among people that are involved in dogs on a daily basis (in whatever
capacity) the personality of an individual dog is seldom talked about
and it has virtually no influence on their interaction with dogs. I
am aware of the fact that the term "personality" when applied
to dogs meets resistance and scepticism: so far I have not been able
to find a concept better suited for what I am referring to.
As some readers may know I am training Boxers: not only the boxers of
the kennel in which I grew up ("van Sapho's Hoeve") but also
boxers who need a working certificate in order to obtain a definite
national or international title and whose owners, for different reasons,
prefer not to train their Champions-in-the-making themselves. It means
that I am exercising daily with boxers but foremost it means that I
am living with them virtually twenty-four hours a day. This setting
gave me the opportunity and the challenge to learn how to asses an individual
dog quickly and to teach him, in a relatively short period of three
months, the complete program: tracking, obedience and defence. The only
reason why I am succeeding in doing so is the fact that I respect the
boxer I am training, which in my experience means nothing short than
complete acceptance of his or her personality: my ideas and my wishes
must at no point interfere with their individuality, nor must my handling
try to bend their personality. This form of acceptance goes all the
way: it does not stop at the actual training but constitutes the basis
of our living together. The personality of a individual boxer shows
me what I may and will expect of him, namely that what he is capable
of giving and how he will arrive at this, nothing more nothing less.
or training rules do not take into account the individual characteristics
and therefore cause misunderstanding and frustration. One and the same
gesture or behaviour on the part of the trainer will have different
effects on different dogs. The simple gesture of caressing a dog is
a useful example in this respect.
Some, but not all, dogs adore bodily contact, they like to be fondled
and they need exactly that to know they are doing ok. The caress reinforces
their actual behaviour, not necessarily their personality.
Other dogs have a constant and demanding need for reinforcement and
reassurance - up to a point that without a constant feeding of their
confidence they cannot even experience the environment and its demands
on them. This has nothing to do with fear: it is a pattern of social
functioning that has been rewarding in early stages of upbringing and
consequently has developed into a "way of life". Here, caressing
refers directly to the personality much less to the actual behaviour.
Still others, after completing an exercise, need foremost to relax,
to calm down physically - without interference of the trainer. Here
again a light casual caress refers to the personality rather than to
the actual behaviour, meaning to that particular dog: " you are
ok, I understand, we'll give it a rest".
Yet another dog has enough by "shaking out" - as if he returns
from a swim - or by quickly scratching himself. No caresses are needed.
This scratching however can also mean that the dog is walking on the
edge, that he faces a problem he is not able to solve: a caress at that
moment will reassure him: "ok, nothing to worry about". And
of course, the scratching can simply mean the dog is itching for no
other than a physical cause. In that case caressing does not relate
to "work" or to "personality": the dog will like
it and the gesture will act as a primal group reinforcer, nothing else.
In reality, there exists countless variations and sometimes it is not
that easy to find out what a particular dog needs and why he needs just
that. Only when you are able to differentiate between these various
patterns of behaviour and to grasp their meaning for that particular
dog you may start thinking you understand the dog you are working with.
Knowing what a particular dog needs, when he needs it, how he needs
it and why this is so, constitutes, in my opinion, the basis of a gratifying
relationship with that dog and consequently his successful training.
The individuality of a dog, his personality, will determine the meaning
of gestures and this will affect his training: two examples to demonstrate
how this can happen.
A brindle male boxer, two years young. A fine and agreeable dog in all
respects. His behaviour in the kennel as well in normal social intercourse
is excellent. Working with him on the tracking and defence exercises
poses no major problems. During the obedience exercises however a problem
arises. When given a help command the dog is completely at a loss, he
starts trembling, his eyes starts rolling and finally he runs off the
exercise field towards his kennel where he lays down and recovers. Ten
minutes later he seems to have forgotten about the whole episode and
he runs back to the field on his own initiative.
