the fire within...

What Is Working Temperament?

This is the first of a three part series that discusses the role of working temperament in a breeding program.

Like most breeds, the Belgian Shepherd was developed with a purpose in mind. The original Belgian was a mid-sized, all purpose, generic farm dog. His duties included herding, carting, protection and general companionship. Today's dog has retained many of the characteristics and working qualities necessary in a working dog. The loyal, intense, courageous dog of the farm still exists in some of our dogs, and we see these traits displayed in both working trials and in "real" working situations.

Today, few people use their dogs for herding or general farm work. Most breeding programs focus on producing typey, healthy dogs with good structure and sound temperaments. Depending on the breeder, these goals will be prioritized differently. On one end of the spectrum one would find the "pure" show breeder, who aims only to produce a dog of beauty according to its standard. On the other end of the spectrum is the "pure" working breeder whose primary goal is a finely tuned one-sport performance animal for herding, protection, or any other sport with practical applications. Most breeders fall in between, with varying degrees of emphasis being given to the different possibilities.

All across the spectrum, however, there are active discussions and debates over the correct "temperament" that a Belgian Shepherd should possess. The UKC standard describes them as follows:
The Belgian Shepherd Dog was developed in Belgium as a herding dog to work sheep. He is enthusiastic and remarkably quick. He shows a natural tendency to be in motion. The Belgian was developed for endurance. He must be able to move and tend the flock all day and to guard it from all invaders. In addition to his inborn ability as guardian of the flocks, he is an exceptional watchdog and a tenacious and brave defender of his master and family. He is vigilant, and highly responsive to his owner's direction. He is alert, intelligent and inquisitive. While he is firmly loyal to those he knows and loves, he typically exhibits reserve with strangers.
Working temperament describes qualities that assist in a practical application, for example, SAR, protection or herding work. These are the qualities that make a dog both capable of working and intrinsically compelled to work.

A working temperament requires innate characteristics that allow and drive a dog to work effectively under a range of circumstances. Some examples of working character traits include: focus, endurance, pain tolerance, courage, natural herding instinct, heat tolerance, ability to handle stress, pressure, corrections, and confusion, degree of forgiveness, discernment, rate of learning, problem solving ability, degree of independence, trust and self confidence, and confidence in one's handler. There are certainly many more, but this list should begin to give an idea of the qualities that begin to compose an individual dog's working temperament.

It is worth noting that working temperament is not synonymous with personality. Working ability is akin to the human term "work ethic". Obviously, a person can have a very poor work ethic with a wonderful personality. And conversely, a person with an excellent work ethic might have an abrasive, unpleasant personality. And so it goes for dogs.

How are you going to determine whether or not a dog has working ability? How will you know which of the working qualities your dog possesses?

No dog possesses every character of working ability at all times. The goal for the breeder interested in this aspect of their breed will be to maximize the positive qualities and minimize the negative ones, while retaining balance in the temperament produced. It is unrealistic to expect any animal to excel in all areas, and indeed selection for certain traits may improve performance in one arena, while presenting challenges in another.

If you want to know which working attributes your dog has, you're going to have to work your dog. So choose your sport! This will provide you with a more in-depth knowledge about your dog's working temperament for the qualities that your particular sport happens to tap into. If you choose agility, for example, you will have an opportunity to observe some of the following characteristics readily: flexibility, athleticism, speed, teamwork orientation, rate of learning (to some degree), and willingness to follow direction. You may also tap into some of the following characteristics; tolerance to weather extremes, enthusiasm for learning, endurance, and the ability to handle stress (to some degree) among many other qualities. The longer you participate in your chosen sport, and the more advanced you become, the more opportunities you will have to learn about your dog's working qualities.

Some sports require a high degree of independent decision making and complex problem solving skills. The closer the sport is to an actual working application, the better your opportunities will be to see a wide range of work-related temperament components.

Both herding and protection sports are excellent examples of this. Herding requires that the dog have the natural ability and interest to work stock. The stock must be inherently interesting to the dog in order to get the dog trained. At the same time, the dog must be willing and able to subvert his drives according to the wishes of his trainer. He must accept commands that go against his natural inclinations simply because he is told to do so. A strong gathering dog must learn to drive. An aggressive dog must learn not to bite, but at the same time be able to bite when the situation warrants it. Training a herding dog requires walking a fine line between encouraging and discouraging a dog's natural drives.

In bitework, a strong dog works for the chance to pursue and bite the agitator. Many dogs are excellent protection dogs when the are allowed to bite and then win the sleeve. But the stress of having to let go of a hard won object (the sleeve) simply because he is told to do so brings in a completely different level of working aptitudes. Watching a dog learn to subvert their personal wishes to those of their owners is both a fascinating process and a significant learning opportunity. Many dogs that appear to have excellent aptitude for working wash out when they have to subvert their natural drives at one moment, and reawaken those same drives seconds later.

An "everyday" example that demonstrates this can be tested using a tennis ball on a very ball driven dog. Throw the tennis ball a few times and allow a natural retrieve. The next time, throw the ball and call the dog back when he is half way to the ball. Next time throw the ball and let the dog retrieve. Alternate these activities, randomly throwing with or without a call-off. Is your dog slowing down? Refusing to come before retrieving the ball? That might give you some idea of the challenge of training French Ring dog for the call off on the face attack. The dog is called off within 2 meters of the decoy, more than 50 yards from the trainer. In the ideal performance, the dog returns to the handler's side as intensely as he runs to the attack.

While I have opinions about what I'd like to see in a dog, none of the above working traits fall easily into the categories of "good" or "bad". The information, however, is invaluable to a breeder who is seriously interested in taking all aspects of their Belgians into consideration in their breeding programs. Much as a conformation breeder must be aware of their dog's physical faults in order to improve the breed, all breeders should be aware of the qualities that combine to create their dogs working temperament. Choosing to ignore working ability can be an educated, conscious decision. On the other hand, assuming that a dog possesses working ability because of his general good nature strikes me as a much more troublesome situation.

The individual who wishes to breed for both "brains and beauty" will find a real dilemma in their breeding program. On the one hand, beauty is obvious; it is external and anyone can judge for himself or herself whether or not a particular animal meets their needs for any given breeding. On the other hand, working temperament is not obvious, and even to a very experienced eye it is not going to lend itself to casual observation.

Articles: Incorporating Working Temperament Into a Breeding Program

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