In Search of the Ultimate Working Dog (Part II)
(Dog Sports Magazine 9/98)
This month we will pit two of the top protection dogs on the planet in another round of controversy. I received many calls about my previous article on the Malinois vs. the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT). Some were very positive, stating that the APBT will now be acknowledged as more than just a fighting dog and given its just due. Others were downright irate, stating that the APBT should not be mentioned in the same breath as the Malinois because they are not as "titled" a dog. Titles do not signify greatness. I've seen and trained many dogs for the real world that have no titles at all and believe me, you would be hard pressed to get past them in a real situation. Trials are judged, and where there are judges, there is politics. If someone breaks into your house and your dog has to respond, politics does not enter into it. Period. End of story. I will be doing an article entitled "Sport dog vs. Street dog" which is sure to blow the roof off some of our readers. But so be it. Now lets get on with Part II.
The German Shepherd has established an almost legendary reputation in working dog parlance as the best all-around breed. From police work to Schutzund, French Ring, KNPV, SAR all the way to Therapy work. You will not find a better dog for "all seasons." We will see if they have suffered a "fall from grace" as some say, and examine whether you can still obtain good dogs without resorting to importation.
The American Bulldog is considered a "new" breed to some, not really becoming poular until the late 1980's. They are very similar to the APBT in appearance, a little bit bigger and less dog aggressive, and are said to be the "Rolls Royce" of protection dogs. Although this breed has been used for decades as farm utility dogs, guarding livestock and also hunting wild boar, they are currently competing in Schutzund, French Ring and of course used as personal protection dogs. Will their recent popularity cause the quality to decline like many other fine breeds brought to this country? We will find out. And while doing so we will also see how this "new kid on the block" measures up against the cagey veteran (the GSD).
Fala Woods K9 Training and Developmental Center, located in Honey Creek, Wisconsin, is owned by professional trainer Jon Naroditsky. Specializing in personal protection training, John recently established the SPDA (Street Protection Dog Assoc.) and he will tell us why as a former "sheperd man" he recently switched to breeding the AB. More importantly he will point out the AB's weak points, and how they can be improved upon.
Von Der Haus Gill kennel, located in Wapakoneta, Ohio, has been supplying top quality GSD's to police departments and private clients for the past 11 years. This state of the art facility is operated and owned by Lieutenant Al Gill, chief K9 officer and trainer for the department. Al has competed in and judged police trials, schutzhund competition and trained many handlers for patrol work. He also is in charge of selecting dogs for the Department of Defense. His specialty is testing and selecting dogs for police departments, personal protection, and of course anyone looking for a great family companion. We will pick his brain, see what he looks for while testing dogs, and see if top quality is still available without going overseas.
JD: I've heard that one advantage the AB's have over many of the European breeds is that there is very little handler/trainer opposition, that they are "trainer friendly."
JN: This would be correct if we were talking about a performance bred AB that is genetically sound. I feel that there are a lot more GSD's to come by therefore easier to find one suitable for the average home/working partner. But if it is an owner that is aware of the AB's idiosyncrasies, then they would definitely make a good companion/working dog. It is definitely a breed that works for its owner and is not as self centered as some of the other working breeds.
JD: Al, how do you respond to that?
AG: I would say that depends on the individual dog. I have GSD's that are trainer friendly too, but you're always going to get some that are handler aggressive. It's really a matter of putting the right dog with the right handler.
JD: How about training in general? How do you compare them?
JN: I think the AB has the ability to be better than any of our common working breeds. Their pain tolerance is higher, and they can take physical and mental pressure better. But in order for this breed to excel at the task it is being trained for, you must work with a trainer that is familiar with the bull breeds to get the most out of them. This breed thinks on a different level than our other breeds. On an average basis however, the GSD would make a better working dog.
AG: One reason I've been using and training the GSD's for so many years is just that. Ease of training. The only time you'd have that kind of problem is when the dog and handler/owner don't click. That is why selection is so important. As for the AB, I've only worked with a few of them and they seemed very tough. But as for all around ability, I'll stick with the GSD.
JD: It has been said that it is difficult to get a good GSD without going overseas. Do you find this to be true?
AG: I'm not saying you can't get good dogs here, but it is very labor intensive to have a breeding program that will endure. I supply a lot of departments, so it is very difficult to fill the demand for the quality we require. It is better to purchase green or sometimes started dogs. This way we know that all the dogs have the right stuff. When you're breeding, no one can guarantee that every puppy will grow up to be a police dog or a personal protection dog. It is much easier to test and select adults.
