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?

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One thought on “7 ways to keep a German shepherd busy

  1. Another interesting post! I am way behind on responding to you as I have a few opinions on all your uk dog posts! And I promise I will come back to that.

    It is funny with Tala because she is eventually a feral dog not bred for anything specifically and hence her behaviour reflects that. Far less focuses on people and people pleasing other than her immediate pack. In many ways her not being bred for purpose is a blessing as she has a fit figure and can easily trot out 20k but at the same time she can spend 3 days sleeping on the sofa if it is raining and she won’t go mad or tear the house up. So lucky and one of the reasons pariah/primitive dogs can make great pets as long as they have been well trained and socialised. She remains very suspicious particularly of male intruders doing work but then I’m not sure that is such a bad trait.

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