Whole Dog Journal's Blog April 4, 2018

More on the "Bidding" War - Should Dogs Be Biddable?

Posted at 04:50PM - Comments: (13)

In the April issue of WDJ, I wrote an editorial about an exchange I had with a trainer friend regarding the word “biddable,” which a breeder had used in conversation with her about dogs from the breeder’s kennel. Both my trainer friend and I were not used to hearing that word used to describe dogs, but apparently, we are in the minority.

I received a number of very thoughtful responses to the editorial, and have learned something from each. Because they would take up a lot of space in the magazine itself if I ran them as “letters to the editor,” I’m going to post a few of them here, with the writers’ permission.

Our reader Sallie Ehrlich's dog Piper.

You can read the editorial here.

The following letter is from Jeff Swackhamer, owner of Orion Labradors in Frankfort, Indiana:

Your Editor’s Note in the April edition of WDJ was very thought-provoking. It was the first time I’d ever heard of anyone who considered the term biddable an undesirable trait in a dog! What's the difference between the meaning of the words biddable and trainable? I have to wonder if people from different niches of the dog world use a different vocabulary to convey similar concepts or do we have distinctly different points of view? I also wonder if it’s possible to accurately describe canine behavioral attributes in a single word or even in a simple phrase.

Before I address these questions, I’d like to briefly share some personal background information to help you understand my perspective. I purchased my first Labrador retriever in 1986 and started my breeding program in 1994. I’m currently working with the fifth generation descending from my original foundation stock. I raise field-bred Labs, but I strive to produce dogs that conform to the breed standard as written. My goal is to produce healthy, intelligent, physically sound, mentally stable, competent working retrievers who exhibit the traits that define the breed.

Breeding and training hunting retrievers can present many challenges. Nearly every popular retriever-training program comes from field trial trainers. They rely on e-collars and aversive training methods to teach the skills required for a retriever to perform at a competitive level. Aversive training techniques are customary in retriever training because of the high levels of distractions and the necessity of controlling a dog who may be working a long distance away from his handler. For example, a well-trained retriever must sit quietly and patiently until he is sent to retrieve a bird, even while hunters are shooting and birds are falling in front of him. Hunting retrievers also perform blind retrieves to recover birds they didn’t see fall. This requires the dog to run in the direction indicated by his handler, sit when the whistle is blown, and follow hand casts that direct him to the unseen bird which may be several hundred yards away. Labradors bred for field trial competition tend to be intelligent dogs who are highly driven to retrieve and capable of working through the demands of intense training. Dogs from this gene pool are often “too much dog” for the average person who just wants a calm capable hunting companion and pet.

I don’t follow the widespread practice of training retrievers with an e-collar. I prefer to use positive reinforcement to ingrain desirable behaviors in my puppies and young dogs while they’re learning the ways of the world. One my goals as a breeder is to produce dogs whose natural desire and determination to retrieve is tempered by a genetic predisposition to be cooperative and compliant. Some people may describe such a dog as biddable. This trait, however you describe it, helps to minimize the need for force in training a hunting retriever. With all due respect to Dictionary.com, I don’t think a biddable dog is necessarily “meek” or “submissive”. My dogs are intelligent, bold, outgoing, very driven to find and retrieve birds, yet willing to be team players.

Breeders probably see the world through a different prism than trainers. When an issue arises with a dog’s behavior, trainers try to resolve the issue through training, while a breeder considers how they can breed a dog who doesn’t demonstrate the undesirable behavior. As a breeder I strive to produce dogs who are easy to live with and who take naturally to their work with minimal training, while trainers tend to thrive on training challenges. Approximately half of my puppies go to non-hunting homes. Their owners usually aren’t experienced dog trainers. A smart, attentive, naturally compliant dog is much more likely to satisfy their needs with minimal stress for the owners or the dog. 

It’s understandable that people from different wavelengths of the canine spectrum have different goals and use a different vocabulary. Nancy listed a few synonyms for the word biddable in her column to help define the meaning of the word, but I wonder if the dictionary definition translates well to the meaning the breeder intended to convey to her trainer friend. I think it might be useful to consider the antonyms of biddable to help us understand its meaning. According to the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, when a breeder says their dogs are biddable, instead of implying they are meek or submissive, they may be saying their dogs are NOT any of the following things:

Antonyms of biddable: balky, contrary, defiant, disobedient, froward, incompliant, insubordinate, intractable, noncompliant, obstreperous, rebel, rebellious, recalcitrant, refractory, restive, unamenable, ungovernable, unruly, untoward, wayward, or willful.