JD: Are there any particular bloodlines you prefer?
AG: Racker von Itzel, Indo Rudingen, Lord Vom Gleisdreick, also Grafental, Baruther Land and Beunsecker Schlob lines are my preference. These lines are some of the oldest and strongest working lines. These also seem to produce a nice all around dog, with good solid drives. There are many others we use a lot, but I really like these, or to have them in a pedigree. These lines have produced a lot of tough, top working dogs over the years.
JD: How about the AB's. Ten years ago there were a handful of breeders. Now everyone who buys one is breeding them. Will this get out of hand like many other breeds that become popular?
JN: I believe that it is easier to get good quality Shepherds now than AB's. The GSD has been around long enough to realize which kennels/bloodlines are producing good dogs, while the AB is still going through the fad stage. Everyone is breeding them with no experience whatsoever. And of course the testing is different. The trainer/assessor must understand threat display. For example, while agitating an AB they may not react at all initially. Some trainers would then say, "he hasn't got it." But if you dig a little deeper and know this breed, you would say, "this dog has good nerves, and he isn't even acknowledging me, in fact he's laughing at me." Its a confidence level rarely seen in European breeds. Now with some GSD's, you threaten them a little bit and they are ready to come over the fence on top of you.
JD:Are there different lines in AB's? And if so which do you prefer?
JN: There are 4 main types of AB's: performance/standard, Johnson/hybrid, Johnson, and Old English Whites. I prefer the performance standard type, which I have found to be the most stable and genetically sound line of AB. I have found that the performance/standard has the best endurance and when taught properly, has the potential to be a high competitor in any field of training. The Johnson/hybrid or Johnson/Scott type dog is your more common type line. A lot of sport people prefer this type of AB. They have a higher insecurity level which enables them to act aggressively with minimal pressure. I have found over the last few years that most trainers prefer a less civil approach to agitation. That makes this line a perfect candidate for someone who uses a lot of prey. The Johnson dogs are not considered AB's anymore, having their own registry and are just called Johnson bulldogs. Generally their endurance is not that great and genetically they are not as sound as the other mentioned lines. The Old English Whites are found in the southern regions of the US. They have been used for catch work, but do make good personal protection animals as well. Generally they are a little smaller than the other lines, but seem to be genetically stable. keep in mind there are always exceptions to every line in many different ways.
JD: How can you compare the GSD to the AB in this area when they are used for hunting and catching wild boar?
AG: Well that's a tough one. I would say that being in the APBT family, they would show more animal aggression. But a lot of dogs that are animal/dog aggressive have a hard time dealing with a man. We could do a lot stranger things to a dog than another animal can. As far as tenacity toward humans, the dog is only supposed to stop the man, not tear him to pieces.
JD: Jon, which one in your opinion handles serious stress better?
JN: That depends. I would say that the GSD would seem more tenacious before physical and mental pressure is put on them. During and after the physical and mental pressure, I would say the AB. This is because they are much more tolerant to pain than the GSD. It takes a trainer familiar with the breed to really read them properly. Its like having someone who doesn't get mad that often, but when they do, look out.
JD: Which is more intimidating?
JN: I think the GSD is more "threatening" looking, and this goes back to the topic of threat display. But some people are deterred or intimidated by different things, so its hard to say.
AG: I agree. Again you want to avoid the use of force whenever possible. But an intimidating dog is a plus in any situation. And its not only big or scary looking. It's attitude. The dog knows it. And now the bad guy knows it.
JD: Are there any particular health problems that are prevalent in your breed?
AG: Well of course in most breeds hips, elbows and sometimes you get immune diseases if you use too much line breeding. You see it a lot more in show breeding situations. But overall no more health problems than any other breed.
JN: Yes, there are many health problems as in many large breeds. It would be very difficult to go into detail with each, but a few are hip displasia, entropian, heart problems, OCD, demadex, elbow displasia, psychological instability, kidney and liver problems. There are always a few that carry other problems as in any breed. Most breeders today are working together to breed a healthier animal. One that has a stable temperment, as well as a sound body. What you need to remember when looking for an AB breeder is that the guarantee is very important. Find a breeder who stands by their guarantee, as well as having a good reputation. Titles are not everything because not everyone has titles to show, which doesn't mean they don't compete, but it is a good place to start.
JD: Lets talk a little about foundation training in protection with both breeds? Would you start them both at about the same age? And when would you start defensive work?
