Behold the $150,000 Dog

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

A few years ago, in Bozeman, Montana, a brain surgeon and his wife were walking through a farmers’ market when they came across a booth selling dogs. The breeder, called Svalinn, touted them as a one-of-a-kind hybrid: military-grade protection dogs with elite danger-sensing instincts but the warmth and temperament of a conventional family pet. The surgeon, Regis Haid, took a closer look at the dogs, which did indeed seem magnificent, intelligent, and powerful. Then he saw the cost: at least $150,000 each.

Haid’s wife, Mary Ellen, was interested. He told her, “There’s no way I’m gonna spend that kind of money. Are you out of your mind?” Many stories about Svalinn dogs begin this way. The Haids couldn’t stop thinking about the animals they’d seen, and before long, they drove to Svalinn’s training facility. Each dog is an undisclosed mix of Dutch shepherd, German shepherd, and Belgian Malinois. “They put the dogs through all these obstacle courses and things,” Haid recalled recently. “I was in the military, I had an Air Force scholarship to med school, and I’ve hunted. These dogs — they’re like humans.” Many high-dollar protection dogs are nothing but menace; Haid approached one of the Svalinn dogs, who nuzzled his hand. He and Mary Ellen now own two.

Svalinn says that it sells no more than 20 dogs a year, and only about 350 exist around the world. One of the owners, Stephen Mazzola, an airline pilot, read about Svalinn in Mountain Outlaw magazine shortly before moving to the Bitterroot Valley, near the Idaho-Montana border, and scheduled a visit to the breeder. He and his wife, Chris, a retired nurse anesthetist, fell in love with one of the biggest males available, a “door kicker” they named Jet.

Mazzola, who used to fly F-16s, was stunned by Jet’s abilities. “I feel like we have a gentle Navy SEAL in the house,” he says. “I find myself giving a command and going, ‘Holy cow, that really works.’” He describes standing at a restaurant counter with Jet hovering at his side, “looking the other direction, where all the people are. That’s an automatic thing with them. The training kind of morphs into the instinct to protect the family.” He pauses. “It just — it turns into a very emotional thing.”

Svalinn’s founder, Kim Greene, did not set out to create a luxury object. In the aughts, she was living in Nairobi with her then-husband, Jeff, a former Green Beret whose business provided private security to diplomats and NGOs. Nairobi had a carjacking problem, and after Kim gave birth to twins, Jeff asked her to carry a gun. Kim declined, feeling that if she were attacked, she would be unlikely to use it. Instead, she got a pair of Dutch shepherds named Banshee and Briggs. The dogs were “hot,” says Greene, ready to jump through a car window and maul an attacker at the slightest provocation. They were weapons, not pets, “and kind of pains in the ass.”

In Nairobi the Greenes had a sideline breeding Rhodesian ridgebacks for the expat community, and they also sold dogs to the U.S. They noticed that people became more interested in tactical K-9s after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which featured a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. The Greenes moved back to the U.S. in 2013, intent on creating a market for beasts that could rip out an attacker’s trachea yet also function as pets.

They established Svalinn, which in Nordic mythology refers to a shield protecting the world, at a former equestrian-training facility outside Livingston in Montana’s Paradise Valley. (The couple has since divorced, and Kim Greene now runs the business.)

Approaching the site recently, amid panoramic views of snowcapped mountains, I see signs warning of danger ahead, then arrive at a converted indoor riding arena at the end of a winding dirt road. Somewhere inside, dogs are barking. This part of Montana is one of the remotest parts of the country, and in Svalinn’s early years, many would-be buyers either resisted making the trip or tried to have someone do it for them. “So many people are used to having their staff do things,” says Greene.

Today, that happens less often, in part because Montana is now where many of her clients live, at least some of the time. Over the past decade, the state has seen an enormous influx of extreme wealth. Greene’s dogs are especially popular at the Yellowstone Club, the private-equity-owned, members-only ski-resort community in Big Sky, where Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel reportedly hid out during the pandemic.

Clients, Greene says, sometimes ask if her dogs are suited for frequent travel by private jet or helicopter. “People say, ‘I have a big motorboat. I need to have my dog climb out of the water on a ladder.’” She makes an expression as if to say of course her dogs can do these things. She believes that most people undertrain their dogs and that both parties would be happier if dogs were asked to do more — much more.

