December 11, 2003
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Laughing Dog once had a close Rottweiler friend. This lovely gal was a full time employee in an infant childcare center. Her job description (created by herself) included pointing out every baby who needed changing (with a slightly pained expression that questioned the human caretaker's competence), trying to clean the babies herself during diapering, greeting parents who came and went, and generally riding gentle herd over the whole operation. She was as sweet, intelligent, and kind as any dog Laughing Dog has ever known….to say nothing of her work ethic.
More recently, Laughing Dog was introduced to a young Rottie who participates in the sport of agility whose best pal is a Papillon, a toy breed smaller than the big dog's head. The Papillon leaps on his friend's back and uses him as a practice jump. When the Rottie gets tired of being buzzed, he holds the Pap between his front feet with a giant grin that says "Gotcha." I have heard that the Rottweiler can walk while holding the annoyed Papillon, but I did not see this first hand.
Having had these experiences, it has been very difficult for Laughing Dog to reconcile that the Rottweiler has been branded as a "dangerous dog" in recent years. In this article, we will explore the journey that led to this designation and the remarkable efforts to return the Rottweiler to its role as a gentle guardian who knows when it is appropriate to say, "That's far enough."
Way Back When
Historically, Rottweiler is the Brink's truck of the dog world. It is not difficult to imagine this substantial canine with a bag of money tied around his neck accompanying his owner home from the market in Rottwil, Germany somewhere around 200 AD.
From the time that the ancestors of the Rottie arrived in Germany with the Roman army in around 75 AD, this dog was a hit with the locals. He found the best fit with the town's butchers for whom he performed many chores including driving cattle, pulling carts, and carrying the profits home. Potential robbers took one look at this dog with a head bigger than a cannon ball, the neck of a football lineman, and the body of a young Arnold Schwartenegger and said, "Hey, just kidding." Between work assignments, the dogs interbred with nearby Swiss dogs to create the breed we now recognize as the modern Rottweiler. Things were good.
Then in the mid-1800s, with the advent of the railroad to transport cattle, the Rottie was called in by his boss, told that he had been replaced and that he needed to clean out his desk by the end of the day. Historians say that by 1905 there was only one weepy Rottweiler left in Rottweil. Things were not good.
The same historians also report that in 1907, the first Rottweiler club formed. Hmmm… clearly, the remaining specimen had found a partner somewhere. Back from the brink of extinction, the breed was discovered by the German Police Dog Association. Once again they excelled at their job. Things were good.
HE ROTTWEILER - Page 2
The breed gradually found its way to the United States with German immigrants. The Rottweiler was not bored during this time. He was learning to speak English, earning recognition from the American Kennel Club, and entering the sports of obedience and tracking. However, the breed remained relatively unknown for many years. Things were good.
Things Change Drastically
By the 1990's things had changed drastically. The Rottweiler had been branded with a "bad boy" reputation. While striving to understand the transition from a lovely breed flying largely under the radar to a popular, high profile breeds with a scary reputation, it has become clear to me that the story of the Rottweiler and the newly popular story of comic book and movie superhero The Hulk are remarkably similar. Both stories are about a narrow line between superhero and monster, a delicate journey between heroic and terrifying acts. Both stories have all the elements of a blockbuster including love and romance, heroic acts and terrible tragedy.
The Story of The Hulk
For those of you who have not followed the comics, here is a quickie history:
Bruce Banner was a mild-mannered scientist. His work was to develop a Gamma Ray bomb. Things were good for Bruce. During his work on the bomb, Bruce was exposed to Gamma Rays. As a result, when he was subjected to extreme stress and had a rush of adrenalin, he turned into a huge green Goliath, a "walking engine of destruction." (www.hulklibrary.com). However, even in his monster persona, the Hulk is capable of both good and evil. The Hulk is opposed by an even scarier dude, the 980 pound Abomination, the Ravager of Worlds. While the Hulk is capable of both bad and good, the Abomination is single dimension evil. Although the Hulk is not a particularly social dude, he does have a few friends.
The Parallel Story of the Rottweiler
The Rottweiler was an intelligent, healthy, trustworthy canine with lots of working ability. However, in the 1970's and 1980's, the Rottie was exposed to Gamma Rays. The Gamma Rays took the form of "…cultural factors converged that led to a perception of a more dangerous world in which macho dogs were a good looking accessory." (Blackmore) The hulking Rottweiler clearly met the bill as a macho dude. Demand for Rottweilers soared.
Abomination #1 emerged. Irresponsible breeders interested only in profit responded to the demand by pumping out litters of dogs with chips on their shoulders. By the 1990's, the Rottweiler had soared to the second most popular breed according to American Kennel Club registrations.
These pups were then sold to Abomination #2. Ill prepared owners who did not understand socialization or training for this type of dog allowed individuals to become "walking engines of destruction." In the hands of these owners who did not know how to control a strong-willed dog whose genes scream that he should protect what is his and his master's, the courageous breed ran into trouble.
Fortunately, like the Hulk, the breed had a few friends and a bit of good fortune. The passing of the fad and a core group of strong-willed, responsible Rottweiler breeders showed themselves to be as stubborn as their beloved breed. Many discontinued breeding to short circuit the popularity. By the year 2000, registrations had dropped more than fifty percent from just a few years before. Although it may take years for this breed to get entirely back in the right hands and lose the effect of aggression run amok, the situation is definitely headed in the right direction. Each night, in their prayers, breed devotees plead, "And please let the Rottie become less popular."
