Working Dog vs. Family Companion

Working dog vs. Family companion

Seeuferhause Rottweilers has been in existence for about 4 years now. My involvement with Rottweilers goes back more than 20 years.

In the short time that I have been breeding Rottweilers my focus has been to produce hard/driven working dogs. As a total contradiction probably 90% of the dogs I breed end up in normal homes as family companions.
So, in just one sentence I have managed to mention two reference terms that when you try to explain to someone what it means, can result in a debate that would last for hours; who am I kidding, it has been going on for decades and will continue to do so forever!!

You see, everybody has a different opinion of what a working dog is. Even in my short time as a breeder I have had many discussions with everyday people, correctional facilities, federal police, private security personnel and even the same types from overseas and every time the specification is different. High prey, thick nerve, strong aggression, active aggression, defence drive, extreme prey, social dominance, submissive traits, nervous/shy etc. The list of adjectives goes on and on…..and no 2 people can agree… and if they do they are generally close associates and for good reason.

Given the level of disparity and discontent in the dog world all I can hope to do is accurately capture my views of the world and post them on my webpage for all to see, discuss/debate and then of course do what always happens; DISAGREE!! No drama, I am happy to merely stimulate discussion.

As mentioned earlier my primary focus is to breed high performance working Rottweilers. This is not because there is a high commercial demand for them that will make me rich nor because the various law enforcement agencies have placed orders for 00’s of them – it is, simply because I like this type of dog. And, I know that many more people out there like them too. Now, when I go on to describe what my view of a good working dog is, I’m sure many individuals will be disappointed or even horrified – and they may even suggest that my views are antisocial – guess what? If you don’t like it, don’t buy it!! And if you feel that Rottweilers should not be like this, or even German Shepherds, Doberman’s, Malinois etc, then buy a dog that wasn’t conceived to have these instinctive traits. I’ll jump off this topic as I could go on forever but this is not the place for social commentary – if anyone wants to have this discussion please feel free to call me.

First I would like to discuss what in my view makes for a potential working dog vs. a family companion, then why both can be a product of any breeding program and to what degree.

When I look at a dog especially one classified as a working breed I look for what behavioural tendencies exist. When someone concerned with the show ring looks at a dog they tend to focus primarily on the physical form of the animal. The ideal is somewhere in the middle; the physical must provide the functional aspects of the animal and the temperament or character the behavioural. Very much the same as a successful sports person or business person; there are physical functions and there is the mental aspect. One thing that cannot be disputed when it comes to achievement in any field is the overriding importance of the mental to accomplish the physical – let me say it again, mind over matter!!!

Why if the mental is paramount do we (society) overlook it for the spectacle of the physical??? Again this social commentary is for another time…. I think because it is much easier to create & analyse the physical and because as people, by nature we are attracted to beauty we tend to migrate in larger numbers to the physical aspects. Now I am going to become unpopular with the show ring people of all breeds not just rottweilers; to critique and evaluate the physical to a predetermined standard is easy (in my view) as opposed to trying to evaluate and critique the more intangible elements of one’s temperament.

Just like people, through good training, skilled trainers can mask behavioural characteristics which if left untapped will influence future generations; good or bad! It takes time and effort to educate oneself to a level of being able to evaluate temperament – people just don’t understand it!

This brings me to words mentioned earlier “instinctive traits” – in my view this is the most critical aspect of evaluating the difference between potential working dogs and normal dogs. It is my firm belief that given the appropriate training program and the appropriate circumstances/environment a dog can be made to look like what it really is not. This is why a dog’s instinctive reactions are more important than learned ones.

So when we look to evaluate the breeding stock (especially if we are not intimately familiar with them from infancy) we need to see them in foreign environments and doings things that are foreign to them to avoid seeing learned behaviours.

When I look at a litter of puppies at 7 weeks old, these instinctive traits are very evident and they are the difference. Generally what we see at 7 weeks is what the dog is without the outside influence of environment, people, training, other dogs etc. Just like people; we are different at 10 to 20 to 30 to 40 and on, because of our experiences, positive or negative. We either prosper from them or they affect us in ways that stifle us.
The basic instinctive traits that I look for in potential working dogs are as follows:

• Self confidence
• High level of prey or chase drive
• Inquisitiveness
• A desire to pick things up with their mouth
• A full hard grip
• A positive reaction to pain combined with a high pain threshold
• Social dominance/confidence

The various manifestations of these traits are a discussion all of their own – we’ll leave that for another time. All of the above can be formally tested using methods known as Campbell, Volhard etc. These methods are strict laboratory type methods that are conducted at specific ages and look for specific responses. Whilst I am not for or against, I prefer to take some items from these methods, such as the use of a strange person to test certain exercises, and then make judgements on puppies over the entire 7 week period. As a breeder I have the privilege of seeing the pups on a daily basis for hours at a time, I would argue with anyone this gives a deeper insight into the temperament or character of the puppy than a 5 minute test, on a day when the pup might be “off or on” for one reason or other.

