The man with insight enough to admit his limitations comes nearest to perfection.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My Sparta. The most beautiful, obedient dog I’ve ever worked with. Over 100 lbs. of pure physical poetry. She’s the type of dog who we can leave the Thanksgiving turkey out on the counter right above where she’s sleeping, and she’ll leave it alone (we do). She will follow any command, no matter how scary, because she trusts us (she does). In short, she is practically a machine when it comes to her obedience. It’s sorta creepy, now that I think of it. Sounds like the perfect dog, right? Except she has one big problem. As my husband likes to say, she reads too much Guns and Ammo.
Sparta is a Shepherd/Rottie mix (not a guess, but verified truth), with emphasis on the Shepherd. Ah, suddenly it clicks why she’s so obedient. Shepherds have been used for many years for a myriad of reasons: search and rescue, guide dogs, drug dogs, war, peace, agility and everything in between. I truly believe that while they may not be the smartest dog (looking at you Border Collies and Poodles), they are probably the most willing to accept whatever training you wish.
However, I’m a firm believer in breed profiling. It’s called “breed standard” for a reason. Imagine going into a car dealership and saying I need a car, but having no idea what you want. Mini-van, Corvette, Jeep? What will you be using this car for? If you don’t know what you want, you won’t know what you’re getting. Pound puppies can follow some form of breed standard as well. If you adopt a Pit/Aussie mix, prepare for a lot of enthusiastic cuddling. A Basset/Poodle? Probably a lot of sedentary mind games, like chess. Not always the case, but a good general rule. Of course there are Frankendogs. The dogs that you have no idea what breed(s) they can be. Simply find out who they are, rather than focusing on what they are. (Hint: here’s an article that can help with that.)
Back to Sparta. She’s predominantly Shepherd, and boy does she show it. Obedient, trusting…every command I give her, I feel as if her response is Sir, yes sir! No, I didn’t make her that way; she just is. The problem? Shepherds were originally bred to guard livestock (not manage it….that’s you, Border Collies). She has it ingrained in her DNA to guard her pack, flock, family – whatever you want to call it. And she will do it with her life.
There’s an old joke about Shepherds: How many Shepherds does it take to change a light bulb? First you secure the perimeter. That is exactly who my Sparta is. That can make living with her in a very dense population a bit of a challenge. If a zombie apocalypse were ever to happen, she’s the dog you want. However, a walk through Downtown Mayberry? Yeah, that’s some Piloting that needs to happen there. Yes, it can be done, and I do it, but I realize that I will be Piloting her and answering her questions very frequently.
Is that a threat? No, Sparta. Should we reinforce our rearguard? No, Sparta.
I’m not angry with her, I’m never punishing her. I’m merely answering her (legitimate) questions. However, I know my limitations, as well as hers.
I recently (foolishly?) decided to completely renovate my bathroom. My family was out of town for about a week, and I thought it to be the perfect time to do it. However, I needed some help. I called a friend of our family, Sam, who generously came over every day to help me tear apart the bathroom, put in a new sub-floor, new tile, new vanity, new everything. Obviously, very involved, and a lot of noise to go with the project. Sparta happens to not like Sam. I don’t care if she’s best friends with him or not. She’s allowed to ask the question:
Can I kill him?
No, Sparta. Not today.
Okay, then. I’ll be in the mudroom if you need me to kill him.
You enjoy yourself there, Sparta. And put down the Guns and Ammo magazine. How about some Vanity Fair mags for a bit?
Problem is, she will be asking that question frequently. Sometimes Sam might need to go downstairs by himself. Sometimes he might need to come in and out of the house while cutting tile. In Sparta’s mind, each instance is always a separate question. And yes, she will immediately accept the answer, but only if I give it. And right there is our limitation. What if Sam runs downstairs, just one time, and I don’t notice, and don’t answer her question? Sparta would do what comes naturally to her: defend the flock.
So instead of constantly being on alert for Sparta, she has spent a relaxing week at my mother’s house. She got to play with her “cousins”, Louie and Kiwi. More importantly, she had little to no questions to ask while she was there (thanks, Mom!). When she comes back today, she will notice that there is a new bathroom. Odds are, she’ll want to check it out to make sure there are no threats to our family in there (Sir, no Sir!) and all will be right with our little pack.
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio