Jaeger’s keen eyes remain firmly planted on Mark Baumann. At the appearance of the bite sleeve on Baumann’s arm, the black German shepherd barks eagerly. Baumann gives a command, and Jaeger leaps, bites and clamps onto the jute bite sleeve until his handler provides the word for release. But soon the scenarios played out between dog and trainer will become more true to life.
“For instance, we will hide sleeves under jackets and have someone attack me. He then learns to bite the person and not a sleeve,” explains Baumann, a Schoolcraft man who, with his wife Rhonda, operates Tak9Missions, a company that trains tactical, search-and-rescue and protection dogs.
Tak9Missions trains these dogs to give them to nonprofit organizations and families who need them. Many of the families who have received protection dogs like Jaeger are overseas doing mission or charity work. Tak9Missions doesn’t charge families for the dogs or the training they provide. Instead, the Baumanns cover the cost to buy, care for and train the dogs. The Baumanns do charge fees to paying clients to provide behavioral training for dogs, and they receive some donations to help offset what they pay from their own pockets.
Running Tak9Missions is a secondary pursuit for the Baumanns, who both have full-time jobs. Mark Baumann is senior manager of audits, systems and performance for the Global Risk Management team at Zoetis, and Rhonda Baumann is a customer service specialist at Flower Insurance Group.
They train dogs in the evenings and on weekends, but Mark says he enjoys every minute of it, from forming a bond with the dogs to watching them grow to working together as a team. The dogs teach him things too: compassion, willingness to trust and unconditional love.
“You always hear people say, ‘If you do your passion, you won’t get tired,’” Mark says. “I finally figured out what that meant.”
Rhonda agrees, saying both she and Mark have to love working with dogs because “it wouldn’t work any other way.”
“It would most likely build resentment in someone who didn’t love the dogs and the training process,” she says. “Mark and I are able to work together in a passion we both have, so it strengthens our relationship as we work together to achieve our goals.”
The Baumanns have always loved dogs. As a child, Mark raised and trained hunting dogs. Rhonda grew up training 4-H dogs, an experience that made her very familiar with the obedience side of their current business.
For the last five years, Mark has learned from some of the top dog experts in the business. He trained with Christy Borman of Texas, a certified Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) handler for search-and-rescue and detection work; worked under the instruction of Cpl. Brad Smith, founder of Canine Tactical Operations and Consulting, who instructed him in SWAT & K9’s Interacting During Deployment School (S.K.I.D.D.S.) and search-and-rescue classes; and studied detection and advanced training under world-renowned trainer Pat Nolan, who trains dogs for television and movies.
The Baumanns continue to hone their skills by meeting weekly with a professional handler and trainer who has certified several dogs in the industry. As the Baumanns’ dogs come of age, they will get certified in protection, detection or search and rescue.
“That (certification) is really where the proof of a trainer rests,” Mark says.
Jaeger came to the Baumanns as an 8-week-old puppy. Now a year old, he demonstrates incredible intellect, acute observation skills and judiciousness at following instructions. There are three certification levels for protection dogs, and the Baumanns are training Jaeger toward achieving the highest one, Level III, which means Jaeger will maintain complete obedience to the Baumanns off lead, command up when directed and shut down when instructed.
“The certification process can’t start until he is 18 months old,” Mark says. “That is when I can register him with the organization Service Dogs of America (SDA). Then it is four separate tests, which he has to pass to move on. Three years old is usually what it takes to get a dog steady enough to get a Level III — if they are good.”
Jaeger will be Tak9Missions’ demonstration dog. The organization lost its former demonstration dog, a German shepherd named Kita, to hip dysplasia. The Baumanns also have a German shepherd named Schotzee, who will be certified when she is old enough.
The Baumanns originally intended for Tak9Missions to focus on training search-and-rescue dogs, but the demand for protection dogs proved greater, especially from Christian missionary families living in dangerous locations. So far, the Baumanns have placed four personal protection German shepherds with families in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
For personal protection dogs, the Baumanns train German shepherds. Belgian Malinois are a good choice, too, Mark Baumann says, but they possess an inherently higher drive than their German shepherd counterparts.
Each dog undergoes extensive testing to determine its potential for protection work. The Baumanns closely examine the dog’s environmental soundness by assessing its reaction to loud noises and its response to heights and slippery surfaces as well as various ground surfaces such as tile and grates. A dog’s inquisitiveness and comfort level in new surroundings also come into play, but a hesitant dog doesn’t necessarily fail.
“We then test to see if we can encourage them to get through it,” Mark says. “If they can, that’s great. The possibility is there.”
Another extremely important factor that is assessed is a dog’s fear. A frightened dog, Mark says, will incorrectly judge a situation and bite. Barking frantically at new people or things, being scared of new people or situations and attempting to bite a person who turns around all indicate a fretful dog.
The Baumanns also observe intelligence and trainability, measuring a dog’s rate of learning commands, level of drive and focus, and willingness to work for a reward.
