Q.What is the ideal temperament for an AB?
A. An old timer once told me that the ideal Bulldog would lay around all day, relaxed and lazy, until you asked him to do something and then become a ball of fire. All working dogs to some degree should have a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality, the ability to turn it on and off. The key questions are: what's more important, turning it on or turning it off and what do we want when the dog is turned on? We will be able to answer these questions and figure out what constitutes the ideal AB temperament when we decide what its principle role should be. Some Bulldoggers have "Pit Bull envy" and think the most important temperamental trait is gameness in a dogfight. Moral and legal objections aside, the problem with chasing after this chimera is twofold, the AB will never be able to beat the game bred Pit Bull at his own game, and even if strains were developed that came close, these dogs would be useless for any other application.
The canine sports that ABs have excelled at are weight pull, the various protection sports and hog catching. The real world application where our breed has seen the greatest success is as a family guard dog. If these sports are linked to the ABs primary real world application, a picture emerges as to the ideal temperament that will allow him to fulfill his mission. The AB should have as little dog aggression as possible. His original role as a catch dog required hog aggression, not dog aggression. Weight pull, protection sport and family guarding are all functions that are hindered by dog aggression. While a placid demeanor most of the time wouldn't be important (or even desirable) if the AB were guarding NATO missile bases, this application is not his ultimate calling. There is no need for AB breeders and trainers to have "Malinois envy." Therefore turning it off and keeping it off is paramount. There is no question that courage and fire in the sport arena and at home are important, however a steady, trustworthy even phlegmatic personality 90% of the time is mandatory in having a family guard dog that is easy to live with.
One of the clubs that I've been training with lately has run a few Bulldogs through a temperament test like this: The dog gets a bite, receives stick hits, worked thoroughly by a professional decoy and filled with a furious fight drive. The sleeve is slipped and the dog is run straight to a pair of four and five year old kids that the dog has never seen before. These fearless little rug rats are instructed to pet the dog and grab the sleeve. The ABs we've run this test on do one of two things, they freeze so as not to hurt the kids or spit out the sleeve and roll over for a tummy rub, tails gently thumping the ground. After my last article I vowed not to make other breed comparisons but I'm sure experienced readers will agree that there are quite a few protection dogs and entire breeds that it would be foolish to run a test like that on. And of course there are plenty of ABs that shouldn't be around little kids after being agitated. But I'm talking about the ideal temperament and this is one expression of it.
Real world tests are better than sport tests, but unfortunately much harder to standardize and execute. Here are a few true stories that impressed me. A friend of mine wanted to get into a yard with an AB in it to do an estimate on a new roof. The dog's owner was out of town. He had a legitimate reason for trespassing but the dog couldn't read his work order and was right to stand in front of the locked gate, growling softly. The roofer grabbed a heavy stick and swung it menacingly. The dog didn't lunge but stood his ground stoically. The man swung the stick inside the gate. The Bulldog grabbed the stick, jerked it out of the man's hand and calmly snapped it in two, letting either half fall to his side and keeping eye contact with the roofer. My friend said this placid Bulldog who refused to put on a showy threat display was more terrifying than any dog he'd ever met.
Another friend of mine was camping with his Bulldog and was a little bit nervous about letting the dog run free because his dog had put a man in the hospital a month earlier. The man that needed hospitalization was a head case, he had directly attacked the dog and got what he deserved, but my friend was understandably nervous. Still, these crowded California State parks are filled with whackos and there is no police presence. So the Bulldog was set free to roam, luckily he is territorial (another key guard dog temperament trait) and doesn't stray. At three in the morning my buddy heard a ruckus. He sprang out of his tent with a flashlight blazing. His dog was standing over a prone man. There was firewood scattered all around the two. My buddy grabbed his dog's collar as the interloper rose shakily to his feet. Dusting himself off, the wood thief said in an accusing tone, "your dog attacked me and knocked me down." My buddy replied, "yeah, 'cause you're trying to steal all my firewood." The wood thief gave an indignant huff and melted into the forest, relatively unscathed.
This dog that had put a head case in the hospital yet only knocked down a relatively harmless wood thief was later assaulted by a group of bratty elementary school age boys while my buddy was at a city park. The brats actually stabbed the dog with a pencil. The Bulldog's response was to bark loudly in the juvenile delinquent's faces and not touch them in any way. The brats ran crying to their parents, who were partying under some nearby trees. When my friend recounted these incidents I told him that his dog has a nearly perfect temperament for an AB. His dog comes from lines that have done well in weight pull and sport protection. Some might frown at weight pull as a good test of temperament, but to do well at this sport a dog must have a strong desire to please.
The ideal family guard dog has sophisticated judgement. He meets force with a proportionate response. I'm convinced that he has the ability to exercise primitive reasoning ability. The best American Bulldogs have this balance of judgement and courage.
Dave Putnam, ®2000
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