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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A German shepherd in London

While enjoying a drink at the New Inn (where pub dogs Gin and Fizzy reside), a man walked by with this handsome pup:

Dogs in St. John's Wood

Heart all a flutter! I said, “Your dog is beautiful,” and he smiled, and I responded that we had two German shepherds at home. It’s always a good “in” if you want to pet a shepherd, which is not something that I generally ask, but bereft of P and E for the summer, my dog-craziness has reached unsustainable levels. He kindly replied that we could, and his dog sniffed me gently and let me pet him for a bit.

9-mo.-old GSD in the neighborhood

The man told us that the shepherd was 9 months old and from a West German imported line. “I’m pretty fit,” he told us, “but he makes me look like a slob.” German shepherds will do that to you!

Dogs in St. John's Wood

The dog was beautifully calm and very attentive to his person. He was also heeling very nicely, and I was pleased to see that he didn’t have a very exaggerated back end, which always makes me happy. It’s always nice to meet a stable, young breed ambassador. Live long and prosper, British German shepherd pup!

Are you similar to your breed’s fans?

I am perpetually interested in how certain personality types gravitate toward certain breeds or breed types.

For instance, I have always loved dogs in the herding group most. I love their look, their intensity, their intelligence and drive to work with people. I grew up with a beautiful Australian shepherd, and I dream sometimes about getting an English shepherd. But I also have a soft spot for sighthounds and spaniels.

Through no clear intention of my own, I have become a “German shepherd person,” now raising two shepherds and having fostered six. (*German shepherds are technically in the herding group, according to the AKC, but many shepherds these days have lost that herding instinct. But there is a growing trend of getting working-line shepherds back into livestock herding, which I find very interesting.)

© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.
© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.

And yet I feel very different from the typical German shepherd person. Allow me to stereotype, will you?

The typical German shepherd person

  • ascribes to traditional, dominance-based training
  • often has a military or law enforcement background
  • is concerned with being “the alpha” or the “pack leader”
  • has no problem with shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains
  • finds schutzhund very appealing
  • is likely a gun owner
  • finds “toughness” and even mild aggression to be a virtue

Clearly, not everyone who has a shepherd fits most or even one of these stereotypes, but I find these traits to be more true of shepherd people than of other groups aligned with other breeds.

This person loves his or her shepherd as much as I love mine, and the generalizations are not meant to discount that but rather to say I often feel very, very temperamentally different from the typical German shepherd owner.

I am not tough, and I am not impressed by machismo. I do not and never will own a gun. I follow the science-based philosophies of positive reinforcement training and would never use a shock collar on my dog or on any dog. I do not think my dogs are trying to “dominate” me, a concept I find simultaneously laughable and dangerous.

For these reasons, I stay off the German shepherd message boards and have honestly distanced myself from a lot of our dogs’ rescue representatives, most of whom have bought into a shock-collar “training” franchise and encourage adopters to put their shepherds through their expensive programs, which promise fast results for “problem” dogs by the widespread use of e-collars. I’m OK with being an outsider.

My idea of a good night: wine, "Breaking Bad," and a shepherd sleeping in my lap. #draco #gsd
Draco, one of our fosters, and me.

It makes me curious, though, about other breeds, so I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the stereotypes of people with your dog’s breed? Do you fit those generalizations? 

Eden: A portrait

Eden was our belated Christmas present to ourselves last year. The day before we left for Christmas vacation, I received a brief, excited email from the vice president of the German shepherd rescue that we fostered for (and from whom we adopted Pyrrha). She knew that we were looking for a friendly, confident young dog to add to the family — as a companion for Pyrrha, who thrives in the company of other dogs, and as a reward for Guion, in a sense, for so patiently abiding with a dog who feared and disliked him, through no fault of his own.

“I think I have a puppy for you,” she wrote, attaching a photo of a smiling 4.5-month-old Edie (then named Eva) sitting between the legs of an older man. We were instantly smitten and told her we’d “foster” the puppy for a few weeks and decide if we wanted to keep her. “Everyone who has met her wants to keep her,” the vice president wrote, “but I want you guys to have first dibs.”

