By Carson Gerber
---- — DENVER — A tan-furred German shepherd stood obediently beside its trainer, waiting patiently for a sign to attack. Far down the field, a man jumped up and down, taunting the animal.The trainer let go of the K-9, and it bolted after the man, who turned and ran. Within seconds, the dog was on the man's heels, lunging at his arm, slamming him face-first into the ground. The K-9 tore and gashed the man, who lay struggling in the grass. The crowd went wild.The trainer arrived seconds later and pulled the German shepherd off the victim, who, fortunately for him, wore a thick, padded bite suite that made him look like a 400-pound Sumo wrestler.The man got up, dusted himself off, and waited for the next dog to pounce on him.The planned dog attack was one of the final events at the annual American Working Dog Seminar and Certification Trials — a four-day, action-packed K-9 competition held at Vohne Liche Kennels near Denver.The event was called hard dog, fast dog, and it tested a canine’s speed and ferocity when taking down a suspected wrongdoer.“It means nothing, but it’s the most popular thing here,” said Vohne Liche owner Ken Licklider. “It’s just fun. It’s about seeing how fast a dog can run and how hard he can knock a guy on his butt. You know people. They like to see that kind of thing.”The more than 100 people who gathered Friday at the kennel for the event definitely enjoyed the show, shouting and clapping when a dog made an especially intense take down.But although the event was just for fun, the annual competition, also called the Dog Olympics, had a much more serious aim.One hundred thirteen dog handlers attended the trials this year to pick up tips and hone their skills handling some of the most ferocious dogs in the world that protect and serve in police departments, security firms and sheriff’s offices all across the country. Some came just to learn. Others came to certify their K-9s through the American Working Dog Association or Vohne Liche Kennels. Others came just for the competition. But everybody was there for the party.More than 10 vendors offered food, snow cones and animal supplies to participants. On Thursday night, everyone packed in front of a large stage set up in a field to jam out to the 1970s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Starship.At past events, Licklider has booked other bands like Collective Soul, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Bad Company and Boston to rock out in rural Miami County.“It’s a great event with all the camaraderie and competition,” said Joe Austin, a trainer who traveled from Los Angles to recertify his German shepherd. “We get great feedback and tips about training our dogs. Plus, it’s a party.”Licklider said that’s what it’s all about.“This offers trainers the chance to exchange ideas, learn, and do it in an environment that’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s the whole package. You can compete, go to seminars and recertify. And we believe in certification. We believe in having outside people check on you to make sure you’re doing things to a certain standard. But you’re mainly here to learn from your peers and experts in the field.”Throughout the four-day trials, handlers trained, competed and received certification in specialized fields like detecting bombs and narcotics, tracking dead bodies, searching buildings and learning commands and obedience.The training events were held in warehouses, buildings and forests all over Miami County.Darron Grager, a K-9 handler with the Anderson Police Department who came this year just to watch, said trainers can get certification from agencies all over the country, but he likes this one because it’s more than just training — it’s a competition that’s almost like a festival.“Kenny does a great job of putting this on,” he said. “You can let loose and have fun. No matter what people say, this competition is stressful, but it’s fun at the same time.“There are a lot of different certification agencies out there, but Kenny’s is the only one where you can actually compete and recertify at the same time,” Grager said. “With other agencies, you’re either training or certifying. But at other places, you don’t get to rib the guy beside you because your dog did better than his.”But the competition offers more than just bragging rights. Licklider said it also allows trainers a clearer view of how well they really have trained their dogs. “It shows them where they’re at, and what they need to work on without putting them on the spot,” he said.The competition also offers the public an inside look at the elite and sometimes mysterious world of police-dog training.That was the case with Lindsay Pattison, who lives just down the road from the kennel. She brought along her 4-year-old son, Cooper, to watch dogs compete in an obstacle course and chase around trainers wearing bite suits.“Look! Doggie!” Cooper shouted.“He thinks this is pretty cool,” Pattison said with a laugh. “It’s pretty cool; these guys are in our backyard. I had no idea they were this big.”She always knew a little about Vohne Liche, but said she first realized how big the training company really was after watching the reality TV show "Alpha Dogs" — a documentary series on cable channel Nat Geo Wild that follows Licklider and his crew as they train canines around the country.The show filmed the Dog Olympics last year for the TV series, which launched earlier this year.Licklider said he started the competition and certification trial 14 years ago with a friend from Anderson. They held the event in Muncie for three years, and then moved it up to Vohne Liche headquarters.It’s grown bigger just about every year. Licklider said he started booking rock bands for the event five years ago to give something back to the trainers.And he said he hopes the competition also gives something back to the community in Miami County.“We love this community,” he said. “We couldn’t have done this anywhere else.”Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.