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In the Right Hands
By any standards, the Rottie is a big dog that screams power. If he were a person, this dog would be a weight lifter or center on a professional football team. While the German version is more imposing, intense, and standoffish than the American version, either type is impressive to the casual bystander.
While it is clear that the Rottie has sometimes fallen into the wrong hands, the question is, "What are the right hands?" There are four criteria:
1. The bottom line is that this is an intelligent, self-confident working breed in need of an owner who is willing to be master, in a positive way. While this does not require knee high riding boots and heel clicking, it does mean clear, consistent messages to the Rottie about what behavior is appropriate and what is not.
2. Rottie owners must not be prone to panic. Rotties have strong opinions and will grumble when faced with activities they have not chosen such as nail trimming or ear cleaning. Running from the room screaming in the face of this vocalization only encourages this behavior.
3. They require an owner who is able to channel their minds and strength into positive work. The best Rottie owners find their pups a task or game to keep them busy. A few of these possible activities will be discussed in a moment.
4. Lastly, one must be able to learn German. Here are a few key terms in literature about training the Rottie: Begleithunde, Ausdauerpruefung, and Rettungshundtauglichkeitspruefung. I kid you not. Laughing Dog did not make up that last word. For the curious, that longest word translates as "rescue dog suitability test."
Keeping the Rottweiler Gainfully Employed
Busy Rottweilers are happy Rottweilers. Consider all of the following possibilities:
The Rottweiler is a powerful competitor in the sport of agility, a high speed obstacle course. Although not the fastest breed, they can cover ground efficiently. Laughing Dog was once in an agility class with a young Rottie, and the ground shook when he hit the A-frame to begin his climb. The other dogs nicknamed this pup Earthquake.
This breed's Germanic roots make it a perfect candidate for the precise (and some would say anal) sport of obedience. There is nothing more lovely that a well-oiled obedience team in which the Rottweiler is gazing up at his owner's face saying, "Isn't it swell that we are on the same team?"
With its history as a cattle driving dog, the Rottie may find herding a positive outlet. Sheep, on the other hand, who are aware of the breed's propensity for physical intimidation, disagree. The National Council of Sheep have put out the following message: Start your Rottweiler on ducks. Duck herding will build your dog's confidence more quickly than bigger, more recalcitrant livestock such as sheep or cattle.
Carting and Driving
Again, its heritage serves the Rottie well here. In Germany, this pup frequently was recruited to pull carts with supplies or deliveries for his owner. Modern pups can pull small vehicles with or without passengers. Some dogs can even be driven in the style of a horse with a person in the cart directing the action via a head halter and reins. Driving a Rottie eliminates the need to purchase a pony.
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This is a team sport in which four dogs run a lightening fast relay race over jumps while carrying a tennis ball. Rottweilers that love to run and jump, and have no tendencies to grab small dogs for a snack, are candidates to learn this game.
This is a sport that involves dogs in many levels of challenging tests that include tracking, obedience and protection. Although there is a dedicated group of participants in the U.S., participation pales in comparison to Germany in which people spend so much time at their Schutzhund clubs that they "…have their own chef and restaurant." (Walker)
In the U.S., Schutzhund is sometimes criticized because dogs must bite a padded sleeve being worn by a person who acts threatening during one phase of the training. This is quite amazing since, on the whole, Americans adore mock violence of every sort - football, wresting, and shooting each other with paint ball guns.
There are three key reasons that Schutzhund is a worthy dog sport. First, Schutzhund dogs go through more temperament testing than school children and never make it to the bite phase of the sport if they are likely to be excessively aggressive. Secondly, the dog sees the padded sleeve as a toy and the event as a game. Lastly, Schutzhund takes a huge amount of training. Consider how unlikely it is that a dog with this kind of training would ever be allowed to run loose and scare people. Besides, how many people are running around the streets with a sleeve the size of a Sealy mattress?
In addition to these activities, Rottie's thrive in therapy work, tracking, endurance tests, search and rescue, freestyle, a routine in which dog and owner do a variety of exercises to music, or just going hiking.
A few years ago, Laughing Dog was on a dog parade team that marched in the local events. One year, there was a Santa Claus parade and all the pups and owners were wearing holiday attire. The team's Rottweiler, a kind but fairly serious dog named Scaper was dressed as a big package. The parade stopped for a few moments as they are wont to do. All of the people on the parade team were chatting, and the dogs were gazing around looking for a good place to pee. When the time came to move forward again, we all noticed that Scaper was missing. It took a moment of scanning to find a woman sitting on the curb with a seventy pound package on her lap with a massive Rottweiler head on the top. The woman's eyes were big, and the people around her were clearly unsure if they should be laughing or calling for help. A man called out, "Hey, isn't that one of those dangerous Rockwilers?' Scaper's owner gave her a call, and she strolled quietly back to the team. A round of laughter swept through the crowd.
There have been no gamma rays for Scaper and other lucky Rottweilers like her. While she may be a bit friendlier than some breeders with a traditional mindset prefer, she was certainly a good will ambassador for a breed that has seen some tough times and appears to be on track for better times ahead.
During the writing of this article, I used several of the articles in Fancy Dog Magazine about Rottweilers. These include those by D. Caroline Coile, Audrey Pavia, Kim Campbell Thornton, September B. Morn, and Joan Hustace Walker.
In addition, I drew from Joan Blackmore's classic book, Dog Owners Guide to the Rottweiler.
I also recommend the www.amrottclub.org website with many items of interest.
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