the fire within...

The Match Game

Matching Specific Puppies to Specific Handlers

When they evaluate puppies, testers look for specific behaviors or personality traits that correlate with working potential in the adult dog. Which traits are desired depend on the working application under consideration. Advocates of puppy testing agree that the "best" Schutzhund prospect is unlikely to be the same puppy as the "best" herding prospect.

What I find surprising is that testers often select a puppy for a specific sport without factoring in the future handler's personality, training style, or experience. The term "pick of the litter" for a working dog has little value if the handler's temperament is not taken into consideration

Performance events are team sports: one dog and one handler. The synergy in that team will determine to a large extent whether the team is successful. A successful dog-handler team is comfortable working together, so each member can relax, learn, and develop her or his full potential. When the handler finds the dog's personality or working style frustrating, a productive training relationship is unlikely to ensue. Let's assume that you, a breeder, are placing puppies from a litter that has been tested for Schutzhund with their new owner-handlers. Which puppy is the "best" Schutzhund prospect? We cannot answer this question without information about the potential dog handler.

The following chart summarizes the results of a puppy test used to select working dogs (primarily for biting sports). Each character trait is scored on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). Note that higher scores are not necessarily better scores. Most of the puppies show normal and acceptable temperaments for Schutzhund prospects, given the right handler.

  Alpha Brava Cudos Delta Echo Foxtrot Gopher Hopi
Willingness to please 3 5 4 4 4 5 4 3
Fight drive 4 5 3 4 4 5 3 4
Food drive 4 5 4 4 4 5 3 5
Confidence 4 5 3 5 3 4 2 3
Sociability 4 5 4 5 3 2 2 3
Calmness 4 1 3 4 3 4 2 4
Persistence 5 5 2 3 4 4 2 3
Hardness 5 2 2 2 4 3 4 4
Hectic Tendencies 2 5 3 4 2 3 2 2
Ability to recover from stress 5 2 2 4 4 3 3 4

Let's consider how we might place our puppies when we take into account handler training style and experience, lifestyle circumstances, preferred finished picture, expectations of the dog's personality away from the working field, and interest in high levels of competition. The following chart describes the potential handlers for our litter of puppies.

Handler Traits

  Potential Handlers
Alison Barbara Claire Daisy Erin Frank Greg Hank
Compulsion in training 1 2 2 3 3 2 4 5
1=low; 5=high
Training experience 5 3 2 3 3 1 5 2
1=low; 5=high
Living situation for dog 1 4 3 3 2 3 5 5
1 = house with small kids; 5 = full-time kennel dog
Preferred working picture 5 5 4 3 2 3 2 1
(1=calm, methodical and accurate; 5= flashy, intense)
Personality away from field 3 4 3 2 2 4 1 1
1=calm; 5 = manic
Competitive spirit 4 3 3 5 2 2 4 5
(need to win!) 1 = low; 5 = high

Alison is a professional trainer with extensive experience training dogs and competing in Schutzhund. She is well known for her belief that motivational training methods produce a flashy, intense working dog - a picture she enjoys. She expects her dog to live in her home and to accept her other dogs and family, including her young children. Alison is looking for a dog who will compete now and breed in the future.

Barbara has trained one dog for Schutzhund; she used primarily motivational training methods. She enjoys dogs who love to work and who motivate her when she loses enthusiasm. Barbara is a single woman with no children and few visitors; her dog will live in her house and receive regular attention. During the workday, the dog will stay crated in the house.

Claire has never owned a working-bred dog; she has, however, trained two pet dogs using compulsion. Claire wants to use motivational methods with her next dog because she wants a more energetic performance. Claire is currently working during the day, during which time her dogs stay outside in a kennel. In the evening the dogs are in the house with her family.

Daisy has trained one dog for Schutzhund; she used both motivation and compulsion in her training. Daisy complains about her current dog's high energy level and excessive drive during protection. Daisy is not currently employed and intends to focus on preparing her next dog for high-level competition. Daisy's dog will live in the house with her and her husband.

Erin trains dogs as one of many hobbies. She has a family with young children and spends no more than 1 or 2 days a week at the training field. Her dogs are expected be quiet and relaxed in the house.

Frank has owned pet dogs but has never participated in a dog sport. Frank has observed many training sessions, and he wants a dog with whom he can use motivational training methods. Frank wants his puppy to live in the house with his wife and two teenaged children. He expresses interest in earning Schutzhund titles, but has neither time nor inclination to compete seriously.

Greg has trained dogs professionally for several years; during this time he has participated in numerous national-level competitions. Greg believes that dogs perform because they are trained to do so, rather than because they enjoy doing so. Greg has several dogs, and they live outside in kennel runs.

Hank is relatively new to dogs. He is passionate about the sport of Schutzhund and wants to compete in the future. Hank's current dog is not hard enough for his training method; the dog is accurate but is stressed in his work. Hank's current dog lives in a kennel full time and is not allowed to interact with his family.

Let's consider how the scores of each puppy and handler might dovetail.


Alpha: This puppy's medium-to-high scores on willingness to please, confidence, sociability, calmness, and ability to recover from stress all suggest a puppy that is calm, stable, and not difficult to train. When combined with medium-high drives and hardness, they suggest that Alpha is a good choice for either an advanced beginner or an experienced handler. She will make a good family dog in the sense that she will be easy to live with and safe, but she might be hard-headed about learning manners in the family as a result of her hardness and persistence. Her high food drive, persistence, and calmness lead to excellent tracking potential; her ability to recover from stress and reasonable level of other drives make her a competent and methodical - but not flashy - obedience dog. As a result of her solid temperament and good drives, Alpha will succeed with a range of training methods, from motivational to compulsion-based training. Alpha shows definite hardness and medium willingness to please, so a novice handler with a mild temperament could have problems with control. Heavy-handed training could result in a flat (yet accurate) obedience routine as a result of her calm disposition. In protection, Alpha shows potential as a moderately strong dog due to medium-high fight drive and high confidence level.

Alpha is the only puppy in this litter that would be an extremely successful match for Greg and a good choice for Hank. Both of these handlers prefer a calm, methodical dog. Both handlers use primarily compulsion-based (force-based) training, and both enjoy tracking and protection - areas where Alpha should excel - over obedience. Greg's higher level of experience and slightly lower levels of compulsion, combined with his love of tracking, probably would give him even better results with Alpha than Hank would achieve. Alpha could not "take advantage" of Greg, and Greg would enjoy her strong work and calm disposition. It is also likely that Greg would be successful at higher levels of competition, which is important to him. Although Hank probably would enjoy working Alpha, there is a risk that his heavy reliance on force and relatively low experience level could dampen Alpha's enthusiasm for work.

Brava: This puppy is markedly different from Alpha: She is extreme on most dimensions, has powerful drives, is energetic, and is enthusiastic. Combined with her lack of hardness and high sensitivity, Brava is a special dog who requires special handling. Brava has the food drives required for tracking, but her hectic tendencies makes it likely that she will have problems in this area. In obedience, a motivational dog trainer would love this dog; she has everything it takes to be a top-notch, flashy, intense competitor, although she may lack the reliable performance that Alpha can deliver. In protection, Brava has the confidence, drives, and energy to make her an excellent working dog; at the same time, her hectic tendencies will probably result in problems with the grip.

A puppy like Brava is often the standout in the litter—the puppy that everyone wants—but she can also be a difficult dog to place appropriately. A heavy-handed trainer would ruin Brava due to this puppy's softness, high sensitivity, and lack of ability to recover from stress. An inexperienced handler probably would be frustrated by her intensity, sensitivity, and poor recovery from stress, resulting in a poor training outcome.

Alison and Barbara are potential matches for Brava. Both enjoy and appreciate a high-energy dog, with flashy obedience and high willingness to please. However, Brava's poor tracking potential and her hectic behavior might put off both handlers. Alternatively, Brava could be placed in an experienced agility or obedience home with a handler who is content to fail occasionally due to Brava's over enthusiasm, in exchange for the potential of world-class performances.

Cudos:  Cudos is calm and willing to please; he shows moderate drives for work. Cudos lacks hardness and persistence, and shows poor ability to recover from stress; thus, he is not a good choice for a heavy-handed trainer. These same traits could hinder Cudos in protection as well. Cudos's social nature and middle-of-the-road temperament make him an excellent potential family dog. Cudos's food drives and moderately calm nature make him a good tracking dog. With motivational training methods, his drives, willingness to please, and moderate energy can be harnessed into a pretty obedience picture.

