"Van Sapho's Hoeve"

Even among people that are involved in dogs on a daily basis (in whatever capacity) the personality of an individual dog is seldom talked about and it has virtually no influence on their interaction with dogs. I am aware of the fact that the term "personality" when applied to dogs meets resistance and scepticism: so far I have not been able to find a concept better suited for what I am referring to.
As some readers may know I am training Boxers: not only the boxers of the kennel in which I grew up ("van Sapho's Hoeve") but also boxers who need a working certificate in order to obtain a definite national or international title and whose owners, for different reasons, prefer not to train their Champions-in-the-making themselves. It means that I am exercising daily with boxers but foremost it means that I am living with them virtually twenty-four hours a day. This setting gave me the opportunity and the challenge to learn how to asses an individual dog quickly and to teach him, in a relatively short period of three months, the complete program: tracking, obedience and defence. The only reason why I am succeeding in doing so is the fact that I respect the boxer I am training, which in my experience means nothing short than complete acceptance of his or her personality: my ideas and my wishes must at no point interfere with their individuality, nor must my handling try to bend their personality. This form of acceptance goes all the way: it does not stop at the actual training but constitutes the basis of our living together. The personality of a individual boxer shows me what I may and will expect of him, namely that what he is capable of giving and how he will arrive at this, nothing more nothing less.

Educational or training rules do not take into account the individual characteristics of dogs and therefore cause misunderstanding and frustration. One and the same gesture or behaviour on the part of the trainer will have different effects on different dogs. The simple gesture of caressing a dog is a useful example in this respect.
Some, but not all, dogs adore bodily contact, they like to be fondled and they need exactly that to know they are doing ok. The caress reinforces their actual behaviour, not necessarily their personality.
Other dogs have a constant and demanding need for reinforcement and reassurance - up to a point that without a constant feeding of their confidence they cannot even experience the environment and its demands on them. This has nothing to do with fear: it is a pattern of social functioning that has been rewarding in early stages of upbringing and consequently has developed into a "way of life". Here, caressing refers directly to the personality much less to the actual behaviour.
Still others, after completing an exercise, need foremost to relax, to calm down physically - without interference of the trainer. Here again a light casual caress refers to the personality rather than to the actual behaviour, meaning to that particular dog: " you are ok, I understand, we'll give it a rest".
Yet another dog has enough by "shaking out" - as if he returns from a swim - or by quickly scratching himself. No caresses are needed. This scratching however can also mean that the dog is walking on the edge, that he faces a problem he is not able to solve: a caress at that moment will reassure him: "ok, nothing to worry about". And of course, the scratching can simply mean the dog is itching for no other than a physical cause. In that case caressing does not relate to "work" or to "personality": the dog will like it and the gesture will act as a primal group reinforcer, nothing else.
In reality, there exists countless variations and sometimes it is not that easy to find out what a particular dog needs and why he needs just that. Only when you are able to differentiate between these various patterns of behaviour and to grasp their meaning for that particular dog you may start thinking you understand the dog you are working with. Knowing what a particular dog needs, when he needs it, how he needs it and why this is so, constitutes, in my opinion, the basis of a gratifying relationship with that dog and consequently his successful training.

The individuality of a dog, his personality, will determine the meaning of gestures and this will affect his training: two examples to demonstrate how this can happen.

