The method for testing dogs mental characteristics has basically been developed by the Swedish Dog Training Centre. We could, just to visualize the subject, imagine the wolf as our reference dog (in reality we dont compare wolfs and dogs). Wolfs are a very homogen and predictable breed - compared to our dogs. By selective breeding we have changed the wolf mentality and appearance to suit many different purposes and their behaviour might stray very far from the characteristics of a "standard" wolf. The test is mainly used on different types of service dogs, to determine the suitability of a singel dog for some specific service and to judge the result of mating between certain breeding animals. This method is based on a system of exposing the dog to standardised stimulus - situations that the dog has rarely or never been exposed to earlier.
The method is explained elsewhere in this site and it takes very experienced dog handlers (or "mental test judges" as we call them) to interpret the dogs behaviour in thedifferent test situations. The method is increasingly being used on gun dogs also, partly for the same reasons as for service dogs but also to resolve or at least explain training problems. I have used it personally to full satisfaction. The dogs mental characteristics are divided into ten different parts. They describe the characteristics of a dog that we consider important from the human point of view to a working dog. Each part is judged on a six point scale, nowadays with out any numbers because dog owners tended to be very fixed on the total number of points the dog got, instead of analysing the test results and thereby learning something useful about their dogs. I will not discuss the credibility (thrustworthiness) of these tests - they have been used for 60 years by the Swedish army, police, custom, blind dog schools and hunters and pet owners. They have proved their worthiness many times but we must be humble - as long as we can not communicate directly to a dog we will never be able to define it with micrometer precision.
A gun-dog, however, can be very open and affable. Usually hunters love friendly dogs, they are sociable, easier to handle when shooting or field trialing with unknown people and dogs everywhere, and of season they often serve as pets. A dog that is excessively affable, a dog that glues to anyone it happens to meet and that just has to jump on everyone and lick them in the face is a nuisance and if it is a big dog it can be dangerous in its friendliness. On the opposite side of the affable dog there are the dogs that are excessively aggressive. From a shorter or longer distance they try to maintain that distance by signalling with aggresivity "Don`t come closer, I am afraid of you and dont want to have you near me!”. Usually you can make friends with these dogs with some help from their owner. They might be useful as guard dogs in certain situations but generally a good guard dog shows aggresivity only when it is working. Still these dogs are usually not dangerous to people with some dog sense because they really warn you and often very early.
The most dangerous type of dog is the wily, undepenable dog that may wave its tail slightly when you approach it and then suddenly, in a fraction of a second, chance its mind and attack you. Some of these dogs dont signal anything before they act. Fortunetly they are quite rare and I belive it must be quite difficult for a responsible citicen to keep one of this type for any lenght of a period. So how affable should our ideal dog be? It depends of course of what we are going to use it for but generally the types that we describe as "less affable, affable", and to some extent "excessively affable" are nice to train and handle as gun dogs and service dogs of different types.
In Scandinavia there are some breeds of dogs with strong or very strong prey drive, for example setters and different types of hare - hounds and elk - hounds. Where a wild wolf would take it easy and slowly follow a prey for maybe days in order to save energy an wait with the kill until circumstances are right, the domestic gun dog has to produce a good situation to the handler in hours or minutes. It doesn´t matter if the dog gets compleatly exhausted during the hunt, the kill will be done by the gun. The prey drive is a powerful engine in our gun dogs and in reality it means that the stronger this engine is, the more difficult the dog will be to control but it also means that a dog with a strong drive to follow a prey can go on for longer without a reward. In fact, to many dogs, being able to hunt, quest or whatever you will call it is reward enough in itself. If the handler shoots something or not does not matter to the dog, it feels it has had a nice day anyway.Some breeds however are characterised by a strong consciousness of the prey, one example is the GWP and to some extent GSP and dachshounds. They are, like the Germans themselves, practical dogs that are not satisfied until the prey is safely home. British dogs on the other hand doesnt care less if the handler hits the flushed bird or not. At the same moment the bird goes into the air the hunt is over for them and it is time to look for the next one. The British handler is often similar. He enjoys style, speed, the atmosphere of the shoot or hunt and the scenarios more than the number of prey being killed at the end of the day. In some gun-dogs a less powerful prey drive is desirable. Spaniels, retrivers and terriers have other engines that propel them, we dont want them to hunt a prey for miles - or do we?
