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Manfred Lerner - "A Real Dog Man"

by Lisa Schuller

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

(Part one of a three part series, first published in Dog Sport Magazine in the Nov. '98 issue, part two in the Dec. '98 issue, and part three in the Jan. '99 issue. Reprinted by permission.)

I have a close friend whose greatest compliment - which he very infrequently bestows on anyone - is the appellation "a real dog man."

Over several years, I have come to understand that this endearing term means someone who loves dogs, working dogs, whatever kinds of dogs - regardless of breed or age. Someone who thinks, and more importantly, feels dogs, and has dogs in their blood. Whose idea of fun is training rain or shine, with the worst dog in the group, or the best. Who can be objective about his dogs, but remains deeply respectful to the innate wonder of each dog. Someone who gets tears in their eyes when they talk about the "greats" of yesteryear, not about the handlers, but about dogs - and not even their own. This term "a real dog man" most accurately describes Manfred Lerner of "v. Bayern" Dobermann Kennels.

Of all the photos that I have from my last trip to Germany, there is one that I wish I'd taken - for it would illustrate the essence of this man. But then again, maybe it was better that I was distracted from reaching for the camera. Some things you are meant to hold in your mind and in your heart, not on paper. I was busy watching Manfred: grinning and holding his newest puppy "Granit" with a look of loving pride and excitement, that made everyone forget that he's been at this dog game for well over 30 years.

Throughout Manfred's clubhouse are photographs of his and other people's long dead Dobermanns, his old SchH3 Am Staff bitch, and a particularly interesting Boxer/Giant Schnauzer cross. "Sammy" is dressed in German Police uniform, complete with cap-- he stands as yet another example of Manfred's lifetime devotion to dogs. A mongrel pup who was due to be put down, Manfred saved "Sammy," trained him, and later placed him with the police in a neighboring town. Manfred beams when he tells of "Sammy's" narcotics suitability test, and how he destroyed a cabinet to get to his drug toy. He is also now a certified cadaver dog. "Sammy" still comes to visit, and by all accounts, goes crazy with excitement when he sees Manfred. Not surprising. I didn't find a dog there, including mine, who didn't think Manfred was possibly the neatest person they had laid eyes on for a long time.......

PART 1: Manfred Lerner's Background in Dog Training & Dobermanns

DSM: At what age did you first own a dog?

LERNER: My father was a hunter and worked already with dogs. So, I grew up with dogs and dog training. My first dog was a German Shepherd called "Daga von der Hermansheide." I was just 13 years old and already very interested in training for Schutzhund.

DSM: When did you become a helper?

LERNER: In 1968, I became a member of the German Shepherd Club (SV), which was already associated with the VDH (Verband für das Deutsche Hundewesen). Very soon, I began my work as a helper which I have been able to perform for many years now.

DSM: I understand that you are Chief of Protection Dogs for the German Air Force Base at Landsberg/Lech. Do you also train dogs to detect drugs and/or explosives?

LERNER: I have done dog training for the German Air Force since 1977. We also train dogs to detect explosives. Two of our detection dogs are actually working in Bosnia. Dog training to detect drugs is a task of the German Police, not of the army. However, the army is thinking about using drug detection dogs.

DSM: What breeds have you trained for the Air Force?

LERNER: The trained breeds are German Shepherds, Malinois, Bouviers, Dobermanns, Riesenschnauzer [Giant Schnauzer] and Rottweiler. During 21 years now, I have the experience of training approximately 600 dogs.

DSM: Which breeds do you consider the most suitable for police service work?

LERNER: Considering the great number of dogs which have passed through my hands, I can tell that you cannot compare the capabilities of dogs by their breed. But the dog which I personally consider as the most unusable for military and police, is the German Shepherd. This is for two reasons: the first reason is the numerous health problems such as HD (hip dysplasia) and problems in Bewegungsapparat. [Note: This is not easily translated into one English word. Manfred is explaining that the inherent gait mechanics-- the harmony between front and rear legs, spine, shoulders, and pelvis-- are problematic due to underlying musculo-skeletal afflictions]. The second reason is the good-naturedness reached by breeding with very calm dogs.

DSM: When did you get your first Dobermann?

