Today’s blog post is by another guest – Michaela Langston. Michaela is a friend of mine that has found success with a rather unusual IPO partner, and she has been kind enough to share her story. In IPO, we put a lot of emphasis on breeding and genetics and “the right dog”, so I think it’s important to hear the perspective of someone that is not only participating, but also succeeding, in the sport with a dog that most wouldn’t have considered.
For more information about Zico and Michaela, and to follow their adventures, please check out their instagram at www.instagram.com/zicotheworkingdog
I enter the writing of this blog post with a mix of eagerness and nerves, as there is so many thoughts and opinions from my own experience that I would like to share – However, it would take years and a fair bit more wine to really get the full experience. As such, I will attempt to shed light on the topic at hand in the most relevant, honest way possible – For better or worse!
First things first, let’s introduce the off breed in question: I call him Zico, and he is a cattle dog mutt. I was told his father was an pure bred Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) and his mom was an ACD/Border Collie cross. I suppose that puts him at 75% ACD, and 25% Border Collie. He’s a whopping 40lbs on a good day, has some strange conformation, and more drive then I knew what to do with at the time. The story of how I acquired him is a long one – Involving numerous attempts (and failures) to adopt a German Shepherd, a few drinks, and a Wal-Mart parking lot. We’ll save that for another time.
When you look at the breed description for an ACD, you see a few red flags. The first is, “highly intelligent”. This is something I have learned is relevent to definition, because sometimes people define intelligence as the dogs ability to learn commands and obey their handlers – However, cattle dogs are bred a little differently. They are intelligent out of necessity, dealing with difficult cattle over treacherous terrain often requires a dog to think quickly and make decisions without the help of humans. We’ll come back to that later – First, let’s talk about the challenges you will find with an off breed.
The first struggle you face as an off breed in Schutzhund, is getting anyone to give you the time of day. When I joined my club, I sent email after email – Called numerous times, tried getting it out via word of mouth. Silence.
Being annoyingly persistant has its perks however, and I did eventually receive a reply to my emails. So our journey together began.
Zico was a quick study. Upon his evaluation, he displayed an innate ability to learn almost every manuever pretty immediately – The key after that was keeping him from getting bored, and that happened a lot. He took to the bite work quickly, even after several people assuring me that “If he doesn’t go after the rag right away, don’t worry – Sometimes they take a few tries to get the hang of it.”
Yeah, right. Zico was on that thing like angry on a wet cat. Prey drive was never his issue. Through the thrashing, snarling, barking, and pulling during his first rag session – Our training director laughed and said, “I like him.”
So far things are going well, we progress quickly through our training sessions, and ignore jokes about the “chipmunk” on the end of the leash. We start to grow on people and them on us, and I get my hands on more and more dogs in their training as well. We really became part of the club, and after a while the jokes subside. People forget when Zico wasn’t around, and we blend into the scenery.
I forget that we are not “normal”, for a brief time.
Then I started branching out.
I trained with more people, and we hosted seminars at the club. I attended other trials, regional events, workshops. Before I got my dog out, everyone acted normal – Chatty, talked about breeding, standard, how they did at the last trial, what wine they had with dinner last night, etc.
Then the dingo comes out. Eyes widen, people stop talking to watch, a couple of others might make backhanded comments (“The farm is back the other way.”) Once the initial shock wears off, I am usually met with warmth and lots of friendly people – Yet, not always. The past couple of years I have spent a couple drives home in tears, feeling dejected and asking myself “Why am I even trying?”
So in these moments I remind myself, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight….It’s the size of the fight in the dog.
This sport, like any, has it’s handful of elitists. I have encountered this in horses for my entire life, and it is not news to me – It is just human way. It is just something that we combat with kindness, and a certain level of “do no harm, take no shit.” In these moments it is important to remember that just like them, you love your dog – You show up in pouring rain, snow, blistering heat, hail, and you pay your dues like everyone else. You deserve to be there just as much as everyone else does, regardless of breed or pedigree.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way.
- The Training Struggles
How much does genetics play a part in this whole spectrum?