As I mentioned a strong prey drive is desirable when you want the dog to work for long periods without a reward (the hunt itself is a good motivation) like in Scandinavia where the birds are far between and the average bag of a grouse/gun is 1,4 birds per hunting day. Show bred animals often show a lack of a strong engine and if they dont find anything within a few minutes they start to do something else. But the stronger the prey drive is in a dog, the more demanding it is to the handler. It is easier to handle a Volkswagen than a Ferrari but you also get a lot less driving pleasure from a Volkswagen than a Ferrari.
In Sweden it is often said that dogs that goes "wild" and runs very wide and out of control of the handler are "hunting idiots".This is not the truth in most cases. Usually the fault is the handler who hasn't understood that to drive this type of dog he needs to attend a racing drivers school first! Instead of getting knowledge of, and skill as a pack leader and handler, the electric collar is pulled into daylight.
In a pack of wolfs there is a multilevel organisation controlled with dominance. There are the alpha -, beta- and so on dogs and bitches. In almost any situation they control each other by being more or less dominant. But at the very moment the pack starts to chase a selected prey the dominance disappears and every member of the pack is equal! This goes on until that very moment when the prey is dead, then instantly the less dominant pack members pull back from the prey and the dominant ones eat first. This is the reason why, in a hunting situation, most dogs are more or less difficult to control, for them it is not natural to be dominated in such a situation.
It is however possible to control a dog in these situations even if it might take a very skilful handler to "tame" some dogs. Puppies that are expected to have a strong hunting drive must be trained to accept dominance from the first moment they come into the house at the age of eight weeks. Six or ten months later it normally is too late to do something of them without any harsh methods.
To exemplify this we can look at my spaniel. She has a prey drive that is moderate and it was not a big problem to make her steady to game. Her competition drive however is "strong" , one step above the desirable lever " moderate", and this has caused some problems when trying to keep her quest within acceptable limits. On the other hand she never gives up the search for a retrieve because she is powered by her strong competition drive and her strong engagement in the prey ( which is described as a part of the competition drive). It is the competition drive that forces her under sticks and stones and thorny bushes and into mudholes and it is the lack of it that prevents our setter from doing the same heroic scarifieces.
That is a positive part of a strong competition drive. The negative part is that she is a little difficult to direct during the retrieving work because she finds it very stimulating, exiting, and winds her self up a bit. She is also inclined to chew the dummy or the game, and there are also tendencies that she would rather keep it than deliver it to me. Since I have prevented these tendencies to chew and tear the retrieve into pieces with early and extensive obedience training she accepts me uncompromisingly as a pack leader and is happy to deliver the retrieves to me in good condition. But with her high level of fighting spirit and without extensive obedience training she might have been useless as a working gun dog.
Another good side of a well controlled, strong competition drive came into daylight one day when I wounded a roedeer with a bad shot. I hardly never use her for roedeer otherwise but this time I was desperate and let her loose on the track of the animal. She tracked the deer, stopped it and pulled it down and might even have killed it if I had let her. So we can say that she has a strong engagement in the prey, both when trying to find it and to get it home. The social part of her competition drive is not very strong. She dont care to play with other dogs too much and she never starts a fight and she rather escapes than defends her self in the rare occasions she is attacked by other dogs. The first dog I had was the opposite, he never cared much to work hard on the field but was constantly playing with, fighting and attacking other dogs.
In Scandinavia hunting hare is very popular and we have a lot of hare-hounds, "stovare", a little bit similar to the British fox-hounds. They have usually a strong prey drive but regularly they have no interest of the game itself. They love to chase the hares for hours but once the hare has been shot they show no interest in it anymore. Some hare-hounds even try to push the dead hare with their noses, appareantly to get them back on feet again so that the hunt can continue. These dogs have very little competition drive but a strong prey drive. This is compleatly acceptable in these dogs but nobody expects a GWP or a terrier to behave that way. It is now easy to see how extensively we have regulated the characteristics of our dogs to suit different services. The competition drive is the second of the powerful engines that propels our dogs. You can already imagine what happens if someone by stupid breeding produces dogs with both "very strong prey drive" and "very strong competition drive”. They can hardly be used for any civilised shooting. And finally when gun-dogs are concerned we can say that they use their prey drive to find, follow and reach the prey and to some extent their competition drive to kill it. Where a wolf must have reasonable levels of both of these characteristics in order to survive, a gun dog many times only needs one of them because the handler, the gun, takes care of the other part.