Near Antonyms of biddableinsurgent, mutinous, dogged, hardheaded, headstrong, mulish, obdurate, obstinate, peevish, pigheaded, self-willed, stubborn, unyielding, uncontrollable, unmanageable, wild, perverse, resistant, disorderly, errant, misbehaving, mischievous, naughty, ill-bred, undisciplined, dissident, nonconformist, disrespectful, ill-mannered, impolite, impudent, insolent, or rude.

Since Nancy and her friend agree that biddable is absolutely not a trait they look for in a dog, I challenge them to select the behavioral characteristics they value from these antonyms, which describe personality traits which are the antithesis of biddable. Are these traits useful to describe their ideal dog? It’s not a very enticing list of attributes to choose from, is it? Maybe a dog who is the opposite of biddable isn’t exactly what they want either!

I’d like to close with an interesting twist. While I was looking up the word biddable in Merriam-Webster’s Thesaurus I found a much longer list of synonyms than Nancy listed in her editorial. As I read down the list of words related to biddable I had to smile when I discovered the word trainable. Maybe Nancy’s friend and the breeder weren’t as far apart as she thought! It’s just a matter of semantics! 

The following letter is from WDJ subscriber Rebecca Barkhorn:

I love your Editor’s Note and read it in every WDJ that arrives. However, I have to say something about your latest, Bidding War.

I have been involved in dog sports and dog training, most especially agility, for the last 20 years. The breeder DID NOT mean the dictionary definition and I would imagine that you and your friend would have realized that. The word biddable is used all the time to describe a dog who wants to work with his partner/trainer. There is no connotation of passivity, docility, submissiveness, etc.

I have a dynamite dog for agility because he is fast, smart, loves the excitement, and loves to work with me. And the only thing dog people mean by biddable is the enjoyment of working with the human partner. While I can't speak for everyone, however everyone that I know wants a dog who is smart, creative, ingenious, curious, interested in what is around him or her. I am a dog trainer who of course is interested in dog behavior because that is what allows me to understand the best ways to train or communicate. So, please don't think that dog people who use the word biddable mean the dictionary definition!

Here is one more letter on the topic, from WDJ scubscriber Sallie Ehrlich:

The definition of the word biddable used in the April 2018 WDJ did not do you any favors. Maybe a better definition, and a usage popular historically, is “willing to do what is asked” (this comes from an older version of Webster’s than that available online). And in this sense it takes teaching and training to the next level.

Otto doing a recall. Who's a good boy?

For example: You taught Otto what the word “come” means. Then you reinforced his learning of the phrase by pairing it with treats in the woods for what you hoped would become a solid long-distance recall. This second step is training, simple mass repetition/reward. But at some point Otto gets to decide if he wants to return to you for a treat or to continue on chasing that squirrel …his decision to return to your side indicates his level of biddability. He chooses to comply, and does so happily and with elan. That is a good definition of the word biddable. Your friend’s comment that she wanted a dog that was “smart, motivated to work with her, one who values rewards that she could deliver, and willing to experiment….” exactly defines the term biddable.

We chose a Brittany for many, many reasons, first their huntability and second their “sweet and biddable temperament,” something the breed is known for. Then other things like size, coat and grooming needs, health list, trainability, energy levels etc., came into play. But the most important thing to us was their temperament. Why? We’d had dogs who didn’t get along… with people, dogs, cats, shadows, whatever. We’d had a dog that bit. We’d had a dog that would not let us touch him. We needed a hunting companion that would hunt anything and let me dig junk out of her coat and feet, that would get along with our cats and parrots and company and friends and other dogs, that would fit in our condensed city living spaces and so on. I have talked to a lot of Brittany owners and trust me, not a single one would ever describe their dog as docile, acquiescent, complaisant, dutiful, or submissive. Quite the contrary. Britts are one of the liveliest breeds, brilliant intuitive hunters and have happy goofy senses of humor which they display virtually non-stop. These dogs are smart, highly interactive, great team players… and very charmingly biddable.