A brindle male boxer, two years young. A fine and agreeable dog in all respects. His behaviour in the kennel as well in normal social intercourse is excellent. Working with him on the tracking and defence exercises poses no major problems. During the obedience exercises however a problem arises. When given a help command the dog is completely at a loss, he starts trembling, his eyes starts rolling and finally he runs off the exercise field towards his kennel where he lays down and recovers. Ten minutes later he seems to have forgotten about the whole episode and he runs back to the field on his own initiative.
At first I didn't understand what was going on. So I divided each exercise in even smaller subsets, varied the strain of exercises at random and changed between exercise fields regularly. In short, I adapted the whole training procedure to his pace and peculiarities. Two features became apparent: a) all exercises wherein his own initiative played a major part were executed more or less correctly (tracking, jumping, defence…), and b) each interruption - for whatever reason - of a controlled series of actions would block him immediately and totally. Even to the extent that, when he was prevented from leaving the field and summoned to repeat the exercise, he would start vomiting. His reaction could not have been clearer. In that state of mind no reward of whatever kind affected him, the outside world simply did not come through any more.
Conversations with his breeder-owner revealed that this boxer had grown up in a small group of boxers up to his first anniversary, that he had excellent relations with other boxers and that he had had a normal but not very personal contact with people. His behaviour towards other dogs and towards the people around him was indeed excellent but what this dog had not learned was how to cope with specific human reactions in learning situations (praise and correction by voice -sound and word-, touching, ignoring, facial expression…) and literally did not know what the meaning of these reactions was. Consequently a succession of exercises would accumulate stress, even if the exercises were executed correctly. This boxer seemed to roll through the set of exercises in constant anticipation of an inevitable "failure", for instance in the form of a help command (however minor) that would be incomprehensible to him. So, exercises that leaned firmly on natural behaviour (tracking, jumping, defence, free following…) were no problem to him, in fact he enjoyed them. On the other hand, exercises that were not so closely related to natural behaviour (sending forward, close following on a leach, stay down without contact…) or exercises of which the built up was more complex (rapport, searching of the attack man, barking at him without touching, waiting…) and consequently needed more guidance by his trainer, those exercises again and again did put the dog in a state of utter confusion, bewilderment and stress. All of this happened not because this boxer was stupid in any way or did not want to learn - on the very contrary - but because he had not learned how to relate different human responses to his behaviour.
In other words: the way this boxer was able to learn had become an integral part of his personality and it determined sharply what he was able to learn at all.
He eventually got his IPO certificate: it was a close call. The compromise solution in training was to build up a tight scheme on the one hand and, on the other hand, staying constantly alert as to avoid the point where the stress would take over. This implied the non-intervention in those parts where the dogs own initiative would be sufficient (the finer touches were ignored as were the mere technical details - which resulted of course in a considerable loss of points) and in a stretching of "dog playtime" between the exercises to the limit. This was very unconventional training but it was completely dictated by the personality of this particular (fine) boxer.

The second example concerns an exceptional beautiful fawn bitch, 22 months of age. A real beauty in the show ring but very wary of strangers, initially including her trainer. Once again this behaviour has nothing to do with fear: she is on the alert and that is just the way she is. She is very curious, she likes to learn new things and she is very quick in doing so. As with the brindle male, exercises close to natural behaviour pose no major problems but the surprise is not far away: nor the voice nor physical contact are experienced by her as reward - quite on the contrary. A word of praise vaporises her natural elegance: ears in the neck, head down, confused looks at the trainer. The movement of a hand towards her is followed with distrust: se shrinks. When caressing her one can feel how the muscles tighten. No joy or relaxation at all but the very opposite.
The Great Book Of Rules crumbles down when faced with the question how to train a happy, lively and intelligent boxer that experiences every form of reward as threatening.
In the case of this Beauty the Why question was the easiest one. As a puppy and as a youngster she was spoilt rotten by her Mistress and she was "protected" by her against everything and anyone who could possibly harm her growth or future career. The woman was right on one account: the puppy would become a Star. Meanwhile however thanks to the overprotective attitude, the world of her future Winner had shrunk to a duality: woman-husband-puppy against the rest of the world. In other words: this bitch had learned to experience any act of the outside world as threatening - as long as you did not try to relate directly to her and as long as the initiative was hers, there was no problem. Trying to train her in any classical way (including clicker training) would, if at all possible, damage her personality of which the mistrust had become an integral part.
So, how to address this acquired distrust in an otherwise playful and energetic young boxer? I found no other solution than to share as much time as I could with her, without performing any actual training work, to let her free as much as physically possible and… to wait. Waiting for the moment- if that moment would come at all! - that her natural curiousness and liveliness would breach through the acquired armour of distrust and she would seek and accept (physical) contact. Eventually that moment came: it took her, and me, nearly four weeks. But is was worthwhile: from that moment on she couldn't get enough of jumping in my arms (which at times was quite inappropriate as for instance during the trial) and if at one time I had the brutality of passing her kennel without fondling her she would start a concert of outrage and disappointment. The actual training period was remarkably short, thanks to her intelligence and liveliness and she passed the IPO trial with flying colours.
By the end of her training, she did not dislike it anymore when the other people in the kennel called upon her but she still didn't approve of being touched by any of them. In this example it becomes clear once again how the personality and the individual history of that particular dog (physical contact and verbal praise by strangers is experienced as threatening - not as reward) determine how she could learn and consequently what she could - or could not -learn.

In sharp contrast to the subject of individual personality, discussions on Method (education as well as advanced training) flower abundantly. These discussions are often very heated but, in my opinion quite pointless: no method is able to tell you how to relate to any individual dog nor is it able to teach you how to train that particular dog. It is the personality of the particular dog that will make clear not only what he can learn but also and foremost how he can learn. To appreciate this, it is imperative that you pay close attention to the dog and not to the methodological principles, rules and techniques. To put it in far too simple terms: you have to know what your dog likes and you have to follow him consequently in this respect - not: work against his basic desire. Even - and maybe especially - in situations were coercion is unavoidable you need to able to count on this "liking", this fundamental "desire". Far too many dogs have (unnecessarily and avoidably) failed in coercive situations, especially impulsive dogs, and have consequently shown depressed or aggressive behaviour depending on the dogs' particular temperament. This happened because the owner or the trainer failed to see that the coercion was reduced to its own end and was no longer based on something in the dog himself: his ability, his willingness and his eager to learn. Coercion, if needed, has to be adapted in its nature and its degree to the personality of the particular dog and it always has to be rooted in the relation of trust between dog and trainer/owner. Coercion whose only motivation is that the dog should comply, should be subordinate - without taking into account the personality of the dog - can jeopardize all future training, it can push the dog over the edge and it is in every respect a corrupt principle.

