Jack of All Trades vs. Specialist

Many dogs have their area of specialization, or excellence in potential. Other dogs seem to be able to do many things – a “jack of all trades.” Breeding and importing can be a crap shoot. Should we expect all dogs to be able to do it all, or do we accept that some are very gifted in just a couple areas. Are the gifted ones better at their craft because they specialize? You know the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

You make all the predictions and plans, and factor in your life events that impact both you and your dog(s) both in their upbringing, and daily life, and what you can accomplish at the present time; and then still sometimes all these plans are like throwing a dart into the darkness. You get what you get, for whatever reason.

This weekend was a time to ponder such things. When the A litter arrived, I was not in a place with the same social structure that Jai and Savannah had. I lived in a remote place, with few dog activities. In Summer, I learned from other area breeders, you could visit farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and other events, but in colder months, there was less to do. But there was not this same level of daily opportunity that Savannah and Jai had. How much should we weigh this upbringing in the outcome of the adult dog? It’s very easy to say “a LOT.” But consider a dog raised in precisely the same way, but who appears to thrive in all new experiences, regardless of this more remote upbringing. So let’s consider putting this factor of “upbringing” aside, and look at innate qualities in the dogs.

1) Gabbit arrived from Europe in a fairly shy state, along with his brother. He was socialized by visiting friends, going to the office, visiting Home Depot, going to handling class, and going to dog shows. He seemed okay in these settings, but he did not thrive. His innate quality was to prefer my attention only, and to thrive in drive. In other words, if the ball or frisbee is being thrown, he doesn’t care where we are. At shows, he’s agreeable, but not animated. So my hopes of IPO or SAR for him have not worked, nor did narcotics training. It’s not that he couldn’t learn these things with some creative and persistent planning. He could have visited friends/trainers for 1-2 weeks at a time, to break some of the momma’s boy focus, if he were not also a fence jumper. He could have some intense study in trailing for SAR, or kept working at narcotics. His issues with these things all lead to the same problem: working with others. He has no desire to work for others, only me. At disc dog trials, I can have other people throw for him, but he always returns the frisbee to me, so I must stand in the end zone. However, his focus at disc dog events is superior to that of my more social dogs. This translates to a stronger candidate for obedience, agility, and even herding, or any of the activities we can offer which require focus, and do not require interaction with another individual. So these will be Gabbit’s contributions. He clearly shows nervousness when he is not clear of the task at hand, but is extremely focused and competent, even pushy, at those he knows and understands.

2) Abhithi was born into my own hands, right in my house. She’s never shown a bad day anywhere, but for a couple occassions of clinginess in new social settings (dog show). But she’s been the same sorts of places, and enjoyed pets and treats from strangers consistently, been boating, swims anywhere, etc. Her early scent tests showed her to tend toward air scent, and so I considered her an air scent dog. She shows lots of desire to work sheep, and intense love and focus for retrieve and tug games with most any toy. When Gabbit showed that he would not be an easy candidate for SAR (I figured, but wanted to try), I decided to try Abhithi for trailing. I knew it wasn’t her natural tendency, but I figure I’ll try. First day, we did some runaway starts, since conditions didn’t support baited/hydrated imprints. She did okay. Second day, she didn’t do so well, although the setup was poor, but she also seemed to not want to play with everyone (odd for her), but LOVED all the back scratches. Well I saw it as a kind of social nervousness, perhaps based on not really knowing what was being asked of her. But for me, a person with a number of dogs, I don’t feel compelled to teach a dog to track, when I can use a dog who NATURALLY tracks. So we switched her to air scent, and she LOVED this game. Reminded me of her mother a bit. So we see what shakes out. She has been a fearless sort of dog, so the glimpse today of this social nervousness made me ponder… is she innately less secure with herself than I thought? And clearly she has some special gifts, in fact can do many things, but is not the all-arounder. She is a swimming/diving freak, and gives 120% of herself in those things at which she excels.

