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These toy spaniels have been trained to kill rabbits.

These toy spaniels have been trained to kill rabbits.

From Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution:

Brian Plummer in Scotland has a pod of [Cavalier] King Charles spaniels that tears across the countryside searching for bunnies and kills them. Here is a hunt that is seriously uniform, to say the least. They have not been selected to be hunting dogs. But Brian, who prides himself on being a good dog trainer, uses them to illustrate his point: if you think about it and work at, you can teach any dog to do any task.

I made the case that any dog can do anything only if it is socialized correctly when a tiny puppy. I was sure Brian would see this as an exception to the rule that you can train any dog to do any task. He didn’t seem to. Then I asked Brian if one could train King Charles spaniels to hunt lions. Or could King Charles spaniels join transhumant migration, and guard sheep against wolves, even if they were socialized properly? Well, Brian’s a good dog man; he knows dogs. He just gave me a big grin and asked: “What do you think?” (154-155).

***

Brian believes that nuture is more important than nature in determining intelligence [working ability].  I had spent a delightful day hunting rabbits with Brian and his  [Cavalier] King Charles Spaniels (#44).

“Why did you pick this breed?” said I.

“Because these dogs have been the epitome of the housebound, nonworking pet dog for centuries,” said he.  “If I can train them to hunt rabbits, I make my point:  I can train any breed to do anything.”  And sure enough, after scampering over hill and dale (actually, the neighbor’s lawn), holing the rabbit, and driving it out with a ferret, the King Charles spaniels killed it.

Then we went down to the river and put his golden retriever (#4) through the fetch, retriever, and deliver-to-hand routines. Nice dog! she would work all day long and enver quit. I asked Brian if he could train his golden to herd sheep, and he responded instantly, “No problem. It would be asy to train a golden to herd sheep.”

“Could you then take that dog into a sheepdog trial and win?”

“Oh no!” he said without hesitation. I knew I was talking to someone who understands behavioral conformation.

“Oh no!” Just like that. The reason he cannot teach the golden to win a sheep trial is the same reason I cannot teach a dachshund to win a sled dog race. They are the wrong shape– the wrong conformation. The dachshund has the wrong physical conformation and the golden wrong behavioral conformation to herd sheep (192-193).

The numbers are the rankings for each breed in “Working and Obedience Intelligence” that Stanely Coren put together in The Intelligence of Dogs. (The ranking in Wikipedia does not line up with list in that I have in my copy of Coren’s book.)

The authors continue:

I have trained border collies to retrieve ducks, but it is just for fun, perhaps an interesting novelty. The border collies isn’t as big and its mouth is the wrong shape and it does not have the body volume of a swimming dog. It gets cold. It lacks the appropriate physical conformation. But what if took a German shepherd or some other breed that was about the same size and still couldn’t get it perform like a good retriever: I’d have to conclude it not only he size that’s important. Rather, there is something about the shape that underlies the perfect performance.

Shape of the perfect performance? It is the shape of the brain the breed that is the underlying cause of the unique intelligence [working ability]. Intelligence is not more or less in each breed, but rather, each breed has a different kind of intelligence (193-194).

Essentially, what the authors are saying is that you can train dogs to do lots of things, but there are unique talents and abilities in all of these different strains of dog. These talents and abilities are hard-wired into the strains, and these strains provide the ability to work at various tasks.

Not only do dogs have to have the right working conformation in terms of size and build, they also have to exhibit the right behaviors. Biddability is an inherited ability, just as any other behavior. Biddability is nothing more than an enhanced ability to communicate and receive communication from humans. It is nothing more. It is not intelligence, per se. It is working ability.

Retrieving, pointing, herding, and quartering are all inherited motor patterns that are hard-wired into dogs. In these strains, we expect these motor patterns to develop. Once they develop, the dog can be polished through training into a working animal.

This is not to say that some dogs don’t exhibit unusual inherited motor patterns for their breed. I’ve seen pointing Labs and goldens and read about a pointing bloodhound. I knew a miniature dachshund that had very strong retrieving motor patterns and was as a hard driving about her retrieving as any retriever. I know a Jack Russell that is the same way. German shepherds and other continental sheepdogs, along with collie-types, exhibit an air-scenting motor pattern somewhat similar to quartering in a gun dog.

But all of these dogs are not at the same level as a dog that has been bred for generation after generation to exhibit the strongest level of these inherited motor predatory motor patterns. That’s why they are generally much better at these activities than other breeds of dog that give off these abilities.

Now, that Jack Russell I mentioned is a far better retriever than my current golden. He would be useless for his breed’s original task, but he wouldn’t be a good bird retriever. He has another motor pattern. Whenever he retrieves a tennis ball, he gets really into it, and if you’re done playing with him, he’ll take that ball and pluck all the green fuzz off it. I can just see him doing that to a shot bird.

Behavioral conformation is really important to working breeds. It provides the basis for which training can proceed. I’ll actually go a bit farther. In a working breed, the behavioral conformation is inherited and then polished and refined through good training. And that’s why if we breed working dogs, we have to focus on breeding these working motor patterns.

I am aware that this is controversial for some people.  I’m not denying you can’t train any dog to do these specialized behaviors. What I am denying is that is nearly impossible for you to train any dog to do these specialized behaviors and have them compete successfully against dogs that were already hard-wired to have them.

*Keep in mind that I don’t agree with everything that the Coppingers say in this book. However, it is a really good primer for understanding dog behavior in terms of their evolutionary past and their centuries of selective breeding.

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