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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Graduation from reactivity class

Every relationship takes work. #lovethem
Every relationship takes work.

Last night, Pyrrha had her last session for the reactivity class we’ve been taking. For graduation, we went to practice “in the wild” at a pet supplies store. It was STRESSFUL, but so is real life with a reactive dog, right?

The goal was to have the handlers use the store aisles as buffers–easy obstacles for us to duck behind–and keep working the “Pavlov machine” of treating the dog for every perception of a trigger (e.g., another dog). Pyrrha was already overwhelmed by the new environment that the addition of her big fear (other dogs on leash) brought her to a fairly high level of anxiety.

I anticipated that this might be the case, so I brought her into the store early to let her sniff everything and get the lay of the land, per se. This might have helped her during the actual practicum, but I confess it was hard to tell. There were cats up for adoption in cages on the floor, which got her prey drive kicked into action; there were tons of treats left at dog-level for easy snatching (you sneaky pet store owners! I know what you’re doing, and it’s working…); and there were lots of other reactive dogs milling about AND unsuspecting customers and their dogs and children.

Suffice it to say, last night was a perfect storm of triggers for Pyrrha–but again, that’s the real world, and you can’t contain it or control it.

Deven encouraged us to go outside and take breaks when needed, and we did that a few times. Pyrrha’s mouth was getting really hard, and she was just about taking off my fingertips when I delivered treats. Taking a break to sniff outdoors seemed to help her regain herself.

She had two reactive outbursts last night, and both were my fault. One was at one of her reactive classmates, while I was talking with Deven, and the other was at a customer’s boxer, who came bounding in the front door, and I was talking to a human classmate when it happened. That’s the tricky thing about reactive dogs; to manage them in the wild, you have to be a pretty rude human. If I was paying attention to her and to the environment, I could have prevented both of those outbursts, but a minute-long conversation was enough to divert my focus from her and let her express fight mode.
Mea culpa, Pyrrha.

Concluding thoughts about our reactive dog

We learned a lot in these past six weeks, and I am so glad we took this class at Canine Campus. I wish everyone I knew with a reactive dog could come to town and work with Deven! She’s amazing. I feel so lucky to have a trainer like her in my hometown.

Last night was a sobering reminder that we still have a lot of work to do with Pyrrha and that I can’t let myself get lazy. She’s so calm and easy in our house that I can forget that she still has a lot of anxieties when she confronts the real world.

I got a chance to talk with Deven last night about Pyrrha, and she said that Pyrrha has made a lot of progress in a year. It’s hard for me to see sometimes, being so close to Pyr, but it was nice to have that external confirmation. She also recommended I look into the following things to continue to help Pyrrha with her anxiety:

  • T-touch (Tellington touch)
  • Aromatherapy
  • Nose work classes (which she offers)

I know a little bit about all three, and they sound appealing to me. Have any of you worked with any of these strategies for your fearful dog? Which have you liked or disliked?

Pup links!

At the end of the fence. By Flickr user meeganz.

Dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

The Search-and-Rescue Dogs of 9/11. As we remember the tragedy of 11 September 2001 today, I was very moved to reflect on these series of beautiful portraits of rescue dogs from Ground Zero, shot by photographer Charlotte Dumas. (The Hydrant)

DIY Physical Exam: An “Owner’s Manual” for Your Dog. Have any of you been following The Bark’s DIY physical exam guides? I’ve found them to be extremely helpful and informative. I confess that I really should know more about how my dog’s body actually works and how to read concerning signs. This is part two of a four-part series. (The Bark blog)

Scent Games: Educating Your Dog’s Nose. Lots of interesting links featured on The Hydrant, apparently! I loved this article by John Rice and Suzanne Clothier about games to play with your dog that utilize her nose. Pyrrha is extremely nose-oriented and I’m looking forward to playing some of these scent games with her. (The Hydrant)

Do You Just Love Dogs? Or Do You Respect Them? This post by Pamela really caught my attention. I know a lot of people who profess to just LOVE dogs, and I don’t doubt that they do, but they don’t seem to have any grasp on reading dog body language, or recognizing when a dog is too tired, too scared, too what-have-you to engage. Props for this post. Her question is a good one, too: How do we encourage more dog lovers to actually respect dogs, too? (Something Wagging This Way Comes)

7 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Is Overrun by Wild Dogs. It is easy to forget cities struck by natural disasters, particularly once the disaster has faded into distant memory. The devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina on literally thousands and thousands of domestic animals was apparent from the outset, but seven years later, stray dogs are continuing to multiply and spread across the city. An eye-opening account of the difficult situation of abandoned dogs in New Orleans. (The Atlantic Monthly)

Ian Healy: Dog Portraits. This is the style of a dog portrait I can really get behind: Modern and fun, but accurate and talented. Now I’m kind of wanting one of Pyrrha for our sea-foam green walls… Have you had a work of art commissioned of your dog? Would you? (The Hydrant)

The Reverse Romney. As many of you in the United States, I am sure, I am getting sick to death of hearing about the November election. I’m ready for it to be over! But this did make me chuckle. (Maddie the Coonhound)

Also, just for kicks: Pyrrha was featured on F-Yeah German Shepherds. ♥