LERNER: I got my first Dobermann in the year 1973, a female called "Dona von Fürstenfeld." I trained her at the German Shepherd Club (SV). One day, two Americans saw me working, and watched Dona doing her bite work. They came here to buy German Shepherds, but finally they bought my Dobermann Dona and took her to the United States. After that, I had to leave the German Shepherd Club. Dona had a very suitable working character. She was natural, self-assured and insensitive to noise. She had good obedience and did good, hard bite work. She was not so tall. She was 66 cm high and her structure was elegant. She had a very dark face.

DSM: Why did you "switch" from working with the German Shepherd to the Dobermann?

LERNER: Well, I had had enough of trying to succeed with German Shepherds. I could not reach my goals with these too gentle dogs, who always had health problems in the spinal column and HD. Then, I met the Dobermann, which I liked very much. So, I got Dona. I think that we cannot compare the German Shepherd to the Dobermann. These two kinds of dogs have been bred for a long time to fulfill different tasks. The German Shepherd originally was a guardian of sheep, as his name says. His character is completely different. The Dobermann has been bred in the past, to be an aggressive dog to make people afraid of the person who leads that dog. To compare these two breeds is like comparing a tractor to a Porsche. Both of them have their reason to be how they are.

DSM: Could you tell me about the character of the Dobermann 20-30 years ago? Has it improved?

LERNER: In former times, the Dobermann was nervous and very impressed by any kind of noise or unexpected action. By special breeding which focuses on utility value, a stable character for any kind of use has been obtained. This is the only type of character which is valid for working dogs.

DSM: Could you tell me about the body structure of the Dobermann 20-30 years ago? Has it improved?

LERNER: The structure of the Dobermann has been improved in the domain of Bewegungsablauf [gait execution & coordination] and HD. In some blood lines the structure of the head became worse - stark abfallende, obere Kopflinie [downfaced]. There have been increased cases of death by heart disease and gastric torsion.

DSM: What do you consider the Dobermann's best qualities are as a working dog?

LERNER: Their very pronounced drive to play and to get the Beute [prey].

DSM: What character trait would you choose to improve on in the whole breed?

LERNER: Generally, the Dobermann lacks in adaptability and in courage.

DSM: When you speak of the Dobermann's lack of adaptability, what exactly do you mean?

LERNER: The adaptability has to be seen in the connection to being unscarred, which depends on the nerve. Some Dobermanns are very sensitive to a new situation, which they haven't before "rehearsed" how to act. It is impossible to make them deal with new situations, because in any situation, something different will happen. This is when the dog shows you his nerve. For many dogs, it is a problem to remain stable.

DSM: How do you rate the Dobermann in intelligence?

LERNER: Regarding intelligence, better [or] instinct, I would like to say that the Dobermann is one of the most intelligent breeds. He is always watching his environment, and checking the atmosphere out, deciding whether everything is okay. They give you the impression that they understand every word you say, and I can tell you that they do!

DSM: When you speak of the Dobermann's high play behavior, how do you think this affects their workability?

LERNER: For all scent work with dogs, the play behavior is the basis for success. A dog with much play behavior, is generally easier to train. It is the task of the handler to see whether he needs to promote this play behavior, or whether he has to contain it for better control and proper work.

DSM: Do you feel, (as I do), that the Dobermann's beautiful appearance is also a curse - that many people just breed them for their good looks, and don't think of temperament?

LERNER: Yes, many people who have a nice house, a big car, and many other things to show who they are, are interested in the Dobermann because this breed portrays noble birth and elegance, with their impressive appearance. Most of the breeders today, focus on beauty. You can find many more very big, beautiful Dobes in national and international "beauty shows" than working Dobermanns. It has been proven by statistics, that tall Dobermanns with a very large chest cavity can die already at the age of 4 years. My goal as a breeder, is first to have a Dobermann with a good, strong character, which at the same time is also a beautiful dog in structure, but without sacrificing their health. My oldest Dobermann (from first "E" litter in 1975) died at the age of 14 years. The Dobermanns which I have bred, are reaching an average age of 10 to 11 years old.

DSM: Manfred, how would you say that the German public views the Dobermann?

LERNER: The German public mostly considers the Dobermann a vicious attack dog. Many people buying a Dobermann puppy have had this similar experience. Their friends are petting the pup and saying: "Oh, what a nice little dog baby. What's his breed?" The answer from the proud owner: "It's a Dobermann." Immediately, the friends stop petting the puppy, jump away from it and scream: "What a crazy idea, this dog will eat you one day! Think about your children!" But, this negative image is the fault of the media. If there are bad dogs needed to be in films or TV, it's mostly a Dobermann, or sometimes a Rottweiler.

