7 ways to keep a German shepherd busy

An important question for anyone with a dog to ask is, What is my dog’s genetic heritage? In other words, what was my dog bred to do? 

Knowing what your dog was bred for is a helpful way to learn what activities will best engage your dog. And all dog breeds, believe it or not, were created to serve a function. We often lose sight of this in our 21st-century approach to dogs, in which the majority of purebreds are created for (a) their looks, based on rather arbitrary breed standards, and (b) for companionship. But many breeds still retain their instincts to work and fulfill specific purposes.

Some breeds’ functions are (etymologically) much easier to guess than others. For instance, retrievers were bred to… retrieve. Shepherds were bred to herd sheep. Sighthounds (greyhounds, whippets, borzois, etc.) were bred for their keen vision in and speed in chasing small game. Other breed names have become misnomers because of ruinous breeding practices. Your modern bulldog, for instance, is certainly incapable of baiting any bulls (much less walking down a sidewalk without having difficulty breathing).

Even if you have a mixed-breed dog, you can probably make some educated guesses, based on your dog’s interests. Does he love to bark and chase and corral moving objects, people, or animals? He could have herding heritage. Is she obsessed with smelling everything? She might have some hound in her background. Does he adore digging holes? You might have a terrier type on your hands.

Dogs in April

We have two German shepherds, and so I am often thinking about what they were bred to do. The German shepherd dog (GSD) was created at the turn of the century by German cavalry officer Max von Stephanitz. Inspired by the English ardor for purebreds, Stephanitz sought to standardize the herding dogs used in Germany and used this dog as his model:

Horand von Grafrath, Stephanitz's model for the German shepherd.
Horand von Grafrath, Stephanitz’s model for the German shepherd.

Shortly after the creation of the breed, Stephanitz founded the first schutzhund (protection dog) club, which is still in existence today. From his model, shepherds have a lineage of herding (believe it or not) and protection (whether of people or property) and working very closely with humans. Stephanitz wanted a dog that looked like a wolf but unlike a wolf, was highly motivated to work with people. Today, German shepherds are most commonly seen in the public eye working with law enforcement, military branches, search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, and cadaver search, just to name a few.

German shepherds are a strong, intelligent, sensitive, versatile, and demanding breed, and therefore, they can be a big pain for us normal people who decide to keep them in their homes. If you’re not going out every day and searching for bombs with your shepherd, how else can you keep her happy and busy? Here are some ideas.

7 Ways to Keep Your German Shepherd Busy If You’re a Normal Person

1: Puppy-play dates

This is not exactly a canine sport, but I think free time with other dogs is especially vital to the health and well-being of a German shepherd.

Play date with Loki
Eden and Pyrrha with Loki, a Newfoundland.

Like many intelligent and observant breeds, GSDs have a tendency to be touchy. If they are not socialized throughout their lives (particularly when they are puppies), their ability to get along with other dogs can be seriously undermined and lead to unchecked territorial behavior and anxiety-induced aggression.

Four-dog play-date
Josie, a working-line GSD; Finn, a Llewellyn setter; and Eden.

If you have a fenced-in yard like we do, invite other stable dogs that you know and like over for a play-date. If you don’t have a fenced-in yard, try to find a secure area for your dog to interact off leash with other dogs. I personally find dog parks a little risky, but if you have one nearby that you like and trust, go for it! I think this activity is one of the most important for our shepherds.

2: Schutzhund

Schutzhund is a German dog sport that was initially created as a suitability test for German shepherds. Today, all breeds can compete (although the field tends to be dominated by GSDs, Belgian malinois, and other large, working breeds) and the sport tests a dog’s ability to serve as a protection dog. Schutzhund competitors have to perform a series of tasks related to tracking, obedience, and protection.

511px-US_Navy_080728-N-5328N-681_Master-at-Arms_2nd_Class_Joshua_Johnson_performs_patrol_aggression_training_at_NAS_Pensacola_with
Schutzhund practice in the US Navy. Also, this dog is a malinois, but you get the idea. Creative Commons license.

Eden’s parents are both West German imports, and accordingly, both were titled in schutzhund. Her father, impressively, had achieved the Sch3 title (the “master’s degree”), which I think partially explains why she’s so intense all the time. Ha.

Schutzhund is not personally appealing to me, but I know that many greatly enjoy the sport and the bond that they develop with their dogs through it.

3: Herding

Yes! There is a resurgence of interest in German shepherds going back to their roots and herding sheep.

© Mark Härtl, Flickr.
© Mark Härtl, Flickr. Creative Commons license.

It takes a bit more effort and dedication to train a GSD to herd than it might for the typical border collie, but it is possible, particularly if your dog has a working lineage and the proper temperament. To get started in herding, you would want to have your dog assessed for herding instinct by a herding trainer in your area.

I think Eden could be a capable herder if we ever wanted to try. Pyrrha’s hunting instincts are too strong, I think, for her to overcome, and she is also not very confident in general. But it’s certainly a sport I’ve thought about for Edie.

4: Nose work

Nose work refers to trials in which dogs essentially play hide and seek with smells. It can be a great confidence builder, especially for shy dogs.

Pyrrha graduates from Canine Campus
A terrible photo of Pyrrha in class.

Pyrrha is very scent oriented, and I’ve thought about taking some nose work classes with our trainer, who offers a few levels of this canine sport. She is a shy butterfly, and I’ve love to see her excel at a sport that was just her speed.

5: Frisbee

Shepherds can be great disc dogs, as our little Eden has shown us. Eden LIVES for the Frisbee. It is the only thing that matters in her life.

If your shepherd has a fit build and an interest in chasing and retrieving objects, you have a Frisbee dog on your hands!

Easter weekend
Eden the disc-catching shepherd.

For more about teaching your shepherd how to catch (and return!) flying discs, see my post about how to train your dog to be a disc dog.

6: Agility

Your GSD may never be an agility all-star like a border collie, Australian shepherd, or Jack Russell terrier, but it can be a perfect canine sport for the active and motivated shepherd.

© John M (2007), Flickr. Creative Commons license.
© John M (2007), Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Again, because of her Frisbee-related jumping skills, I think Eden could really enjoy and excel at agility. I may have to coerce my husband to build us some little jumps to practice with in the backyard.

7: Therapy work

Do you have a particularly gentle, people-oriented shepherd? If so, consider therapy dog certification.

Meeting Ma-Maw
Pyrrha with my beloved late grandmother.

I think therapy dogs are some of the most beautiful and touching examples of how species can care for one another, and dogs are uniquely designed to lavish affection on people. Therapy dogs can serve a wide range of people and needs, and I am constantly impressed by their versatility.

Pyrrha is a gentle dog, but she is truthfully not a great candidate to be a therapy dog (probably because she still needs so much therapy herself), but under the right circumstances, she is extremely sweet with people, especially with the elderly.

Kisses for Ma-Maw!

These are just a few of the many, many activities that shepherds can enjoy, based on their lineage. It is a pleasure to have dogs who are so willing to work with people and learn new things.

How do you keep your dog active and engaged, based on his or her genetic heritage?

Find the dog at Three Castle Head

Three Castle Head

While wandering around Three Castle Head in Ireland this summer, we were venturing among the foggy cliffs when we saw a sudden movement in the rocks.

Three Castle Head

A border collie had crouched down, with a stick in front of her, and was eagerly awaiting our presence and potential to play fetch with her.

Three Castle Head

We weren’t able to get much closer, because a young family appeared shortly thereafter, and the kids were engaged in playing with her, to her intense delight. One of the many enjoyable things from our European summer was how often we ran into delightful free-range dogs like this collie.

Review: Purina Pro Plan Savor Tender Strips

As we settle back in to our normal life, the girls are pleased to know that we’re resuming some reviews of products from Chewy.com. We are not paid for our opinions, and we only review things that we feel comfortable about recommending. We are provided with a free sample and asked to write a review, which Pyrrha and Eden are only too happy to help with.

IMG_0780

This time, we got to sample Purina Pro Plan’s Savor Tender Strips.

This is a soft treat that is easily breakable into tiny bits, so even though the strips are big dog-sized (about 4″ to 5″ long), you could break them up into small pieces for training.

IMG_0779

We don’t feed Purina and haven’t been terribly interested in most of their offerings, to be honest, but I was pleased to see that lamb is the first ingredient in these treats.

A bag of the lamb and sweet potato treats currently sells for $5.99 at Chewy.com.

IMG_0782

The girls are trying to contain their excitement:

IMG_0784

(*Note that is a pinecone between them. Not something… untoward…)

They are big fans! I have been using broken-up pieces of these strips to entice Pyrrha while I apply some antibiotic spray to her in the morning (she has an ongoing minor issue), and it certainly helps distract her from any small unpleasantness.

Do you have a favorite type of treat that’s currently in rotation at your house? Do share!

In exchange for our honest opinion, we were provided with a bag of these treats from Chewy.com. I was not paid for my opinion, and I only feature reviews of products I am comfortable recommending to good friends.

No muzzle to hold me

Kino at White Sands, NM, by moominsean. Creative Commons license.
Kino at White Sands, NM, by moominsean. Creative Commons license.

Retired Greyhound, I
Natalie Kusz

Nights, the house grows larger, open
floor widening toward gray
indistinct walls. Here, then, I find
the cotton rabbit lying still—
one plush foot stretching long on the carpet.
I leap in, bite, fling it wide
and follow, pursuing now,
no muzzle to hold me
from catching it, catching it.

Returning home to a skunk problem

Creative Commons license.
Creative Commons license.

We are settling back into our home life with the dogs, but our backyard seems to have acquired a very unwelcome new resident: a skunk.

Two nights in a row, each dog got sprayed (“skunked”) in the face. Two nights in a row. It is the most unpleasant smell and the least enjoyable bath-time for both dogs and humans. The second time it happened, I opened the back door to let the dogs out for a final potty run, and the skunk was just a few yards away from the door, hanging out under our spruce tree. Both dogs raced toward it, of course, and ignored my hysterical reaction.

We have since set a have-a-heart trap in the backyard, but I don’t know what our plan is if we actually catch it. I’m just very ready for the cute, stinky varmint to live elsewhere.

Have you ever dealt with a skunk problem? Has your dog been skunked?

Napping pub dogs

One thing I will really miss about London was the presence of dogs in pubs.

Gin and Fizzy

This adorable pair is named Gin (the black English cocker spaniel on the left) and Fizzy (the adorable tiny mix, frog-legging), and they hold court at the New Inn in our neighborhood in London.

Dogs in St. John's Wood

Dogs in St. John's Wood

I love them. Gin and Fizzy took their jobs as pub dogs quite seriously, and they were SO deeply mellow that they almost seemed drugged. It’s kind of adorable how sleepy they seemed to be every time we visited.

Are there any pubs or restaurants in your area that are especially dog friendly?

10 tips for first-time dog fosters

Before we adopted Eden, we fostered six German shepherds for a shepherd rescue in our region. Eden was our sixth foster, and we decided to keep her, that little terror. We haven’t fostered since Edie, but it was a great experience for us and especially for our shy dog, and I’d love to do it again.

Serving as a foster home for a dog is a wonderful gift both to the dog and to her future family. By welcoming this dog into your home and teaching her how to live peaceably with people, you are setting her up for a successful life and reducing her chances of getting returned to a shelter or rescue.

First morning with Brynn (Trina)
Pyrrha with Trina, one of our foster puppies.

Here are 10 things I learned that I would want to share with any prospective foster parent.

1. Start slow. Make introductions to people and your pets with gentleness and caution.

Moving is stressful for everyone, and moving into a new home with new people will likely cause even the most gregarious dogs a bit of stress. Go slowly on your first day. Don’t take her to the park or to a busy pedestrian mall that first week. Don’t mob the dog with too many new people during the first week, and be especially careful and slow when introducing your foster to your other pets and children.

Calming signals
Pyrrha and Rainer giving each other space and exhibiting some calming signals.

Introduce dogs in a low-stakes environment, with plenty of outdoor space for them to navigate. One of the best techniques, I think, is to enlist the help of another human and have both dogs on leash in a wide, open area. Walk the dogs parallel to each other a very large distance apart (20 feet or more), so the dogs can see each other and get a whiff, but not get too close to interact. If that seems to be going well and both dogs seem calm, start moving a little closer. Really LOOSEN UP on that leash when they get close enough to touch each other. You don’t want to transfer any tension at all. Then, when ready, let them get to know each other off leash in a fenced area, if possible.

