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How To Choose The Right Breed

Work drive vs. Biddability

     
 

As a professional dog trainer, I consider it my task to work with both the dog and the human components of the partnership.  Although my husband and I put quite a bit of time, energy and heart into rehabilitating and training dogs, a dog’s behavior is ultimately a reflection of its relationship with its people.  Therefore, there’s really no such thing as a “trained dog” or even a “good” dog.  If the dog’s owner doesn’t receive an education on how to maintain a dog’s psychological and social balance and then achieve those goals, the dog may revert to the same, naughty behavior that it presented prior to our training.

Unfortunately, when dealing with people and their dogs, I often encounter what I consider a serious mismatch.  As everyone has experienced at some point in their life, we don’t all get along with everyone.  There are people who have personality types that just grate on our nerves.  And, there are folks with whom we feel comfortable sharing our lives and ourselves, intimately.  Dog breeds were designed for a myriad of different occupations; some of which require strong, tenacious, stubborn determination and others that demand the dog to have a softer side or the desire to partner with a human.  Selecting the wrong breed type for one’s lifestyle can result in a decade or more of torment – much like a bad marriage.  While, choosing the right breed can result in what some people consider a match made in heaven.

Domestic dog is a very unique species; created by man for man, and at times, in man’s image.  The unusual genetic diversity of wild wolves has been utilized to create incredible extremes in body style and shape, coat length and type, ear set, color, and of course, size in our domestic dogs.  But, truly the most important criterion that should be explored very early in the selection process for a new companion has nothing to do with its appearance.  One should commit sufficient time to understanding the type of work for which the dog was originally bred.  The answer to that question will provide insight in the dog’s character; what makes him tick, what lifestyle he will require to be happy and comfortable in his own skin and in your home.  It will reveal his character and temperament, his mental capacities and his mindset.  It will define his body, and how he will use it.  Most importantly, it will provide essential information on how much or little he needs to partner with his humans to feel fulfilled.  It will convey what sort of leader he will need his owner to be.  That is the crucial part because it will shed light on whether a dog’s owner will feel comfortable living with the dog while maintaining his normal lifestyle.

Choosing A Breed

To assess which breed is right for you, it is important to examine your own lifestyle, first.  How much do you want to work at keeping your new dog happy and healthy, mentally and physically?  Some breeds have very high standards for their humans and will require a significant amount of time simply to keep the dog mentally content and physically fit.  Others are satisfied just knowing where the food and water bowls are and recognizing that they have a soft place to sleep, demanding little in the way of partnership.

One way to examine a breed against your lifestyle is to look at two very important selection criteria that were used when it was developed.  In order to perform the job for which it was originally bred, the breed has ended up with a unique combination of biddability versus work drive.   The combination of those two qualities can provide a good measurement of the breed’s character and define the resources that it may require from the owner, as its leader and companion.

Biddability is a willingness to do what is asked.  It is a demonstration of obedience; tractability; docility; submission.  Dogs with a high level of biddability ache to partner with their humans.  They are not fulfilled without being given the chance to please their owners.  The work for which these breeds were originally designed tends to be that which demands cooperation with a human, rather than autonomous effort.  These dogs can be a challenge to keep because they expect something of their owners that exceeds basic maintenance like food, water and exercise.  They anticipate being engaged with their owners for some part of each day, or they become quite unhappy.

Prey or work drive is a desire to pursue quarry or the challenge of a job.  Some breeds have been designed with a high prey or work drive. Dogs with a strong prey drive tend to be willing to trail or chase moving objects like toys or small animals.  Breeds that are known for hunting tend to have high prey drive.  However, herding dogs (that do not actually hunt & kill, but rather contain and control their charges) also fall into this category.  The working breeds, like the Doberman Pincher, Newfoundland or Rottweiler may also be categorized as having high work drive.  Dogs with high prey or work drive are often very good at games like retrieving or tug-of-war which can be motivators or rewards for other activities like schutzhund, tracking, obedience training or agility.  On the contrary, some breeds have been designed with little or no prey drive in order to be successful at the jobs for which they were intended.  These include the guardian breeds.

In general (with many exceptions), breeds fall into one of four quadrants that are defined by the amount of prey or work drive versus the amount of biddability or need to please a human partner.   Understanding where your desired breed falls will help you realize how much leadership / management / daily maintenance your dog will need from you.  If your personality type isn’t suited for the level of leadership your “perfect” breed really needs or if you have higher expectations for partnership than your desired breed may be able to offer, you may want to rethink your decision.  Hopefully, you will have your dog for 12 or more years.  So, making a good assessment before you acquire your new puppy can have an impact on the next decade or more of your life!

 

 
 

 
     
 

Low Prey Drive / Low Biddability

Breeds that fall into the low prey drive and low desire to please quadrant tend to be fairly easy keepers.  They do not want to kill your cat or chase children on bicycles and they are not all that concerned about how much effort you can contribute to being their leader.   There are massive breeds and diminutive breeds that fall into this category.  The livestock guardian breeds, like the Great Pyrenees, have little desire to chase after small animals.  Instead, they take ownership of them and guard them from outside threats.  A Great Pyrenees that presents with too much prey drive could end up chasing and even killing the baby lambs that it was designed to defend.  This is the difference between guarding work and prey-driven tasks (such as hunting).  The livestock guardian breeds have a good work ethic, but it will not be displayed as a willingness to partner and do activities with humans.  They are not highly biddable, preferring to work autonomously.  Also in the low prey drive / low need to please category are some of the toy breeds.   The Pekingese, for example, is a fairly independent breed that has little need to please its owner, but also does not have a high prey drive.

