SHOW DOGS AND WORKING DOGS:
FACT AND FICTION

Jim Engel 1997

As breeders we are often asked to compare the Bouvier des Flandres to other breeds, especially those of the protective heritage such as the German Shepherd, the Doberman or the Malinois. These protective heritage breeds are, or should be, relatively large, powerful dogs bred originally for dominant character and aggressive potential. Some potential owners have the impression that dogs of a herding background are in some ways less intense in character, and need to know that real herding stock, as opposed to pet or show dogs participating in amateur herding trials, generally have similar propensities and behavior characteristics. The best police style working dogs today are drawn directly from practical herding stock. The important fact is that most of the best of the protective heritage breeds, such as the German and Belgian shepherds and the Bouvier, are excellent precisely because their herding attributes have been adapted to their new functions.

The reality is that in all of these breeds, the difference between the working lines and the show lines is as or more important than the variation among the breeds themselves. As an example, the German Shepherds out of American lines are well known by serious trainers to be severely deficient in the confidence, enthusiasm for work and courage that were the hallmark of the breed, its very reason for existence and popularity. Even though the breed is often called a "police dog" it is very difficult to find a Shepherd from these American lines capable of actually serving in a police canine role or passing a Schutzhund trial, and they are not prominent at a competitive level in AKC style obedience. In stark contrast, the German Shepherds coming from European lines produce many individuals capable of being excellent working dogs, exhibiting trainability, willingness to work and confidence.

Most people find these statements counter to common sense, believe that since to the casual observer the dogs look more or less the same, the character and the adaptability for work or training must be more or less the same too. Show breeders tend to encourage this attitude, minimize the fact that the working potential of a dog is primarily determined by his genetic make up. Their pitch is that if you are going to put work into training you might just as well have a beautiful dog out of their champion lines, implying that genetic background is a secondary factor in training success. Less true words were never spoken, even by the sleaziest snake oil salesman.

To tell you the truth, I had to put my hand in the wound before I came to truly understand and believe. Years ago we bought a nice young German Shepherd male, basically because I had always had a fascination with "police" dogs and because Kathy wanted a better dog for obedience training. The dog came from a "show" breeder, as we had no idea of the distinction, and would not have believed it anyway.

Kathy decided to start the dog out on tracking, and being the really nice guy I became the chief criminal suspect, to be searched for in the fields and woods. Normal tracks became too boring, and the dog tended to go fast, so I took to trying to throw him off by taking big jumps to the side, doing acute turns, going over fences and through ditches and anything else I could think off. The only rules were that I could not cross over the track or walk on the rail across the ditch, because the dog would try and follow and slip off. The more I challenged that dog the better he liked it!

By the time Kathy got the "T" she decided to give me the dog and go off and buy the Bouvier she wanted in the first place. As an absolute novice, I started going along on obedience training night, and when I first took the dog to a big shepherd obedience specialty I came in third over all, won a big trophy, and thought it might have had something to do with my training, which turned out not to be true. Got the CD with a bunch of trophies, and shortly thereafter the dog died from Parvo, which we had never heard of, within twelve hours. Sad story.

Went looking for another Shepherd, looked into the "German lines" which were just beginning to be promoted, and decided it was bunk and went back to the original breeders for another dog. The new dog was much more expensive, had big time "show potential" and was indeed an impressive looking dog.

The problem was, you went to train him and nothing happened. In obedience on the recall he would kind of get up and amble toward you, he had no interest in tracking and basically was a mild mannered, laid back, fairly stupid dog. I mean, when he was in the Suburban with the doors open on one side and something of interest on the other, he could not figure out he could go out the back door! We were just looking into Schutzhund and the Bouvier, Tory, did fine, but the Shepherd would kind of bite like he was doing you a favor and could we please go home. The Shepherd people in the club got this kind of pained look on their face which I did not understand at the time, but to their credit said nothing negative about the dog.

The morale of the story? We started to look seriously into lines and found out that the first dog was mostly out of good recent German import lines, and the second dog was of the "best" American show lines, meaning he was bred incredibly tight on Lance of Franjo.

