The term Working Dogs and Dogs from Working Breeds does not always have the same meaning
There is often a tendency to not understand the difference between working dogs and dogs from working dog breeds. This article is written in the hope of shedding some light on the situation. We will start with a bit of background on the breeding of dogs, and how genetics and environment affect what a dog will or can become. The genetic difference between a Chihuahua and a German shepherd is around four tenths of a percent. However that small difference manifest’s itself as a massive difference in terms of size, behavior, temperament, trainability, health, life span and capability. Dogs when bred pass on a host of characteristics from the bloodlines of both parents. These characteristics govern not only appearance, but also temperament, health, behavior, and capabilities. The traits that are passed on are not purely from the parents, but are passed on from the ancestral line of a dog. Various traits can appear or disappear depending on combinations of recessive or dominant genes that are carried by the parents. A dissertation on genetics is well beyond the scope of this article. However, dominant genes, and recessive genes determine traits in a dog. The latter, which may carry either desirable or undesirable characteristics, can manifest when both parents have a recessive gene that effectively becomes dominant in their offspring. A dominant gene is likely to show up very quickly in offspring, and the existence of a dominant gene in both parents will potentially enhance a given characteristic whether good or bad. Dogs more than humans come with a fair amount of “embedded software” in the form of instincts. These are behaviors that a dog does not need to learn, it already knows them. This is simplified terms is what causes certain breeds to excel in hunting, tracking or protection work . The dog though is not a product of natural evolution, but is a domestic animal that has been bred by man. The dog may have evolved from wolf origins but has branched into many breeds. Some breeds are the result of reasonable scientific breeding with the intent of enhancing certain behavioral characteristics and capabilities; other breeds are the result of intent to create a specific appearance. Our area of interest is working dogs, and hence working breeds. The best breeders we have seen treat breeding more as an art than a pure science. We have met many people who assumed that breeding two working dogs from the same breed, especially if their pedigree’s appeared to be good would result in excellent offspring. They have often been very disappointed with the results. Many breeders do a fair amount of research, and look at the competition results and behavior characteristics of various dogs in the lines that their dogs come from. While useful this too does not always guarantee a positive result. The best breeders we have met actually know the lines and dogs involved going back 4 or 5 generations. There were many cases where we thought a specific ancestral dog was very impressive based on competition results, only to hear a well-versed breeder say, “I remember that dog in a competition in Belgium, he was very afraid of loud noises, and his trainer was good enough to force him to ignore the noises.” Or “I knew that dog well, he performed very well in competition, but was extremely aggressive and unfriendly even towards his handler. The handler needed to really keep the dog in check.” As basic characteristics the two examples above would not be desirable traits to pass to descendents. The dogs were the result of training not breeding. A really good breeder knows the dogs in the line from each side of a prospective set of parents. The breeder considers the characteristics of the dogs in the line, and attempts to breed to enhance desirable characteristics based on this knowledge. There have been some notable successes but this is no easy task. It requires attempting to chart the passage of certain traits through a series of generations and to ascertain whether these traits are dominant and in certain combinations will continue to pass to progeny. This is where a reasonable knowledge of genetics is critical. Notwithstanding the need for this knowledge, the amount of research available on genetics and trait passage in specific breeds is very limited indeed. It is still important to differentiate between dogs descended from a well-trained dog with undesirable traits, and a dog with innate desirable traits. We have seen quite a few dogs that had excellent characteristics but poor training. They produced very good offspring. There are a number of breeds classified as working dogs. This does not automatically mean that the dog is capable of being a working dog in the sense of sports or protection. The German Shepherd, The Malinois, The Doberman, The Rottweiler, and most other working breeds have both show line dogs and actual working dogs. Show line dogs are bred for appearance and conformity to certain appearance standards. These objectives are set above everything else. The popularity of show line dogs is indisputable. The dogs however have by breeding become very different from their pure working line cousins. Many of the traits that make a given breed desirable for protection, agility or sports work have been reduced or have disappeared entirely in show dogs. We have seen many people who have purchased a show line German Shepherd and then expected that it could be trained for IPO/Schutzhund or other protection sports. Sometimes it works, but more often than not disappointment is the final result. A show line dog is generally the absolute manifestation of what it was bred for, appearance! The fact that it is a working breed does not mean it is a working dog. Working dogs are generally bred to produce certain working characteristics. This may include obedience, bite and grip, prey drive, tracking, general temperament, retrieves and a variety of other desirable traits. With a good working dog the appearance is always secondary to the capabilities of the dog. I use the word appearance because it is different from structure and health. In a good working dog physical structure and health are absolutely critical. These criteria would and should apply to show line dogs as well, but do to the amount of inbreeding that has occurred to produce a given look, health has often suffered. As stated earlier breeding working line dogs of the same breed guarantees nothing. Attempts have been made to breed working line dogs with show line dogs to enhance appearance. These have generally failed. Daneskjold Kennels in Denmark is well known for producing very excellent working Malinois. Their website tells an interesting story of their early breeding attempts to make show dogs into working dogs, and to cross show lines with working lines. The results were quite dismal. They eventually got their formula right with the help of a well-established kennel in the Netherlands. What we see today is first class. There are occasions where a show dog is introduced into a working line to refresh the bloodline, or improve appearance. This is often then diluted in successive generations before the offspring are considered up to working dog standards. It is a long process of questionable benefit unless the available gene pool of working line dogs is very limited. Up to this point we have dealt with breeding and the traits that may result. These traits are useful because they have a major impact on the trainability of a dog. A dog that lacks certain drives or traits may still be trainable, especially by a good trainer. A dog that has been bred for certain desirable traits and characteristics is much easier to train, and the results are almost always better. In absolute terms some dogs are not trainable at all in certain areas. If we return to the example of the Chihuahua and the German Shepherd, the physical differences alone preclude the Chihuahua from achieving many of the feats that a German Shepherd is capable of. There are however many show line German Shepherds that are also incapable by temperament and drive of being trained to do what a working line dog can do. We have talked about breeding, and how it can produce the raw material that an owner or trainer can utilize to have a dog that meets their needs. Breeding is a critical foundation. The traits and instincts that are passed on through good breeding are very important. However, even the best raw material is only as good as the training that is applied. The environment that a dog grows up in will have a major impact on how the dog behaves and what the dog learns and is consequently capable of learning. In this sense early conditioning should never be underestimated. Exposure to various environments, people, and a broad range of experiences serve to condition a dog and its responses. Some of the responses are governed by how the dog see’s the world. In training it is always necessary to remember that a dog is a dog. It sounds trite, but it is very true. A dog is governed by its instincts and mental limits; it views its world very differently than a human being views theirs. Most top trainers understand this. They realize that they can understand how their dog thinks, and why it behaves as it does, the dog can never really understand why a person thinks and acts as he or she does. With a solid environment, and a good training regime a real working dog can be developed. These types of dogs can be excellent companions in the home or at work. To emphasize again though the development of a working dog is dependent on the dog actually having the capabilities to be a working dog, it is not universal to all dogs or all breeds. It is important to remember that a dog will always be a combination of the traits it has inherited from its ancestors. It is also important to remember that it will often equally be a result of its environment and it’s training. The traits that a dog inherits through breeding will completely impact how the dog will gain its experiences and what type of training it will be capable of absorbing. Where a dog may be from a working breed but is not a working dog the abilities may be more limited than one expects.