Skip to main content

An Exploration of “A Dog with A Human Mind"

By CinDee Byer

“The reality of this breed is overwhelming. They came to this country after World War I and became part of the lives of famous and influential men and woman and hundreds and thousands of ordinary families. They played a huge role in the development of the training of dogs in America, were one of the first breeds to demonstrate compassionate insight into the needs of the blind, were the first to understand and help the deaf, and have inspired much creative art and beauty in this land of ours.”
-Frank H. Grover –

Much has been written and preserved concerning the Doberman, its beginnings, and the Standard. Frank Grover and I spoke to each other in great detail on these subjects. However, the strongest bond between Frank and I seemed to be our belief that within the true Doberman mind lies something magical. The extraordinary gift is one of intelligence that can not be identified in the obedience ring or in any planned performance. This is a gift defined by the Dobermans intimate thought process between it and its human pack. And if there truly is magic in the communication between Doberman and human, Frank would say, “The real magic lies not in the way we communicate to them, but in the way they convey ideas to us”.

The Doberman, of mind and body

Frank writes that “the earliest attempt to describe the Dobermannpinscher was Otto Goeller who described the breed as … A dog with a human mind”.
Frank felt “intelligence was fundamental to the breed”. Due to this belief he found judging Dobermans a challenge. “Frank often said, “Conformation never quite figured out what the rule of judging should be”. To him it was important to be able to judge both the Dobermans mind and body as a whole. He would spend his lifetime researching and writing about the need for better judging of the Doberman. During his early years Frank admired and learned much from German judge Herr Willi Rothfuss. Concerning an evening when Herr Rothfuss visited his home to critique his dog Adventurer, Frank wrote…

“When I brought Adventurer out to show him to Herr Rothfuss, I started to set him up to the best of my ability. Herr Rothfuss stepped over and pushed my hands away from the dog. He asked whose dog Adventurer was, and when Kathleen said hers, Herr Rothfuss told her to go out the front door and wait. He had me hold the leash and stand behind Adventurer, and then directed Kathleen to make a noise. Adventurer who never really “turned on” in the show ring, suddenly moved into a gorgeous pose. He dropped his rear, (which he lifted and straightened when he was manually “set up”) pushed his weight forward and lifted his head and ears into a magnificent stance. Herr Rothfuss walked around him making notes. Then he examined the mouth, and had me gait him. Then he took my hand, “Thank you,” he said.”

Later Herr Rothfuss sent Frank and Kathleen a written critique on official Verein stationery. This event would change Frank’s view on judging Dobermans forever. He would spend the rest of his days looking for ways to judge the Doberman, in the show ring, as Herr Rothfuss did that night.
Older exhibitors and breeders will remember, at some time or another, when Frank put up a dog or a bitch, that to them, did not make sense. What most never understood is that he was always judging much more, than one could see. “Energetic, watchful, determined, alert, fearless, loyal and obedient” These were the words Frank worked hard to identify in the conformation ring.
To some, these words under GENERAL APPEARANCE may seem somehow less important. They may be thought of as, a little less significant, than all the other more concrete descriptions of the Doberman. The word “appearance”, after all, is an abstract concept in itself. One can appear brave and yet in reality be nothing more than a coward. Still, as we begin to study the Doberman Standard it is these words that we first remember. It is believed by historians, that they are the reality of the breed itself. It is upon this foundation of character that the Doberman was built. It is based on this description that a breed’s physical aspects were born. And yet, as important and clear as these words may seem to the historian, to a breeder their meaning may be just as confusing. How does one breed for something you cannot hold a measuring stick to. How does one breed on faith for something only believed to be there?

In the Beginning, Let there be mind…

The Doberman was not spawn from beauty, but from an almost unimaginable intelligence that preceded them in fame.
Frank Grover writes:

“All Dobermans can be traced back to 1896 to Apolda. In that year, eight pups were born there whose names we know, but that is all we can verify.
In Apolda, we are told that these eight dogs became legends. They were not beautiful; in fact they were not even attractive physically. What they had is what we think of as distinctive traits: a keen judgmental mind, strong nervous system, fearlessness and bravery. These eight became famous all over central Europe. Their pups were in demand all over Germany. They were so exceptional that within two years their offspring were recognized as a breed and within four years, Dobermannpinchers had begun to spread all over Europe. Within ten years their progeny would be known the world over.”