High Prey Drive / Low Biddability

Scent hounds, Sight hounds and Terriers tend to fall into the category defined by high prey drive but low biddability.  They can perform the jobs for which they were originally designed without much intervention or guidance from their human leader.  When a Beagle gets onto the trail of a rabbit, he does not turn back to his human and say, “Hey, I have found a rabbit trail, shall I follow it for you, Master?”.  No, the Beagle simply follows the trail.  He can feel the full sense of happiness doing the job for which he was bred with little or no assistance from his human.  Low biddability does not imply that the dogs do not enjoy human companionship.  But, these breeds do not have high demands for their owner’s capacity to lead.  Dogs in this category are often considered stubborn, but in fact, they simply do not need to please their humans to feel good about themselves.  So, it takes a certain personality to love these breeds.  The hounds tend to make exceptional companions for people who enjoy the company of a dog but who do not have a lot of time for sophisticated training.  They need proper management (hounds should have the freedom to run and explore in a well fenced area), but do not place huge demands on their owners for training or daily mental exercises.   Terriers have the tenacity and willful spirit that is highly entertaining until their owners expect them to do something other than what they choose to do! This is not to say that all breeds do not benefit from clear boundaries and limits for their behavior and require appropriate training and exercise for their size and activity level.  However, to take on the challenge of changing a terrier’s view on life may require more resolve than the dog possesses, itself, which can be quite taxing for some people, and nearly impossible for others.

Low Prey Drive / High Biddability

Breeds with high biddability but low prey or work drive typically make wonderful companions and entertaining pets.  These dogs do not have a need to do highly sophisticated jobs, but they have very high affinity for their humans.  They are usually easy to train.  They need people.  They do not need a high powered job to be happy, but they do enjoy partnering with their humans towards some type of goal.  Many breeds that were originally designed for a fairly challenging job, but have been bred for decades as show dogs or pets, often fall into this category.   The Collie and the Golden Retriever come to mind.  Many individuals of these breeds no longer herd or hunt, but instead have been bred as companion animals.  Selective breeding as companion animals (only) has resulted in a lower prey or work drive than the breed originally required, yet their desire to please remains high.  Many Toy breeds also fall into this category, as they have often been bred as companions for centuries, without selection for work that would require high prey drive. A breed with a low prey drive and high biddability may be just the right dog for someone who does not want to have to work hard to provide her pet with a hobby, but who enjoys a dog that wants to interact.

High Prey or Work Drive / High Biddability

The dogs that top the scale in both working / prey drive and need to please are usually intelligent breeds that still perform the job for which they were bred, or an off-shoot of that work.  Many herding and working breeds are in this quadrant.  While, intelligence and biddability are often criteria that people believe they want in their pet dog, the combination can results in a dog that is needier of both mental and physical exercise than most people truly can dedicate to their pet dog.  These breeds have high expectations of impeccable leadership from their owners.  Their original work was often dangerous and required trust in a highly competent leader.  For example, a herding dog cannot perform the job for which it was bred without a human partner.  Herding work can be life threatening, especially when dealing with mama cows and calves or ewes with lambs.  If the shepherd errors and gives the dog the wrong command at a critical time, the dog could be killed.  So, these breeds often have the capacity for intelligent disobedience, while maintaining a high level of compliance in all other situations.  This requires a highly sophisticated canine mind; something that may be more than an average dog owner truly wants to handle.   A dog with a strong work drive and high biddability will make an excellent companion for someone who wants to pursue an interactive sport, such as Agility, Search & Rescue or who may use the dog for its original intended purpose like herding.  But, it will feel lost without sound and fair leadership, so the task of owning such a breed may be daunting to many.

Making The Final Decision

When I ask my clients why they chose the breed they did, the most common response is that they knew a friend who had one and they liked that dog so well, that they wanted one just like it.  However, they did not analyze their daily life versus the dog owner’s lifestyle.  A happy and content dog is typically also well behaved.  An unhappy, unfulfilled dog often acts out and can be very destructive.  To be successful at selecting the right dog, it is important for a new dog owner to choose a breed that will be content living within the confines of her existing lifestyle, and more importantly her leadership style. 

To make a successful match:

Determine your expectations for relating with and managing the dog, first.  Do not consider specific breeds at this time.  Simply define your anticipated daily interactions with the dog.   Do you want to train the dog to be the next Agility Super Star (attending classes three times a week and practicing an hour each night) or do simply want a buddy that you can take on daily walks and who will, otherwise, enjoy laying at your feet?

Then, identify the quadrant(s) from which your perfect companion will come.   If you are interested in a specific breed, research it versus your quadrant(s) by reading the breed standard, exploring the breed’s history, or speaking to reputable breeders who can answer your questions about its history, typical prey or work drive and biddability or willingness to please.  Ask what sorts of activities and daily maintenance will keep the dog happy and mentally healthy.  It the breed fits your expectations, then you are ready to begin researching all the avenues to acquire a new dog or puppy.  But, it if does not meet your needs, then move on.  There are hundreds of breeds, all with unique characters, work styles and needs for human leadership. 

Acquiring a new puppy is a very big decision and one that should not be made lightly, nor based on inadequate selection  criteria.  Your dog’s behavior will be a direct reflection of his psychological well-being which is directly related to how he feels about your leadership and management.  A breed that is “good’ for one individual is a horror for another.  Taking the time to truly understand what you want and how you can get it will be worth every moment spent in the pursuit of your next, best friend.

 

 
     
     
  © 2007  Tammie Rogers - all rights reserved.   For permission to reprint email Tammie.  
     
 

 

 
 

 

 

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