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October 20, 2008

Breed Profile: Rottweiler

By: Jean Scherwenka

If we’re looking for the dog of our dreams based solely on appearance, we could visit Schwartz Bookshops and buy a life-size, stuffed version of our favorite breed. If we want to invite a real live dog into our life, family, and circle of friends, we need to understand the breed’s history, temperament, exercise needs, training requirements, personality, and behavior traits. Failure to thoroughly research our chosen breed can result in serious consequences for our dog and us. The strong and handsome, charismatic Rottweiler stands as a true example of this failure.

It’s important to know a breed’s history, intriguing or not, because it explains the purpose for which the dog was bred. This knowledge provides valuable insight into the animal’s personality and behavior traits. For example, the Rottweiler dates back to ancient times when the Romans used them as war dogs to drive herds of cattle and food for the troops. Controlling animals much larger than himself required the Rott to show extreme intelligence, courage, confidence, and self-assurance – all key characteristics of the breed today.

Around 74 A.D. the Romans moved through an area in southern Germany, leaving some of their dogs behind. These dogs settled in the town of Rottweil and were bred for the cattle trade, to guard the herds, protect their owners, and drive the cattle to market. After selling the cattle, herdsmen tied their money in bags around their dogs’ necks, a guaranteed safe deposit of their proceeds while they celebrated in the local taverns. Today’s Rottweiler remains a loyal and protective companion.

The breed came to America in 1929, and was registered in the American Kennel Club in 1931. Rottweilers grew in popularity over the years, and in 1994 the AKC registered over 100,000 of them. That’s the year Madison-based Joan Sweeney got involved in Rottweiler rescue. “Rotts will take a long time to recover from that popularity,” she says. “In the late 90’s when Rotts became the No. 1 most popular breed in the country, every freak of nature thought it was their right to breed this dog. They were the most popular breed with the AKC for two years.”

Any breed that experiences this kind of wild popularity surge suffers to some extent. The Rottweiler is a classic example. Irresponsible breeders saw them as quick moneymakers. They indiscriminately bred mother/son, father/daughter, brother/sister, and treated their breeders like puppy machines. Sweeney believes temperament is inherent. “It’s a 50/50 nature vs. nurture for dogs in general, and when you start breeding mother/son, brother/sister in this type of dog, you’re just headed for disaster.”

An inbred dog with a bad temperament can be impossible to train, especially when it’s as big and powerful as the Rott. Folks who blindly followed the Rottweiler trend and brought puppies into the family without bothering to find reputable breeders soon discovered they had a disaster on their hands. Furthermore, these damaged dogs were mistakenly thought to exhibit standard Rottweiler behavior, and the breed’s unwarranted reputation began to grow. At the height of this problem, the Wisconsin Human Society was bringing in an average 2500 Rotts a year, and only about 250 were salvageable.

According to Sweeney, fearfulness, extreme shyness, or wired, super hyper behaviors are “qualities you should never see in a Rott,” and they stand as examples of improper breeding. She will not “re-home” a rescue that shows any of these qualities. “When you get a Rott, you first make sure you’re getting a dog bred for temperament. Then you socialize that dog very young and with every aspect of your community—other dogs, cats, children, mail carrier, UPS people. If the dog can’t be a part of your life and your family, it’s actually not going to work.”

In addition to human interaction, the Rott needs daily exercise. They are extremely athletic, and living at the end of a chain cannot be their lifestyle. The Rott or any dog initially bred to guard, herd, or protect will need exercise outside their yard, or they will become obsessed with their property. If a walk isn’t possible, then take the dog for a ride in the car. Sweeney tells of a 70-year-old woman who loves Rotts but no longer feels strong enough to walk her dog, even though he is beautifully trained. Every day she takes him for a morning drive in her car “to check out the rest of the world, to know that his world is just fine, and he doesn’t have to worry about it.” This works.

The many endearing traits of a true Rottweiler represent what most of us want in a canine companion—intelligent, gentle, loving, loyal, protective, fun-loving, strong, good looking. Proper breeding is essential, but to complete the picture, the Rott deserves a proper owner. When considering one of these proud dogs, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Do we have the space in our yard, home, and car for a dog of this size? Can we afford the higher food costs and vet bills? Are we able to provide the daily exercise a large dog needs? Do we have the time and dedication to train and socialize the dog? Can we commit approximately 14 years to the life of this dog? Do we have the balanced personality traits to gain the dog’s respect—consistent, gentle but firm, confident, yet open to professional training classes?

Lynn Gheller understands Rottweilers and has enjoyed their company for over twenty years. Her first two were females from the same line, and she called them her “dream girls.” Eight years ago, she adopted Griffin, an 18-month-old male from the Waukesha Humane Society. Soon after bringing him home, he started showing aggressive behaviors. She immediately took him to her vet who recommended Amy Ammen’s Amiable Dog Training.

“The trainer had three Rottweilers herself, and she really knew her breed,” recalls Gheller. “Griffiin was dog aggressive, and he just wanted his own way. I worked with him every single day.” At six months she saw little progress, and then he bit her. She told her trainer, “I’m not doing this any more.” The trainer suggested one more thing—have Amy Ammen personally look at the dog.

Ammen came to the next class and introduced one of her techniques for extreme cases. “Dogs can be trained any number of ways. There are dogs we have to manage a lot more carefully than others, but I’ve never seen one that can’t be improved vastly from where he is when the owner has a concern.”

“I walked out of class that night with a different dog,” says Gheller. That was eight years ago, and Griffin is now approaching his tenth birthday. “He turned out to be a really, really great dog,” she says, and when he passes, she plans to get another Rott. Gheller knows Rottweilers very well, and yes, she loves them.

Wisconsin Rottweiler Rescue www.wirottrescue.org
Amiable Dog Training www.dogclass.com
Living With A Rottweiler edited by Kate Pinches

Jean Scherwenka loves dogs, writing, and the opportunity to combine the two in her articles for Fetch Magazine.

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