Grit: on puppies, priorities, and not taking my own advice

A new puppy is about to move in. In the last years, I’ve thought long and hard about my breed of choice. It was not going to be another Poodle or any other breed that required extensive grooming, stripping, or clipping. I hardly ever brush my own hair – I just don’t want to deal with grooming. I love Phoebe, but even when kept in a very short coat, Poodle hair is not low maintainance. I clip her hair about ten times a year – that’s about 9.5 times more often than my own.

For a long time, I thought my next dog would be a Border Collie: I was excited about learning about the fascinating sport of herding. I thought I might work my way up and compete in trials one day. I like the idea of dogs doing what they were originally bred to do, and it is deeply fascinating to see a good sheep dog know certain things about working a flock – without any training or previous experience. I was going to name her Fly.


But – life happened. Tom got Hadley, and Hadley is a BC. Hadley is a great pup; he made me want a BC even more. But Hadley is also the (one and only) reason Tom and I fight. I have all these ideas about the ways BCs should be raised and handled, and so does he – only problem is that our ideas are very different. It’s been hard for me to let Hadley be Tom’s dog, and not intervene. I’m pretty sure it’s been really hard for Tom to be with me, because I have very strong opinions about working breeds, and what they require to be well-rounded canine citizens. I think it would not be good for our relationship to add another BC to the family. I don’t know whether I could resist the temptation of telling Tom to do things this way and that way and using my dog to push my agenda. My job in our relationship is to be his girlfriend, not his dog trainer! Keeping this in mind is hard enough without having the same breed of dog. I don’t want to put additional Border Collie-related stress on our relationship. I’m a challenging enough girlfriend without having a BC, and I want to keep Tom for many more years to come. He is my best friend, my favorite person, and so, so much more. So – no BC for me! There are so many dogs out there, but there is only one Tom. Yep, I love living and working with dogs, but I have other priorities as well.


Still, I wanted a new challenge: I wanted a dog who was different than any of the dogs I had had so far. It didn’t have to be an easy dog – I have time, and I have patience, and the dogs I love most are the ones who make me a better trainer. I’m an “It’s all about the journey” kind of person. I needed it to be a dog I could grow with and learn new things with. A dog who would lead me out of my comfort zone. A dog who I could discover new sports with. A dog who would be the reason I connected with new trainers and mentors and grew as a person.


At first, I looked at other herding breeds. Working Kelpies sounded fun! I contacted a number of breeders. Unfortunately, there are very few in Europe – most breeders breed Australian Kelpies (the show line). The Working Kelpie breeders I found either didn’t sell to people without stock, didn’t have another litter planned, or already had full waitlists. I dropped the idea of getting a Kelpie – it seemed too difficult to find one.


Apart from BCs, Kelpies and Koolies (an even rarer breed in Europe), there was no herding breed I was interested in. I didn’t particularly like the sturdy built of Cattle Dogs, and I didn’t like the fact that they were mostly used as show dogs, not for herding. How would I know what I was getting?


I narrowed down my choice to working line BC (again) and Malinois. BC because I knew I liked them – a lot. Malinois because I thought I liked them – a lot, but I hadn’t known too many in person. So I ventured out, contacted breeders and owners, and met a few Mals. And – I fell in love. I loved their slim built and their intensity. Their looking right into my eyes with a bright, intelligent spark in theirs. It helped a lot to talk to an FDSA friend who breeds Mals – she told me she even takes hers herding! She’s in the US though, and there are all-breed herding trials, so herding Mals are more common than in Austria.


When I first started falling in love with Mals, I still held on to the idea of doing herding (and obedience). Two disciplines; this way we wouldn’t get bored. I also found an Austrian breeder and got in touch with him. I liked how straightforward and uncomplicated he seemed. I even found one (and probably the only?) Mal from this breeder’s kennel who did herding. I got in touch with her owner; she said her Mal was untypical – she didn’t know of any others in Austria who’d rather herd than kill sheep. There are no all-breed trials in Austria, and there are no trainers, she told me, who have experience working a Mal on sheep. She herself went to Hungary for her dog’s herding lessons.

Mals work differently than BCs, and if I was going to take my dog herding, I wanted it to be with a trainer who knew what she was doing. And it would have to be someone in Austria – I don’t have the time or the money to go to Hungary twice a week.


