Two big, bushy German shepherds share an office with Richard Gonzmart, who is best known in the Tampa Bay area as president of the 106-year-old Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City and the others in the chain. Rusty, 5, stretched out under the desk and keeping a close eye on the visitor, is his trained bodyguard. Rex, 4, is a pet. He lounges near the desk, half-dozing. Another shepherd, Enzi, 5, owned by daughter Andrea, rests in an outer office.
And they're not all. Gonzmart, 58, raises other shepherds for show and sale. His dog Tyson is "one of the top 10 in the country,'' he says, pointing out Tyson's picture and trophies.
Gonzmart got his first shepherd as a boy. His parents, the late Cesar and Adela Gonzmart, got the dog for protection after robbers targeted their home. The well-known couple were robbed twice there — one time after being tied up. Wanting to avoid their fate, Gonzmart takes Rusty to work with him almost every day. He recently talked with the St. Petersburg Times' Philip Morgan about the shepherds and the incident that led to a lifelong love of them.
What happened during the robbery?
They pushed (the door) open and I heard her (his mother) scream. I threw the phone down and came out . . . with a marble ashtray, and the guy put a gun to my head and said, "Get out of here or I'm going to kill you.'' I could hear my mother screaming, and it scared me, and I went to get my grandfather, who lived behind us. And he came out with his gun, but meanwhile they dislocated her shoulder and they . . . ripped off her rings. As a young boy, that sticks in your head.
We got our first German shepherd then, relatively young and trained somewhat. It gave me a sense of security as a child.
Why a German shepherd as opposed to another big dog, such as a Labrador retriever?
I love a Lab, and I love a golden retriever, but if somebody breaks into my house, they're going to lick them to death. They'll bark, but then they'll just lick you, be happy to see you, and they'll bring a toy over. Where, Rusty, usually he knows when I'm coming, but I've come in and maybe he was upstairs. And he'll hear me and he'll run. I can feel that fear — and I know he's my dog. ''Rusty, it's your daddy! Rusty!'' He'll come at me with that intention to bite . . .
I don't like guns. I don't want a gun. I would never shoot anybody, but the bad guy would shoot me. And I know Rusty won't hesitate.
Rusty can disarm a gunman?
Rusty has been trained to protect me from carjacking, and one day during training . . . I had my windows down, and I didn't know the guy (trainer) was going to come out. The guy comes out with a gun. Rusty jumps from the backseat, over me, through the open window, midair, grabs the guy and disarms him.
It was a training exercise, but I was shocked — the adrenaline. So we finish training Rusty, we put him away in the car, put the car in the shade, leave the car running, we're going to train another dog.
Rusty hears the gun, and Rusty's barking. I look over, and Rusty's learned how to roll the window down. He jumps out of the car, and the guy's 100 yards away, and I'm telling him, "Here comes Rusty!'' And then I realize the dog's trained, so I give him the command to come to me and he stopped and he came. And I'm, "Son of a gun, thank God,'' because the guy wouldn't have seen him coming . . . And he would have nailed him. So, Rusty has rolled the windows down four times — I've got to keep the windows on childproof.
And Rex is just a pet?
I call him a golden retriever dressed like a German shepherd. He's the baby. He'll bark and do all that, but he'll leave it up to Rusty. He knows that Rusty is the alpha dog. And Rusty every now and then will put him in his place. This one (Rex) will come put his snout in Rusty's mouth, to show, "I know you're the boss.'' I always find it entertaining, the respect they have for one another.