Eden on the deck
30 December 2013. A few days after we got her.

Eden was purchased as a puppy from a Maryland breeder (specializing in West German imports and schutzhund) by a well-to-do young family, with three small children. The family, although they took good care of the puppy, was unprepared for the level of insanity and energy that a working-line German shepherd entailed. Instead of being returned to the breeder (which struck me as a black mark on the breeder’s record), she was surrendered to the rescue.

She was first evaluated to see if she’d be suitable for police work, owing to her immense amounts of energy, but she failed that test, as she lacked focus and would rather jump on and kiss the handlers instead of completing the task at hand.

Cassie, our rescue contact, brought her to meet me at the same Petco where we met Pyrrha, on a very rainy, gross day at the end of December. Eden bolted through the automatic doors and ran right up to me, ready for pets. We sat on the wet floor of the Petco and talked for a while about the puppy’s background. The family who gave her up sent her with a box of expensive toys, deer antlers, high-quality kibble, and a pricey collar.

“She has just one physical defect,” Cassie said, gently opening Eden’s mouth. Panting happily, I quickly saw the issue; this puppy was missing a good chunk of her tongue. “Apparently, they had her in doggy daycare, and she was attacked by an older dog,” she said. “But she doesn’t seem bothered by it at all.” Indeed, she didn’t seem the least bit frightened of other dogs, who kept coming in and out of the Petco as we talked. Eden seemed to see them all as potential playmates.

Settling in nicely
28 December 2013; first night with us.

She got along with Pyrrha easily from the first day. As you can see from the photo above, she was immediately respectful of Pyrrha’s space. But as she got more comfortable in our house, she became more gutsy and bold and started getting testy around her food bowl (when Pyrrha approached, never with us). We started working on that from Day 1, and I’m happy to say that her resource guarding issues are greatly diminished.

Truthfully, the girls are probably not the most ideal pairing of dogs. Don’t get me wrong — they get along beautifully 90% of the time. But they are not in love with each other, like Ruby and Boca, for example. They are both stubborn, strong-willed, and relatively high-strung bitches. But when they play together in the morning, racing in wild loops of tag games and tossing out play bows with abandon, it warms one’s heart considerably.

Eden also likes to kiss Pyrrha’s mouth in the morning, after breakfast. Sometimes, she sticks a good part of her muzzle into Pyrrha’s open jaws, as if hunting for treasure (food remnants, more likely). It seems like a dangerous gambit — someone’s going to lose an eye! — but they enjoy this ritual and observe it regularly.

She LIVES to PLAY. Play is just about the only thing that matters in her universe. She has a devotion to fetching that parallels a retriever’s, and her athletic, acrobatic displays in catching items mid-air have become spectacular.

To keep everyone sane, Guion has been wonderfully faithful about morning Frisbee games with Eden. This, naturally, has made him her favorite human, which was part of the goal in adopting her in the first place, so that poor Guion could have a dog of his own.

If Guion doesn’t move fast enough for her liking in the morning, she begins to emit a series of excitable whines and cries, often seeming to mimic an aboriginal song, with moans and ululations. She prances around him, singing and shrieking, until he pulls his boots on. And then: Silence. GAME FACE.

Eden standing, 6 months old
January 2014 (when she started losing weight).

A few months after we got her, she started dropping weight and not gaining it back, to a dangerous degree. She had dipped to a mere 43 pounds by the end of January. The vet ran all sorts of tests; nothing was conclusive (no worms, no giardia). I was convinced that she had the debilitating disease EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency), which is common in shepherds. But we ran the expensive series of tests for that and those also came back negative. Finally, the vet tried a more intensive version of the giardia test that we’d done earlier, and there we had it: Little babe was riddled with giardia. She then passed it on to Pyrrha, and we spent about two-and-a-half (very expensive) months getting them healthy again. I am happy to report that she is now healthy and stable and weighs in at 56 pounds, which seems just about perfect for her.