Anyways, herding or no herding – I had already fallen in love with the breed by now. What else were Mals doing? Of course, they were doing IPO. That’s pretty much the main thing they do in Austria. Looking at my pup’s pedigree, there were lots of IPO3 dogs on both her dam’s and her sire’s side. I hadn’t been in touch with IPO a lot – only via a friend who did it with her Giant Schnauzer. I had seen her train and not been very happy with the way her trainer treated dogs and people, and the methods they used. There was a lot of shouting; the trainer seemed rude and short-tempered. The sport as such was fascinating though: being able to control a dog “in full drive” is beautiful – if you’ve trained it without force, that is, if the dog isn’t obviously conflicted between choosing what he wants (bite that sleeve!) and the fear of your punishment, but happily obeys because he knows that cooperating with you will get him what he wants. Certainly, there were people who successfully trained for this sport without brute force? Of course there were, and not only in the US, but also in Austria. I watched videos, I ordered books, and I talked to my breeder. Wow – what a new world! What an intriguing sport, consisting of three disciplines: obedience, tracking, and bitework. Obedience and tracking I could train for via the FDSA. No worries here – it would be fun. For bitework, I needed a mentor. Someone who knew what they were doing, who had experience working with Mals, and who was a motivational rather than punishment-based trainer. Who would challenge, but respect me and my philosophy. Would I find that kind of trainer?


Back in Austria after the summer in the US, I finally met my breeder in person. I like him. He seems like more of an observer than a talker. He does what he loves: lives in the middle of nowhere with horses, sheep, Mals, and his girlfriend. He has lots of experience and does his thing without forcing his opinion on others. I like people like that. He told me about the things he was proud of in his litters, and about the things that had gone wrong in his breeding program. He told me of healthy, successful dogs, and about ones that got sick; about what seemed to be a genetic predisposition to obsessive compulsive disorders in one of the lines. About trainers who did too much too early, and ended up with problems. He told me about the temperament of the dam whose litter I was interested in – she’s not the friendliest dog in the world, and he didn’t try to conceal that. I liked his honesty. I’d much, much rather buy a dog from someone who is open and honest about what the parents are like than from someone who keeps telling me that everything is perfect. (“Everything” is never perfect – and that’s okay.) The dam has already had a litter – all the puppies turned out very well, as did the pups from the sire’s previous litters. I met one of Grit’s 1.5 year old half-siblings and watched her work. A very nice dog – intense, and levelheaded.

He told me, “You’re getting a very good dog. It’s up to you what becomes of her.” I believe him. He only breeds dogs who, to his knowledge, are both healthy and good workers, and he socializes them well. He pointed out four elements that make a good dog: genetics, socialization, the relationship you build with her in everyday life, and the skillfulness of your training. “World champions aren’t born, they are made,” he said, or something along these lines. I laughed; I’m not planning on any champion titles. But he was right, of course. His dogs are good dogs. With the right trainer, most of them have the potential to be successful. “A Mal is a great dog, but he’s not a toy.” I liked this guy. He didn’t lecture me. He would have been happy just observing me interact with his dogs and not talking at all – it was me who had questions. He was happy to share though. He said I had a strong training background; he thought that was good. He also pointed me to motivational trainers with Mal experience when I asked. I’m pretty sure he’s more of a balanced trainer himself, but he didn’t argue or challenge my philosophy, and I appreciated it. I felt like it would be okay to ask him anything Mal-related, and that if things went wrong, I could come back and ask his advice, and he would be helpful rather than judgmental. That’s what I’m looking for in a breeder: a person I feel like I can be myself with. An authentic person. A person who I want to stay in touch with and keep updated about my dog’s development, but not someone who’s trying to control what I do with her and how I work with her.


I went to see the motivational IPO trainer the breeder had recommended, and watched him work his own dogs and his students’ dogs; three Mals and a GSD. One of the Mals I saw him work with is Grit’s half-sister I mentioned above. I liked what I saw in the training session. I’m sure this trainer has lots to teach me – and I feel like he might be the kind of person who I will be able to disagree with every once in a while, and still keep a good relationship with.