Viewed from the angle of personality (of the dog, I mean) some riddles of the show scene become apparent. I often wondered why so many, even experienced show people regard the judging of a boxer as a mere technical question of evaluating and comparing morphology, the exterior form. This obviously is not what is happening in a show ring. Beauty is more than an approach to the standard, more than type by itself. Beauty is also based on the personality of the dog which becomes visible in the behaviour of the dog, the totality of his attitude and consequently in his movements. Using a rather strange image: the body of a dog is the visible translation of his personality. To an attentive mind the (muscle) movements of a dog will reveal the story of his past, the how and why of his personality. This point of view also helps to explain why 'technical judging' - the description and weighting of faults and virtues - is only seldom able to 'see' (literally) the 'beautiful boxer'.
Equally important: on this point 'beauty' and 'work' join together: there should be no gap between them. A gorgeous fawn female I had the privilege to train illustrated this in a magnificent way. It was no coincidence that it was a female: the behaviour I am about to describe will rarely be seen with a male, they use other moves. It happened during a faze of learning, a new exercise. This always is a moment of uncertainty, of doubt - otherwise no learning is possible. During that critical moment of uncertainty she suddenly displayed a pose whereby her eyes, her eyebrows, ears, neck, back, legs, feet, in short her complete body became transformed in sheer elegance. It was breathtaking and for a brief moment I did not know what to do. I caressed her very slowly, gently from the neck down to her back. The pose disappeared and after a second command she executed the exercise (i.e. the, to her, uncertain series of movements) correctly. I can assure you that her pose at that moment was nothing short but an act of seduction: she focused all the attention to her body because she 'knew' that, in the past the environment (people and dogs) had reacted most positively on this pose. Remember the silence or murmur of adoration that arises at the ringside when a beautiful dog is showing to perfection. She used her elegance (more precisely: the earlier experience of positive reaction to her pose took the place of and 'resolved' the feeling of uncertainty) as avoidance behaviour: the purpose of her posing in that critical moment was to neutralize the doubt and to dissolve the uncertain situation. The slow caress did put her back in reality, the stress caused by the uncertainty dropped away and the pose disappeared. Once she was calm again she was able to produce the efficient response to the question.
Experiences like this strengthen my conviction that beauty is an integral part of the boxers' personality.

The longer I live with Boxers, the more experience I get in training them, the more I feel uncomfortable with the wide range of 'behaviour-tests' and so called 'character-tests'.
The majority of these tests rely on the existence of a variety of 'drives' ('Triebe'): play drive ('Spieltrieb'), pray drive ("Beutetrieb"), defence drive ("Wehrtrieb") and son on. The number and the hierarchy of these drives can be adapted more or less at will. The aim of the tests based on this model is to detect the existence of a number of these drives and to evaluate their strength. It is my conviction that what these (partial) drives describe is only a minor part of the complete personality of any boxer and consequently it is beyond my comprehension why so many 'systems' (educational and training schedules plus the correspondent tests) are based on such poor evidence. In countless ZTP's, Körungen, Selections, CQN's … I have witnessed, boxers failed in the standard procedures - boxers of which I am convinced they are excellent boxers.
The fact that in some countries a successful passing of one or more of these tests is a necessary condition to obtain a breeding license underscores the tragic implications of these poor models.
If you try to find out the particularities of a dog before you try to train him and you give yourself and the dog time (without 'educational' intervention) you are bound to find out the 'why?' of his (re) actions as well as his specific interests and sensibilities. By that time, in most cases, even a dog that has been damaged in previous education or training will have regained self-confidence and confidence in his 'trainer'. From that point on you can start the specific training. Again in most cases - not all - you'll notice that a minimum of training is needed to learn the behaviour that is wanted or demanded in this or that 'test'. I would like to recover the hours I have lost in trying to open the discussion on the biases of these test, so I will not allow myself to be trapped once again in a similar pointless endeavour.
In my opinion, the only test, given the general mentality as it is today, that may have some meaning consists in a patient evaluation of social conduct. But even there no guarantees can be obtained and the way of sound criticism is wide open. Just think about impulsive or spontaneous behaviour there where even the most balanced test (if such a thing could ever exist) can be nothing else but the record and the evaluation of a moment in time. Consider also the relationship owner-dog which should be the real subject of evaluation, for the effects of this relationship are more important to the dogs behaviour than his purely genetical heritage.