I learned another lesson from this that I have never forgotten. Why was a novice trainer able to come in third out of a hundred or so German Shepherds at a Shepherd Obedience club? This was a real mystery to me, for I knew I was a very ordinary beginner as a trainer, could see that there were much better trainers at our obedience club. It took me a long time to realize it, and even longer to believe it. But the fact was and is that they were working dogs out of American lines and that they were on the whole very poor dogs compared to what the Shepherd was intended to be and still is to a large extent in Germany. And this was an obedience comparison, for we had yet to venture forth to see the perverts at the local Schutzhund club. The situation today for the Bouvier is similar, the show lines are on the whole poor obedience and tracking prospects.

In reality the vast majority of dogs going into actual police service, regardless of breed, are imported or bred out of European working lines. The reasons for this are that, over all, such dogs are much more trainable and reliable than dogs out of show lines. The most fundamental truth of working dog breeding is that when working intensity and willingness is not incessantly a factor in the breeding decisions, it quickly withers.

My observation through the years is that fifteen to twenty five percent of the people looking for a dog are looking for some sort of protection or police image dog. The German Shepherd, for good reason, has always been the most popular, and the rise of the Rottweiler has gone hand in hand with the decline of the Doberman. Many people looking for a Bouvier fall into this category, and one of the questions I always ask a prospective client is what other breeds they are considering. If they do not mention a Shepherd or Giant Schnauzer I will bring these breeds up, and if they indicate that they do not want that type of dog, which is a perfectly reasonable preference, then my suggestion to them often is that they should perhaps not look for a Bouvier.

What does this mean to the typical companion dog owner? How should these facts influence the selection of a breeder and a puppy or adult dog? These are not trivial questions, and those thinking about acquiring such a dogs should make every effort to understand these issues before taking on the responsibility. Good dogs from such breeds are fairly expensive, but even more to the point, not so good dogs can in the long run be much more expensive. "Not so good" can mean that the dog and the family do not match, or simply that the dog does not turn out to be a good specimen of the particular breed.

If you have a strong propensity to prefer real working potential dogs, then you need to search out serious working lines, for the sad fact is that today breed names such as "German Shepherd" and "Bouvier des Flandres" mean practically nothing about the character of the dogs.

Thousands of people acquire and live with such dogs every year, and go on to enjoy a lifetime of satisfaction and pleasure. Some of us need a dog for work, some of us seek satisfaction in serious training and sport competition, and some of us just flat enjoy living with a dog who retains his ancestral character. But such dogs can demand discipline and training, can be a little more difficult to deal with. A smaller but still very significant number of people find dog ownership a disappointing and even unpleasant experience. Up front research and serious consideration before purchasing and training the dog is the most reliable route to a rewarding experience.

It has always seemed reasonable to me that a breed should mean something in terms of character as well as appearance, that the Malinois, Shepherds and Bouviers should fundamentally be bred as police and protection potential dogs. A great many people have always sought out such dogs as personal and family companions, and they should have a good expectation of seeing their pup grow up to fulfill such desires. There is enormous emphasis in police and sport training on control and reliability, and the dogs from such lines can in fact make excellent companions in the right home. Those who desire less intense dogs would be well advised look to the more companion oriented breeds rather than watered down versions of the service dogs.

The vast majority of the Bouvier des Flandres offered for sale are not in terms of character and drive working dogs, in spite of the reassurances of many breeders. On the whole they are perhaps not yet as deficient as the American Shepherds, but they are a long way down the dismal road. Most Bouviers coming out of show lines today, in Europe as well as America, are seriously deficient in the fundamental attributes of intelligence, working willingness, confidence and courage. They are this way for the same reason that the American Shepherds are so deficient, because they have been bred without regard for character, or often in fact selected for a low intensity character.

The fundamental difference between the Shepherds and the Bouviers is that the vast majority of German Shepherds coming from Europe are at some level out of working lines, in that in almost all instances they come out of dogs with Schutzhund titles on all the ancestors. ( It is true that the Shepherd people talk of working lines and show lines, but the discussion is on an entirely different level in that they are comparing dogs who get their Schutzhund III so that they can show and dogs who are bred specifically for high scores in working trials. )

Unfortunately, for the Bouvier just the opposite is true, the vast majority of imports are coming from lines with no more real commitment to working breeding than the American bred German Shepherds.