While I am absolutely a believer that a dog with a good work ethic and drive can overcome a lot of other downfalls, I am also not blind to the part that genes play in a good Schutzhund dog. Structure, grips, drive, temperament, sustainability,workability, intelligence – These are traits breeders have been trying to instill for decades. I have seen plenty of puppies come straight out of the whelping box with a solid, full mouth grip from nothing else except breeding.
So how do we balance this for those of us who do not own a working line GSD?
The answer is not always so black and white as we’d like it to be. I’d like to be able to tell you that with any amount of training, any dog can do anything – But it’s just not true.
Zico is a chewer on the sleeve naturally. He wants to thrash a lot. His instinct to bite and hold onto something is basically nonexistant – So we trained on a rag and a long pillow for ages, trying to teach him the new behavior. He is just now starting to really reliably hit and hold the bite with a solid grip – Yet all it would take to ruin that, would be a mistake by the helper, or by me, and we’d be set back again.
Temperament is another thing that can set you back. Cattle dogs, while probably the most courageous of all the farm type breeds, often fail in this respect – Either they are too aggressive, or too unstable. This is common not only in Schutzhund, but in life – Thousands of ACDs are put down every year for these severe issues. Zico, in particular, is very unforgiving. One bad experience can make or break his opinion of something, and he never forgets. He struggles with stick hits, due to being a little on the nervous side of the spectrum.
So thus, we train. I bought a stick, I started small by just having it in my hand, and worked my way up to real hits. He learned the behavior, but the temperament remains the same.
The issues with protection are often obvious – So what about the other two phases?
Tracking is pretty straightforward, work ethic is huge here – And a motivation to work for a reward, and use their nose. These traits are not that difficult to come by, and tracking is actually Zico’s best phase out of the three.
Obedience is a different matter. While he does pick up on things pretty immediately, it often takes him an extended period of time to really become solid and reliable. This stems from work ethic, yet again. The wheels in his head are constantly turning, and he’s sensitive. He does not take to corrections well, and force – Forget it. He’ll flip you off and pee on your shoes. It was a long process, longer than it should have been, to convince him that it is worth his time to perform an entire obedience routine with no reward. He’s insanely, incredibly, overwhelmingly quick – And there is no fooling him, he knows when you have a toy and when you do not.
While those things are not necessarily breed traits, you see it often in the cattle dogs. Their fierce independence can be both your biggest asset on the ranch, and your biggest weakness in a dogsport. Now, this is not to say that my dog does not care for me – It’s kind of a paradox of emotions with these guys. While he is always comfortable to do his own thing, he absolutely cannot stand to be seperated from me. He lives in my truck a majority of the time, sleeps wrapped around my head like a scarf, and raises hell if I am not within eyesight. I move, he moves – Whether it be sitting on the couch, moving from room to room, or out working with our horses. He’s never more than twenty feet away, and you can watch the body language – His ears are constantly swiveling, keeping tabs on what I am doing.
You would think with such an intense desire to be with a handler, the issues I mentioned earlier would not exist. This is where is gets sticky – Cattle dogs are strong dogs, and they will never be your subordinate. They are bred with enough inherent aggression and wits that they will only work with a partner, not a master. It took me a while to understand that, but once I had, things started coming together. Our relationship improved, he tried harder, and working was suddenly worth his time. It wasn’t just about earning the ball through some heeling, it was about feeling respected and working towards a goal.
I am not certain how far my little dingo dog will go in this sport. We have branched out to SDA, AKC, and nosework as a means to continue hunting down titles. His versatility is one of the perks of having a cattle dog, as he takes to all environments and will go wherever I ask him to. We will continue to train every day until he is retired, and if we never earn another title again I’ll be happy with all he has taught me, and the friendships I have forged in this sport.
As of today, I am on the waiting list for two different Malinois breeders. I will be nowhere near ready for a puppy for a while, but preparation is key – A few years from now, if all goes as planned, I can retire an IPO3 dingo to a life on the couch and he can tell the new puppy about how he kicked ass in his years of training, overcame everyones doubts, and won the hearts of all who met him.
I love this sport for all that it is, and while I do intend to pursue the Malinois as my breed to continue in the future – Maybe, just maybe – I will find myself one or two extra cattle dogs to hang around after Zico. To live in the truck, sleep wrapped around my head, and bite people once or twice a week.