Greene has a way of talking about dogs that reflects her background as a military contractor; she sometimes refers to them as “assets.” But just as often, she’s a little woo-woo, whether talking about energy transference between dogs and humans or a mystical, all-important canine quality she calls “stability.” The concept seems to combine firmness of nerves, supreme control, and physical balance.

Stability is bred at the Phoenix, an obstacle course at the Svalinn ranch resembling a jungle gym. The Phoenix looks easy, but its components — swinging tires the dogs have to leap through, balance beams narrower than their paws — are designed to make them pant. Increased athleticism is one result, but the Phoenix is also meant to be a thinking exercise. Its components are reconfigured every day so that the dogs can’t complete it on autopilot.

The hoped-for result is a dog that “comes through the door with its shoulders thrust forward,” unafraid of new situations yet attuned to its environment. Greene contrasts this with the typical American pet, an “adoring family oaf. We don’t expect them to do anything other than wag their tail and be goofy and cute.”

Most of a Svalinn dog’s price is derived not from breeding but rather the intensity of its training, which takes two to three years. Once a dog’s personality has been established, partway through that process, it is paired with its future owner — the bank head, the construction magnate, the rancher. Although some want the assurance of a lethal sidekick, Greene says, most are not facing an actual death threat. “People just want their dogs everywhere,” she says. “There’s an entitlement.” Her customers are “high-level people, economically and socially,” with an abundance of disposable income and free time. What’s missing from their life, she says, is “that next-level relationship with an animal.”

Pets have long been symbols of wealth and power, from Choupette Lagerfeld to J. Paul Getty’s lion, Teresa. Lately, however, pets have also become symbols of politics. Last December, an editor at the New York Times, Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer, wrote at length about the online world of dog training. Wittmeyer found two camps: those who believe in “aversive” training methods such as shock collars, and those who reject such methods or any attempt to discipline at all. The battle lines mirrored the culture wars “with unsettling precision,” Wittmeyer found. Anti-aversives are prone to linking their beliefs about dogs to larger battles against the patriarchy or colonialism, while their opponents see themselves as standing up to “woke idiots.”

Greene is an aversive. She is both a disciplinarian and a believer in replicating the harsh conditions of the wild. She wants to civilize dogs — to “give them manners” — at the same time that she hopes to bring out their inner savages. Not all animals in her care survive this process. “If nature takes puppies,” she says, “it takes puppies.” She means that if newborns are abandoned by their mother and seem likely to die — perhaps of exposure — she and her staff refuse to intervene. “If we were a puppy mill, we would sleep with the puppies,” says Greene. “We’d give them heat lamps. But you know what? These are protection assets. And if six of them are going to pass, there’s a reason.”

She aims to “keep everything as close to nature as possible.” That means choke collars, no toys or treats, and a diet of beef or raw elk meat served on the bone. Dogs grow up in the Pit, a dirt-floored barn with an odor so intense I feel the urge to run outside.

I’m curious whether Greene believes that natural selection breeds better, more aggressive guard dogs, but she sidesteps the topic. “Any dog can be taught to be aggressive,” she says. Is she selecting for dominance in order to create canine versions of her clients? “A lot of dog people overthink and layer human ideas on things. If we observe the dogs, we will usually learn the way it’s supposed to be done.”

For an owner looking to show off their Svalinn dog on St. Barts or at the Yellowstone Club, amid designer breeds that cost a mere $10,000, this is surely part of the appeal. Dogs have been bred to be middle class — safe, dumb, and boring. Svalinn gives them their teeth back.

Greene says she doesn’t care if this turns off some potential buyers. “There are a lot of people who can afford what we do,” she says. Besides, the hardest part of dog ownership isn’t the training of dogs, she says. It’s training the owners. “We have a no-assholes policy,” says Greene. “We’ve done a lot of due diligence on the people who visit. We’re interviewing clients as much as they’re interviewing us.” The Svalinn owners I’ve spoken to seem to enjoy this part of the process. After they purchase and bring home their dog, a Svalinn handler visits within 45 days to see if they have kept up with the dogs’ training or introduced bad habits. After all, luxury objects, like an out-of-tune Steinway, need extra love and care.