DSM: How many German Dobie kennels still breed for working ability? (interviewer cringes, expecting a low number......)

LERNER: I know of 5 kennels trying to breed working Dobermanns with more or less success.

DSM: How frequently are Dobes still used for Police Service and the Military?

LERNER: Dobermanns are not very often police dogs. But there is a simple arithmetic reason for that: in Germany about 46,000 German Shepherds are bred annually, while only 1,300 Dobermanns. The few useful working Dobermanns are kept by the breeders themselves, for continuing the breed and are therefore, just for personal use. So, it is very normal that you cannot find many Dobermanns with the Police.

DSM: How many Dobermanns do you know personally who are doing police service work, aside from "Kleo v.d. Weyermühle" who is a GSV-Hund (Scent Comparison Dog who IDs criminals) for Nordrhein?

LERNER: I know of about 7 Dobes working as police service dogs. Most of the owners of these dogs are police officers who are very attached to our breed. Using a Dobermann for service is publicity for the breed. But the very good service dogs with Geltungstrieb are mostly difficult to be integrated into the family. [Note: Geltungstrieb means to have aspirations for rank and standing. Dominance is an aspect of this, but is not a complete translation for the word either. The term denotes a dog who wants to be considered important, who seeks "personal prestige," and never wants to "lose face."]

DSM: Some dog trainers say that the Dobermann generally lacks courage, and would flee when confronted. What do you think about this statement?

LERNER: Flight behavior is a very natural reaction of any animal which helps him to survive. The flight behavior is strongly connected to the survival instinct. In difficult/unknown situations, only the dogs with very high drive for "personal prestige" will stay to attack in any case, no matter which breed they are. There is one exception: the Deutscher Jagdterrier, his flight behavior has disappeared by breeding through human hands. They prefer to die before they will flee. But this is not a natural instinct. [Note: the Deutscher Jagdterrier is the German Hunting Terrier. Developed in Bavaria, they are a medium sized, wire-haired or smooth-haired terrier. They hunt predators, particularly those below the ground. They are well-known for their toughness and absolute savagery.]

DSM: There have been debates in U.S. Dobermann circles about why some Dobes "miss" or don't hang onto the sleeve in the SchH courage test. Do you think that this is simply a lack of courage on the dog's part, or lack of training, or a combination of both?

LERNER: There are many excuses why a dog does not hang onto the sleeve in this test. Some may have had bad experiences which can change the behavior of very sensitive Dobermanns. The Dobermanns that I breed-- you saw some of them-- they are getting more and more angry while running at the helper. This fury drives them to bite and hold the sleeve. It seems as if the bite work is revenge for this long way to run! The bite expression is very different to how the playing dogs bite. For my dogs, it's not play, but they like it very much. When I am training dogs as a helper, I always pay attention that they will not have any bad experience, that they always feel the winner when they leave the "battlefield." I, as a helper have to decide within just a second or less, whether I can put pressure on that dog, at that moment, or not. Good dogs can be broken by a bad helper.

DSM: I have heard it said in Germany that Manfred Lerner has always cared most that his Dobermanns are good biting dogs. Is this a fair statement?

LERNER: For me, the dog which bites is foremost. It is important that he is controllable and obedient. You have always to decide which task your dog has to fulfill. The usable Dobermann can be trained for any task: just for family companion, or as a merciless protection dog. In my opinion, a good Dobermann is the best companion you may have.
Eiko (4th at the '98 Bavarian SchH3 CH) and his mother, Cassi (best bitch with 287V at the '96 German SchH3 CH), are Dobermanns which have been educated for certain tasks. Eiko, Cassi and Elisa (2nd at the '98 Bavarian CH) have been chosen by me and trained for performance sport competitions. My wife's bitch, "Susi" (an Uran v. Bayern grand-daughter) is a dog chosen and trained by me for extreme civil protection work. She is a calm dog who shows outstanding, strong bitework under enormous pressure, which hardly any other dog may be able to do. As I have said, the owner must know which kind of dog he needs. Then, the dog has to be selected, trained and kept in a way that corresponds to that aim.

Go to Part 2

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