2. Assume that all dogs are not house trained. Start house training on Day 1.

Even if the dog is an adult, even if he has lived in a home before, start with the assumption that the dog is not house trained. Again, moving into a new place is stressful, so even dogs who were formerly house trained may have forgotten what that means in a new environment. To make this first and important training step easier on yourself, see the next tip…

3. Use crates and baby gates.

Crates and baby gates will be your best friend as a foster parent! They will help you both house train and keep an eye on your new foster, especially during those critical first few weeks.

Still getting used to each other

Follow basic positive reinforcement guidelines with crates. Crates are happy, safe places; never use them to punish a dog. Feed meals in crates if the dog is having a hard time getting adjusted. Treat and praise the dog for entering the crate, and start training a “crate entry” cue (we use “Go to your house!”) for bedtime.

4. Start socializing gradually.

Once your foster is comfortable in your home and sufficiently house trained, start exposing him to the wide world. Observe how he performs on car trips. How does he behave at the vet? Is he anxious or leash-reactive to people or other dogs on walks?

Out back with baby Laszlo
Foster puppy Laszlo.

If possible, introduce him to a wide variety of people, children, dogs, and cats, always under very close supervision, so that you can develop a more complete adoption profile for your foster.

5. Take tons of photos and videos!

High-quality photos and videos are one of the best ways to attract potential adopters. Smartphones obviously make this very easy, so take photos and short videos of your foster all the dang time. Post them on the rescue website and share the heck out of them on social media.

First night with Draco
Handsome Draco, one of our former fosters.

Really, this is one instance in which more is more. There is no such thing as too many photos of your foster dog!

6. Teach the dog basic commands after she has settled in.

Using positive reinforcement and plenty of praise, start teaching your dog some basic life behaviors that humans appreciate in dogs, such as waiting politely to be fed, not pulling on the leash, sitting, and staying.

Trina the shark
Pretty, shark-y Trina.

This is not only a way to impress future adopters but also to build a bond of trust with your foster dog—and improve her chances that she won’t be returned.

7. Put the dog on a high-quality diet.

Dogs coming from rough backgrounds (e.g., from a hoarding situation, like our foster Draco; or from the streets, like our foster Rainer) generally have had poor nutrition, and one of the best things you can do right off the bat is switch them to a high-quality diet. Whether you feed raw or a quality kibble, it’s so immediately helpful to begin your foster on a nutritional diet.

8. Keep good records.

Your shelter or rescue organization will likely help with any vet check-ups and the transfer of any background information, but be sure to keep all vet records, bills, and information in a neat and tidy manner. This will obviously be important and helpful to your foster dog’s future family.

Take good notes on the dog’s health as well, even beyond official vet visits. You will be the best person to assess the general well-being of the foster, and so take vigilant notes about what you can observe of your foster’s wellness.

9. Be honest about your foster dog’s behavioral issues.

It’s a disservice to your foster dog and to her potential family to gloss over her issues. We all have issues, and the more open you can be about your foster dog’s, the better off she will be in the long run.

When writing about your foster dog, start with all of her great qualities! Lead with the positive. But don’t leave out the things she will need help with.

Post-bath Brando
Brando, post-bath.

With our fosters, each one had a different and specific issue or set of issues that their future families would appreciate knowing about. Brando had a touch of separation anxiety and needed more work with polite walking on leash. Trina was easily startled by new people. Draco had a severe (genuinely heartbreaking) fear of bearded men. Rainer became almost catatonic when he had to ride in a car, and he was extremely dog aggressive when on leash.

You want to find the best (and most permanent) home for your foster, so you want to be upfront about your foster’s issues. Ensure that she goes to a home who is fully aware of and fully committed to helping her become a happy, well-adjusted dog.

10. Envision and describe the perfect family for your foster.

As you live with your foster dog, start envisioning the perfect home for your foster. Where would she be most likely to thrive? What makes her happiest? Would she love a family with children? Or would she do best with just a single woman? Does she love other dogs? What are her exercise requirements?

Draco and his new dad and sister
Happy Draco with his new dad and his (canine) sister.

Be clear in your expectations for your foster’s future family but also be open to being surprised. On paper, I pre-judged an applicant for a foster dog, but I was totally wrong in my assumptions, and the foster and this young man were the perfect fit for one another. Seeing them interact was all of the confirmation I needed. You’ll know when it’s right. And you’ll be full of joy (and a little bit of wistfulness) when you send that pup on his merry way.

Have you fostered before? What other tips would you add?