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Observations of a Dog Trainer: The German Shepherd

Updated: May 20, 2023

Let me just start by saying I have two German Shepherds of my own. Both of which I've had for years and both have taught me so much about Dog Training in general as well as the German Shepherd Breed. I love my GSDs, but many of the challenges I struggled with in these two dogs' trainings I also have seen in a multitude of our GSD clients as well.


I must say that the German Shepherd Dog, in its best form is a work of art, described by the American Kennel Club as "Generally considered dog-kind's finest all-purpose worker, the German Shepherd Dog is a large, agile, muscular dog of noble character and high intelligence. Loyal, confident, courageous, and steady, the German Shepherd is truly a dog lover's delight."


If you've considered a German Shepherd as your next dog, either as an active pet, a family protector, or even a sport prospect, this description of the German Shepherd sounds great, right?!


The AKC's description defines the best representation of the breed. Unfortunately, the German Shepherd's popularity has created a demand for an increased number of German Shepherd breeders and breeding pairs. This increased demand has allowed some breeders to profit from mass producing dogs that do not live up to the breed's notable standard as described above.


Working Line vs. Show Line: The Great Divide



The differences between the Show Line and Working Line German Shepherd Dogs have been increasing as the popularity of the breed has increased. While purpose bred dogs are integral to the success of the dog in each field, the differences between the dogs produced for each field present some issues for the breed as a whole.


The divide between the working line German Shepherds and the Show line German Shepherds seems to be the result of the deciding authorities inability to agree on the ideal characteristics of the breed.


Often Show Line German Shepherds struggle to perform the work expected for the breed's intended purpose, and the working line dogs fail to meet the physical appearance characteristics outlined by the breed standard.


While excellent quality dogs are bred in both camps and are able to excel in their designated fields, this unfortunately creates problematic results when inexperienced, uneducated, or opportunistic breeders are pairing dogs without the consideration of the dog's intended purpose. Disreputable breeders may find dogs that are show-line, working-line, or a mix of both, and generating puppies that may have qualities from both working and/or show lines.


The problem with this breeding trend is unpredictability in the characteristics of the puppies being produced in any given litter. If one of the parents is a high drive working line, and the other a lower drive show line, some of the puppies may end up being high-drive, others may be low drive, and some may be in the middle.


When you are selecting your next dog's breeder, there should be a high level of predictability in the characteristics of the puppies produced. The differences between each puppy in any given littler should be a minimal as possible.


The Importance of Reputable Breeders

When you are looking for a new dog, it is tempting to consider that puppy for sale on Facebook or Craigslist for a "Great Price!" Even if the puppy is advertised as "registered", "AKC Registered", "purebred", "full-blooded," "champion bloodline," or any of the other buzz words that make the dog seem like a great choice, there are a lot of other factors that you should considered before trying to get a 'bargain deal' for your next dog.


What you might save on a discounted dog price, you'll spend 3x more in training and management for the problems that may lie ahead in that puppy's life.


There are a lot of features of reputable breeders that you should look for when you are looking for the right German Shepherd Breeder for your next puppy. Its important to understand that great breeders are not cheap, may not have puppies readily available, and may not be nearby, but you'll save yourself a lifetime of problem solving and trouble shooting when you start with the right puppy.


Features of Great Breeders

  1. Great breeders know that when you purchase a dog from them, that dog is a representation of their breeding program for that dog's entire life. Your breeder should be invested in your dog's success and provide a support network to help your dog be their best throughout your dog's life.

  2. Great breeders breed dogs that exemplify the breed standard. Breeders should not breed colors or characteristics that do not meet the breed standards.

  3. Your breeder should provide results of health testing on all breeding pairs.

  4. Great breeders prove their breeding pairs in the field for which their dogs are purposefully bred. Breeders should continue to actively compete and work their breeder pairs and the puppies they produce when the choose to retain a puppy from their litter.

  5. Any breeder should be able to produce their dogs' lineages showing that each of the breeding dogs in your puppy's lineage have competed in similar activities or sports. And ideally you should be looking for a dog that has a lineage with titles that lend themselves towards the things you would like to do with your dog.

