WILLIAMSBURG, W.Va. - The rolling terrain of Greenbrier County is perhaps best known for its golfing or hiking opportunities.
But Mike Suttle uses the 4,000 acres of fields, forests, creeks and caves near his family farm in Williamsburg to help people find their unicorns.
Suttle doesn't peddle horses or fairy tales. He sells working dogs, some of the best in the world.
The best of the best working dogs are known as unicorns in the business. They can find drugs or dead bodies, take down an enemy or rescue a victim. They are social but willing to die with their jaws locked on a suspect at a moment's notice.
Suttle runs Logan Haus Kennels, one of three kennels in the country that can deliver dogs to the nation's top clients. His specimens draw the elite to Greenbrier County.
"More than once we've had Special Forces land their helicopters out here in the field, test dogs and fly away with them," Suttle said, pointing to a spot a few hundred yards from his kennel.
Law enforcement used 14 dogs purchased from Suttle in the recent massive manhunt for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. That brought CBS' "60 Minutes" to his kennel and his work to millions of viewers.
National television doesn't impress SEAL Team 6. That takes time, tennis balls and hot dogs.
Finding Michael Jordan
Suttle loves metaphors and analogies. People understand sports, cars and other people better than dogs. It helps him explain what it's like to find, buy and prepare dogs for U.S. Customs and police forces across the United States.
The average pet is not cut out to be a working dog, just like the average person couldn't take Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one.
"If a scout goes out and says, 'I want to find the next Michael Jordan,' he can't just walk in to any high school and say, 'We're going to train you to be the next Michael Jordan,' " Suttle said.
Typically he looks for two types of dogs: Belgian Malinois - pronounced mal-in-WAH - and German Shepherds. Clients prefer the smaller, nimbler Malinois to the heftier shepherds, Suttle said.
Breeding plays the biggest part in creating the best service dog. Those that are faster, stronger and more aggressive are expected to have puppies that also show those characteristics. For Suttle's clientele, that means going to Holland.
"There are lots of people who sell Chevrolets, and you can get Chevrolets in lots of countries, including America," Suttle said. "If you're looking for Lamborghinis of the dog world . . . you go to Holland."
For centuries the Dutch have bred and trained dogs, maintaining bloodlines that produce highly effective specimens, Suttle said. It's called the KNPV standard, an acronym that loosely translates as the Royal Dutch Police Dog Association standard.
In a busy year, Suttle said he's in Holland every six weeks. Dutch breeders know he's coming and prepare their best for him. Suttle goes through the potential candidates, looking for several traits in particular.
First, the dog needs to be social and confident in any environment. A crowded airport with slippery floors shouldn't deter the dog, Suttle said. Dogs also must show an insatiable desire to play with, hunt for and retrieve any object. Suttle calls it "prey-drive," the genetic urge to hunt for dinner.
Third, Suttle seeks a dog that wants to fight.
"Whenever I'm testing a dog, I need a dog that's incorrigible, that no matter what I throw at him, he's going to stay in the fight," he said. "He either has that or he doesn't."
He will run dogs through a few tests to identify these characteristics and narrow the field. A run of the puppy-mill dog might not stand a chance of working with a police force, but there's a high likelihood any specimen Suttle brings back from Holland will be successful.
The dogs he brings to Williamsburg are typically 14 months to 36 months old. Some have varying degrees of prep work already instilled while others are "green as grass" Suttle said.
Holland, which is about the same size as West Virginia, can't produce top-quality dogs fast enough for global demand. Suttle purchased a few Dutch dogs for breeding, but of the roughly 10 litters produced at his kennel every year, only a handful are chosen for the most rigorous training. It wouldn't be practical or ethical to keep more.
"I'm not going to sell a dog that's not going to do what it's supposed to do. I guarantee I've given away more dogs this year than any other (kennel)," Suttle said.
It's what helps set him apart in the dog business, he said. When his dogs are finished with preparation, they're ready for anything.
Earning a paycheck
Rudy can't have tennis balls. The 2-year-old Belgian Malinois tears them up or eats them too quickly.
Instead, Suttle trains him with copper pipes. The dog strains at his leash, desperately trying to grab the pipe with his teeth. He already has one pipe in his mouth. If there were 10 pipes in the room, he would want all 10, Suttle said.
"If they don't have a ridiculous degree of intensity for a toy, they're never going to search for an extended period of time for the toy. So we pair the reward with the target odor," Suttle said.