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2010-12-13

Some thoughts about how to choose the right working dog for you.


Some thoughts about how to choose the right working dog for you.

 

 

Some thoughts and reflections on how to choose the right "working dog" for you.

I must say first this blog is targetted towards working dogs as opposed to working breeds or dogs for the home. It does not conceptually exclude dogs for the home that are trained for obedience as certain concepts would continue to apply.

We are asked many questions about what dog is the right dog for sports, IPO, schutzhund or protection and security work. We also get many opinions on the subject from a variety of people. The issue of choice of dog is often thought of in terms of the breed of dog, and of course this is the subject of exhaustive debate and passion. Assuming that the breed one is looking at has the necessary temperament and working capabilities, the issue revolves around what characteristics of the individual dog are correct for you. In this sense one caveat of high importance is to distinguish the issue of working dog from working breed. With the emergence of show lines within working breeds in many ways there now exist two parallel breeds within one "breed". The temperament, drives and capabilities are very different !

However, we believe that when you look for a dog, before judging the Dog, Judge Yourself !

Perhaps the single most important step in dog training is often overlooked. As a trainer, handler or even if you are just starting out in some form of dog training you need to take what we call the mirror test, and you need to be practical and realistic about it. Ask yourself what type of handler you are. Evaluate how much experience you have with working dogs, how much time and commitment you have available for training. Consider what level you would put yourself at in terms of handling and training, basic, intermediate, or advanced. Think about your style, are you a strong forceful handler, are you more comfortable with a dog which has a strong will to please and is not on the edge of controllability? Evaluate and define your training objectives. Are you just learning to train and handle, are you looking for a dog that will have good obedience and operate in a house environment, is the dog going to be trained for casual sports or are you planning on training and handling the dog for high level sports or security work. Consider your goals and whether you have the experience or in lieu of experience access to the necessary support and skills  to accomplish your goals. Skills must be learned, and a good teacher is an invaluable asset.

In our experience failure in dog training often stems from a failure to accurately access yourself, your objectives and your capabilities. We have seen many examples of this. One example which is particularly problematic is the "money approach". Spending a lot of money on a highly trained dog as a short cut to sports usually doesn't work. If your handling and training experience is not up to that level, the dog will quickly fall back in performance. One also needs to look at the trainer of the dog. If the trainer was very good and you are not in that category, problems could emerge. The opposite can also hold true. We have seen many cases of purchasing what we call "score book" dogs. These dogs have apparently high scores in their record book. One needs to look at the judge and the circumstances of the trial to evaluate how realistic the score was. In cases where the score was lower, one needs to evaluate the problems the dog exhibited. This again includes looking at the trainer. If your training level is good, and the trainer exhibited problems, then you may be able to "upgrade" that dog. Alternatively if the dog shows difficulties with a very good trainer, an upgrade may not be possible. In many cases, a judge may have given a high score that does not reflect the reality of the dogs training or capabilities. When buying a dog that is already trained, one must really attempt to find out why the dog is for sale. Some people buy "green" dogs, and look for characteristics such as hard and tough. It is always important to consider temperament and stability, not only apparent drives. Make sure that a dog with high drives, or possibly high aggression levels is something you can handle, or you may have a monster of your own creation.

 

There are many roads leading to one place

We are often asked for dogs that are “hard”, “high drive”, have “great grips”, or are very tough. There is a tendency to think that this is necessary to create a great working dog. In many cases with the right trainer, and the right level of experience dogs in this category will achieve very high performance levels.

Rarely do we see someone asking for a dog with a medium temperament, and moderate drives. Although for many people this is absolutely the type of dog that they will thrive with. Another point to bear in mind is that most dogs are acquired as puppies. Judging a puppy for grips and hardness at 6 weeks of age is really not very practical. You can at best get an indication. We have even had trainers say they felt a 6 week old puppy with no prior handler contact was "not into the handler enough". These are not practical observations. When judging a puppy it is important to manage expectations and reality. Much of a puppies future behavior is from contact and exposure. The best innate drives can either be enhanced or ruined during the first six months of life. A breeder can help by initial socialization, but the first half year period is really critical for the new owner and the puppy.

Now we must address some myth's and realities in training.

