San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Trainer: Dogs Better Protection Than Guns

Neal Rideout’s dog can barely control her excitement. The pure-bred Belgian Malinois, which looks like a sleeker German shepherd, can see that someone has put on the bite suit, and that she will soon be able to practice what she is trained to do: apprehend criminals.

“Where is he? Where is he?” Rideout asks as Santa Ana Municipal Police officer Henry Elizondo, in what looks like a stuffed jacket made of canvas, hides behind the corner of Rideout’s house in the mountain town of Puriscal, southwest of the capital. The dog, Anika, strains against Rideout’s grasp until he finally frees her. She sprints like a cheetah, leaps and grabs the sleeve of Elizondo’s bite suit with a flash of teeth.

James Powell, from the U.S. state of Missouri, who is about to purchase the dog from Rideout, watches with pride.

“She knows that this is kind of play right now,” he says of his future dog. “Her bite is powerful enough to crush the bone.”

These three men make up a collaborative team in the nearby town of Santa Ana, where Rideout and Powell, both former U.S. military police officers, have joined together to help train local police forces to better combat crime. Rideout uses his dogs, animals highly trained in tracking, narcotics detection and criminal apprehension, and Powell uses the resources of his newly founded security company, Rapid Response, to go on operations with the local police whenever  they request help. And every Wednesday the two men hold a training session with the Santa Ana Municipal Police, in which they teach basic self-defense as well as how to handcuff a suspect without first beating him into submission.

“Look at this. Now they’re friends,” Rideout says, pointing to Elizondo, free of his bite suit, petting the dog that was just attacking him. “That’s the difference between having a trained dog and having an attack dog. She doesn’t have a command, so she’s his buddy now.”

Rideout, 68, knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a powerful dog’s attack.

In 1958, he first became hooked on dog training while serving in the U.S. Air Force Military Police.

“I was interested in it, so I became the volunteer decoy, which is the guy who takes the bites,” Rideout says. “I’ve been off and on a lot of other things in my life, but I’ve always gone back to the dogs.”

Rideout retired from his job as a feed retailer in his home state of Arizona and began training full-time, providing dogs for Miami’s police department and other canine units in the United States. He moved to Costa Rica in 2002 and brought his dogs with him.

At first, Rideout was focused on training dogs and shipping them back to the United States for sale, but then he began to receive more and more requests for dogs from concerned homeowners in the country.

“I did not expect the demand for home protection to be at the level it is now,” Rideout says.

While Anika is trained to find narcotics, track people and apprehend criminals, most of the dogs Rideout sells to people living in Costa Rica are guard dogs that are trained to protect their family and home from intruders.

U.S. citizen Doug Pearson, who bought one of Rideout’s dogs to protect his home in Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast, says his 60-pound German shepherd, Izzy, can switch from incredibly fierce in the face of danger to very gentle when dealing with Pearson’s baby.

“(Rideout) could have given me any dog, but he said, ‘No, that one is too rough for your baby,’” Pearson says. “He found this dog for us, and we’re so happy and grateful.”

Both Rideout and Powell have been concerned by the growing crime in Costa Rica that has some of their expat friends moving back to the United States, and both believe that dogs are more effective and less dangerous than guns in dealing with crime. Rideout uses his dogs to search for narcotics with the local police, and says people will dig deep into their bags, handing over drugs at just the sight of one of his dogs.

“You cannot fool these dogs,” Rideout says. “That’s the nice thing about having these dogs in Costa Rica. They can’t lie. You can’t bribe them. It’s just a fact: OK, there’s contraband here and there’s no arguing.”

Powell’s flashy red vehicle branded with a large “K-9” label reflects his belief that while some criminals will shrug at the sight of a gun, almost all of them will run from a dog.

“When I came here I realized the difference in how police respond to crimes here, how the criminals are not scared of policemen,”  Powell says. “I’ve responded to situations with a gun in my hand, and they’ve just looked at me because they know my limits. However, a dog to them is very (unpredictable).

They don’t know the limits of a dog.” For now, the services these men offer to the police are free, but they hope that one day the police will be able to contract them.

Rideout’s home protection dogs start at about $1,000, while the ones trained to track narcotics are more expensive. His backyard patio is a sort of training obstacle course, with narcotics-scented bags buried in old suitcases or hidden inside plastic furniture that his dogs pounce upon instantly after catching a drug-scented whiff.

“We’ve tried to hide scent from him by burying it under tobacco, burying it under coffee, wrap the whole thing in aluminum foil – still you can’t fool him,” Rideout says of his male Malinois, Vitou.

Staring out from between the bars of his kennel, a German shepherd puppy named Che watches intently as the bigger dog goes through his paces, alerting his master each time he smells narcotics. If Rideout continues working his magic, in a few months Che will be running through the course, looking much the same.

To contact Rideout, call 2416-1355, e-mail or visit


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