At first I didn't understand what was going on. So I divided each exercise
in even smaller subsets, varied the strain of exercises at random and
changed between exercise fields regularly. In short, I adapted the whole
training procedure to his pace and peculiarities. Two features became
apparent: a) all exercises wherein his own initiative played a major
part were executed more or less correctly (tracking, jumping, defence
and b) each interruption - for whatever reason - of a controlled series
of actions would block him immediately and totally. Even to the extent
that, when he was prevented from leaving the field and summoned to repeat
the exercise, he would start vomiting. His reaction could not have been
clearer. In that state of mind no reward of whatever kind affected him,
the outside world simply did not come through any more.
Conversations with his breeder-owner revealed that this boxer had grown
up in a small group of boxers up to his first anniversary, that he had
excellent relations with other boxers and that he had had a normal but
not very personal contact with people. His behaviour towards other dogs
and towards the people around him was indeed excellent but what this
dog had not learned was how to cope with specific human reactions in
learning situations (praise and correction by voice -sound and word-,
touching, ignoring, facial expression
) and literally did not know
what the meaning of these reactions was. Consequently a succession of
exercises would accumulate stress, even if the exercises were executed
correctly. This boxer seemed to roll through the set of exercises in
constant anticipation of an inevitable "failure", for instance
in the form of a help command (however minor) that would be incomprehensible
to him. So, exercises that leaned firmly on natural behaviour (tracking,
jumping, defence, free following
) were no problem to him, in fact
he enjoyed them. On the other hand, exercises that were not so closely
related to natural behaviour (sending forward, close following on a
leach, stay down without contact
) or exercises of which the built
up was more complex (rapport, searching of the attack man, barking at
him without touching, waiting
) and consequently needed more guidance
by his trainer, those exercises again and again did put the dog in a
state of utter confusion, bewilderment and stress. All of this happened
not because this boxer was stupid in any way or did not want to learn
- on the very contrary - but because he had not learned how to relate
different human responses to his behaviour.
In other words: the way this boxer was able to learn had become an integral
part of his personality and it determined sharply what he was able to
learn at all.
He eventually got his IPO certificate: it was a close call. The compromise
solution in training was to build up a tight scheme on the one hand
and, on the other hand, staying constantly alert as to avoid the point
where the stress would take over. This implied the non-intervention
in those parts where the dogs own initiative would be sufficient (the
finer touches were ignored as were the mere technical details - which
resulted of course in a considerable loss of points) and in a stretching
of "dog playtime" between the exercises to the limit. This
was very unconventional training but it was completely dictated by the
personality of this particular (fine) boxer.
The second example concerns an exceptional beautiful fawn bitch, 22
months of age. A real beauty in the show ring but very wary of strangers,
initially including her trainer. Once again this behaviour has nothing
to do with fear: she is on the alert and that is just the way she is.
She is very curious, she likes to learn new things and she is very quick
in doing so. As with the brindle male, exercises close to natural behaviour
pose no major problems but the surprise is not far away: nor the voice
nor physical contact are experienced by her as reward - quite on the
contrary. A word of praise vaporises her natural elegance: ears in the
neck, head down, confused looks at the trainer. The movement of a hand
towards her is followed with distrust: se shrinks. When caressing her
one can feel how the muscles tighten. No joy or relaxation at all but
the very opposite.
The Great Book Of Rules crumbles down when faced with the question how
to train a happy, lively and intelligent boxer that experiences every
form of reward as threatening.
In the case of this Beauty the Why question was the easiest one. As
a puppy and as a youngster she was spoilt rotten by her Mistress and
she was "protected" by her against everything and anyone who
could possibly harm her growth or future career. The woman was right
on one account: the puppy would become a Star. Meanwhile however thanks
to the overprotective attitude, the world of her future Winner had shrunk
to a duality: woman-husband-puppy against the rest of the world. In
other words: this bitch had learned to experience any act of the outside
world as threatening - as long as you did not try to relate directly
to her and as long as the initiative was hers, there was no problem.