Eden is bold with eye contact. She wants to stare deeply into your eyes and hold you there in her gaze, unblinking. Pyrrha cannot handle this kind of intense eye contact, even with me; it is too much for her. But not Edie. She wants to look deep into your soul and learn all of your secrets.

She kills me
7 April 2014.

She loves to bark. To announce her presence! To inform the neighborhood that she is large and in charge! It’s not usually a protective bark. (The protective bark we’ve heard from her a few times, and that is a distinctly different, dangerous timbre. She actually sounds frightening when she pulls that one out.) But her typical bark is far from scary. It’s heraldic, joyful, self-important.

Dogs in May
19 May 2014.

Eden is growing sweeter, I think. Just as a teenager gradually becomes less self-absorbed and starts to recognize the presence of other beings around her.

She is especially docile and cuddly in the evenings. It is my favorite time with her. She is a positive terror in the mornings, so much so that I almost never have a peaceful breakfast, but when the sun goes down, she is ready to be a placid dog. She wants to sit at your feet, or lean against your chair, or hop up on the sofa and put her sweet little head on your shoulder. I think she is saying, Here I am. Right here. Don’t forget to love me.

And so we don’t.

Previously: Pyrrha: A portrait.

Pyrrha: A portrait

My imagination has constructed a vivid backstory for Pyrrha, composed of stories from the rescue workers who sprung her from that prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The images, although they are entirely created in my mind, often make me too sad. I do have some facts about her. She was called Katie then, and she lived her whole life in a small wire pen with a plastic doghouse in it, on top of which she liked to sit. A man named John kept her and her family members in similar states of neglect. He tossed kibble at them through the chain-link fences a few times a day. This was the extent of their human interaction. Katie was scheduled to become the next breeding bitch, but then John got tired of the work and upkeep and told the rescue he would kill all the dogs he had if they didn’t come get the animals in the next few days.

Her half-brothers, Archer and Ammo, were so psychologically damaged and so emotionally attached to one another that when the rescue tried to separate them to send them to separate foster homes, Archer scaled a 7-foot-tall privacy fence to get back to his brother. They did finally separate them, but Ammo died just about a year later, from a cause unknown to me. All of the shepherds sprung from that operation, Pyrrha’s family, were surprisingly gentle. They were afraid of everything, but they never lashed out at people.

We met Pyrrha in a small grassy area outside of a Petco. Her foster mom had a puppy in a tote bag and Pyrrha on a pink leash. She was being called Lyndi then. She was too afraid to greet us, to interact with us in any meaningful way, but I saw this beautiful, damaged dog and instantly made up my mind to take her. She sat on Guion’s feet in the grass, and this was enough to convince us.

With Pyrrha at Blue Mountain Brewery
Our first photo together. 18 May 2012.

We, of course, had no idea all that would go into raising an extremely fearful German shepherd. Our first dog. We renamed her Pyrrha after one of the towns in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we had been reading together at the time. She hid from us in corners of the house for days after we adopted her. Truthfully, I am surprised that my first instinct wasn’t to return her. She was so unlike any dog I had known. I had never really been around a deeply anxious dog before. But I was instantly committed to her. Whatever it took to get her to a stable state, we were going to do it. She wasn’t going to be returned again.

Objectively, she is a very beautiful dog. I am often surprised at how sound she is, considering her background. She has had no serious health issues (knock on wood), and her build is stronger and sounder than most purebred shepherds; none of the exaggerated back end, sloped hocks, etc. People often tell me that she is the lovelier of the two dogs, the more ladylike one, the more graceful one. Her coat is a light cream in most places, and I imagine she will fade to almost pure white in her old age.

Regal
3 February 2013.

Pyrrha likes to moan and happily growl when she does her morning stretches. Or when she is receiving a particularly good petting session. Sometimes she sounds like a bear. Or a corpulent man waking up from a nap.

She is most truly happy and carefree when:

  • Someone is giving her meat.
  • She is playing with other dogs.
  • She is exploring the outdoors off leash.

Otherwise, she seems to reside in a perpetual state of unease. Or perhaps hyper-awareness?

