leash so he got used to ME being the one he was to stay with. Raul told John that he was to have no interaction with Hugo for the first while, dogs were naturally sexist he said and would lean towards the male in the home if given the chance. This just about killed my husband, the dog lover, to ignore a dog every time he walked by him. For me it was an odd experience to have a dog who didn’t just warm up to me or anyone else, I worried he would never love me like my past dogs had.
He spent the nights in our room in a crate so he could used to what "normal" footsteps in our house were during the night. With kids our age we often had one come flying through the door in the dead of night hollering about something. Having him in his kennel gave him a safe space to learn how our home operated and what was normal and what was not.
About 4 or 5 months later Hugo and I drove to Florida together to do a 2 day intensive training workshop with his trainers at the ranch. I was so nervous that when the time came he wouldn’t do as I said and that his trainer would be so disappointed with me - keep in mind I am supposed to say ONE word ONE time to both send him on someone and to also release him - if he didn’t listen to me say one of those words, someone was getting hurt.
When we arrived at the gates to the ranch and made the long drive up Hugo immediately perked up, he remembered, he knew where we were. I was prepared for him to see his trainers, to see Colby and want nothing to do with me, to thank me for bringing him back.
We got all the way to their home and there they both were, so excited to see him. I pulled up and they walked around to the back of my SUV waiting for me to pop the trunk. I did while I simultaneously started to open my door. And then it happened, he jumped out the back of the car with a quick sniff and hello to them but had one laser focused task at hand - to find me, and stay there. I can't really describe that feeling, I was so proud of us because it felt like we had done the job we had been tasked to do - bond. "Here we are guys, bonded!"
We spent those 2 days doing the hard stuff. Not the sit and stay and heel stuff words.... the someone who is not supposed to be on my property words, the someone just broke into my house words, the my job is to lay down my life for you words.
I don't know when I have ever had that much adrenaline flowing through my body. It's a weird scenario to pretend someone is trying to attack you and what you do in that split second to think - would you remember what to do? I did. And he listened, the first time. And there he was, jaws attached to the bite arm over Raul, his beloved trainer - all because I had told him to. Bravo Hugo, bravo me.
Hugo and I both got gold stars that weekend and we drove back to Nashville with a new found bond that is hard to put into words. I have never trusted an animal so explicitly and never once questioned his ability to read a room. His ability to sense what I am feeling when I speak to someone or answer the door is beyond amazing. The tone of my voice, my body language - he knows how I feel about someone in my home before I even do.
He has never once been unpredictable. Never once even attempted to harm a child.
There is nothing more in this world Hugo loves than his Mother, a close second would be his human siblings and then his Father - because he’s always his best chance for a walk
So there you go, the story of Hugo. The German Shepherd I didn't know I needed. The dog that's given me the peace to sleep when my husband is away, the dog that gives me peace when I walk out the door and walk back in to an empty house, the dog that never stops watching, never stops guarding.
We don't deserve the kind of love we get from our dogs. It's unconditional, it's pure and for me it's once in a lifetime with Hugo.