This gets to the question of what Svalinn is — a dog breeder, a dog trainer, or something else. A number of other protection-dog trainers charge six figures for an animal, but Greene positions her company as a full concierge service. “You’re becoming part of a club,” she says. “You’re buying into support and troubleshooting and backstopping. We’re on the phone anytime you need us. It’s like all of a sudden you’ve got a trip to Australia — we can be at your doorstep to collect your animal and redeliver it two weeks later.”

Being admitted to the club means buying into Svalinn’s philosophy of the dog as a functional organism, born to perform tasks. “Dogs are like humans,” Greene says. “They get pretty spun out when they don’t know what the rules are. They thrive on structure.” Not surprisingly, Greene subscribes to pack theory, the belief that dogs, like wolves, are born innately willing to be led by a dominant leader. Critics say pack theory can be used to justify an aggressive, bullying approach. “I don’t love the word dominance myself,” says Greene. Nevertheless, she adds, “This isn’t a democracy. There is a hierarchy.”

Her business card reads, “Alpha Female.” At Svalinn, she orchestrates every move to the extent that both dogs and humans seem frozen without her permission. Courtney Guillen, the CEO of Western Hunter, a full-service outdoors company, bought a Svalinn dog seven years ago after seeing one at a trade show. She describes Greene as “incredibly smart and strategic” as well as a friend. She also calls her “the only woman I’ve ever met who intimidated me.”

Greene and I are standing next to the Phoenix watching a big dog named Niall go through his paces. According to his handler, Matt, Niall is a “no-b.s. dog,” as shown by wounds up and down Matt’s arms. Protection work is a major component of Svalinn’s training, which handlers bear the brunt of.

Also training on the Phoenix are Pappy, “an old soul” balancing with all four paws on a 2.5-inch wooden plank, and Pua, a younger dog whom Greene calls “a little ballistic fur missile.” In general, Greene prefers smaller, more discreet animals. Her dogs are typically listed at about 60 pounds. “Some of our would-be competitors breed 120-pound German shepherds,” she says. “That might be a deterrent, but it’s not going in the car with you. And it sheds everywhere. And it drools.”

After a few minutes of commando-type activity, the dogs are summoned to a row of podiums, which they mount one by one. This has the awkwardness of a beauty pageant, but it is impossible not to be impressed by the disciplined, alert calmness of Pappy, Niall, and Pua. Not only is there no drooling; the dogs seem locked in on the salient thing in the room, the single aspect of their environment that has changed, the outsider that their human handlers are focused on. Me.

Greene demonstrates a “deployment” with Pappy, who is riled up to attack a young trainer named Cullen. “Protect your family!” a trainer shouts. Pappy launches at Cullen, who, as he fights off the frenzied dog, seems to be in considerable pain, despite the protection of a bite suit. When the drill is called off, Pappy disengages immediately.

I ask Greene if I can experience an attack. For the first time, she seems unsure. “If you promise not to sue us,” she says.

For protection training to be effective, a dog has to believe the threat is real. Svalinn dogs are trained to disarm, maim, and, potentially, kill. But they cannot be headhunters. They have to be discerning killers. And they have to be able to be overridden, which is why “we build in an ‘off’ switch,” says Greene. The safe words are out and fooey-it.

The trainers bring out Whistler, a younger if not visibly smaller dog. To protect me from having my femoral artery ripped out, I get the bite suit, which covers much of my body and is made out of what seems to be a cheap rug. Shuffling under its not terribly reassuring thickness, I hide around a corner, per instructions. Then one of the female trainers starts to shriek.

From my hiding spot, I inch around and make eye contact with Whistler. Matt has him on a leash — barely.

“Act menacing,” Matt says.


“More! Like you mean it!”


Suddenly, Whistler is attached to my tricep, snarling, drooling, writhing, jerking my arm back and forth as she pushes me against a wall. There is no pain; the bite suit dulls most of the pressure. But after 30 seconds, I’ve had enough and signal as much to the handlers, who hit the off switch.

Nothing happens.

“Out!” Matt commands. “Fooey-it!”

I look in Whistler’s adrenaline-blurred eyes, inches from my own. I see nothing.

“Out, Whistler, out!”

Eventually, Matt puts the dog in a headlock to get her to release. Greene sighs. Later, she says, “This is why we train them for two and a half years.”