I am thankful for her behavior with house guests, because we have a ton, and she is generally good with them all. There have been moments when she is unhappy about an unfamiliar man entering the house, especially if I am not around, but she warms up to them quickly after the initial shock. She is, however, a huge fan of women and meticulously inspects lady crotches as soon as they cross the threshold of our house.

The only man she loves is my brother-in-law Alex. She treats him with the same energy and devotion as she treats women she likes, which I hope he finds to be a compliment. My best guess is because Alex is quiet and sensitive. He always interacts with her in the way that she prefers, which is not to seek her attention, but to give attention when she asks for it. When he visits us, she will happily spend an hour at his feet, a scene which leaves me constantly marveling.

Sometimes, for reasons I cannot detect, in the safety and quiet of our home, she will come up to me with her ears pinned back to her head. There is nothing awry that I can tell; no one is acting in a threatening manner toward her; Guion is in another room. And so I pet her and speak to her soothingly, and then gently push her ears forward. I don’t know if this actually improves her mood, but I like to think it does. In the same way that pop scientists say that sitting still and forcing yourself to smile, even if you are not happy, will make you feel happier.

She adores other dogs, which is something that strangers would probably never guess, based on her on-leash reactivity toward them. On walks, she acts like she wants to murder every dog she sees. But leash-free in a wide space? She is totally thrilled by their presence.

Fostering six German shepherds with her in our tiny house was a marvelous experience. Having other dogs in the house really opened her up and created space between her and her myriad fears. She loved Brando best, of all the fosters we had, although she and Rainer got quite close as well (probably because we had him the longest). Laszlo was very annoying to her, because he was the baby, but she treated him with gentleness all the same. We never had to worry about her behavior when other dogs were afoot; she’d never start a fight or push buttons unnecessarily. She was just happy to exist in a space with more of her kind.

Pyrrha is a consummate huntress. She has a killer instinct. In another life, she could have been a homesteader’s hunting companion. She’s not a retriever; she doesn’t want to work with you to find something you killed; she wants to kill the thing herself. Early on in her life with us, she caught a live squirrel in her mouth. While on a leash. It is still one of the most impressive things she’s ever done.

She stalks small animals with serious devotion. Eden has no such honed hunting instincts, but she watches Pyrrha’s behavior, and when Pyrrha starts to get into stalking mode while on a walk, having spotted a squirrel or a bird or a cat, Eden will mimic her, even though it’s clear Eden has no idea what on earth we could be hunting.

Watchful shepherd
17 December 2013.

Her life seems to have meaning again when I am home. You haven’t been loved like this until you’ve found a dog who thinks you hung the moon and the stars. It’s intense. And as flattering as it is, I also recognize it as debilitating. Her attachment to me prevents her from happy, carefree interactions with other people. I am repeatedly told that she can’t settle down if I am gone. At my parents’ house, she runs from room to room, looking for me, if I am absent. At our home, it’s more that she sinks into a state of total detachment.

But her eyes light up when I return, and she leans against me and smiles and smiles.

Level of sagacity

Marlon Brando with family dog, Illinois, early 1950s.
Marlon Brando with a family dog in Illinois, early 1950s.

“The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to its level of sagacity, but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his.”

— James Thurber

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

How sage is your dog? I’d say that Pyrrha has a fair level of internal sagacity, but Eden’s sagacity levels likely dip around zero. I saw a post somewhere this past week arguing that German shepherds, especially working-line GSDs, have the most hellish adolescent periods of maybe any other breed. I BELIEVE IT. Although I’d put my money on a malinois or a kelpie… But yeah. I sometimes feel like Eden is never going to grow up and is going to live out the rest of her life keeping us in a state of terror.

Speaking of Eden, I’m in a middling state of panic about her health and how underweight she is. But I need to be patient and wait to see how she reacts to these antibiotic/probiotic treatments. It feels hard to keep calm.

(Sidenote: Whew, young Marlon Brando. What a beautiful asshole. I still feel so good about naming our first foster Brando. It fit him perfectly, and his new family decided to keep the name!)

Any fun weekend plans? We are on hands and knees, prayerfully begging for SPRING! And for the yard to dry up, at least for a few days… Have mercy on us!