target practice

photography: jared ryder

words: noah davis


Judo de Loucyn is jumping. Exploding off the ground, really. Seventy-two pounds of muscle, sinew, and strength, launched into the air at the behest of his trainer, Joseph Cinnante. The dog, a Belgian Malinois, effortlessly clears a seven-foot high palisade after hauling his enormous body over a four-foot hurdle and long-jumping more than 14 feet. Impressive stuff for a two-year-old dog who stands just 25 inches at the shoulder.


After the jumps, Judo will perform an obedience routine and attack work—displays of patience and restraint followed by vicious but controlled biting and protection. The entire affair takes half an hour, as judge Laurent Bernard watches carefully, scoring Judo on his performance. Bernard and Cinnante drip with sweat in the 94-degree heat. Judo simply keeps working.


The event is the North American Ring Association (NARA) Western Regional Trial, held on a blistering hot, late fall day at Copper State Ring Club in Cave Creek, Arizona. The sport is French Ring. It dates to the late 1800s and allows protection dogs to show off their abilities at one of four levels: Brevet, Ring I, Ring II, and Ring III. French Ring's history in the United States is much shorter. NARA, formed with help from France's Societe Centrale Canine, started in 1986. Cinnante estimates that the sport consists of a few hundred American diehards—a passionate, elite group of trainers, decoys, and breeders. Although some handlers use German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, and Rottweilers for French Ring, most prefer Belgian Malinois. They are slightly smaller and more athletic, essential traits for the physical nature of the sport and the amount of jumping it requires.


Judo isn't the only dog competing in Arizona, but he's one of the best. He'll win the Ring I competition, earning 197.3 out of a possible 200 points and defeating rivals including White Mountain Thor Du Chateau De Kama, Roos de las Flores, and Helluva Mojito du Chenil de Chasseur. (Leonardo Da Vinci finishes fifth in the Ring III competition.)



Cinnante is pleased with his young dog's performance. The 34-year-old trainer has an unusual background but shares a lot in common with other French Ring participants, a group that's a mix of law enforcement officers, protection specialists, and sporting enthusiasts. Cinnante grew up in Mallorca, Spain, surrounded by Dobermans and other animals. He moved to South America, then to South Florida, where he began training dogs at age 16.


He also started working as an homme d’attaque, a decoy who spars with the dog during the protection portion of French Ring. “I was kind of an adrenaline junkie when I was younger,” he says to explain his roots in decoy work. “It was like, ‘Hey man, you want to try getting attacked by a dog?’ They put the suit on me and told me to run. Don’t look back, just run. It was so thrilling. It was amazing. I kept going back.” Soon, Cinnante gained notoriety for his decoy abilities. “There were some cops and they asked if I wanted to break into their house,” he says. “They'd give me $100 to get attacked by their dog. I said, ‘Absolutely.’” In 2004, he won the first French Ring decoy championship held in the United States.


Cinnante also started Advanced Canine Systems, a company that trains protection dogs, the type of animals that join SEAL Team 6 on raids or guard the rich and powerful. They are at once incredibly friendly, a dog that an owner would feel comfortable having to watch over his sleeping daughter, and yet be vicious when needed. They know what to bite, where to bite, and when to bite; and, more importantly, when not to. They cost $70,000 on average. Between ACS’s two facilities in Malibu and Florida, Cinnante and his team are training 40 to 60 dogs at any given moment. He also has a couple personal dogs that compete in French Ring. “The sport is just the right mix of competitiveness,” he says. “You’re trying to achieve goals and are accountable to the judging system. Basically, when it comes to French Ring, you’re trying to build the ultimate warrior.”



The result is breathtaking. “Unless you see it, you really don’t get the feel for how fast and powerful the dogs are,” says photographer Jared Ryder. “Maybe it’s like a NASCAR thing. I’ve never been to a race, but everyone says you have to go to a race. It’s kind of along those lines. A photo doesn’t do it a lot of justice because they fly. And the power that they can hit with is crazy, too.”


A successful French Ring dog, however, needs more than elite athleticism. It needs a certain mentality, too. “You’re looking for a puppy who is not fazed by anything,” Cinnante says. “He’s so confident in what he’s doing that it’s fun. It’s just a good time for them.”


Because, at its heart, French Ring is a game. The guy in the full body protective suit standing at the end of the field is essentially a giant toy that the dog is going to bite. There’s combat involved, so there are aspects of French Ring that bleed over into the protection dogs’ training, especially the technical ones. When a decoy moves this way, the dog counters this way. It’s like boxing, or a dance. But the majority of dogs who compete in French Ring wouldn't be qualified to participate in a protection dog program because they have a different mental makeup. Just because a dog will bite someone in a suit or a sleeve does not mean that dog will bite someone in a real and threatening situation.


“Think of it like an MMA fighter,” Cinnante says. “When he goes into the street and encounters a man who punches him in the ribs, what is his reaction going to be? He's not in the ring. He’s not prepared. It’s different. It’s not the same world. There are dogs that can do both. But when you're training just for French Ring and your goal is to just do that, most people aren't thinking about the protection aspect.”



While MMA makes a good comparison in terms of the mentality, French Ring won’t reach anywhere close to the popularity that UFC enjoys in the US. In France, however, competitions are major events, held in packed soccer stadiums with thousands of screaming fans, air horns, and plenty of champagne. The sport is embedded into life in a way that it’s not, and will likely never be, in the United States. Most villages still have dog clubs funded by the city or the province that teach skills like obedience and agility. They’ve been doing it the same way for a hundred years, and it’s not likely to stop. Protection dogs are part of the French cultural tapestry.


“Culturally, I think Europe is very open-minded about dogs of this type. I remember growing up, we always had Dobermans and German Shepherds around,” Cinnante recalls. “It was part of the deal. It was normal to be like, ‘Hey, little kid, don't go near that one. It will bite you.’ Here, for sure people make a way bigger deal about that type of stuff.”


Even so, French Ring has a small but dedicated following in America. People who are interested will find their way to an event. Despite the predominance of law-enforcement types, competitors create a suprisingly diverse tableau. “It was really mixed with guys and girls,” Ryder says. “That was surprising.”


The dogs start charging around, getting as close to the red line as they can, but never tipping over it. A tempest contained by a teapot, an exquisite balance between overwhelming power and finite control.