by Ellen Landauer

Choosing a Dog

Choosing a dog that is compatible with your temperament, lifestyle and tastes is exciting, and often challenging.

This article is for you if you have a fairly clear idea of which breed(s) might be most desireable for you, and intend to seek a reputable breeder.

Choosing a Dog: Corgi pups

Choosing a Dog:
Working vs Show Lines

Choosing a dog breed that suits you and your family is the first step. Once you have decided that, the next step is finding a reputable breeder.

At this juncture, an important consideration is - should you get a pup from proven working bloodlines (dogs adept at doing the work for which their breed was intended) or show (dog beauty pageant) lines? The two can be worlds apart, so much so that they are virtually two different breeds!

Choosing a Dog: AKC Conformation

In your process of choosing a dog, you may have gone to an AKC dog beauty pageant and contamplated the various breeds trotting around a ring and being posed relentlessly to show their best form to the judge. As in any beauty pageant, the competitors have been prepared for many weeks/months beforehand to get them to look (and behave) their best.

Another similarity of AKC conformation shows to a beauty pageant is that exhibitors literally use 'make-up' to enhance desired appearance. I have seen Samoyeds (big white northern breed) get white powder sprinkled into their coats just before ring time. I have seen shiny black salve applied to dogs' noses to make them shinier and darker. And doggie eyeliner delicately painted around the doe-like eyes of Beagles!

In the AKC conformation ring, you are seeing dogs that have been primped to the nines to impress, with an idealized vision of what competitors think the judges (and public) want to see. From puppyhood, these dogs have been schooled for this career of endless, mindless trotting and posing.

You will note that show dogs are on a tight, short lead with collar high on the neck for maximum control. Yet, if you spend enough time at ringside, you will see dogs that panic, back up and even show aggression or throw a fit

See minutes 16 - 18  &  25 - 27 of video below:

While many breeders primarily raise show dogs but claim that they also work, one must examine the type and extent of the 'work!' So many breeders tout the 'working' abilities of their dogs - and in most cases they are not asking anywhere near the kind of demanding work for which their breed was created.

Usually, the 'work' they are referring to is AKC obedience or crawling through plastic tunnels and jumping hurdles, etc. in Agility. None of that holds a candle to a full day of diving into ice-cold water to retrieve waterfowl, keeping hundreds of sheep together when there is no fence, or searching a dark building to find an armed criminal, then holding them at bay until the K9 handler shows up. Real working dogs have to possess unflappable strength of character and top-notch physical soundness.

Choosing a Dog: Working Bloodlines

Assuming you want rugged physical health, rock-solid temperament and awesome character, a good place to start is working lines. Thoroughly research the history of your breed to learn their intended purpose. 

When choosing a dog breed, you will want to know if there are inherent behaviors you would find intolerable. For example, if you want a dog that will stay close by, a Plott Hound could be a bad choice. Plott Hounds were bred to follow even a cold trail of bear, raccoon or mountain lion, chase them up a tree and stay there (for a full day and night if necessary) holding the animal at bay.

Learning effective and fun ways to channel working drive is a must. These dogs are harder to inhibit, but have much more ability to focus. You want to do obedience with your pup? Working lines have MUCH more ability to ignore distractions and give you intense, steady attention (assuming you raise them according to their true nature)!

The challenge is, working dogs have more energy. The reward is, you get to live with a canine of amazing character.

Choosing a Dog:
Examples of Working vs. Show Lines

When choosing a dog, working vs. show lines can be like two different breeds.

One example is ACD's (Australian Cattle Dogs). The working bloodlines just will not quit - can spend all day every day working cattle - a job that requires savvy, agility, courage and a body built like a tank - big enough to impress the cattle that they will not be trifled with.

Most pet ACD's I've seen are small - maybe 35 - 40 pounds. And now they are breeding 'minis' of such breeds - making a working dog into a toy dog - this is a disaster genetically and on many other levels.

A working ACD has better natural muscle and joint sturdiness than their beauty pageant counterparts. They are a relatively healthy breed as they have not achieved the popularity and consequent declining health of other breeds.

In a search on Australian Cattle Dogs, I found only ONE breeder whose primary purpose is to breed a tough, hearty dog capable of heading off a charging bull - and whose dogs also show in conformation:

His standard for working ability: 'The dogs have to move like a cat, bite like an alligator, think like a dingo, and take a blow like a prize fighter.'

How's THAT for character!

Golden Retrievers are a very compromised breed. Originally a hunting dog, they have commonly devolved into a very nervous, dependent animal. They are beloved as pets by many, but most are not capable of doing the work for which the breed was developed.

Show breeders may say they also are 'working' dogs. But - a Golden Retriever that excels at AKC Obedience competition and Rally is NOT being asked to do the demanding work of hunting.

Below is an example of a breeder that raises REAL Golden Retrievers:

Golden Retriever working bloodlines are dogs that can tolerate, and come to love, the sound of a 12-gauge shotgun over their heads. They can race through brambles and swim in icy cold water, retrieving birds for hours. They are not as 'fancy looking' as a show Golden - they don't have soft, long fringes of fur that can get caught on the brush they run through.

