Posts Tagged ‘working dogs’

The “Labrador” jumping from the boat isn’t a Labrador.


There are two interesting aspects of this clip.

The first of these is I see no Newfoundlands.

I thought Newfoundlands made up the mainstay of these working dogs.

All I see in this clip are Labrador and golden retrievers.

The other interesting thing is they are actually doing something working (or at least trial and test) retrievers aren’t encouraged to do.

They are encouraged to find the shortest, most efficient route to the object.

In the North American retriever culture, we want straight lines.

I can’t think of a more fun job for many retrievers than this water rescue work.

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working border collie

“Reconstruction of ancient breeds fed on the same atmosphere that spawned the Arts and Crafts movement that swept much of Europe and the United States. In the face of the socioeconomic disruptions of industrialization and the destruction of individual craftsmanship inherent in mass production, reformers sought to resuscitate local artisanal traditions.  They found local craftsmen and paid them to make objects– furniture, pots, jewelry– that resembled idealized past forms. In reconstructing types of dogs, breeders took a similar approach, combing through old paintings and written descriptions, then scouring the countryside to find animals that most resembled their conception of what had existed. They then bred litter after litter, first trying to mach that look, and then taking  the dogs that came closest and breeding them to fix those characteristics.”

Mark Derr, A Dog’s History of America, p. 236-237

Now what Derr describes as a passion of the late nineteenth centur  fancy sounds a lot like people who like to maintain the working forms of dogs. However, there is a crucial difference between the hopeless romantics of the 1880’s and modern working dog enthusiasts.

The difference is rather obvious. Working dog people are concerned with functional conformation, but they are generally well-disposed to some diversity in type. Temperament and behavioral conformation are just as important working dog people as functional conformation.

To these nineteenth century Sir Tuftons and Sir Buftons, appearance was all that mattered. If a text described a specific working dog, they roamed the countryside in search of dogs that resembled the dog in the text. It mattered not whether the dog behaved anything like the dog in the text. Indeed, I highly suspect that a few small farmers pawned off culls from their litters whenever the city slickers came calling.

Instead of preserving working dogs, this movement in the fancy actually totally wrecked certain forms.  The Newfoundland dog as it exists today is much larger and much more coarsley built than any working dog of that island. The show collies have long, narrow muzzles, which are totally unlike any dog used by a Scottish crofters. The bulldogs are nothing like the dogs currently used as catch dogs today, which actually rather closely resemble the bulldogs of yore.

Now, today, this movement still exists. There are people who want to turn border collies into show dogs. If one peruses the AKC Miscellaneous Class, you will see many rustic working dogs that are up for consideration for full AKC recognition. Note that you see redbones, blueticks,treeing Walkers, and Boykins on that list. All of those are rustic working dogs native to the United States. Also not that there are dog breeds that have previously been ruined in their home countries that are now being offered in this country as show dogs, like the Sicilian farmer’s mastiff (Cane Corso) and the Norwegian Lundehund (which can develop a host of digestive disorders called “Lundehund Syndrome”).

This tendency is very strong within the fancy, and while it proports to save working dogs, it actually does the opposite. It degrades thems.

The only way to breed working dogs is to actually work them to see which actually do have functional conformation and have the right behavior and temperament for the job. You cannot do this in the show ring, and you also cannot do it by reading books of yore– especially if that book was written by Stonehenge or Dalziel.

Derr explains the problems of the fancy rather clearly:

“The original stock, the rustic dogs, worked beautifully. which was why they were sought out and were already celebrated for their sagacity and ability in Europe, as in England and America. But they were variable in looks and size, and so those that did not fit the program became expendable, denounced as degenerates of the pure form” (237).

The fancy’s breeding program and evaluation criteria were the diametric opposite of the working dog breeder’s program. Working dog people bred what worked with what worked, regardless of whether that produced dogs that varied in appearance or not.

The Arts and Crafts fancy thought of dogs like  finely crafted spoons or pots. They wanted them to look as if they were the same animals they read in the treatises and histories that were so popular during that era.

Now, I must admit that I do have a bit of this tendency. I like very dark goldens, like the ones you would see in and Edwardian shooting scene.

However, I wouldn’t want a dog that merely looked like the dogs in those scenes. Further, I understand that these dogs had functional conformation as well as retrieving instinct, drive, and biddablity. I have to have all of those things. It’s a bit like have an old-fashioned, hand-made pot that leaks or an old-fashioned, finely crafted spoon that can’t hold any liquid.

But looks, as the cliche goes, are only skin deep.

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Working dogs are working dogs because they have behaviors that make them useful. Some of these useful behaviors have been further honed through advent of trials and working tests, although it is often debated about whether trials reflect the “real world” of a working breed. Either way, working dogs are bred behaviors, drives, motor patterns, and emotional reactivity that makes sense for the dog to complete the task at hand.

But are are these traits compatible with the needs of the pet home?  Generally, pet owners want a dog that is of moderate or low activity level and very low prey drive. Herding, retrieving, pointing, flushing, and the hunting behavior of scenthounds, sighthounds, and earthdogs  are all either modified predatory behavior or full predatory behavior. The dogs that perform best at these tasks have relativley high levels fo prey drive.  In some of these working breeds, an extremely high energy level and endurance is also necessary.

These traits simply do not fit well in most pet homes.  Most Americans work long hours, and while that does not mean that one cannot care for high-energy obsessive working dog, it does mean that most people are unable to make the time to do so.  Further, leash laws and fenced yards mean that most of these dogs wind up living like tigers in the old zoo cages. It also means that an intelligent,  highly active dog will come up with ways to amuse itself. Hole digging, landscaping, and home renovation could become wonderful diversions from an otherwise boring day.

So the traits that make working dogs excellent at what they do can make them lousy pets. It is possible to channel those traits into other work, which explains why border collies do so well at agility and flyball. However, the average person is better off with a low energy, low drive animal.

And what are these low-drive dogs?

Well, although they may have health problems, most of the  small brachycephalic breeds are low drive dogs. Great Pyrenees are quite low drive, and unlike other livestock guardians, some lines have really low protective instincts (of course, you don’t want that if you want a real livestock guardian.)

However, it is a bit of a mistake to choose working breeds that have been intentionally bred to be calm. You simply do not know how the addition of that one trait will effect the general temperament of the animal.

So when choosing a dog that has been bred for a purpose, one must consider how one intends to focus that dog’s abilities. Otherwise, the dog might prove to be a disaster.

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