A bloodhound might give the impression to posses a poor prey drive. It might be so because like all other dogs their characteristics vary a lot within the breed. But a good bloodhound is propelled in the track by a prey drive that is just as strong as in the worst of foxhounds - it is just covered by a "less lively" temperament. Due to its calm way of working it can concentrate very carefully on its job and how accurately it can do it is a well known fact. Lively temperament in a dog with some defence drive gives often the impression of a dog that is much more aggressive than it actually is. It acts very strongly with its body, tail up and barking furiously, moving back and forth. But as the matter of fact such a dog does not have to be aggressive at all. On the other hand an aggressive dog with a very slow temperament might give so little signals that an inexperienced "victim" goes too close to the dog beliving it is harmless.
Liveluness is desirable in a gun dog at moderate levels. It is not to be confused with restlessness or nervousness. A lively dog can relax just as well as a slow or apathetic one. A lively dog notices and reacts instantly to both positive and negative stimulus. It is therefore easy to train and alert at the shooting ground. It is easy to "read" because of its intensive body language. A very lively dog however has a tendency to miss scent and other important signals and the handler actually has to be much more alert than when handling a less lively dog. A slowly working Labrador can be just as determined retriever as a fast one. It may not please the eye as much as a fast one but when dealing with realy difficult retrieves it might be more effective than the lively one because it takes the time to investigate and think before it acts.
In Sweden dog owners sometimes take their dogs to a mental test to find out how dangerous their dogs actually are, how much aggresivity is there actually in them? Very often they get the answer that their dog has little or no hereditary sharpness! They just have learned that in certain situations they can use aggressivity with succes. But once on the test track they are exposed to situations they have "not trained themselves for" and they dont know what to do, lot less use aggresivity. Aggresivity is not a negative characteristic of a dog if it has it at moderate levels and in a certain composition. ”Good”aggressivity is shown by the dog only in situations where the dog really needs to keep distance to something. This means that the aggressivity should be taken into use at the moment the negative stimulus has exceeded the dogs toleranse level, and extinguish at the very moment the negative stimulus has ceased. Remaining aggressivity, after the negative stimulus has ceased, is dangerous because it can be turned into something totally different than the stimulus that released it in the first hand.
So, aggressivity at moderate levels and without any tendency to remain after it is not needed is nothing negative, it is only a natural mechanism for the dog to protect it self, its pack and its packleader. Something desirable in a service dog for example.
An other situation that is quite common is when children unexpectedly run towards a dog that is not prepared to it. If this dog is "nervous" or even "slightly nervous" and has "aggresivity" no more than at "moderate" levels the dog might, because it could not make a correct judgement in the short time available, bite - just to protect it self. Compare this to a police who shoots someone innocent when he is pushed into a tight corner in a gun fight. It is to a gundog also very important to be as calm as possible. Nervousnes does not interfere a good dog work only in dangerous situations but also in daily life. In this case we could call it "sensitivity to stress”. My own and most other working spaniels are more or less inclined to this fault which has developed due to breeders who have mixed livelyness (a desirable characteristic in a working spaniel) with sensitivity to stress.
Even if a spaniel usually is a very fast retriever there are many who are working without any plan when searching a retrive. They usually find it because they due to their high speed are bound to hit it sooner or later. I have also seen field trial spaniels that winds them self up so much during the hunt that they stop using their noses. They flush game because they have been trained to quest very closely and therefore hardly can avoid to step on anything that lies on the ground and they find the shot game for the same reason. This kind of dogs are nervous, they can not take the excitement of hunting without developing stress. But when training with dummies they might use their noses superbly because the excitement during the training is less strong.