The next question is typically, what does all of this mean to me? I just want a nice dog for my family and certainly don't want any of my children's friends bitten. This is of course the critical question, and it deserves an honest answer. My general response is that thousands of good dogs from working Shepherd lines, and an unfortunately much smaller number of dogs from Bouvier working lines, function quite well in family situations, that most dogs from most working kennels can serve as good family dogs.

But in a certain way, this begs the question, for it is true that a number of people every year wind up with a dog which is too much for them to handle, or, more precisely, which they are for one reason or another unwilling to handle. And people do get bitten and very seriously injured. This is also true of the show lines, for although many breeders have watered their lines down, many of the dogs still have a propensity for dominance or dog aggression that can be quite difficult to deal with. Dogs lacking in the real courage and trainability necessary in a good working dog can still exhibit dominance and aggression and be serious behavior problems.

This is of course a negative situation for the dog owner, for the breeder and most importantly for the dog itself. Both potential owner and breeder need to work very hard to avoid such situations, and to establish the relationship that will help deal with it when it does arise. There are of course benefits beyond the obvious good will and good business in this for the breeder, for at this moment I am working a nice three year old male that for a variety of reasons was too dominant with the family of his previous owner. We were able to work out an arrangement for me to bring the dog back, and I in fact paid back a significant amount of money. The important thing here is that the dog was in excellent condition, the training that was done was under good guidance and the dog was not neutered. I have an excellent dog, my customer has some of his money back, and I may very well may have a future sale and perhaps even a future champion.

"Not neutered !" Do I hear groans among the right thinking canine establishment? Is this irresponsible? I don't think so. This dog was an excellent pup, and once he is neutered his potential value vastly diminishes, making the likelihood of finding a suitable situation for him much less. Every situation is different, but the decision to neuter is one that the breeder should, if possible, remain involved in, and perhaps point out that neutering closes some doors which down the road might be important.

We are all aware of the problem of unwanted dogs being dumped at humane societies, or just along the road, and unfortunately this happens to Bouviers all too often. How can the customer minimize the likelihood of such a tragic ending?

First, he needs to analyze his desires, what he wants from the dog, and what he is willing to commit in terms of training and effort. Dogs, especially big dogs originally bred to be aggressive and dominant, are not the right pet for everybody. Cats are in many ways a better choice for those who seek some companionship with easy care and convenience. Smaller dogs or the larger breeds such as the Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers can make excellent companion animals and be easier to train and discipline in a home situation.

In selecting a puppy for the prospective owner, it is very important for the breeder to match the temperament and potential of the pup with the real commitment of the customer. Some people are looking for a high power sport dog, and we do our best to supply what they want, and in turn expect the dedication and commitment necessary to train such a dog. We try to select the less intense or middle of the road pups for those whose primary interest is a companion.

One of the more difficult customers to deal with is the person who will go through an entire conversation describing a companion dog level of interest and then throw in at the end, "Oh by the way, make it a Schutzhund potential dog as I might want to do that too" like he was ordering the automatic transmission option. At this point you have to take a deep breath and start over, for a failure to communicate has just taken place. I am convinced that the most critical step to finding the pup the right home is real communication with the customer, who often has needs and desires which are in conflict and need to be resolved before the sale is made.

As breeders we have litters that we expect to be very intense, and will quite often try to defer a less committed person to another litter or refer them to another breeder. It is unpleasant to tell someone that you will not sell them a dog, but some people just need to be pointed in another direction. We are usually able to guide people in other directions, but on occasion will just never quite have the right dog available.

After the sale, it is most desirable to stay in contact with the customer. We are always available for training assistance, and have a group of people who train with us regularly, most of which have one or several of our dogs. (We also have one or two people with Bouviers from other breeders, and do not exclude anyone on the basis of the breed of their dog or where it came from.)

Those in the process of acquiring a Bouvier, or any of the other protective breeds, need to take a hard look at their fundamental motivations and act accordingly. If you really want a strong, trainable dog, then you need to look to the working lines, dogs with working ancestors as proven by working titles. If you buy a dog out of show champion lines and expect it to have working character then there is a very high probability that you are going to be disappointed.

My advice to people looking for serious sport dogs is generally to look to the closest working kennel with whom you can work, because they will know their lines and have the motivation and desire to help you succeed.

Jim Engel, Marengo    © Copyright 1997

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