Many of us don't actually choose our first competition dog. Instead, we have a family pet and we see obedience or agility or lure coursing on Animal Planet and think it looks like something Fluffy or Buster might enjoy. Or, maybe we want a dog that looks like Lassie, only smaller, so we go out and buy one of those "miniature collies" a.k.a. Shetland Sheepdog (hopefully, not at a pet store, but maybe the kids insist). Once in a while, that family pet turns out to be a whiz at our activity of choice, and we're hooked!
Equally often, we have a favorite breed and we're already competing in herding or hunt tests or tracking (activities that call into play instinctive or inherited capabilities) and we decide to branch out and train for one of the "artificial" activities created by people purely for our enjoyment. We just figure that if we're having fun, the dog will enjoy the activity, too. (Never mind that our rules and regulations are a complete mystery to our four-legged companions. Whose idea was it that agility obstacles have to be completed in a certain order when any dog with any sense can see that it would be quicker to do the A-Frame after the tunnel?)
In most cases, at least as far as agility is concerned, the dogs do enjoy the game. But, the different breeds enjoy the game differently. Herding breeds such as Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Shetland Sheepdogs, and sporting breeds such as Goldens and Labradors, have been developed to work in concert with shepherds, farmers, and hunters. Therefore, they are more naturally attuned to doing what their handlers ask than are dogs from the terrier and hound groups, whose instinctive tendencies carry them away from their handlers, after quarry above or below ground, where they are almost never required to wait for instructions from anyone. (OK, I can hear the groans from the BC and Golden people replete with tales of their dogs penchant for disobedience, but we're talking breed tendencies here, not absolutes.)
It is no accident that animal shelters are filled with terriers that bark and dig, with herding dogs that nip at the feet of toddlers, with German Shepherd Dogs that are "overly protective", and with hounds that need "room to roam". These are dogs that were selected by families with no clue that different breeds have fundamentally different behaviors. This is also the reason why some terrific performance dogs end up with breed rescue groups. Dogs with strong work ethics no matter how "work" is defined are often not content to be largely sedentary, family companions. And, they end up getting in difficulty unless they are given a job to do.
While the environment in which a dog is raised is vitally important, any dog's genetic makeup plays a huge role in how that animal will react to training, what activities will come easily, and what kind of enticement needs to be part of the training regime. I am a big believer in pedigrees that include performance degrees as well as championships even though that can be a challenge in breeds with limited numbers, such as mine.
As a lover of terriers, I encourage digging (ah a future earthdog title) tolerate some barking as long as the neighbors aren't home and understand that my dogs are not being "bad" when they decide to complete a course without benefit of my input. I also realize that I have to get better at convincing my dogs that the rewards of following my instructions surpass the rewards they may find on their own. (And I do think that Sadie "going to ground" under a pause table really was pretty funny who's to say there wasn't a mouse under there?)
As competitors, it's important that we remember what our breed of choice was originally bred for. That knowledge can help us over the rough spots and give us some insight into solving training dilemmas.
One of the things I've noticed about the agility community is that competitors are supportive of the efforts of other teams, and that there is a genuine appreciation for a great effort, no matter what the breed. Believe me, to those of us with dogs of a certain independent nature that support and encouragement is appreciated!
ANTIC, March, 2004
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