3) Radha left her home in Norway, and arrived to my home in Montana after 3 flights and a car ride, and numerous people handling her. She was unfettered. Unhindered. She had maybe a single day of stress/insecurity, and was then just a cool customer. Her father is a highly accomplished SAR dog, and her mother comes from very accomplished FR/MR dogs. She herself does have a fair amount of prey drive, but is very soft. She is calm, but can be aroused to heightened states of prey/bite drive. She began her SAR training with great ease, starting with basic air scent training. She did not bark and leap in the air with enthusiasm when her subject ran off with her toy – you might even think she was bored. But she took off with lovely stride when released, and played with her subject with gusto. After just a couple sessions, I put some recall behavior on her, and she did this naturally. But a funny thing happened. You see with the A’s, I did scent tests with them, and I knew their innate tendencies to air scent or trail. I did not breed Radha, I chose her. Therefore I had not done these, but based on her easy, ground-covering strike, I liked her for area search. As we walked to our area to train today, she put her nose down and began tracking someone’s earlier footsteps in the snow. She did this with poetic magesty. It was gorgeous. So after Abhithi’s lackluster performance, I told the training director “I really want you to see this.” So later, the director and I walked down a trail, and selected a spot for her to leave the trail, and walk through fresh snow. I went back to get Radha from the truck, while the “subject” walked away into the forest. As I brought Radha down the trail, the first interesting thing was that she walked past the HR sources that had been set out for other dogs, and she tried to drag me to them. I had not worked her on HR, though it had been in the whelping box for the Beez (just scented fabrics). So she’s smelled it, but this was a strong and fresh source. Then I got to the place in the trail where my teammate had gone to the fresh snow. I stood only a moment before Radha put her nose down. I marked it with a “yes.” We proceeded down the trail, as though Radha had done this as a trained behavior. After a way, maybe 10 yards, she lifted her nose, and drifted to the side. I stopped moving and waited. She returned to the trail, and I marked it with “yes.” We proceeded this way, farther than I expected, as I didn’t realize how far my teammate had gone. But it was brilliant. It was gorgeous. It was natural. Here is a dog who aced her early air scent exercises, showed strong interest and detection of the HR, and had immense natural ability for trailing. So the decision was made. The Jack of All Trades, Radha, would begin her career as a trailing dog. Sure she showed us she could do all the disciplines. But as a person with multiple dogs, I choose to work several, and let each be a specialist. But with talent like hers, who is to day I won’t cross train her… and then there is her character – she’s a prime candidate for disaster work as well.

4) Savannah is a Jack of All Trades. Okay granted she doesn’t care for swimming or skijoring. So I guess that contradicts what I just said. Abhithi is a swimming freak, Savannah not. But Savannah pretty much can do it all, in terms of SAR, her love to play with anybody, anywhere, with any toy, and her ability to be in most situations with utter confidence, her high level of trainability… okay, except the water, and she really dislikes a harness for tracking or skijor. But I consider her a dog I can train for most any sport.

So that brought me to my contemplation.

Is the Jack of All Trades better than the Specialist? Is the Specialist better at their one (or few) gifts than the Jack of All Trades is at many gifts?

In breeding, do we choose one or the other? Do we accept that the Specialist brings value to the table? Or do we expect all dogs to be the same?

It’s an interesting question for me, and in interviewing puppy owners and friends, and breeders of OTHER breeds, I find that people are split across the board. It comes down to preference. The dog that is a specialist may seem uncomfortable, awkward, ungraceful, or nervous in the wrong setting, but be a star in another. And if a person has chosen a dog for that specialty, the dog will be perceived only as a star. But if a person wants to do everything, they will only be happy with the all around dog. It’s clear also that people have as much preference for one or the other, as there are dogs to fill that bill. The interesting thing becomes, what happens in choosing mating combinations. What other traits can we attribute to these?

For example, I have dogs that are more visually stimulated than others. I have dogs more tactile than others. More nose oriented, more bite/tug oriented, more fetch/retrieve oriented, more calm, more hectic. It would be so interesting to map out these traits, and have some magic formula for outcomes in mating.

But for now, I must enjoy the ride, and accept that not all my dogs are ALL I hoped they would be, however I find they are intensely gifted in certain areas, and it is my job to let them be stars in those areas.


About Intention Hill

Intention Hill is the name of my collective hobbies of raising Blackbelley Sheep, Belgian Shepherds, and art. The name stems from time spent with Gurumayi Chivilasananda, and the power of intention, and the many sacred events on Topovan in Ganeshpuri, India.
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1 Response to Jack of All Trades vs. Specialist

  1. Carina says:

    Love this post. For me personally, one of the things I have loved about my belgians is the fact that they really have been jack of all trades. Like my male who was in highest class tracking, highest class obedience and highest class search where he was also champion and came in number 7 at the norwegian all breed championship with almost no traning beforehand. If he had been allowed to live more than 4 years on this earth, he would have easily became champion in all those sports. Easily. We also tried agility for fun, which I don’t see any reason he couldn’t have excelled at. So in my experience with my dogs that I have trained, the master of none bit didn’t really exist – they really have been able to do it all on a high level. My goal when planning puppies, is to make those dogs, that can do most of what the owners would want them to do. But when I do not succeed in this (who has that success with every litter and every puppy?) I sure am happy with the owners that really do appreciate a specialist.

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