To answer your posted question (what traits do WDJ readers look for in a dog?): When we selected our puppy we had three to choose from. One never even acknowledged we were in the room so that narrowed it down to two. Both remaining girls were lively, interested, engaging, curious, spunky… all the things you look for. So I played a lot with each and repeatedly gently turned them on their backs in my lap and played with their feet and tummies. Over time, one started to nip and grumble when she got turned over, the other eventually fell asleep while I played with her feet. The second pup is the one we brought home. We chose a breed we felt suited to our needs and situation. We chose a breeder with strong hunt lines for our hunting requirements. We picked our puppy so I could dig burrs and stickers out of her paws while we hunt.

One final word (and thank you if you read this far)… not everyone wants a dog that can out-think them on a daily basis. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of trying to have the last word with my charming and independent little rascal. But I also really enjoy when she realizes that the rat is really no longer in the avocado tree, and Mama is tired, and that bed-time squeaky toy sure sounds like fun… and RUNS into the house at night when I whistle. (Did I mention Brittanys are slow to mature? It has taken 3.5 patient years to get that recall.)

Thanks for your publication. I read every word every month.

My thanks to everyone who wrote to me on this topic. I hope everyone who reads them enjoys them and learns as much from them as I did.


Comments (13)

I don't know what exact definition the breeder intended but, unfortunately, I do think a lot of buyers want dogs that fit the definition you found when you looked it up.

When I first got my last lab, I had dreams of a perfectly trained, well behaved lab. I quickly discovered that he had a mind of his own. I should have realized when the breeder told us he was her favorite because he was the 'bad one', lol. He was full of personality, stubborn, very high energy. He made his own games. Fetch? How unoriginal. Keep away is much more fun. I took him to a dog training class when he was young and, let's just say, he stood out from the other dogs. I realized that, if I kept fighting him to make him into the perfect dog I had envisioned, we would both be miserable from the constant battle of the wills. Instead, I taught him the house rules, and allowed and learned to love his goofball tendencies.

While he didn't always come immediately when called and wasn't the "people pleasing" dog that obeys every command in a millisecond, we came to an understanding and created a deep bond that I've never had before with a dog. He would get extremely upset if I was upset, he would help me round up the foster kitties by gently holding them in place with his mouth until I came to pick them up, would help me pull roots out of the ground when I was doing yard work, would help me dig holes when I couldn't break ground with the shovel. In short, we became best friends and I will never, ever forget him.

Anyway, my point is that some people (the majority, I think) want a dog that will bend to their will. You're hyper because you need exercise? I don't care - go lie down. Just look at how many dogs end up in shelters because of behavior problems. Some of it is ignorance, not knowing what a dog needs in terms of exercise or training, but I think a lot of it is that people went into getting a dog with that same vision I had some 13 years ago, and would not accept otherwise. Part of it is also pressure. I definitely had some remarks thrown my way because my dog walked at the end of his leash, etc. There is this concept that dogs should be totally controlled, all the time, or you are failing as a dog owner. I think a dog should be able to be a dog. They should learn and obey the house rules, which vary by household.

I'm no expert but I've come to realize that dogs have a mind of their own, with varying emotions and needs, and they should never be treated as 'slaves' with no choice about anything. We should teach them, as we teach our children. Guide them, not control them. Obviously, just as we would treat a child, their are some rules. Where to potty, don't steal food...

Sorry, know this is getting long, but I knew a guy with a dog that was perfectly trained. He could walk her down the road without a leash, the dog would respond instantly to any command. I never saw her play, and she actually flinched when I touched her. I thought, I don't want a robo-dog. Ever. I want a dog-dog, even if he's a teeny bit bad.

