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Evaluating Working Animals for your Breeding Program

The first article in this series offered some ideas on what working temperament is, and why it is important to train dogs to work if this temperament is going to be maintained or incorporated into a breeding program. This is the second article in the series, and is intended to offer some suggestions for evaluating the working temperament of dogs that have at least a minimal level of training in some sport. The final article will highlight some of the decisions and inherent tradeoffs that are a part of any breeding program that attempts to balance working quality with the overall well being of a breed.

Good indicators of working temperament are many and varied. This article will consider working titles, scores, and trial performances vs. "real" work. Setting up unusual training exercises and using networks of people to aid in your decision-making process can also be useful tools for evaluating dogs. Your goal should be to accurately assess a given dog's strengths and weaknesses. All of these methods have benefits; select the combination most suited to your needs and level of commitment.

Titles are awarded to dogs that meet specific minimum requirements within a given sport; a dog with titles has demonstrated that he meets some basic level of ability. Titles tell you that a dog was able to develop enough skill to compete in a public arena on one or more occasions. Scores, on the other hand, indicate the degree to which the dog mastered the requirements for the title. Scores are often broken down by exercise or competence, so a dog's strengths and weaknesses can be more clearly evaluated over a number of different trials. When titles are considered along with scores and other factors, those titles become much more meaningful. Your goal should be to get a complete picture of the dog.

It is important to be knowledgeable about the requirements for the titles that the dog has earned. When you are evaluating lower level titles in obedience, agility, and tracking, be aware that perseverance can pay off in titles for even the most obstinate dogs. Many titles are designed to be attainable by less than talented dogs. (AKC obedience is an excellent example, where every breed from Lhasa Apso's to Golden Retrievers is able to compete). Look for higher level titles, or very accomplished performances and scores at the lower levels. Consider how many times the dog was trialed before completing the title. If you find that the dog was trialed unsuccessfully many times before completing the title, you need to explore what the difficulties were that prevented the dog from finishing in a more timely manner.

Consider the competitive level at which the dog competes. Dogs with regional or national wins are demonstrating both basic ability (titling) and some level of excellence (scores). Because the trials are usually held away from the home field, these dogs are demonstrating an ability to compete out of their normal environment and under greatly varying conditions. Dogs that are competing on a national or international level are often being held to a different standard; expect these scores to be lower than for dogs that only compete locally.

Evaluate the dog's overall progress as well as the training program. How long has the dog been in training? High scores at lower levels may be impressive until you discover that the dog has been in training for many years before being allowed to compete. On the other hand, a dog that finishes titles quickly and easily with modest scores may be a very fast learner, or may simply be difficult to polish for the sport.

The skill level and commitment of the trainer are also very important. Animals who succeed in spite of their inexperienced trainers deserve a second look, whereas professional trainers who train regularly can often make dogs look far better than they really are. There are many dogs that have titled (some with high scores) that have significant weaknesses in their temperaments. Some of the following suggestions can help you determine if the dog you are considering possesses real working talent, or has had excellent training that masks critical flaws.

Watching training exercises unrelated to trial situations can be an excellent tool. These scenarios allow you to test a dog under stress. Watch the dog learning a new exercise, or ask for an unusual exercise. A protection dog may be asked to do a hold and bark from the back of a truck or with the agitator inside of a building. A herding dog may be asked perform an outrun when the sheep are not clearly visible to the dog. The point of these exercises is to gather information. How readily does the dog transfer skills learned in one setting to another? What weaknesses or strengths does the dog show? How does the dog approach the situation, and how does the handler interact with the dog? You may conclude that the dog is amazing simply by it's ability to learn an exercise in spite of the handler's incompetence. Or you may decide that the dog is clearly uncomfortable and weak when performing outside of a prescribed routine.

Keep in mind that trials are very different from "real" work. It is well known that many of the best police or ranch dogs can be among the worst performers at trials. A dog that works day in and day out may lack the fine points that give one the edge in competition. Getting the job done is often more important to the owner than teaching the fine points required of competition animals. If you notice that a dog seems to do poorly in trial situations, but you know that the animal is a working dog, you may want to do more research. Watch the dog in training or doing regular work. What skills are being given the most emphasis by the trainer? Does the dog complete the required tasks? Does he/she make good decisions and work independently? Does he accept direction when appropriate or does he appear to fight with the trainer's efforts?

Some people believe that there is an inherent trade off in choosing a trial dog over a "real" working dog. If your interest is strictly in producing trial dogs, then you may be willing to sacrifice some independent decision making skills for a dog that is more biddable to the handler's direction. On the other hand, if you want a "real" working dog, then scores and trial performance should be less important to you. Some dogs are easily bored by trials and constant polishing, and fail to perform well. While this may be fine for a ranch dog, it isn't going to further your breeding program if your goal is a top-notch trial dog. These considerations should influence your decisions about the appropriateness of an animal for your breeding program.

Develop a network of people that you trust to evaluate dogs when you cannot see them yourself. Your network should include people who do not have a vested interest in your selections (having a person evaluate their own dog isn't particularly objective). Generally, the more dogs this person has been involved with the better their evaluation skills. Take advantage of contacts made through the Internet and mailing lists to which you may subscribe. Whenever possible, calibrate your evaluations on dogs that both of you have seen. If your expectations are different, then you will know to adjust their evaluations accordingly.

The person who has the best information on a dog is the trainer. Unfortunately, this person may also have a vested interest in how they present information. If the trainer stands to benefit by saying nice things (a potential stud fee or continuing contracts to train the dog), then the quality of information you receive is likely to be compromised. On the other hand, there are many trainers/owners who truly have the best interest of the breed at heart, and they will try to give you an honest evaluation.

Beware of kennel blindness. The kennel blind person has a tendency to believe that they are knowledgeable and objective, when in fact they are unable to see real weaknesses that are obvious to others. The best way to identify kennel blindness is to ask the person to evaluate one of his or her own dogs that you already know. Are they able to identify both strengths and weaknesses in their breeding program? Will they openly fault their own dog? Do they see the same flaws in their dogs that you see? Place appropriate weight on sources that you believe to be kennel blind.

Now that we have some ideas about evaluating working animals, consider the following complication. Breeding for both specialized working ability and any other quality is a tradeoff. The more emphasis you place on an "all round" dog, the less likely you are to get a "specialist". If you cannot live with that, then either expand your dog search to a national or international level, or lower your standards in the areas where you are least concerned with excellence. The last article in this series will explore the choices and consequences involved in selecting for working qualities.

Articles: Incorporating Working Temperament Into a Breeding Program

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