  6. Great breeders should provide a puppy contract that includes things such as: Health guarantees, breeding rights(if applicable), sterilization clause, resources to assist with any problems that may occur.

  7. Your breeder should include a clause in their contract that if for any reason throughout the life of the dog that it is not the right fit, the breeder should require that the dog be returned to them and not be rehomed, surrendered, or euthanized.

Beware and avoid breeders that advertise "rare," "exotic," "unique," "new," "dilute," or other trendy buzz words to describe their dogs. If they are not breeding traits that commonly excepted by the German Shepherd community, then you should steer clear of that breeder.


While purebred German Shepherds can come in solid colors such as white or black, selecting a dog based on its unique or unusually coloring can often lead to ignoring problematic temperament traits.

Does a Pet Dog Really Need All of That to be a Good Dog?

You may be asking yourself, "why do I care if the parents competed in sports or shows when I don't plan on doing that?"

Even if you are just looking for a well mannered pet, some of the best ways to know the likely adult temperament of your puppy is by looking at the temperament of the parents, grandparents, and great grandparents or other relatives of your dog.


While it can be hard to meet your puppy's extended family in person, you can tell a fair amount by what they have accomplished in trials, shows, and other competitions.

When a dog is able to compete and score well enough to earn titles and accolades in often stressful and chaotic environments, that can tell you that your dog is likely to have a temperament that allows them to behave appropriately and predictably around people, other dogs, and a variety of other types of stressful situations.


If you plan on doing lots of energy intensive activities that require a dog to be physically capable and healthy, you will be able to see that dogs that have competed in dog sports are likely to be physically healthy and capable.

If you are getting a German Shepherd with a dog-specific sport or activity in mind, you would want to seek out dogs with lineages that have competed and performed well in that specific sport.

Pure-Bred does not always mean Well-Bred

A Tale of Two Shepherds

Breaux

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have two "German Shepherds"... and I put that in quotations because I would not consider either of them as excellent representations of the breed.


The first German shepherd I got, I named him Breaux, I admittedly purchased from a Backyard Breeder.


A Backyard Breeder, is a general term for someone who is producing puppies without meeting many or any of the requirements for what we would consider a "reputable breeder."

I paid $100 for my Great Value Brand German Shepherd dog. He was not registrable, I didn't know his lineage. I could see his parents but didn't not get to meet them. And once I did a DNA test, I found out he wasn't even pure-bred. Turns out he was actually 25% Husky.

Now, I love my dog and he's a great member of my pack, but he was undoubtedly the most expensive dog I have. Not because of the $100 I paid for him, but for the thousands... let me repeat that... "THOUSANDS" I paid in training to address the problems that were undoubtedly part of his poorly bred genetics.


This German Shepherd has a history of SEVERE Human Aggression, has a bite history on multiple occasions, and I will never fully trust him around strangers.


With extensive training, we have absolutely managed all of his genetically inherited issues, and he's a great house dog, but we will likely never be able enjoy a nice relaxing off-leash hike without worrying about someone sneaking up on us and getting bit.


Alba

My other German Shepherd came to me under some fairly tragic circumstances. A personal friend of mine had adopted Alba from a local German Shepherd rescue and wanted a nice house dog as a playmate for their other dog in the home, A small terrier mix around 10lbs.


They had reached out to me about some training, as I had just graduated from an extensive dog training school and they were having some issues with Alba becoming aggressive towards their other dog.


We set up a time to meet and for me to meet her dog, but the day before we were scheduled to meet, Alba had put the other dog in the hospital with some very serious injuries. My friend admitted that this had gone too far and they were no longer willing to try to resolve the issue themselves.

I persuaded them to still meet with me, and I would consider taking the dog on if it seemed like the right fit for me. After meeting Alba, I could tell she needed some work. She was already 6 years old and have a lot of behavioral concerns to overcome, but within a few months she had progressed will in her training and had become a fully integrated member of my pack.


Alba does not look like your "classic" German Shepherd, and I honestly had my doubts that she was actually a full GSD. So, I decided to have her DNA tested, and it turns out that she is actually a 100% German Shepherd! Despite being purebred GSD, she does not meet the breed standard in various aspects of her physical characteristics, as well as her temperament.