Posted by: Krista April | April 9, 2018 7:47 PM    Report this comment

This is for Jason 2009,
Carol, I can’t properly evaluate your dog’s behavior sight unseen, but I can hazard a guess. First of all I will assume that when you say your dog Wrangler is an “American Lab” that you mean he descends from AKC field trial bloodlines. Secondly, I will assume that your dog isn’t suffering from “mental issues”, but that he is a normal healthy active dog who is confused and is suffering from adolescence and an owner who doesn’t understand her dog.
The mouth is the working end of a retriever. Labs are dogs which are genetically predisposed to use their mouths to carry things. Labradors from American field trial bloodlines are very active and are driven to retrieve. If they aren’t trained to work and aren’t given an outlet for their energy and their ingrained desire to retrieve they will use their mouths in undesirable ways. They may chew on anything they can get their mouths on, and they may even grab your arm in an attempt to engage you in play. If that startles you and you abruptly pull your arm from his mouth you may end up with a gash. You indicate in your post that the bite wasn’t an aggressive act. I would guess it was just a misdirected instinct from a dog with lots of energy and no training to help direct his natural urges.
In my letter above I mention that Labs from American field trial bloodlines are often “too much dog” for the average person who just wants a calm companion. This may be the nature of the problem you are experiencing with your dog Wrangler. He is not content to just lie on the rug. I will bet your dog is highly intelligent and very driven. I also suspect that you are the member of the team who requires the majority of the training. The solution for your problem is for you to learn to channel his natural instincts in a constructive way. This should begin with basic obedience training under the direction of a competent trainer. Once the two of you are working well together you can advance to training for retrieving in the field, again with help from a professional retriever trainer. If this is more work than you are willing to do to meet your dog’s physical and psychological needs you should consider enlisting the help of a professional retriever trainer to find a home where Wrangler can put his natural abilities to use.
Jeff Swackhamer

Posted by: jeff@orionlabradors.com | April 9, 2018 1:59 PM    Report this comment

Jason2009, didn't the vet behaviorist create a training plan or refer you to a positive reinforcement trainer? A call to the behaviorist for a referral to a trainer could be a good next step. Aversive training is not recommended as it only makes behavior problems worse.

Posted by: Beckys11 | April 8, 2018 7:32 PM    Report this comment

Just my two cents here -- but to ME, 'Biddable' was used in the horse world as 'willing to do your bidding' .... often heard at Auctions that the animal was 'Biddable' and suitable for young, inexperienced, etc. riders of either venue - Flat saddle or western ..
Actually never thought of it in the dog world at all ...

Posted by: KatzDawgs | April 8, 2018 2:45 PM    Report this comment

Just my two cents here -- but to ME, 'Biddable' was used in the horse world as 'willing to do your bidding' .... often heard at Auctions that the animal was 'Biddable' and suitable for young, inexperienced, etc. riders of either venue - Flat saddle or western ..
Actually never thought of it in the dog world at all ...

Posted by: KatzDawgs | April 8, 2018 2:45 PM    Report this comment

I hit the wrong button and my sentence was cut off but I said,
Frankly, I can't see the big issue here unless one did not know the meaning of bid or its transformation into biddable and looked it up in the dictionary.

Posted by: Hlevin | April 8, 2018 12:18 PM    Report this comment

I want to know, what would cause a pure breed lab, American, to have mental issues??? He was currently seen by a Vet. Behaviorist & is on Medication. What else can be done to help this 17 mos. old lab. Help??? The breeder is in denial of the mental issues. But he bit me accidentally and I had to go to the ER. for treatment. He is still bits, doesn't know it hurts. My name is Carol, the dog name is Wrangler.