JN: I would say that the GSD matures much faster than the AB, so you could start the bitework much earlier. I wouldn't do any with an AB till they're about 12 to 14 months old, as with the GSD, probably around 6 months. As far as defense goes, the GSD around 18 months, depending on the individual dog, the AB about the same. Remember you don't want to make them too prey oriented, so you can harness that great, but sometimes hidden, defensive drive.
AG: Ideally we would start bite work somewhere between 4 and 6 months of age. We normally have dogs 9 or 10 months of age practically tearing the sleeve off the decoy. Of course this is just rough prey work. The defensive training wouldn't be started till later on, depending on the individual dog.
JD: Al, tell us what you look for when testing green or started dogs. What's your secret?
AG: Beside the standard battery of tests (gunfire, agitation, bitework, socialization, ball drive), I want to see the dog do some obedience. By seeing how he responds to corrections, you can get an idea if the previous handler was too rough with them or not. Its very important that the dog responds in a positive way or this could interfere with training in the more advanced stages.
JD: Its becoming more popular nowadays to have a dog that you compete with in trials, but also want them to be a good home protection dog. Which would you say is easier to cross train?
AG: I prefer not to, at least until the dog is solid on what his job is. For instance, I'd rather not try to make a Schutzhund III dog into a police dog. Most of them are too prey oriented and are just sleeve happy. I would rather get a dog that is already a patrol dog, knows his job, and then compete in some DPO trials. I don't want to confuse them while they're still in the intermediate stages. If you want to compete, cross train a finished product. But I prefer a single purpose dog.
JN: I'm not a competitive sport person, neither are most of my clientele. Therefore my primary goal with their dog is advanced personal protection. I feel there are enough obedience and protection dog competitions as well as other activities such as the SPDA, NAPD, etc., that personal protection dogs can compete in. There are too many scenarios in protection sports that would hinder a dog on the street. That dog should only be switched over if he is not needed as a protection animal. At this point the GSD would be much easier to cross train.
JD: Jon, do you ever see the AB being involved in law enforcement?
JN: I think the AB could excel at any task that is put in front of them with proper training. But, when it comes to law enforcement I don't think this dog should be used. Not so much as for ability, but there are many variables. Just to name a few, most K9 handlers are inexperienced with dogs, and rarely have the opportunity to work with the bull breeds. A visual deterrent is important in any protection aspect. The general public is very uneducated with the bull breeds, and the last thing we want them to see is an officer showing up at a domestic dispute with his K9 partner resembling a dog that was on the six o'clock news. On top of this, most law enforcement trainers have more luck with the more traditional working breeds. As animal aggression is an important factor, it is much simpler to stick with breeds that are more tolerant to other animals. I do however, see them being used for more specialized operations like tactical units, SWAT, and private security. The general public doesn't always hear of these operations and how they are being conducted.
JD:It seems like the GSD is an easier choice. Can you tell us why you switched from GSD's to AB's?
JN: I didn't exactly switch from one to another, I always keep some good GSD's, and probably always will. I feel that the GSD is a fine dog for any working field, but what attracted me to the AB is the amount of pressure this dog can take. I don't just mean in the protection field, but over all. We must look at the breeds' history, stability and performance. This is very important to people who own this breed. This breed was bred to endure rigorous environmental conditions as well as to be a discretionary protector with minimal training. This is probably the only breed that for centuries was called upon to perform any task that is required of our modern day working dog, only without the extended training we put into our modern day working dogs. Although this breed has declined in quality over the past few years, with a little bit of research by the right individual, you will still be able to obtain companion and a partner that you will not be disappointed with.
JD: Thank you both for a great interview.
It is very difficult to compare two breeds due to the fact they are all individuals and "the standard" doesn't always apply. However we can draw our own conclusions and hopefully do our homework when attempting to select the dog that fits our personal needs. It is safe to say that since we as Americans are guilty of ruining any breed of dog that becomes popular and can turn a profit, the AB will probably go the route that the GSD went years ago. With $1000 puppies abounding (pet quality), and amateur breeders running amok, the AB may indeed have to go full circle to finally end up in the proper hands. Hopefully the wannabe breeders will move onto the next popular breed, hopefully the Chihuahua, and stay away from the "working" class. This way we can rest assured that the professionals like these men will continue to provide us with nothing less than the very best.
Readers wishing to contact the interview subjects of this article:
Lieutenant Al Gill
Von Der Haus Gill Kennels
301 Dogwood Drive
Wapakoneta, OH 45895
Mr. John Naroditsky
Fala Woods K9 Training & Development Center
P.O. Box 11
Honey Creek, WI 53138
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