Trying to train her in any classical way (including clicker training)
would, if at all possible, damage her personality of which the mistrust
had become an integral part.
So, how to address this acquired distrust in an otherwise playful and
energetic young boxer? I found no other solution than to share as much
time as I could with her, without performing any actual training work,
to let her free as much as physically possible and
to wait. Waiting
for the moment- if that moment would come at all! - that her natural
curiousness and liveliness would breach through the acquired armour
of distrust and she would seek and accept (physical) contact. Eventually
that moment came: it took her, and me, nearly four weeks. But is was
worthwhile: from that moment on she couldn't get enough of jumping in
my arms (which at times was quite inappropriate as for instance during
the trial) and if at one time I had the brutality of passing her kennel
without fondling her she would start a concert of outrage and disappointment.
The actual training period was remarkably short, thanks to her intelligence
and liveliness and she passed the IPO trial with flying colours.
By the end of her training, she did not dislike it anymore when the
other people in the kennel called upon her but she still didn't approve
of being touched by any of them. In this example it becomes clear once
again how the personality and the individual history of that particular
dog (physical contact and verbal praise by strangers is experienced
as threatening - not as reward) determine how she could learn and consequently
what she could - or could not -learn.
sharp contrast to the subject of individual personality, discussions
on Method (education as well as advanced training) flower abundantly.
These discussions are often very heated but, in my opinion quite pointless:
no method is able to tell you how to relate to any individual dog nor
is it able to teach you how to train that particular dog. It is the
personality of the particular dog that will make clear not only what
he can learn but also and foremost how he can learn. To appreciate this,
it is imperative that you pay close attention to the dog and not to
the methodological principles, rules and techniques. To put it in far
too simple terms: you have to know what your dog likes and you have
to follow him consequently in this respect - not: work against his basic
desire. Even - and maybe especially - in situations were coercion is
unavoidable you need to able to count on this "liking", this
fundamental "desire". Far too many dogs have (unnecessarily
and avoidably) failed in coercive situations, especially impulsive dogs,
and have consequently shown depressed or aggressive behaviour depending
on the dogs' particular temperament. This happened because the owner
or the trainer failed to see that the coercion was reduced to its own
end and was no longer based on something in the dog himself: his ability,
his willingness and his eager to learn. Coercion, if needed, has to
be adapted in its nature and its degree to the personality of the particular
dog and it always has to be rooted in the relation of trust between
dog and trainer/owner. Coercion whose only motivation is that the dog
should comply, should be subordinate - without taking into account the
personality of the dog - can jeopardize all future training, it can
push the dog over the edge and it is in every respect a corrupt principle.
from the angle of personality (of the dog, I mean) some riddles of the
show scene become apparent. I often wondered why so many, even experienced
show people regard the judging of a boxer as a mere technical question
of evaluating and comparing morphology, the exterior form. This obviously
is not what is happening in a show ring. Beauty is more than an approach
to the standard, more than type by itself. Beauty is also based on the
personality of the dog which becomes visible in the behaviour of the
dog, the totality of his attitude and consequently in his movements.
Using a rather strange image: the body of a dog is the visible translation
of his personality. To an attentive mind the (muscle) movements of a
dog will reveal the story of his past, the how and why of his personality.
This point of view also helps to explain why 'technical judging' - the
description and weighting of faults and virtues - is only seldom able
to 'see' (literally) the 'beautiful boxer'.