Another example is the Scandinavian harehounds. A nervous hare-hound with strong or very strong hunting drive might find a hare and start to chase it but after a while the excitement of the hunt has put so much stress on it that it looses its nose. And a hare-hound without a nose is, you know what.... And in addition this kind of hound would probably go at 100% speed all the time, thereby wasting energy and be happy to go home much earlier than the handler. If the hare-hound on the other hand had been a dog with only moderate levels of prey drive it could be somewhat nervous and still be a good dog because it would still find the hunt very interesting but not so exiting that it would loose its head. In fact, many good hare-hounds are constituted this way.
Nervous gundogs can also be scared by different peculiar formations in the terrain and they are easily distracted by songbirds, other hunters, strange sounds and so on.... During training a nervous dogs behaviour is often interpreted as disobedience and it might be, but more often the dog is so wound up that it simply does not either notice or understand the signals from the handler. The characteristic "nerve stability " is beyond any hesitation the most important characteristic of any dog (and any human being for that matter) and should be considered with great care when planning breeding. There are many dogs that have other characteristics at ideal or nearly ideal levels for that breed and the service the dog is supposed to do but then everything falls to pieces just because the dog is not capable of making fast judgements of different situations and is unable to withstand stress for any length of time.
Then we have a few dogs that are "highly nervous”. They are shaky almost everywhere and all the time. These dogs are good for nothing, they can not work and they can not even be trained to work. They are anxious and never feel well. I am not reluctant to say this: these dogs should be put to rest for their own sake. If, on the other hand, someone wants to help a dog that is less nervous than "highly nervous" then whatever you do: Never pity it! The idea of "pity" a dog does not understand. If pitied the dog only feels that its handler is also anxious and it strengthens its own beliefe that life is dreadful. A calm dog does not need a packleader in order to feel well. It has every situation under control and it can handle daily life with easiness. But the more nervous a dog is, the stronger, better leadership it needs to feel as well as possible. It must be brought into the idea that when the handler commands SIT, and it sits, then nothing can happen to it, it can feel secure. The more rules this kind of dog has to obey, the easier life will be to it because it will be excused from making any own decisions.
A nervous dog with a good packleader delegates most of a dogs duties to the leader and when it dont have to deal with matters that it is not capable to deal with it feels relieved, secure and feels well. With age a nervous dog, handled this way, will learn to deal with life in a satisfactory way. The simple conclusion is that for pure matters of a dogs wellbeing a strong, calm dog does not need a packleader. A nervous dog needs a strong leader! Quite contrary to the public beliefe! If we scale the characteristic of nerve satbility like this:" Calm", "Relatively calm", "Nervous disposition", "Slightly nervous", "Nervous" and "Highly nervous" we can be satisfied if our dog is somewhere between relatively calm and slightly nervous. Completely calm dogs are very seldom encountered and a relatively calm dog can be considered as "excellent".
Of course they can be trained too, for practical purposes, but trying to install some precision in the training would take more time than most of us care to spend. But instead they are in a way easy to train. The handler does not have to be very careful about how he handles the dog or what he says or in which pitch he uses he's voice. He must make very big mistakes before he can hurt the dog mentally. Therefore, moderate hardness is valuable in dogs that are meant to rough work. They are trainable, they are not easy to destroy by wrong training methods (even though wrong methods usually leads to the result that the dog neglects the trainer) and if they get some punishment when working they are happy to do it again the next day. But for practical purposes, when dealing with birddogs, spaniels, retrievers that are not expected to do any heroic deeds on the field, we prefer dogs that are somewhere between moderately hard and weak (soft), depending on the strength of their prey drive and competition drive.
In this house we have, besides the spaniel, also an English setter from Scandinavian bloodlines, designed to hunt very large areas with very few birds in the mountains, that is: she has a prey drive that is "strong". Had this bitch had the characteristic of being "hard" or even "moderately hard" we might not have been as happy with her as we are now. As she is now, "slightly weak", we can handle her even if it takes great effort sometimes, and we are confident that with patience and firmness she will by and by develop into an enjoyable hunting companion. Her hardness is in other words at such a level that we can balance her strong prey drive with firmness and leadership and thereby make her hunt with at least some control so far. Bird dogs from British bloodlines, that are spread all over the world, are, as I have understood it, softer and have the prey drive at more moderate levels and are therefore easier to train but also easier to spoil if handled too harsh. The training methods MUST always be adjusted to a dogs characteristics, other wise the result of the training will never be satisfactory.
