When I think about all the different dog breeds, and the way people talk about them-this breed being more challenging, more driven, more one thing or another compared to others- it’s helpful to bring it back to behavior and reinforcement. Different breeds find certain activities or consequences to be more or less reinforcing. When we decide to take on a certain breed, we are, knowingly or unwittingly, taking on the responsibility for providing them with the type of reinforcement they prefer, on the proper schedule. To refuse to do so, or fail to do so is not only (in my opinion) unfair and inhumane, it’s a recipe for future behavior problems.
We can train any breed to perform a behavior a dog is capable of performing. The difference is that for certain breeds the behavior itself is going to provide a level of reinforcement that will make it easier to keep the behavior going. Any dog who can pick up an object with their mouth can be taught to retrieve. The retrievers will do it for the reinforcement the behavior itself provides. The cocker spaniels do it for the cheese they get for bringing the ball back.
The traits that have been selected for in dogs range from the surreal behavior of pointers who freeze in a classic pose when they locate a bird, to terriers who once they get a hold of something are loath to let it go. When we bring a dog into our lives we are not just bringing home an animal that looks a particular way. We are bringing home an animal with a particular set of preferences for having a good time.
Trainers and dog enthusiasts have come up with creative ways to accommodate these preferences when herding or hunting are not options we’re able to provide.
Mixed breeds are going to find certain activities more or less reinforcing. Look for classes in your community and try agility, nose work, treiball, obedience, rally, barn hunts, etc. Any training, including protection work can be done without using equipment that hurts or scares a dog. There are even dogs who have been bred to prefer snuggling on the couch, more than digging in the garden. If couch snuggling is a preferred activity of yours, you might still find that your canine companion is a willing accomplice, after a they finish up the gardening.