Equally important: on this point 'beauty' and 'work' join together:
there should be no gap between them. A gorgeous fawn female I had the
privilege to train illustrated this in a magnificent way. It was no
coincidence that it was a female: the behaviour I am about to describe
will rarely be seen with a male, they use other moves. It happened during
a faze of learning, a new exercise. This always is a moment of uncertainty,
of doubt - otherwise no learning is possible. During that critical moment
of uncertainty she suddenly displayed a pose whereby her eyes, her eyebrows,
ears, neck, back, legs, feet, in short her complete body became transformed
in sheer elegance. It was breathtaking and for a brief moment I did
not know what to do. I caressed her very slowly, gently from the neck
down to her back. The pose disappeared and after a second command she
executed the exercise (i.e. the, to her, uncertain series of movements)
correctly. I can assure you that her pose at that moment was nothing
short but an act of seduction: she focused all the attention to her
body because she 'knew' that, in the past the environment (people and
dogs) had reacted most positively on this pose. Remember the silence
or murmur of adoration that arises at the ringside when a beautiful
dog is showing to perfection. She used her elegance (more precisely:
the earlier experience of positive reaction to her pose took the place
of and 'resolved' the feeling of uncertainty) as avoidance behaviour:
the purpose of her posing in that critical moment was to neutralize
the doubt and to dissolve the uncertain situation. The slow caress did
put her back in reality, the stress caused by the uncertainty dropped
away and the pose disappeared. Once she was calm again she was able
to produce the efficient response to the question.
Experiences like this strengthen my conviction that beauty is an integral
part of the boxers' personality.
longer I live with Boxers, the more experience I get in training them,
the more I feel uncomfortable with the wide range of 'behaviour-tests'
and so called 'character-tests'.
The majority of these tests rely on the existence of a variety of 'drives'
('Triebe'): play drive ('Spieltrieb'), pray drive ("Beutetrieb"),
defence drive ("Wehrtrieb") and son on. The number and the
hierarchy of these drives can be adapted more or less at will. The aim
of the tests based on this model is to detect the existence of a number
of these drives and to evaluate their strength. It is my conviction
that what these (partial) drives describe is only a minor part of the
complete personality of any boxer and consequently it is beyond my comprehension
why so many 'systems' (educational and training schedules plus the correspondent
tests) are based on such poor evidence. In countless ZTP's, Körungen,
I have witnessed, boxers failed in the standard
procedures - boxers of which I am convinced they are excellent boxers.
The fact that in some countries a successful passing of one or more
of these tests is a necessary condition to obtain a breeding license
underscores the tragic implications of these poor models.
If you try to find out the particularities of a dog before you try to
train him and you give yourself and the dog time (without 'educational'
intervention) you are bound to find out the 'why?' of his (re) actions
as well as his specific interests and sensibilities. By that time, in
most cases, even a dog that has been damaged in previous education or
training will have regained self-confidence and confidence in his 'trainer'.
From that point on you can start the specific training. Again in most
cases - not all - you'll notice that a minimum of training is needed
to learn the behaviour that is wanted or demanded in this or that 'test'.
I would like to recover the hours I have lost in trying to open the
discussion on the biases of these test, so I will not allow myself to
be trapped once again in a similar pointless endeavour.
In my opinion, the only test, given the general mentality as it is today,
that may have some meaning consists in a patient evaluation of social
conduct. But even there no guarantees can be obtained and the way of
sound criticism is wide open. Just think about impulsive or spontaneous
behaviour there where even the most balanced test (if such a thing could
ever exist) can be nothing else but the record and the evaluation of
a moment in time. Consider also the relationship owner-dog which should
be the real subject of evaluation, for the effects of this relationship
are more important to the dogs behaviour than his purely genetical heritage.
the subject of 'testing' I would like to add an anecdote.
On one of the shows I handled a brindle bitch. The lady judge approached
her to check eyes and teeth. Than she did something that comes as close
to a "character test" as one can get: she kneeled down before
the bitch. The boxer approached the judge and there was a brief encounter
between them with exchange of friendly words and gestures. Both the
judge and the boxer enjoyed it. And although it was clear the judge
would have liked to repeat this with every single boxer in the ring,
she didn't succeed. So, in her judgement personality did play a part
and to that end she did not need a battery of tests nor did the boxer
need any 'training'. Depending on the personality of the boxer this
simple gesture of kneeling down of a stranger can be experienced as
inviting or threatening and the response may vary from enthusiasm over
uncertainty to withdrawal and/or aggression. Once more we see: one setting,
one gesture - different personalities - different reactions.