Working Golden Retrievers can hunt for most of their lives. Their breeders are less tolerant of hip dysplasia and other health issues that would shorten their working life.

When choosing a dog, remember that MOST breeds were originally bred for demanding work, with vitality and character to rise to the occasion!

Choosing a Dog:
Temperament Issues of 'Show' Lines

One of many examples of temperament issues in show lines is the German Shepherd breed.

Many years ago, I was at an AKC German Shepherd specialty show to compete in obedience with my first German Shepherd. 

As I walked about after our turn in the ring, I noticed a woman tending to a grey sable American-bred female German Shepherd about to go in the conformation ring. The dog was trembling quite visibly. I stopped about 8 feet away quietly contemplating this scene.

The woman noticed me and said, 'I'm determined that she (the dog) is going to get her championship (in conformation). We know how to cover up her nervousness so the judge won't notice.'

She actually said that - to a stranger no less! Once this German Shepherd became a 'champion,' she would be bred to another show dog that is also a 'champion' (of what?), likely also having weak nerves. The pups would then be sold for a hefty price.

When choosing a dog, you might want to consider that working dog breeders have less 'wiggle room' when it comes to glossing over dubious traits in their bloodlines. Not that it can't happen, but that it is less likely. 

Dogs that compete in working trials have to have temperaments and bodies that can stand up to stress. A hunting dog needs to be steady under a shotgun blast and point or retrieve birds many hours at a time; a herding dog needs to be able to run for hours a day and deal with recalcitrant cows, sheep or goats - not as easy as you might think. A dog that competes in Schutzhund (tracking, obedience and protection) needs to have the focus and steady nerves to carry through.

Dogs bred for real work need physical soundness, stamina and agility to accomplish these tasks. Weak nerves and weak body structure just won't hold up.

In any working venue, extensive training can help gloss over less than ideal nerve strength - but this is not as easy to do as making a dog look good in the show ring. Same with physical soundness - a young dog up to say, four years, may have weaknesses that only really become problematic as they get a little older.

Working vs Show Lines:
Structural Weaknesses

Again, I'm using German Shepherds as an example - since they are a breed with which I am very familiar. However, physical weakness also appears in many other breeds now bred for show.

Show line German Shepherds, particularly in America (and also West German show lines), have physically declined so precipitously as to be practically a whole different breed than real working German Shepherds. For the most part, show line GS have structural weaknesses bred in - which make them physically unsuited for real work.

In American-breds, the tibia and fibula of the hind legs is too long - giving that stylish collapsed look to the hind end so favored by judges.

In West German show GS, the 'banana back' - excessively roached (curved) midsection - is seen. Neither is optimal working structure.

Along with lack of structural integrity, health issues also are common in show lines.

Years ago, I knew of a popular breeder of American show line German Shepherds who had a young 'show quality' male. For a year or so, starting at 6 or 7 months, he was kept out of sight. Other breeders I knew said the reason was that the pup had pannus, a crippling disease of joints and ligaments that afflicts growing dogs and is believed to be passed on genetically.

Later on, once back to 'normal,' this dog was shown, became a 'champion' and sired lots of puppies.

This is not to say there are not plenty of ethical breeders who show their dogs in conformation. It is simply to share some stories that illustrate the need to be very careful when selecting a breeder, especially if show lines are the source from which you want your next dog to come.

Choosing a Dog:
Energy Level is a Consideration

For some, the higher energy level of working bloodlines may be too much.

Years ago, a middle-aged woman came to me for training. Her issue - a 12 week old English Setter pup that just wouldn't stop trying to grip her with its jaws. 

Initially, I was a little surprised that a hunting breed of such mild temper and refinement would be so insistent and mouthy. English Setters have a reputation as a 'gentlemans' hunting dog - calm and aristocratic. When I worked with the pup using a bite toy, he went past the toy every time and made for my arm! The woman, a first-time puppy owner, told me this setter was from real working lines. That explained his high drive to make contact.

A couple of weeks after our lesson, I contacted the woman to see how they were doing. Turns out, she realized this pup was too much for her and returned him to his breeder.

If you just want a pet, you may still be able to choose a dog from working lines. Make sure to specify to the breeder your realistic expectations for how the pup will fit into your life. (Any reputable breeder will be asking YOU a lot of questions to determine this)!

It may be comforting to you in your search to know, as my mentor Kevin Behan said to me, 'The puppy you choose is the one you're supposed to have.'

Choosing a Dog is part of what we can help you with in our Natural Dog Training consultations:


"It goes without saying that dogs are wonderful.  Having dogs is wonderful.  Choosing a dog is wonderful... 

"Having Ellen help me with this process is even better.  Ellen was very generous with her time, knowledge and experience, and her input has been invaluable throughout my research.  She really helped inspire me and refine my thinking.

"Our consultations have really gotten me excited about working with my puppy.  Thank you Ellen!"

- Laurie Desmarais-Melcuk, MA

BUY 'Hunting for Heart' and
Rediscover Your Primordial Bond With Dogs

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