Any and all testing methods / temperament evaluators will agree on one thing; all of the above characteristics are present to some degree in all dogs. Just like all characteristics synonymous with humans are present in all humans to varying degrees. Hang on….does that mean that both working dogs and family companions contain the same characteristics but in varying degrees – that’s right!!! They are one in the same in terms of genetic make-up or DNA; but some animals express the behaviours associated with certain genes in a much stronger form.

A good friend and fellow working dog breeder (Kris Kotsopoulos – Von Forell Kennels) once said, “To produce sufficient we must breed from extremes” so, with that in mind we must select the extreme for our breeding program. A look at the Seeuferhause web pages will confirm that we try to breed from the extreme. Irrespective of the extremes that we use in our program the laws of nature dictate that a certain percentage won’t express the behaviours that we are looking for, to the level that we are looking for in terms of working ability. By nature, the characteristics that we try to eliminate for working dogs such as shyness, thin nerves, fear, extreme sharpness/defence etc, are the same characteristics that should be avoided in family companions. Equally, those such as self confidence, inquisitiveness, and high pain threshold are also desirable traits for family companions.

Careful attention to the selection traits mentioned above will allow us to ascertain the varying levels of each present in the individual and therefore allow breeders to make the correct decisions as to the suitability of the animal for the prospective purchaser. A breeder cannot underestimate the importance of their role in ensuring the correct puppy is placed with the appropriate owner. Unfortunately, running a dog in the show ring does not adequately demonstrate the full character of the dog, the only way to do this is to submit the dog to physical actions that will adequately stress the dog in the varying instinctive traits listed above and note the reactions. My preference for this physical activity that will allow for such evaluation is the sport of schutzhund. This sport utilises 3 physical phases of activity, tracking, obedience and character assessment (protection) to mentally stress the animal to ascertain their instinctive reactions. Much like, in most martial arts when the student is taking his/her black belt examination, they must spar against numerous opponents to ensure they are physically tired and then continue to present further opponents to ascertain their form/technique when under stress. Running a dog in the show ring does have its purpose. If done correctly, the physical stress will show weaknesses in the conformation that may be hidden when the dog feels strong and on flip side will show that dog that is genetically stronger in conformation.

Really at the end of the day it’s about knowing the animals and understanding what makes them the individuals that they are. As breeders we have responsibilities that if we do not take measures to actively know our dogs we are failing the community at large. It’s not about how many litters a breeder has in a year, decade or lifetime; it’s about knowledge and comprehension of a dog’s character. In saying this, my firm belief is that until a breeder breeds a sufficient number of litters they cannot know what their dog’s genetic capability is. One or two litters a year just does not cut it – ask any geneticist the impact to overall results over a prolonged period of time that qty + quality makes!! I appeal to breeders to overcome the “puppy farm” stigma and ensure that they thoroughly test their breeding stocks capability to produce in the various combinations that are available to them. The failure of breeders to understand what they are producing through a lack of knowledge with regards to these “instinctive traits” is what causes the hysteria that is prevalent in society today and what makes the “working” breeds antisocial.

Our tendency to anthropomorphism and seeing dogs in an emotional vane, humanistic in nature is what has led to the dilution of these once great breed of dogs. These dogs were bred to fulfil a purpose; selective breeding by individuals not true to the nature of the original owners of these dogs has led to a marked difference on the temperament of the modern Rottweiler. This has also been accompanied by social/political pressure that people find easier to accept than debate. We don’t have time to do this, it just doesn’t rate high on our list of priorities and as such we unknowingly allow the heritage and identity of this great breed to rapidly drift away. Can you imagine a large, physically powerful Rottweiler that cowers at the sharp sound of a car backfiring – how will this be prevented if we do not test for it??

Whether you are looking for a working dog or family companion be sure to do one thing – ask your breeder how they test their breeding stock and puppies for these very important genetic instinctive traits, if they cannot demonstrate this and give you an accurate and precise account of their dogs, find another breeder that really knows what they are doing.

Laurie Boutzetis
Seeuferhause Rottweilers
31st Jan 2010