We know some very very good trainers. An excellent trainer can deal with quite a wide range of dogs and achieve high levels of performance. We have seen a number of dogs that have gone on to become real success stories in international competition. In a number of these cases the dog had issues, some were slightly shy, others were not at all “hard”, but the trainer was able to mold the dog to perform, and the training masked the innate behavior of the dog. There are some that would say that these are not "real dogs". Depending on what the dog will do workwise, this may or may not be true. Here the type of work the dog does has a real bearing on what type of dog may be necessary. In a security dog scenario a dog which is the product of this type of training may indeed not be suitable, for sports the dog may be perfect.

We have seen some truly excellent dogs, with high drives and good stability but with the wrong handler, these dogs often lack adequate obedience and control, and it shows in the performance and behavior of the dog. This occurs when the handler has over estimated his ability to train and control the dog. Often the dog does not respect the handler, and the consequences become all too obvious.

So what does this really mean? A very good trainer can train almost any dog, but the best one’s we know choose their dogs carefully while looking at themselves as well.  They spend quite a bit of time evaluating a dog. They look at the temperament, the drive, the overall character, and they attempt to choose a dog that they think fits best with their style and approach.

One handler we know has won the FCI World Championships several times. He would have some difficulties with a very aggressive dog, or a  dominant very high drive dog. He works on an obedience based program. A dog with very high will to please, and good basic drives fills his needs best. Another handler we know has also won the world championships, and does so with a dog with drives almost off the charts, this person is tough and likes the challenge of a dog that pushes things to the edge. Two different people, two very different dogs, very similar scoring results. Both trainers however have high experience bases and know their own strengths and weaknesses.

At our kennel, one of us trains by what we call the contact method. He is far from the strongest or the toughest trainer on the block, but he establishes a very strong bond with the dog. The dog even when fairly tough wants to work for him. This method requires more time with the dog, and is truly relationship based, the results are very good. Another trainer at our kennel, is much tougher, he can mold a dog or where necessary break it down to the level where the dog respects the fact that he is the boss. The training technique is somewhat more heavy handed. The dog works out of pack instinct and position, it knows who the leader is and what the leader wants. It also understands the consequences if it does not listen.

The results at the end of the day are quite similar, the methods are quite different. Since this is not a commentary on training techniques but rather dog selection we will not delve into what may be the best approach to dog training. At our kennel we have handlers at different levels. Success for these handlers comes with the requisite background training, and exposure to a variety of handling and training techniques. In competition there will come a time when even the best trained dog does something unexpected, an experienced handler will know how and when to step in and correct this. An inexperienced handler tends to panic with consequent negative results.

 

 

So how do You Choose a Dog?

There is no question about it; all dogs are not created equal, both by breed and within a given breed. Certain breeds of working dogs have years of breeding fostering certain characteristics that are prized by people with an interest or a need for a working dog. Other breeds are bred for different purposes, including shows, domestic pet applications, agility, or very specialized applications. These dogs even with extensive training will not ever achieve the same results as a true working dog. Even within a group of working dogs themselves there will always be variances in temperament and drive. You could say it’s the nature of the “beast”.

A good working dog, regardless of your style, must have certain drives or training will not be up to the level you might wish. Drives such as play drive, prey drive, fight drive, defense drive and food drive and will to please are all important. The issue is the level of the drive. Evaluate yourself and your capabilities. Think about and define what your goals and objectives are for you and the dog as a team. Are you just starting out and want to learn how to train? Are you looking to train, learn and have fun? Do you have some training experience and you yearn for you and the dog to compete in some form of dog sports? Is the dog destined for security work? Consider whether you will do best with an easier going dog, that has the necessary drives but wants to please you, or are you really able to handle the dog that is "hard" and right at the edge? Think again about your knowledge of techniques and your willingness to put the necessary time into training your dog. Consider whether any expert help or support is available. Forget your notions of what “the best dog is based on theory or whether the dog is the toughest dog around. Evaluating yourself and then picking the right combination of "you and the dog" gives you a much better shot at success. Success in itself breeds more interest in what you are doing; time gives more experience and greater capabilities to both the trainer and the dog.

At the end of the day, the right choice will certainly give the best results and the highest level of satisfaction for you and your dog, but remember the right choice is not always the emotional choice based on appearance or our own human notion of what a dog might behave like. Nor is it the standardized choice of tough, high drive, its a team and the team must work together.

 

The Siam Crown Gang