Alba continues to struggle with a lot of anxiety, and what we generally call "nerviness", meaning that she may be a bit skittish, anxious, and unpredictable. And while she does struggle in some situations, she is still a good house dog as a result of our extensive training program.


Alba is still able to compete at low levels in a few different sports, just for fun and to keep her active as she gets older, but she will never excel in the sports in which German Shepherds were intended to perform well.


Why Did you Choose This Dog?

This is one of the most important questions I ask my training clients when they come in for their initial evaluation with me before they ever sign up for training.


Why did you choose the German Shepherd Breed?

Why did you choose this specific Breeder?

Why did you choose this individual puppy?


The trend among many of the German Shepherd owners that come in for training is their struggle to honestly answer these questions even after they have had their dog for a while. Often we hear some very generic or vague answers that unfortunately do not prepare their owners for the dog that they now have.


Why the German Shepherd Breed?

"I've always wanted a German Shepherd."

"I've heard that they are really smart."

"I deployed with a team that had one that would patrol with us."

"I wanted the dog to protect my family."

"They look cool."


Why this breeder?

(Honestly most clients can't remember the name of the breeder when they are asked this question, which tells me that they didn't develop a good line of communication or relationship with the breeder before purchasing the puppy)

"The dogs on the website looked great."

"They showed me pictures of the parents."

"They were local."

"They had puppies ready and available when I called." "They had the best price."


Why this puppy/dog?

"He was the most calm of the litter."

"He was the most friendly of the litter."

"I wanted a (insert coat color) one."

"It was the last one they had."

"The mom only had one puppy."


Unfortunately all of these answers, although very commonly heard, are very concerning answers to these questions.


When we ask why did you get "This" dog, meaning specifically a German Shepherd, from this particular breeder, and this individual puppy, we hope to hear that you selected this puppy intentionally to do the things and behave the way that the breed and this breeder intended for this puppy.


What are German Shepherds Bred for?

The German Shepherd was bred and developed as a dual purpose livestock herding and protection dog. The temperament, characteristics, and attributes that allows this breed to excel in the field of livestock management also lends the breed to success as law enforcement and military working dogs.


Whether working the livestock on a farm, or working in law enforcement and military, the characteristics that make this breed successful include their high energy level, the desire to work tirelessly, and the inherent desires to chase and bite things that move as well as bark at and bite potential threats.


While these characteristics allow the dog to excel in their intended fields of work, these inherent traits, when left unchecked create problematic behaviors in an ordinary pet home. Most German Shepherd owners who seek out training describe problems with barking, nipping, and an overabundance of energy.


"I want my German Shepherd to Protect my Family."

Without specified training, your dog will not protect your family. And as it was stated recently from another great trainer, even if your dog is the 1 in a Million who would actually act in a moment of need to jump in and actually stop an attacker, the shear chaos of the situation would like create more harm than good with a dog that doesn't know what its really doing, along with an owner who also does not likely know how to handle the situation.


I love the German Shepherd Breed,

The Way it Was Intended

When I first got a German Shepherd nearly 10 years ago, I knew I wanted a dog with an abundance of energy that I could work with every day to do new and more challenging activities. Although I did not know enough to research a reputable breeder, I was still prepared for the work that was going to go into a dog from this breed.


As I have learned more about the German Shepherd Breed, from my own experience, from working with other German Shepherd Owners, and participating in German Shepherd based sports and activities, the breed continues to be among my favorites.


We often have GSDs that come in for training, that I truly look at say, "this is a really nice dog! this is the type of dog I would want!"... however, I often find that these are the dogs who's owners just want the dog to "chill out" and "not have so much energy all the time" and "just want him to stop biting everything that moves."


While these training goals are understandable, and often attainable, it begs the question, "didn't you know what you were getting when you decided you wanted a German Shepherd?"


It is an absolute joy to watch German Shepherds performing the tasks and skills they were intended to perform, and to see these dogs absolutely thriving in their jobs and sports.



I think there are many like minded canine professionals that lament the degradation of the breed because so many disreputable breeders are producing unpredictable, unstable, unbalanced, nervy, and reactive dogs by mixing and matching breeding pairs with incompatible characteristics in an attempt to profit from the continually growing demand for pet German Shepherd Dogs.

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