On the subject of 'testing' I would like to add an anecdote.
On one of the shows I handled a brindle bitch. The lady judge approached her to check eyes and teeth. Than she did something that comes as close to a "character test" as one can get: she kneeled down before the bitch. The boxer approached the judge and there was a brief encounter between them with exchange of friendly words and gestures. Both the judge and the boxer enjoyed it. And although it was clear the judge would have liked to repeat this with every single boxer in the ring, she didn't succeed. So, in her judgement personality did play a part and to that end she did not need a battery of tests nor did the boxer need any 'training'. Depending on the personality of the boxer this simple gesture of kneeling down of a stranger can be experienced as inviting or threatening and the response may vary from enthusiasm over uncertainty to withdrawal and/or aggression. Once more we see: one setting, one gesture - different personalities - different reactions.
For the record: that particular bitch did not win her class that day.

Physical health is another cornerstone of personality. I do not mean the actual fitness of a dog, which will affect his actual behaviour but not his personality. I mean structural conditions that determine both behaviour and personality.
An example: a pup is born with a mild sub aortic stenosis, nothing live threatening. This pup will learn from the outset that an unpleasant feeling directly follows impulsive reactions. He will most probably mature as a calm restraint dog. On condition of course he does not enter a hyperactive environment that forces all kinds of demands on him. His personality will be described as calm, quiet, attentive. This calm behaviour has become an integral part of his personality. Whether you evaluate this personality as negative or positive doesn't matter: the point is that this basic structure will not change anymore and that you will have to deal with that dog on his terms.
There are several physical conditions that have similar effects. Another important one is a heightened sensibility for all kinds of allergies. Caressing the dog in the first example after an exercise interacts both with his personality as with his actual behaviour ("ok, we are doing just fine, relax for a moment"). Caressing the dog with the allergic itching after the same exercise will comfort him physically, it may even strengthen the bond but it will hardly affect the actual behaviour or the personality. Once again we see that the meaning of gestures is determined by the personality.

In attempting to grasp the personality of any given boxer I use "common sense" terms that stay as close to reality as possible and I use as many as needed. I am very well aware of the fact that this is the exact opposite of what is regarded as "scientific". It is a deliberate attempt to avoid the usual terms that all have implicit or explicit connotations with underlying "drive-models". I my daily experience I cannot trust these models and these terms anymore. So I use words as: friendly, good-natured, striking, beautiful, noble, hard, curious, serious, vain, pleasing, obedient, prudish, anxious, alert… plus all negatives and combinations of them. Some aspects are closely related and they could be regrouped. If one observed a dog for a longer period I suspect it would be possible to establish a gradation within each group and between groups. Theoretically it would be possible in this way to pick a pup that is best suited for you. Somehow I strongly doubt this exercise would do any good.

The reader will have noticed that this way of looking at a particular dog differs from existing tests and training attitudes. It is my belief that existing tests cover only to a surprisingly limited extent the personality of a boxer, especially that part that is artificial - artificial because it is constructed in function of the test. In other words: what the tests really do test is the ability of the owner/trainer to conform to the expected or desired result.

In this respect I like to present another anecdote: most people that come to the kennel in order to choose a puppy stress they want a puppy with "a good character" (who doesn't?). Some of them delay their choice to the time the pups can be 'tested'- anyway that is what they call it. I will not waste the readers' time with a page full of wisdom that is uttered on those occasions. But once in a while a nice surprise comes along. There was this lady that wished to see if her puppy could develop into a good working dog. But she acted different. In a large room where the puppy had been on several occasions, a room he knew very well, she placed a small plastic bag. She remained about half an hour in the room with the pup and with several of us. She observed the pup constantly and once in a while she spoke to him. Nothing more: that was it. This woman knew - by intuition or experience - how to assess a dog correctly: she judged the pup by his spontaneous, non-provoked behaviour - not by actions elicited by a series of standardised situations.

We all know a lot of people - the "normal" owner as well as the experienced sportsman - have a hard time handling their boxer. Mostly this is due to a lack of understanding of the qualities of their boxer: good and bad ones (whatever this may be). If one is willing and is prepared to spend enough time with his boxer this can easily be changed. The first thing is to forget about Method. Method is not important: your dog is. The second thing is to look at your dog and to keep observing him. Sooner or later you will detect his peculiarities and what he is motivated by. Respect that personality by accepting it and start "working" from that point on.

My living together and working with boxers follows one maxim only:


"Van Sapho's Hoeve".
September 2001

Courtesy of Ingmar Sioen
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