Biddable Dogs or Trainable Dogs?

How would you describe the ideal temperament for a dog?

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I had an interesting conversation with a trainer friend the other day. She had gone to meet a breeder she had never met before, as a potential buyer of a puppy from a future litter. She told me about a little glitch in their conversation that she couldn’t stop thinking about.

whole dog journal editor nancy kerns

She said, “Nancy, I kept using the word ‘trainable’ to describe a trait I look for in a puppy, and every time I said it, the breeder would respond that her dogs are very ‘biddable.’ At first, I wasn’t sure what word she was using; I asked her to repeat it. Even when I realized I had heard her correctly, I wasn’t sure what it meant; I had to come home and look it up. And it turns out that it’s absolutely not what I’m looking for in a dog!”

I was pretty certain I knew the definition of the word “biddable,” but I’ll share the Dictionary.com definition with you, in case you don’t know it:

BIDDABLE: adjective

1. meekly ready to accept and follow instructions; docile and obedient.

SYNONYMS: obedient, acquiescent, compliant, tractable, amenable, complaisant, cooperative, dutiful, submissive.

I agree with my trainer friend; this is not a trait I look for in a dog, either. I like dogs who are curious, friendly, and ready to be engaged and attentive if I hold up my end of the “conversation” and I also behave in a friendly, engaged, interesting way.

I can imagine that there are some people who don’t want an inquisitive, independent dog. Some people truly do seem to want their dogs to be “submissive.”

But my trainer friend and I agreed; that’s the farthest thing from our minds. Personally, I don’t want a submissive husband, child, grandchild, or friend, nor a “docile” dog, cat, or chicken. Why would I need that? Why would I want someone around me to “submit” to my every whim? Meek? That’s not my thing at all.

I asked my friend, “You told the breeder you wanted a ‘trainable’ dog. How would you define that?”

She said, “Smart. Motivated to work with me. One who values rewards that I can deliver. Willing to experiment to get things right.”

I started wondering: Perhaps those of us with a special interest in animal behavior and the methods of influencing behavior value smart, creative dogs more than the average dog owner might? Do you want a particularly docile, submissive dog? Are these traits attractive to you? I’m curious to know what traits you look for in a dog.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Just stumbled across this article. I completely disagree with your definition of a biddable dog being submissive or docile or meek. Or that having a biddable dog means one that is not “smart” or “creative”.

    I have always had Labs, a biddable breed. However, my dogs are also “curious, friendly, and ready to be engaged and attentive”. They are “Smart. Motivated to work with me. One who values rewards that I can deliver. Willing to experiment to get things right.” Those terms are not at all in odds with being a biddable dog.

    The reasons that Labs are considered a biddable breed is because they have been bred for countless generations to work with and beside a person, while being friendly, confident and cooperative. One of my dogs was an advanced level disaster search dog for FEMA, one of only 60 trained to that level at that time. She certainly wasn’t submissive or docile or meek.

  2. I’ve also just stumbled across this article and agree 100% with the above comment from Jane. I think the use of the word biddable in the dog world differs from the dictionary definition, and simply put means a smart, trainable dog that will respond particularly to food rewards. I have a rescue pointer/hound cross who is smart, friendly, attentive and motivated but cannot be trained with food rewards, therefore I would not describe her a ‘biddable’.

  3. I think the author is somewhat off base on this definition of biddable when it comes to dog’s. Biddability in dog training is far more subtle a concept. It is something very intangible that occurs between the handler/trainer and the dog. It has to do with the transfer of confidence that the trainer will grant the dog. It may involve certain leeway of leash to do something or other. The dog recognizes the connection and in turn comes when called or perhaps will drop an object. A biddabile dog just kind of gets it. The dog receives franchise, almost a kind of permission or freedom and in turn the dog provides some specific behavior to the trainer. There is often eye contact involved between dog and handler. When it happens it is almost magic. There is often a kind of bonding between owner/trainer that transpires when both dog and trainer are in the zone. Springer Spaniels, labs, setters and several other gun dogs have this trait in spades. A billable dog volunteers rather than is forced or bribed.

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