Older dogs can be trained more quickly but often come with bad habits that prove difficult to break. With puppies, although it takes approximately two years to complete training, learned behavioral problems don’t exist.
“Ideally, for cost, it’s (best) to get more of an adult,” Mark says. “But it’s costly either way.”
A Level III-trained dog typically costs between $20,000 and $30,000, he says. But Tak9Missions covers purchase fees, veterinary visits, vaccinations and dog food while the dog is in training and does the training free of charge. Recipient families pay only for airfare for the trainers to deliver the dog.
Rhonda says that financing presents one of the most challenging aspects of Tak9Missions, but she and her husband feel it’s worth it.
“It’s cool to get the stories back from people about how the dogs have done their job and how they’ve been effective for them,” she says.
The dogs aren’t the only ones undergoing scrutiny by the Baumanns. Potential recipient families are also put through their paces. Mark sets up several interview times that the families must adhere to in order to demonstrate dedication. The couple has rejected two families.
“Mark likes people to pursue him so that we know they’re serious,” Rhonda says. “If they don’t pursue it, you have to kind of assume they’re not that serious.”
During the extensive interview process, the families face many questions, including: What type of dog are you looking for? Have you ever had dogs? Did they live inside or outside? Were they large dogs? Have you ever trained a dog? This in-depth questioning helps the Baumanns select the right dog for each family. Some families can handle a dog with higher drive, while others require one that’s lower key.
After the training is complete, the Baumanns accompany the dog to its new home. They typically spend seven days with a family and their new dog to ensure proper integration and instruction on dog handling.
Jason and Karen Gosdin, who received a dog from the Baumanns, administer a program that distributes USAID food products and provides water filters in the Dominican Republic. They were robbed on the streets of Costa Rica while attending a language school.
“This made us feel very vulnerable,” Jason Gosdin says. “In addition, the town where we live in the Dominican Republic is known for crime and prostitution. From our apartment we often hear gunshots from nearby areas.”
The Gosdins have bars on their first-floor apartment windows, which they leave open due to the heat. They worried about criminals reaching through the bars or talking to their 11-year-old and 13-year-old daughters.
The Gosdins contacted Tak9Missions after they met the Baumanns’ daughter, Laura, at the language school.
After the Gosdins passed the Tak9Missions interview process, the Baumanns located and trained a dog specifically for them: Monty.
“Monty is the perfect match for our family,” Karen Gosdin says. “Not only is he gentle with our girls, but his care for us is demonstrated by how he protects our family and our apartment. No stranger approaches our apartment without Monty greeting them with his barking.”
Because of Monty’s amazing hearing, she says, the family sleeps better at night knowing he watches over them. The protection provides peace of mind especially when Jason Gosdin travels out of the country.
Jay and Stephanie Fast live in Costa Rica, working with SonLife Latin America to train youth leaders in the churches. Many of their friends there have been held up at knifepoint or gunpoint or experienced home break-ins. In 2013, the Fasts heard about Tak9Missions. For them, the Baumanns selected and trained Royce.
When the Fasts welcomed Royce into their family, the Baumanns taught them commands and how to continue training. The Fasts also learned how to work out Royce’s energy, says Jay Fast, because, at 20 months old, he was still very much a puppy. Royce quickly fit into the family dynamic and provides an added sense of security when Jay travels and Stephanie and their 11-year-old son remain at home.
“Everyone in our neighborhood knows that Royce is at our house,” Jay says. “We’re 100 percent confident that no one will try to break into our home. Even if they don’t know that he’s there, they find out immediately when they make noise outside the house. This is the biggest point of impact — he’s providing an ongoing sense of basic security that simply doesn’t exist here like it does in the States.”
Jon and Joni McGinnis, another family living in Costa Rica, work to identify and train pastors and church leaders throughout the country.
“In Latin America personal security is always an issue,” Jon says. “We have lived here in Costa Rica for four years and personally know over a dozen people who have been robbed at gunpoint. We thought we could lessen the threat with a trained German shepherd.”
Before living in Costa Rica, the family resided in Mattawan. Jon McGinnis called Mark Baumann, a friend from church, to talk about getting a personal protection dog. The McGinnises have four children, and living in Costa Rica especially frightened one of their daughters, who was 10 years old at the time. After the dog, Vala, arrived, the daughter’s fear dissipated. “It was as if a switch had been flipped and her anxiety went away,” Jon says.
To their heartbreak, Vala died of cancer when she was 3. Vala’s presence, however, sparked an interest in dog training in Jon, who is currently training another German shepherd.
Rhonda Baumann admits that saying goodbye to these dogs is sometimes difficult, but she says the heartache is eased by knowing the animals will protect families.
“We have consistently had confidence that God is in control of each placement,” she says. “It is such an incredible blessing and privilege to see each dog fulfilling its purpose with a family and becoming an invaluable member of that family.”