NOTE: I began this blog about 7 years ago when I first sustained my head injury, and I never finished it. I have a number of these in the queue, as you may notice if you read about Eco or D’fer who have since died.
I recently purchased a car. It is a smaller SUV and I really like it. I can put all my camping gear in it, and it is easy on gas and John and I can now each get to and from work without re-arranging our schedules to an overwhelming extent. I could have purchased a sports car, but it would not do what I needed it to do; take me camping. And I could have purchased a tractor, but it also would not do what I needed it to do; get me to and from work in a timely manner. I chose a car that would suit my needs. Dogs are a bit like cars in that different dogs have different traits.
I like fast, drivey, intense dogs. I also like my lawn tractor. You cannot treat a lawn tractor like a fast drivey dog, and you cannot treat a drivey dog like a lawn tractor. I meet a lot of people in my line of work who greatly admire my big, black, fast, responsive dog and who would like one just like him. Or they think they would like one just like him. The problem is that they want to drive this dog the way they would drive a tractor.
Drivey dogs, or dogs who are intensely passionate about doing things can be a lot of fun. They can be exciting to watch as they race through their routines, pushing towards their own excellence in whatever discipline they excel in. My dog excels at the protection phase of Schutzhund (sadly, I do not have the same skill or drive as he does or we would be competing!), and when the sleeve comes out a whole new gear sets in. One of my staff describes it as similar to driving a tractor from across the lawn, which is what prompted this blog.
When you work with Eco, he is always looking for the next cue, the next piece of information, the next job. He is almost one step ahead of me, and we have worked together for almost five years now. When someone who is new to him works with him, they really have to be on their toes, because if you work slowly and methodically with him, he quickly looses interest and goes off to do his own thing. Usually what he does under his own steam is to bark at the handler, bark at another dog, run around the room and search for Frisbees or Tugs or generally cause general mayhem. With an experienced handler, he is quick and responsive, engaged and lively and a whole lot of fun. Eco is a Ferrari when it comes to handling. Fast, responsive and likely to get you in trouble if you aren’t paying attention.
Not too long ago, I trained a service dog for a lady. This dog, a black lab, was a tractor of a dog. She likes working a lot. She is keen and willing, but not terrifically fast. She drove me a bit nuts because she doesn’t drive much like a sports car. She handles a lot more like a tractor. She does the job, promptly, efficiently and carefully, but she is not the least interested in speed or manoeuvrability. On the other hand, this dog is perfectly suited to the work that the lady needed her to do.
All too often I see people who are attracted to the Ferrari type of dog, but who are really better equipped to drive the tractor type of dog. So what happens? Much of the time, the Ferrari dog ends up being frustrated because his needs are not being met. And often the people are equally frustrated because the dog is doing much more than they expected he would do.
Consider a client I met with recently. They had seen a demo with a Malinois in it. The Malinois they met was a stable, easy going dog, or so they thought. They watched this dog do agility, protection, obedience, tracking and sheep herding. They heard about how this dog was trained to do other sports too such as Rally and treibball. They got to know the dog for about five minutes after a show, and they were smitten. They went right out and found a Malinois breeder who would sell them a dog and ship it across the country. By the time that I saw the family, they had a terrible mess on their hands!
Their Malinois was nothing like the one they had met at the show. Where the dog they met showed an extraordinary amount of self control, their dog seemed to be all over the map, snatching treats and toys any time he could and snapping at the heels of people passing on the side walk. The Malinois they met was relaxed and chill after his demo, lying on the floor at his owner’s feet, happily observing the world around him. In the two hour appointment we had to assess this dog’s behaviour, he rarely stopped moving and was often just racing around the training hall at full speed.
“What is wrong with him?” I was asked. “Nothing” I replied after taking a full history. And indeed this was a very normal, untrained, barely socialized, under exercised and under stimulated high drive Ferrari of a dog! This family would have been very happy with a tractor of a Labrador. Yes, labs can come in a Ferrari version, and yes, Malinois can come in tractor versions, but the normal state of affairs for these two breeds is that Malinois are very active and driven dogs and Labs are active, but not so active that you cannot live with them and usually they are much more willing to follow along and do whatever it is that your family is into doing.
So, what do you do if you find yourself with a Ferrari of a dog when your life is all about tractors? First and foremost, recognize that the dog doesn’t have a choice about the genes he was born with. Some of us are hardwired to be out of doors and active more often than not. Some of us are hardwired to be less active and may not enjoy the outdoor life nearly as much. Some of us are wired one way and want to be something else, and this is kind of what it is like to live with a Ferrari when you are more of a tractor type. I would love to be the kind of person who enjoys going to cocktail parties in a dress and heels, and although I can pull it off, I don’t really enjoy myself.
The first thing to do is to recognize that you live with a Ferrari. Or if you are a Ferrari type of trainer, and have a tractor, recognize that too. There is no amount of motivating that is going to make your mastiff as responsive as a border collie, and there is no amount of relaxation that is going make your Doberman enjoy watching the world slide on by your window for more than a short period of time. Recognizing who your dog is, is the first step to making the most out of his innate talents.
The next step is recognizing that you may have to compromise on your dreams. My client with the Malinois was looking for a family pet. They wanted a dog who would be happy in the house, getting daily leash walks, and hanging out while the family barbequed in the back yard. They had no idea how much work went into training a dog like the one they met to do all the things he did. Once they recognized that their dog was not a tractor, they needed to step up and make some changes in order to meet his needs. Something that is important to recognize is that your dog did not ask to live in your home. Once you have chosen the dog, you cannot get upset that he is anything other than what he is.
The changes my clients had to make included teaching their dog that other dogs and people were safe. This was a fairly long job, that would have been easier if they had done so when he was young. Next they had to add a skills training session into their dog’s life every day. It didn’t take long, but it was an every day activity. Then they had to start exercising him properly and for an active herding breed, this is a pretty big task. We started out by running him on trails while dragging a long line. As he gained skills like coming when called, and making friends, we added him to our walking group and the starting going out on regular hikes with “doggy friends”.
This particular Ferrrari was really lucky. As it turned out, the teen aged daughter in the family caught the training bug, and she began to take him to regular training classes twice a week. Then she tried out an agility class with a colleague of mine. Then she went to a herding weekend. From there, she got serious! For a Ferrari type of dog, this was exactly what he needed. Although he was always somewhat suspicious of new people and other dogs, he lived a very normal life, and the family was happy with him in the end and I would say he was pretty happy with them too.
I think that it can be harder for a tractor caught in a Ferrari world. I rarely see this kind of client in my behaviour practice and when I have spoke to these clients about their experiences most often, they tell me that they feel silly that they cannot motivate their dogs to do the things they enjoy. Sometimes they tell me that when their tractor turned two, they went out in search of a Ferrari to keep them busy in the training world while their tractor was content to snooze his life away on the back porch. Many tractor type dogs love a great walk, and they can for a very short period of time look exactly like a Ferrari, but for the very most part, they live and breath to rest. What breeds might typically be thought of as tractors? Many of the short faced breeds like the English Bulldog, the Pug and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. A lot of the mastiffs, and the livestock guardians are too. Yes, they can have short periods of time where they run and race, but they aren’t tuned in to go off like a firecracker and stay focused and dedicated to a job over time. Those dogs are often the herding dogs, some of the retrievers, many of the pointers and some of the working breeds.
The take away is to know what you are looking for in a dog, and whatever dog comes into your life, to recognize what sort of personality he is, and meet his needs, whatever they might be.