For the record: that particular bitch did not win her class that day.
health is another cornerstone of personality. I do not mean the actual
fitness of a dog, which will affect his actual behaviour but not his
personality. I mean structural conditions that determine both behaviour
An example: a pup is born with a mild sub aortic stenosis, nothing live
threatening. This pup will learn from the outset that an unpleasant
feeling directly follows impulsive reactions. He will most probably
mature as a calm restraint dog. On condition of course he does not enter
a hyperactive environment that forces all kinds of demands on him. His
personality will be described as calm, quiet, attentive. This calm behaviour
has become an integral part of his personality. Whether you evaluate
this personality as negative or positive doesn't matter: the point is
that this basic structure will not change anymore and that you will
have to deal with that dog on his terms.
There are several physical conditions that have similar effects. Another
important one is a heightened sensibility for all kinds of allergies.
Caressing the dog in the first example after an exercise interacts both
with his personality as with his actual behaviour ("ok, we are
doing just fine, relax for a moment"). Caressing the dog with the
allergic itching after the same exercise will comfort him physically,
it may even strengthen the bond but it will hardly affect the actual
behaviour or the personality. Once again we see that the meaning of
gestures is determined by the personality.
attempting to grasp the personality of any given boxer I use "common
sense" terms that stay as close to reality as possible and I use
as many as needed. I am very well aware of the fact that this is the
exact opposite of what is regarded as "scientific". It is
a deliberate attempt to avoid the usual terms that all have implicit
or explicit connotations with underlying "drive-models". I
my daily experience I cannot trust these models and these terms anymore.
So I use words as: friendly, good-natured, striking, beautiful, noble,
hard, curious, serious, vain, pleasing, obedient, prudish, anxious,
plus all negatives and combinations of them. Some aspects
are closely related and they could be regrouped. If one observed a dog
for a longer period I suspect it would be possible to establish a gradation
within each group and between groups. Theoretically it would be possible
in this way to pick a pup that is best suited for you. Somehow I strongly
doubt this exercise would do any good.
reader will have noticed that this way of looking at a particular dog
differs from existing tests and training attitudes. It is my belief
that existing tests cover only to a surprisingly limited extent the
personality of a boxer, especially that part that is artificial - artificial
because it is constructed in function of the test. In other words: what
the tests really do test is the ability of the owner/trainer to conform
to the expected or desired result.
this respect I like to present another anecdote: most people that come
to the kennel in order to choose a puppy stress they want a puppy with
"a good character" (who doesn't?). Some of them delay their
choice to the time the pups can be 'tested'- anyway that is what they
call it. I will not waste the readers' time with a page full of wisdom
that is uttered on those occasions. But once in a while a nice surprise
comes along. There was this lady that wished to see if her puppy could
develop into a good working dog. But she acted different. In a large
room where the puppy had been on several occasions, a room he knew very
well, she placed a small plastic bag. She remained about half an hour
in the room with the pup and with several of us. She observed the pup
constantly and once in a while she spoke to him. Nothing more: that
was it. This woman knew - by intuition or experience - how to assess
a dog correctly: she judged the pup by his spontaneous, non-provoked
behaviour - not by actions elicited by a series of standardised situations.
all know a lot of people - the "normal" owner as well as the
experienced sportsman - have a hard time handling their boxer. Mostly
this is due to a lack of understanding of the qualities of their boxer:
good and bad ones (whatever this may be). If one is willing and is prepared
to spend enough time with his boxer this can easily be changed. The
first thing is to forget about Method. Method is not important: your
dog is. The second thing is to look at your dog and to keep observing
him. Sooner or later you will detect his peculiarities and what he is
motivated by. Respect that personality by accepting it and start "working"
from that point on.
living together and working with boxers follows one maxim only:
YOUR RESPECT, FEEL THE PERSONALITY, TOUCH THE HART AND THEN BUT ONLY
THEN RESPECT WILL RETURN"
"Van Sapho's Hoeve".