Erin and Claire would both be potential matches for Cudos. Both of them value a good family pet with high trainability; both would like to compete on a small scale. Although they enjoy protection sports, they will be content if Cudos's moderate softness and drives, and his lack of ability to recover from stress, prevent him from excelling in this arena. Erin's modest use of force in training may create a flatter and more accurate picture, which is acceptable. Claire uses more motivational methods, which should yield the flashier picture she would like to see.

Delta: This dog is fun: She is enthusiastic, possesses reasonably high drives, and has an outgoing, confident nature. Combined with her willingness to please, moderately calm disposition, and lack of hardness, she makes an excellent choice for either a beginner or an experienced trainer who uses low-compulsion training methods. Delta would also make a pleasant family dog who would be easy to live with and who would accept training in basic manners. Her moderate persistence and calmness, combined with good food drive, make her a good potential tracking dog. Delta's obedience would tend toward flashy and enthusiastic, unless harsh training methods dampened her confidence. In protection, Delta possesses the high fight drive and high confidence level to be successful, but her tendency toward hectic behavior and lack of hardness could create problems if she were pushed too hard.

Alison, Claire, and Frank would all be good choices for this dog. All of them prefer dogs with high energy and strong personalities, and all are relatively motivational trainers who appreciate a spirited performance and are not likely to crush a dog who has a soft temperament. Delta also would have the opportunity to be a family dog - a role that would fit her well.

Echo: This puppy's medium to medium-high scores on willingness to please, confidence, sociability, calmness, hardness, and ability to recover from stress all suggest a puppy who is calm, stable, and easy to train for handlers of varying levels of experience. He can handle both motivational and compulsion-based training, due to his willingness to please and medium high hardness and ability to recover from stress. His calm disposition and willingness to please make a good family dog in the sense that he will be easy to live with and to teach basic manners. His medium-high food drive and persistence combined with medium calmness lead to good tracking potential; at the same time, he has enough energy and willingness to please to deliver an enthusiastic obedience routine. In protection, Echo shows potential as a strong dog due to medium-high fight drive and few hectic tendencies. A training plan designed to build his confidence, combined with his natural working traits, could produce a strong protection dog.

Echo would be well suited a number of our potential handlers; the best matches would be with Claire, Daisy, or Frank. All these people appreciate moderate levels of calmness, and all use training methods likely to build confidence, potentially raising Echo to a high-level competition dog. With the exception of Hank and Greg (for whom Echo is not hard enough and with whom he might develop confidence issues), all the remaining handlers probably would do well with Echo.

Foxtrot: Foxtrot shows high drives, confidence, and willingness to work. Combined with sufficient hardness and ability to recover from stress, Foxtrot has the potential to be an excellent working dog in all phases. In protection, he has the drives and confidence to excel if he is trained with an eye toward mitigating his moderately hectic nature. These same qualities lend themselves to a flashy, intense, and accurate performance in obedience. In tracking, his high food drive and persistence give Foxtrot the potential to do well; his hardness allows for correction on the track if he lacks calm tracking behavior. Foxtrot's combination of high confidence, high drives, and low sociability can become a problem if he also displays dominant or aggressive behaviors as an adult: Low tolerance for strangers and children is a possibility.

As a result of his low sociability and high drives, it would be unwise to place Foxtrot in a household that includes small children or is otherwise busy. Foxtrot will do best in a structured situation with an experienced handler who can foresee (and head off) potential problems. Barbara is the best choice for Foxtrot; she does not have an active household, has sufficient experience to handle his drives, and appreciates a high energy, intense dog.

Gopher: Gopher is calm, willing to please, and shows moderate drives for work, but she lacks confidence, sociability, and overall persistence. Gopher is not a good choice for protection work above the lower levels of the sport. She could do well in obedience based on her higher scores in willingness to please, her sufficient food and fight drives, and her above-average hardness. In tracking, her good food drive and willingness to please make her competent, but her lack of persistence will lead to difficulties in trials outside her normal training routine. Gopher's relative hardness and ability to recover from stress make her well suited to a beginner handler who has low aspirations and can accept the dog's shortcomings. Gopher would make a good family pet, as her calm disposition and willingness to please make her easy to train in basic manners. Overly rambunctious households should be avoided, however, as Gopher lacks the confidence and sociability to enjoy chaos.