The one red flag about Grit is her dam. She is not a friendly dog. She’s confident, she reigns supreme in the IPO ring, but she is not a fan of visitors. When someone comes to see the puppies, the breeder has to take her away first – she wouldn’t let anyone near her litter. He purchased her as an adult dog. She was for sale because her previous owner claimed he couldn’t handle her – he might have made a few training and/or socialization mistakes; in any case, when the breeder got her, he said, she was a “mean” dog. He took her because she had a great pedigree. He worked with her, he won her trust, he successfully trialled with her. I met her outside, away from the puppies. She checked me out briefly, said hi and then went about her business. No sign of fear or nervosity.


I’m not concerned about her temperament for several reasons. She is not fearful or nervous – this would be a no-go. Her issues might be related to poor training decisions in her youth rather than a genetic disposition – or not. In either case, she is not scared of people, which is important to me. She is okay with strangers in public, and she has no problem focusing on her work when there are people around the ring. Her issues are isolated to situations such as defending her puppies, and she probably would not appreciate a stranger making a fuss over her.


In any case, if someone else asked my advice about buying a puppy, I would still tell them the dam was a red flag, and I’d caution them against taking a puppy from a dam whose temperament is anything less than stellar. However, I rarely take my own advice. This might be especially true when it comes to puppies: the way I raised Phoebe was also at odds with many of the things I tell my pet dog clients. I also don’t think the dam’s temperament, even if she passes it on to my pup, will be much of an issue for me. Tom and I just left Vienna and moved to Lower Austria. We’ll be pretty much at the end of a dirt road – there’s really not much going on here. I’m not living in the city anymore where there are people and kids wherever you walk your dog. I don’t want kids myself, so Grit won’t have to tolerate my kids or their friends running and screaming. I also don’t necessarily need her to be a “take-everywhere” kind of dog: I already have two dogs I can take everywhere. I usually bring Phoebe or Fanta when I go out and want to bring a dog – one at a time, for a special you’re-the-only-one-who-gets-to-hang-with-the-humans-tonight evening. If Grit turns out to be a take-everywhere dog (I will socialize her well, of course) – great! If she doesn’t – no worries. I already have two dogs to choose from for these kinds of things. I also don’t necessarily need her to work as a decoy when I’m training clients with reactivity issues. Again, I can use both Phoebe and Fanta for these jobs. If Grit turns out to be well-suited for this kind of work, that’s great – she’ll get her chance to play the decoy. In either case, I will socialize her with friendly dogs of all sizes, ages, shapes and sexual statuses in puppyhood. But if she turns out to not be a social butterfly when it comes to dog-dog enounters, that’s okay, too, and I won’t force the issue. I already have two dogs who can do this kind of work, and I don’t necessarily need a third one. If she doesn’t get along with strange dogs, well, then she won’t come on hikes with dog friends either.


There is one job I want Grit to do though: I want her to be my dog sports companion. I want to try something new and train IPO with her, ideally twice a week at the training field. So I need her to be confident and able to work under distractions, and I need her to be a biddable, drivey working partner. I hope for her to be a little more serious than Phoebe, and I hope I’ll be able to find the right kind of balance between drives and control. As I do with Phoebe, Grit and I will do some training at home every day – we’ll go tracking and play obedience, we’ll just play and build our relationship. So even if she doesn’t go out to dinner with me and my friends, and if doggy playdates aren’t her thing, she’ll get plenty of physical and mental stimulation. I believe I’m getting the right kind of dog for these things. Everything else she gives me is just icing on the cake.


Anyways, so that’s the story behind Grit! I know, some people have heard me talk a lot about herding and about my dream of having a working BC. I did lots of research, met people, watched BCs work. But you know what? I love dogs, I love figuring out who they are, building a trusting relationship, and working with them. I can fall in love with anything that involves a training challenge. I love training challenges. I can find people I connect with in all kinds of dog-related activities – this has never been hard for me. It’s going to be IPO for us, Grit and me, rather than herding. Will I be sad that I didn’t get a BC and ended up focusing on a different sport? Highly unlikely. When it comes to dogs (and travelling!), I tend to embrace whatever experience I end up having, and I end up believing the path I took is the best one I could possibly have chosen anyways. So, R+ IPO, here we come! A new adventure. We’ll see where it takes us. And if it doesn’t work out? Well, then we’ll find something else to be nerdy about, no doubt!


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