We are told, in books and from historians that, it was through the diligence of breeders and the use of “extreme inbreeding” the Dobermannpincher was thrust into almost immediate existence. Frank writes: “It was with the early use of this new science of breeding that a unique and sudden rearrangement of genes took place. The uniqueness we are told lay in the mind and temperament”. Most experts agree that the domesticated, canine mind is a stunted version of the wild dog. The cunning of the wild dog lies in its many abilities to function effectively as part of a pack. The function of the pack is survival. Perhaps the uniqueness that extreme inbreeding provided the Doberman was the ability to leave many of those inherited, instinctive traits intact. This rearrangement of genes seemed to create a kind of “super dog”. The Doberman was said to have the ability to perform most all canine work with amazing accuracy. It was a breed that could adapt in many situations. Capable of intelligent problem solving, it was “a dog with a human mind”.

Then there was Body…

The use of inbreeding produced a brilliant mind and later cross breeding would produce a beautiful dog. Unfortunately Frank says, “One wherein this unique character was divided genetically”. These crossbreeding, which divided the Doberman’s thought process would soon give birth to a long lived debate. Although many breeders of that time attempted to preserve both mind and body, some would ultimately choose body over mind. Others would choose preservation of the Dobermans distinct mental characteristics. For the first time the debate of usefulness versus beauty had begun and a division in the Doberman community became apparent. 

Frank writes…

“A period of cross breeding took place as fanciers sought to preserve (on one hand) the key breed characteristics (i.e. mind and character) and at the same time improve the physical appearance of the dogs.

Most of the crosses were to dogs that were mixed already. But two definite pure-bred crosses took place. The first was in Northern Germany where Manchester (Black and Tan Terriers) were used with Dobermans. The effects were to improve coat and color, at the same time making for a more refined bone and a narrower head. Many worried the cross would reduce the key characteristics of the breed; and probably it did in some dogs. By this time the breed was being shown in regular shows; and the results of the cross with the Manchester found favor in the ring.

The second cross was to a Greyhound. Again the effects were toward a smoother coat, a different distribution of body mass, different bone. Head shape was different. Much concern was expressed about this cross. Yet from it came the first dog that set “breed type”. His name was Prinz Modern Ilm-Athen. Except for height, he could go into the show ring today and be recognized as an acceptable Doberman. His head was broad and chunky; and his rear assembly was not in balance. But his body was excellent, and his forequarters very good. Unfortunately, in the crosses, the character traits were not inherited intact. We do not know his mental traits. We have no accounts about his keen mind and quickness to learn. Nor do we know whether or not he was born without fear. We are told that he was a coward. What we can be sure of is that by this time, the basic rearrangement of genes that had created the breed was split up. No longer was it being carried on as one unified characteristic.”

Separation of Church and State…

Frank says, “We are told that Modern was bred to every bitch in Germany that was called Dobermannpinscher. He was bred incestuously and in close breedings and in outcrosses.” By1912 the crack that divided mind and body was beginning to widen. Physically beautiful yet cowardice specimens were beginning to show up in some bloodlines. Breeders argued over ideals. Many believed that with the strong breeding of the Doberman, traits that were lost would return on their own. Some were unconcerned with the temperament of that time. Others would contend that temperament and intelligence were the very essence of the breed itself. 

The silent battle raged on in the breeding community as the Dobermans popularity grew. According to Frank by the 1930’s the Doberman had become infamous in the United States. At that time Ringling Brothers circus had a troupe of Dobermans performing around the country. Willy Necker, professional trainer, was giving demonstrations with Dobermans at various events. Clyde Henderson, amateur trainer was encouraging specialized clubs for training and Willie Shaefer importer of Dobermans and Boxers was pushing for competitions.

However, as intelligent as the Doberman was at that time, the average owner did not know how to handle its extreme temperament. This inability to handle the breed inspired some of the first “group” obedience classes in the United States. The first recorded classes of its kind began around the Chicago Illinois area at a kennel called Dobe Villa. Dobe Villa was owned by the Reynolds family who imported and showed Dobermans from Europe. The Reynolds sold Dobermans to the public offering training to each new owner. They are reported as having been the founders of one of the first obedience clubs, The North Shore Training Club.
Willy Necker with his wife Francis and brother Emil became involved, intimately in training Dobermans. Willy began his training career in United States in the 20’s. By the late 1930’s he ran the most prestigious training kennels of the time specializing in Dobermans. He gave obedience expositions around the country with Doberman Pinchers. In an attempt to show properly trained Dobermans Willy used children as young as four to handle and give commands to the dogs at these events. The Dobermans reputation grew larger than life.
In 1934 with the introduction of A.K.C. obedience trials the division that started as a crack was now a canyon. Many top breeders of the time did compete with their dogs, or had breed specimens competing in the obedience ring. However, for good or for bad, obedience also offered a competition for lesser quality animals. The battle of mind and body continued. Respected breeders and friends such as Glenn Staines of Pontchartrain Kennels and Francis H. Fleitmann of Westphalia chose sides. Mr. Staines believed that the working Doberman was the ideal. He bred Dobermans within standards yet concentrated more on the dog’s abilities. Later in 1936 he founded Pathfinder, a school that trained Dobermans for the blind. Mr. Fleitmann concentrated on the physical aspects of the Doberman. He was favored by the judges in the breed ring. The two men agreed to disagree when it came to the virtues of the Doberman.

