Do we need to work our Boxers differently than the German Shepherd Dog?
This is by far the most common question I have been asked over the years. It is also the number one question I have asked knowledgeable Boxer trainers in Germany and Europe.
This can be a very perplexing situation for the Boxer handler, especially when you are depending on the existing working dog community in the United States for guidance. As I look into the past, and remember working with excellent helpers that were mainly familiar with German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs), my dogs did not live up to their maximum potentials because they, the helpers, lacked the understanding of the differences in temperament between the breeds.
Plus, in many cases, they just wanted to “play it safe”, which is still a good way, especially with GSDs.
A good helper can “read” a dog, but only within the parameters of their personal experience.
Most of the time that is a good thing!
In Part one of this article, I will talk about the differences as they exist in general, but will not go into the actual methods used to work the dogs.
In Part Two, I will explain what some of these methods are, and how to put them into practical application.
We need to identify the character traits and drives that are important in protection work, so that we can explain how the Boxer and GSD express them in different ways. As a general rule, these differences will dictate how we work the two breeds. The traits and drives include prey drive, defensive drive, courage, and hardness.
Prey drive is the dog’s drive to grab and subdue prey, often triggered by motion. It can be instinctive prey (a running animal), or learned prey (like a toy or ball). When prey drive and hunting drives are combined in nature, it serves to aid the animal in finding food.
With prey drive, we must go back to the origins of both breeds, draw conclusions based on the selective breeding for the work they performed at the time, and assume that this selective breeding could have gone on for several hundred years.
The GSD had its origin as a herding dog. The Boxer’s origin was as a bull and bear baiting dog. The Boxer’s prey drive is primary in protection work; the foundation of the breed was to engage in combat and fight with animals much larger than it. The Boxer’s prey drive can be expressed in a much more aggressive form than a herding dog’s. A herding dog’s prey drive was developed so that the dog did not actually harm the animals they protected. The gladiator dogs, like the Boxer, can exhibit this drive in what some would call “fighting drive.” Fighting drive is also found in GSDs, often as an element of survival instinct, whereas the Boxer’s fighting drive often times could be characterized as purely offensive.
Defensive drive is part of a dog’s survival instinct, how a dog reacts to and repels an attack, danger, or threat to itself or its pack. There is always an element of unsure-ness or fear associated with defensive drive.
Most Boxers lack what is commonly referred to as defensive drive by GSD standards. This is the most difficult concept to understand; the idea that the forbearers of our Boxers had pronounced defensive drive would make no sense, as they were expected to attack and hold on to an animal up to twenty times their size.
This is a completely unnatural thing for a truly defensive dog that is unsure-that dog would run away 95% of the time. A few Boxers that seem to exhibit defensiveness are actually expressing their pack drive, (social aggression behavior), and use their dominance in reaction to danger or threat. When Manfred Kleinman talks about defensive drive in a Boxer, you can believe me when I say it is NOT the same defensive drive that Helmut Raiser is thinking about when looking at a GSD. For the sake of discussion, when referring to a Boxer’s defensive drive, I will call it defensive/fighting drive.
The complexity is that many good Boxers have an ability to be worked in defense/fighting drive far beyond the limit a good GSD helper/trainer would set when working a GSD.
This is a prime difference in the way we, (helpers/trainers who understand the Boxer), work most but not all, Boxers. This is where it gets a little complicated, and is also a very subjective area. You still need to read the individual dog. This concept simply expands the scope of conventional wisdom for most.
When using the techniques favored by the best Boxer trainers in Germany, many Boxers, when stimulated to exhibit a greater degree of defense/fighting drive; will then show a number of different reactions. When worked this way, many Boxers will actually exhibit more prey drive.
We used to call it aggressive prey drive. In these dogs, a form of aggression is also being brought out, but it is often shrouded by the higher prey drive, so it can be difficult for the helper/trainer to recognize it. Also, many Boxers have a higher stimulus threshold-meaning it takes more of a threat to produce the desired defensive response. The GSD helper/trainer is often hesitant to do this; by GSD training standards it seems extreme, and they fear there is a higher risk of producing negative behaviors like shallow grips or avoidance behavior.
The fact is that for a majority of boxers, doing the work like this actually helps the grip become fuller, harder, and the strike, faster.
Courage is a character trait that is directly related to the part of a dog’s nervous system that allows it to recognize a threat. In dog training, it is sometimes referred to as “nerves”, and is how the dog reacts to what is going on in its environment. Nerves range from “strong” to “thin”, and are exhibited in three ways. These are how the dog reacts in a stressful situation, how quickly it recovers from the stress, and how they remember the stressful situation when it is again presented to them. A weaker dog will react poorly to the stressful situation; take a long time to recover from the stress. And will remember the situation and react poorly again when it is presented at a later time.
When it comes to nerves, Boxers often work from a completely different set of rules then their Shepherd counter-parts. First, many boxers may not perceive a threat the same way as a GSD-they tend to be dogs that simply do not understand a threatening situation, and are not considered as “sharp as some GSDs, (readiness to react aggressively to stimulation, as in, bite first, ask questions later).
Secondly, how a dog reacts in a potentially stressful situation is an indication of how their nervous system operates. The amount of stimulus it takes for a dog to react to a threat is called its stimulus threshold, or ST. In many Boxers, the ST is significantly higher than in the GSD. This same Boxer may react aggressively to a greater stimulation, at a point where many GSDs have gone over the edge into survival mode.
Hardness is another character trait that I feel is extremely important. Hardness is the dog’s psychological and physical ability to withstand stress. Hardness ranges are defined as from “hard” to “soft”. The softer the dog, the less stress it can take before breaking down.
I look at hardness as a whole, how it applies to all phases of work with the dog, but since I am specifically writing about protection work here, I’ll keep it in that context. Most of the top Boxer people I know think of the Boxer as a very hard dog when compared to the GSD, at least with their adversary, (the helper), in protection work. It seems to me that this is in part due to the previous definitions of differences in the nerves and ST.
The only thing to point out is that this is only partially true. Most Boxers are a very hard working breed when it comes to taking on their adversary, something worthwhile to select for back in the days when they were fighting bulls and bears… However, when it comes to pack drive, (which we define as the desire to seek social interaction with pack members, often expressed in training by a willingness to please), the GSD can display much greater hardness than our Boxers, because a GSD has a more defined understanding of behavior within a pack.
What this means is that a Boxer can be very handler sensitive in protection work, and can show adverse behavior as a reflection of this. I think that most Boxers do not acknowledge or identify the structure and hierarchy within the pack as clearly as GSDs, and so it explains why many do not exhibit the amount of pack drive or handler hardness that GSDs do.
Without the strong desire to work within the pack hierarchy, it is easy to understand why Boxers do not react the same way as the pack pleasing shepherds. When a helper inexperienced with working Boxers sees them exhibit some handler sensitivity, do you think he can recognize how hard this dog actually is with an adversary?
All dogs are different, and it pays to evaluate them on an individual basis. This article is meant to point out some of the character and temperament differences in contrast to the GSD, since most handlers, helpers, clubs and law enforcement agencies in this country have their foundation of knowledge based in this breed. I have worked some GSDs very similar to how I have worked Boxers, and at times, have had Boxers that worked like a GSD. This information should be handled with care.
In my next installment, we will delve into the practical application of protection training methods used to make the most of our Boxer’s differences in character, temperament and drive.