Posted by: Jason2009 | April 6, 2018 1:49 PM    Report this comment

I enthusiastically agree with the definitions in these additional letters. A dog that is purpose bred for a job - waiting in a freezing cold duck blind with gunshots all around and birds falling, for its specific, directed command to retrieve - taking direction to bound through briars and being back that bird - taking directions from the handler on a U.K. mountainside to go back and get the last 2 sheep that need worming - won't likely be kept in the breeding pool if it can't do that specific job. Biddable dogs have hundreds of years of selective breeding, choosing the best versions of desirable traits for the task at hand. Now, I'm a trainer/owner/handler (but not a breeder) of Australian Shepherds; my dogs work livestock only sporadically because there's not a lot of cattle in downtown Atlanta, and they also compete at National Invitational levels for Obedience and Rally. To succeed in all these areas, an Aussie needs to take direction - be biddable - and perform as he/she has been fairly and firmly trained.
Purpose bred service dogs are likewise biddable - but a biddable dog isn't a robot that ALWAYS does exactly as it was commanded to do in that instant, for very good reasons the handler often discovers only later. If the most direct route to go retrieve that partridge, happens to have a rattlesnake in the way, you sure hope your dog goes around the obstacle to the bird, so you don't end up making a vet run for antivenom. If the service dog has been told to cross the street with the blind handler, and there's a silent electric car coming quickly, again one hopes the dog's training will be to not step off the curb and become two traffic accident victims.
A biddable dog learns to take directions, and perform its job in the face of many distractions. It may have to learn some tough skills, and sometimes a trainer might need to use other than purely positive methods for the best outcome. (Before anyone explodes that this is cruelty, I have never seen anyone successfully snake-proof a gun dog by positive methods. Just SNIFFING a rattlesnake can end up fatal!). A dog that doesn't take direction, is too shy or resists any kind of correction, just isn't a good candidate for that kind of work. It may be wonderful elsewhere, but the dog needs to be suited for its job. You don't see terriers working cattle on a ranch, nor should you ask your St. Bernard to go down a hole after rats, or try to win a lure coursing race with your Basset Hound.
Sadly, many dogs aren't suited temperamentally, to work with people. They may be uninterested in people. They may be terrified of everything. They may prefer to do their own thing, rather than become bonded to a person as a companion, or they may represent a bite risk to people or others in the home. Such a canine would only succeed in a very experienced household, where extraordinary measures could be provided for both the dog, and the owner's, safety.
To succeed and fit into my household, teaching, and training regimens, I need biddable partners. And when I start looking for my next teammate, biddability is one of the first qualities on my list of requirements.

Posted by: mamafirebird | April 6, 2018 12:38 PM    Report this comment

I guess many terrier lovers are looking for something different than a biddable dog, I know I am. I was a cat person until I met my first Cairn Terrier, when I was blown away by that dog's independent spirit. Two Scotties and 56 Cairns (my own and fosters) later what I value in a dog is the unruly, willful, dogged, headstrong, stuborn, wild, mischievous, diehard, problem solving personality found in a true terrier.

Posted by: pkinpa | April 5, 2018 9:45 PM    Report this comment


Posted by: tmatt | April 5, 2018 2:50 PM    Report this comment

As the owner of several working-bred Border Collies and Aussies who have been used on our cattle farm over the years, and a volunteer at a number of United States Border Collie Handlers Association sanctioned trials and National Finals, I totally agree with ohssuz's comments.

Biddable is considered, in the working Border Collie world, to be a very positive trait - with the primary take on it that the dog, while possessed of the requisite instinct (without which you would not have a functioning working stock dog), must also be "biddable" or willing to be trained (have its instinct developed and guided for maximum usefulness and minimal stress to stock, dog, and handler) as well as willing to listen to the handler's commands which may contradict the dog's natural instinct at times. A dog does not work strictly on instinct but also by command to be of the greatest usefulness, to work safely for stock, dog, and handler, and to accomplish whatever the job is that needs to be accomplished.

So, while the "take" on the word in the article implies one thing (based on the dictionary) in the working stock dog world, it means something a bit different, a very positive trait to have in a dog that you want as your working partner, when you must rely on each other to accomplish required tasks with the least possible stress to all involved.

Posted by: Sue R | April 5, 2018 1:41 PM    Report this comment

I have purchased and trained lurchers from Great Britain to keep the deer off our US horse pastures for many years. Have followed a line of working lurchers, fast, smart, and obedient - which is saying something for dogs that are mostly sighthound blood - dogs bred for hundreds of years to hunt on their own. One thing I ALWAYS ask, before any puppy purchase, is that I want a "biddable" pup. It is a word often used in England/Wales/Ireland and it means to the breeder and purchaser alike, a trainable dog. One who is willing to learn and use what he/she has learnt to please the handler.
I knew what it meant from the beginning, even as I had never heard the word spoken in the US, but I had heard it sung since childhood: "Did she bid you to come in, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?" So it always made perfect sense to me and still does.

Posted by: ohssuz | April 5, 2018 12:45 PM    Report this comment

Excellent read! This post illustrates you are intelligent, biddable and trainable! Thank you , thank you! Ruth Robinson from Dog Scouts of America, Troop #237, East Bay California.

Posted by: RuthRobinson | April 5, 2018 12:07 PM    Report this comment

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