At this time obedience competitions were being espoused as the way to demonstrate a breed’s abilities. The trails did challenge the mind but as the event evolved experts argued, “It no longer represented the working dog”. Frank stated, "Willy Necker began to question rules that were being established for the trials”. Willy discontinued his affiliation with trial obedience when it was ruled, a dog shall be given a non-qualifying score for anticipation”. He felt anticipation was not disobedience but part of the problem solving abilities in certain breeds such as the Doberman. With introduction of strict guidelines in obedience competitions the dog world had found a way to perfect a performance but failed to examine a breeds thought processes and abilities.

The Doberman, Frank would chuckle, in the obedience ring, is at its best when it is doing everything wrong”. Frank gave many examples but the most vivid is of him and Adventurer in obedience. Frank said, “We began the heeling pattern and were doing well when Adventurer forged a bit. Suddenly there was a click. Adventurer alerted and slowed. Just then we heard another and another and another. With each click Adventurer became more alert and suspicious of the judge walking behind us. The judge obviously was using a “clicker” to keep score. Adventurer never hearing this sound before was living up to the Doberman standard, “fearless and alert”. That day we failed our exercise terribly”. Frank said, “To train for competition, one must teach the Doberman to ignore its keen, judgmental mind. During judging, we in fact ask our Dobermans not to be Dobermans at all.
In his writings, Gruenig discusses the temperament of the Doberman. He was careful to make the distinction between the hereditary traits of character and the organized training of obedience commands. He points out with great fury the importance of mind and body as he writes… “His position in the country, where he fits himself into the family as its guard and protector, is our best assurance against degenerating his body and mind into the over delicate form of the greyhound and its stupidity.”
For many who know the Greyhound they understand it is not a stupid breed. It is however different from the Doberman. The arrangement of genes that governs its thought process is not one of problem solving. As in many breeds, its genetic make up, through breeding, intensifies a particular inherited, instinctive, trait. However, as Frank writes: “the trouble with instincts is that once stimulated, they tend to demand completion. The inner drive to continue the pattern inherited from distant ancestors can seem too strong to be denied. So these specialized dogs were not very useful except to perform tasks in line with their instincts.” The uniqueness of the true Doberman is that it displays insight. It can perform nearly all tasks effectively.

Insights, Frank writes, are hard to explain except to describe the context in which they occur. But though we do not know the process a Doberman uses to arrive at insights, once you have seen one, you have no doubt that they happen. Not all Dobermans seem to have insights. Luckily, most do.
Yet, unlike the days of yesteryear, when a dog was valued for the work they performed, today most of our Dobermans perform only a myriad of conditioned responses that exhibitors call obedience. So we ask can one truly evaluate loyalty, obedience and insight when there is no real work for the Doberman to perform? Can one breed for such traits when scientifically there is no gene identified for obedience or loyalty? And most of all, does anyone care anymore?

Each of us will answer these questions in accordance with our own beliefs and goals. While exploring the Doberman mind we often answer the questions as to our own humanity. If the value of the Doberman character is nothing more than a pointless description, how do we value life itself? Can one really enjoy an orange by just looking at it and measuring its size and color? Or is it what it smells like, tastes like and does for our bodies after we consume it, that we reap its benefits? Is it what we cannot see that makes us salivate? Is it what we cannot see that nourishes our body? Although we cannot see the taste or scent of an orange we understand that these traits are connected genetically to the fruit’s sugar content. Intelligence and insight are the sugar content of the Doberman. They can be identified and we can breed for them. After all, they are the very religion of the breed itself. And as Frank would say, “They are what make the true breeder great and the Doberman mind “human”.
Read more on identifying insights and key traits of Doberman communication by researching the writings of Frank Grover that will be added to the archives on this site.