“You just can’t get a good working dog in North America anymore.”
This statement, and others implying a similar message, has echoed through the chambers of working dog groups, trainers and handlers alike for the last couple of decades. The belief that an individual must have their working line dog or puppy imported from Europe in order to attain a successful, confident and environmentally stable dog has become commonplace in these circles. As the general demand for dogs rises and working dogs become more popular in pet dog households, the integrity of these breeds deteriorates as a consequence.
The ramifications of supply and demand typically mean that quality diminishes in favor of quantity, and unfortunately the trade of live animals is no exception. Films such as John Wick, Max and I am Legend inspire the average pet owner to branch out into the wonderful world of working dogs – without realizing what they are getting into. “Breeders” seeking to make money in any way possible are suddenly delivering Belgian Malinois and German Shepherd litters at rates that will make one’s head spin. Everyone wants to capitalize on the new craze… but at what cost?
Nearly all of the traditional working breeds including German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois (and their Tervuren and Groenendael counterparts), arctic breeds and herding dogs have seen upticks in demand. Although more people are purchasing these breeds, more people are also expecting that their dog lie quietly in the house all day while they are at work and then sleep most of the night when they are home. Since these individuals comprise a significant majority of puppy purchases in North America, breeders have adapted accordingly.
The adaptations in temperament that many breeders are focusing on are entirely undesirable for working dog handlers and trainers. Good working lines are becoming rarer with every passing year, and the market is so saturated with individuals attempting to capitalize on the fur baby movement that it’s become very frustrating for serious individuals to find the right working canine partner. So, must we look to Europe anytime we need a quality puppy, and are there even any good working line dogs left in North America?
Where did this philosophy begin?
The concept that individuals seeking quality working or sporting canine prospects need to have their dogs imported has become an almost universal belief throughout Canada and the United States. Why is it that a service dog trainer can find excellent mobility dog candidates in virtually every state, but law enforcement K9 handlers need to have their dogs imported thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean?
The uprise of conformation line dogs has resulted in heavily diluted drives within a multitude of breeds. Focusing exclusively on physical characteristics leaves no room to improve the traits that these dogs were initially bred for. This, combined with the desire to produce good “pets,” has resulted in temperament breeding based almost exclusively on biddability, sociability and physical stature.
With the Malinois in particular, certain critical components were changed as far back as 1958 when the AKC separated the Belgians into four distinctive breeds, drastically limiting the genetic pool for anyone who wanted to register their puppies. This separation of breeds is unheard of in Europe, where they still work to prioritize the psychological integrity of their working line shepherds over appearance.
As dog breeding became more popular, several other issues began occurring. Pet dog breeders strategically began working to breed out working drives as a means of suiting the general public’s demands. Unruly, energetic dogs were sent to shelters because owners could not handle them, and responsible pet dog breeders realised that innate drive was an undesirable characteristic in a puppy’s temperament. This led them to breed calmer dogs without quality working capability.
Backyard breeders, who attempt to get as many puppies out to the public as possible at the expense of physical and mental health, also recognised the demand for these traditionally working line breeds. Irresponsible breeders, who do not breed for purpose, health or line improvement began selling litters with extreme genetic health defects, structural deformities and behavioural issues.
Environmentally unstable dogs who are nervy and prone to hereditary behavioural malfunctions began making their way into the homes of families. It became even more difficult for handlers to locate quality dogs displaying suitability for their needs through the saturation of social media breeders advertising litters on virtually every breed specific group available to the public.
The uptick in Belgian Malinois demand, particularly, has even led some novice protection sport fanciers or “protection dog trainers” to begin hobby breeding as a way to generate extra income by creating the biggest, baddest Malinois available. The litters developed by many of these individuals are exceptionally unstable, unsocial, neurotically reactive dogs who are not biting in a controlled manner, but instead in a way that is highly unpredictable and dangerous. Many then decide to put bite work on their puppies and adolescents, but teach the dog to bite using inhumane methods which simply exacerbate the temperament issues caused by poor genetic combinations.
It is no wonder that many serious handlers and trainers choose to have their dogs imported. Although the reputation of North American working dogs has been tarnished significantly by decades of poor breeding decisions, not all hope is lost!
How can I find a responsible working line puppy breeder?
It is still very possible to find high quality working dog candidates in North America, but it is critical to understand exactly what you are looking for. It will quickly become obvious if a breeder is a good choice for you when you speak to them. Never gauge the quality of their program exclusively by their social media posts or litter advertisements. It is much easier to conduct a good photoshoot and write a couple lines of text than it is to give detailed explanations about puppy raising ideologies and thoughtful responses to targeted questions.
Before seeking out a breeder, it is critical to know exactly what you plan to use your dog for and how they will fit in with your daily life. After you have determined this, you can use the following to help you find the perfect North American working line puppy:
A good breeder will be able to answer all of your questions plus provide additional information. They will be happy to connect you with previous clients or provide testimonials, and will be proud of the way that they care for their dogs and willing to show you what their dogs are capable of. They will also take the time to ask you about your experience, life situation and what you are planning to use the dog for. Many working line breeders will even pick puppies for their clients because they have raised the puppies and are knowledgeable enough about working line temperaments to know which disciplines each puppy will excel at.
How can I find a responsible working line puppy breeder?
Even in a continent saturated with irresponsible dog breeders and diluted versions of what breeds once were, there are plenty of responsible breeders focused on developing solid working dogs. They work to maintain the breed’s integrity while strategically focusing on improving that breed’s health and capability challenges. Quality breeding is not focusing on a single aspect of the dog: stature, appearance, prey drive, aggression, nor biddability alone. It is viewing a dog as a whole creature – one with many moving parts which all work together harmoniously to produce something magnificent: a being capable of working not only as a meticulously refined tool, but also as a being coexisting peacefully in human society.
At Soldat d’Elite, we have three decades of hands-on experience with working dogs. We have trained our dogs in detection disciplines, for service work and in sport. Our puppies have gone on to become police K9s, search dogs and sport dogs. If you are interested in learning more about our puppy program, please click here. You can also visit our YouTube channel to keep up to date with videos of our dogs and litter progression.
It may be said that “there are no good working dogs left in North America”, but there are – you just have to know where to look.