Very soft dogs however are again more difficult to train. If they have other "powering" characteristics like some prey drive, there will easily develop a conflict between the will to hunt and the will of the trainer. Lets say a very soft dog starts to chase the neighbours chicken. It gets exited and your shout does not get through immediately. To get through the shield of excitement you must catch the dog by the neck and shout in its ear. In a fraction of a second the dog sobers up and becomes the soft dog again and receives the harsh treat-ment you are given it. What happens now is that the dog, when not strenghtened by the refreshment of a good chase, melts into a squeaking pile of hair, legs and ears. Had this dog been a little harder the whole incident had ended up with the dog learning the lesson that these chickens at least are enclosed from field sports. But it would still search the birds you like it to shoot. The very soft dog however, may never more chase anything in its entire life.
A solid hardness can sometimes be concealed by the lack of strong "engines". If the dog is not so active, dont have any need of hunting or any competition drive, it may live trough its entire life without the owner noticing that his dog is rather hard. He is just pleased with a dog that is not affected by most of the disturbances that makes soft dogs run for shelter. If on the other hand this dog had had many strong engines, including a very lively temperament the owner would have considered the dog as a nuicance.
A dog with little courage maybe stops at the same distance as the brave one but does not have the guts to go back immediately. It checks how you, the packleader has reacted and checks if it can get some support from you, maybe it will come a few steps closer and then catapult back again. It may try to solve the situation with aggressivity, blows it self up and tries to look and sound dangerous. It may not be able to solve the situation without the support of the handler. These kinds of situations happens often to certain types of service dogs and as everybody can understand it is important that the dog handles the situation fast and continue its actual work. But courage is positive in gun-dogs also. A brave dog does not feel fear unless there is a real reason to do it and a dog that feels secure can do its work better.
The Baltic sea is partly frozen in the wintertime. We never let the dogs out on ice around our house because we dont want them to go down later when the ice is softening in the spring. But once, during the winter, we where to the seaside at another place far from here and walked out on the frozen sea. This place is exposed to weather and the seaside was like a moon landscape of frozen water on the rocks, stones and on the landline. Both dogs felt fear when we walked out on the ice in this landscape and it was interesting too see how fast they overcame it. The spaniel, with her less favourable nerve stability did not overcome it during the hour we spent there. I throw pieces of ice for her to retrieve towards the endless sea and she was reluctant to fetch them even though she loves retrieving everything from mice to elephants under normal circumstances. The setter however, not being a very keen retriever had after a while a lot of fun with the pieces of ice. They were both just as scared in the beginning but the setter, due to her better nerve stability and greater courage overcame the fear and could continue to work undisturbed even though the environment was compleatly new to her.
A brave dog does not feel fear unnessesaryly and therefore it does not use different tools like sharpness unnecessarily. A brave dog is a safer worker in service, on the hunting field and a safe companion to children.
The next step is to take the puppy outside the house and repeat the procedure with the exception that now I start at least at 100 yards or farther away while my wife closely observes the puppy for any sign of nervousness. Repeat this with patience (dont rush to close the distance) and I am quite sure that even dogs that have some hereditary gun shyness will be confident gun dogs. Highly nervous dogs are another case of course.
When we look for gun dogs we should not look for dogs that has "an ideal level of every characteristic", such dogs cannot be found. We must look for dogs that has about the right characteristics for the duty they are supposed to do. I f we live in a country rich in game we dont need a formula 1 dog with a strong prey drive that can go on in search day after day with very little reward. Better to end up with a softer dog that can be trained to a high standard with amateur methods. If we need a retriever only - we dont buy a field trial bred spaniel that works faster than our eye can follow. And we must be humble in dealing with the little knowledge we have about dogs, there has been more extensive studies and researches of the Great Titmouse than of our dogs.
I hope that I have managed to give something for everybody despite of my misuse of the eminent English language.
Good dogging and thank you for visiting this page!