Either Claire or Frank would be good choices for Gopher. Both are relatively novice handlers who appreciate a good family dog, and who want to use primarily motivational methods in their training. Gopher possesses enough drives and enthusiasm to provide them with a potentially fun and happy working dog, especially if more motivational training methods are used. Most important, Claire and Frank can make Gopher feel appreciated and respected; with such treatment, Gopher's confidence levels and sociability are likely to increase.

Hopi: This puppy's medium scores on willingness to please, confidence, and sociability; medium-high scores on ability to recover from stress and hardness; and high drives suggest that Hopi is stable and is not difficult to train in obedience and tracking. Hopi should make a strong protection dog; he is moderately confident and should have training designed to build his confidence. Hopi does tend toward hectic behavior, however, so he should be matched with a more experienced trainer who can use his strong drives and desire to work to minimize his hectic behavior and to maximize his confidence. Hopi can handle both motivational and compulsion-based training systems, due to his willingness to please, hardness, and ability to recover from stress. In obedience, his drives and energy should lead to a potentially flashy and fun working dog. In tracking, his high food drive and calm disposition allow him to excel. Hopi should be matched with an intermediate to experienced handler to prevent his hardness and drives from allowing him to take advantage, and to ensure a calm protection routine.

Hopi would be suited to our moderately experienced potential handlers; the best matches would be Daisy or Erin. Both of these individuals appreciate moderately high levels of calmness and both use training methods likely to build Hopi's confidence, potentially raising him to a high-level competition dog.

Results Tables

Dog Handler
Alpha Greg or Hank
Brava Alison or Barbara
Cudos Erin or Claire
Delta Alison, Claire or Frank
Echo Claire, Daisy or Frank
Foxtrot Barbara
Gopher Claire or Frank
Hopi Daisy or Erin


Final Analysis
Dog Handler
Alpha Greg
Cudos Erin
Delta Alison
Echo Claire
Foxtrot Barbara
Gopher Frank
Hopi Daisy

The Matches

Alpha is placed with Greg. Alpha is the clear choice for Greg's style of training and expectations. Hank, therefore, is left without a puppy on the matchmaking for these litters. He may go to another breeder, or wait for another litter from this breeder.

Foxtrot is placed with Barbara. The match is strong and there are no alternatives for him.

Cudos is placed with Erin. The choices for Erin were Cudos and Hopi; I determined that Hopi was unlikely to reach his full potential with Erin, and Cudos would do well in the family environment that Erin provides.

Hopi is placed with Daisy. Daisy provides an excellent match and a competition home. In addition, there are no other good choices for Hopi.

Delta is placed with Alison. Delta offers the potential to be an excellent working dog, and Alison has the skill to bring out top performance and the motivation to showcase the dog in competition. Delta's talent might have been wasted with alternative handlers.

Echo is placed with Claire. Some of his potential may not be realized with this match, but Claire will enjoy Echo, and the alternative handler (Frank) is even less auspicious due to Frank's relative lack of training experience.

Gopher is placed with her best match, Frank.

Brava is odd girl out. Because her two potential handlers, Alison and Barbara, both matched to better choices, Brava—our initial pick of the litter—turns out to be the puppy left with the breeder when all the other puppies are placed.


Systematically matching puppies to handlers increases the likelihood that the puppies will thrive under the training they receive, and that the handlers will enjoy the training process. A positive training relationship builds mutual trust and respect between a dog and his handler—a prerequisite for truly excellent training results.

In some cases, the breeder will place a dog with a handler who is not qualified to bring out the true potential of the dog, but who matches sufficiently that the bond between handler and dog will still take place, such that each will enjoy the other. In this circumstance, the breeder loses out. In other cases, the handler will be matched with a dog that does not meet all her expectations; if the handler and breeder determine that the match is not close enough to allow the proper training bond to develop, then the handler is better off waiting for another puppy.

Although we must recognize that no perfect match exists, and that we must expect to compromise, we should strive to ensure that our compromises are such that the handler will accept them and will still love and respect her dog.

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