If you want a dog for a specific purpose the place you are most likely to find it is from a strain bred for that purpose. In both gundogs and sheepdogs one can be guided by the trials record of the ancestry. If I buy a gundog puppy bred from a Field Trail strain I know that its ancestors retrieved, faced cover and water and were not gun-shy. If I buy a sheepdog puppy from a Trail strain I can expect it to have a strong ‘eye’ and a very strong (probably too strong) herding instinct. In either case I can expect the puppy to want to do the things I want it to do. The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association have for some years run their own breeding scheme. The percentage of failures from litters bred for the job is far lower than from those bought in.
So you might think that if you want to train a dog for obedience work you should try to find one from an obedience strain. But I doubt if it is likely to be any easier to train than one from any other strain. Obedience tests are and always have been just as much a test of the trainer’s ability as of the dog’s natural trainability. For instance, it is possible for a dog to get consistently high marks for the retrieve although initially it was completely devoid of any natural inclination to retrieve.
Working Trials are slightly better and dogs bred from PD and TD strains should inherit some of the necessary characteristics to train for these purposes. But don’t forget that a dog which is gun-shy and fails to stand up to the test of courage can qualify PD ex. and become a Working Trials Champion. I do not know that it has ever happened but the fact that the rules make it possible is surely ludicrous.
Here you must decide whether you want to go in for competitions only or whether you have ambitions to go on to Working Trials. I hope you will do both, but dogs which excel at both are the exception rather than the rule.
Obedience dogs fall roughly into two categories. On the one hand is the clinging, submissive dog ever anxious to respond to the slightest signal from its handler, but with no thought of ever doing anything on its own accord. On the other is the boisterous unruly dog which by constant repetition can, to a certain extent be brain-washed into submission without losing its bounce and go. Neither requires a great deal of intelligence, which does not mean that no obedience dogs are intelligent.
Contrary to common belief, intelligence does not make a dog trainable. The majority of difficult and disobedient dogs are intelligent. Unfortunately they often end up with owners who show little sign of this quality!
It is a strong submissive instinct which makes a dog trainable. An instinct derived from the wild dog’s instinct to obey a pack leader and in some cases strengthened by selective breeding over hundreds of years. The extreme example of this is the Border Collie, a breed that I have bred, trained and worked for longer than any other. And a breed which includes the stupidest dogs I have ever kept for any length of time. But they worked, and worked well. Why? Because the herding instinct was so strong it was almost a mania. They worked because they could not help it and it would be impossible to control this instinct if the submissive instinct were not equally strong.
Deprived of an outlet for this abnormal instinct these dogs quickly become frustrated and neurotic, and this is probably the worst of all breeds to keep as a pet. Provided with an alternative to herding they will enter into it with an enthusiasm amounting almost to a mania and the submissive instinct becomes even stronger. That is why they often do so well in the obedience ring. Having worked, and seen these dogs working, in the wide open spaces it is seldom that I enjoy seeing them in obedience competitions, even though I know they are often better cared for than their relatives on farms.
The prospective Working Trials dog should have a much steadier temperament. He will have some positive incentive to work instead of doing completely negative repetitive exercises. Many very good working dogs are slack on heel work but they cannot lose more than five marks on it. A successful Trial dog requires initiative and will have the opportunity to use his intelligence. He need not be quite so submissive. When I recall some of the top class PD dogs for which I have acted as criminal, that last remark is something of an understatement!
Don’t conclude from what I have just said that intelligence does not matter. Although not always so easy to train, an intelligent dog can be taught a great deal more than stupid one. It is also more enjoyable to train — and much more enjoyable to own. It really depends on how he uses his intelligence. He may use it to help you or he may use it to find ways of evading your wishes. Remember too that intelligence and temperament have nothing to do with each other. Many very shy, nervous dogs are exceptionally intelligent. Many very bold, fearless dogs are merely too ‘dim’ to be afraid.
Far more important than intelligence (and a point all too often overlooked) is that the dog and the trainer should have temperaments to suit each other. There are some who like a responsive dog, even if he is a bit soft and inclined to be ‘touchy’, and will get very good results from this type by coaxing and persuading. There are others who always like a hard dog, which has to have everything drummed into him and which couldn’t care less if his handler does get a bit cross with him. Swop them round and you have two dogs and two handlers which, nine times out of ten, will never get anywhere at all.
The one canine temperament which I should never advise anyone to waste time on is the really shy, nervous one. I know that some have had amazing results from shy dogs, but the time spent taking them around and getting them accustomed to strange people and surroundings could be much more profitably spent at home training a dog with a good temperament. In any case a shy dog is always liable to let one down in a competition before the public.