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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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The girls are trying to contain their excitement:

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(*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.

Happy pups at summer camp

As I’ve mentioned, our dogs are living it up at “summer camp” with my parents while we are in London.

My dad faithfully sends us tons of photos and videos, which naturally make me very happy. (For example, he sent 13 dog videos in one day over WhatsApp. Thirteen.) I’m not sure how pleased my dear, tidy mother is about having our monsters for a whole summer, but my father, who is as crazy about dogs as I am, is over the  moon about it.

Dogs at summer campLook how happy these goons are!

Dad’s favorite activity is taking the girls and Dublin (the neighbor’s lab, who is Dad’s de facto dog) out on long walks, all tethered together in this crazy system of ropes:

Dogs at summer campHe still uses the girls’ Freedom harnesses, as you can see, but he eschews standard leashes. To each his own. (At least they are not retractable leashes, which I loathe to no end.)

Pyrrha’s happiness has been the big (very welcome) surprise.

Dogs at summer camp
Dad’s caption for this photo: “Bring it on, world; I ain’t afraid of nothin’!”

She, the dog who tends to mistrust men, has reportedly become very attached to Dad. She brings him toys as an invitation to play (what? Pyrrha?), and she even lies down outside his bedroom door in the morning, waiting for him to wake up. Color me stunned and so, so pleased.

Eden is his trusty athletic companion, however. Dad takes her rollerblading around the neighborhood and on morning trail runs and spends plenty of time perfecting her Frisbee skills. He likes to tell me that Eden is just him in dog form: constantly moving and ready to play 24/7. Sounds about right.

Even though I miss them very much, it brings me a lot of joy to know that Pyrrha and Eden are so happy and so well cared for in our absence. I have full confidence that they are loving life at summer camp, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I expect them to be somewhat disappointed when we come take them back to “normal” life with us at the end of the summer! I think they will grieve. I know my dad will…

Does your family ever watch your dogs for you? How does it go?

The irony of the champion bred vs. backyard bred

I hesitate to write this post, lest anyone think I’m championing lackadaisical backyard breeders or puppy mills. Not at ALL. This is just a weird, little personal observation…

When it comes to purebred dogs, sometimes the haphazardly bred turn out healthier than the ones from ribbon-winning breeders.

Our dogs are a case in point.

Ready to rumble
Pyrrha, February 2013.

Pyrrha came from a terrible place — this neglectful man who had a dozen shepherds in tiny cages outdoors — but she is the picture of health. She’s never had a serious health concern (knock on wood), her skin and coat are shiny and robust, and she has a better, stronger build (no exaggerated back lines or hocks). Plus, her teeth look much better than Eden’s, despite the fact that they are on the same diet and that Pyrrha is a full two years her senior.

Dogs in May
Eden, May 2014.

Eden, on the other hand, was a very expensive puppy from West German lines. (Her papers are completely in German.) Her parents are both titled schutzhund champions. And health wise, she’s been a huge pain. Thankfully, there’s nothing seriously wrong with her (yet), but she is the reason we spend a small fortune at the vet on a regular basis. Her skin is bad and she’s constantly itchy. Her teeth are already showing signs of wear and tear. Her back hocks are sadly sloped.

I mentioned this little observation to one of the vet techs, when we were back in with Eden, and she laughed and said she had the same experience. She rescues Boston terriers, and her terriers from puppy mills and backyard breeders have been quite healthy. But her most recent acquisition, an expensive puppy from a supposedly good breeder, has been a complete genetic disaster.

So. Conclusion? If you want a purebred, do your research and find a really excellent, thoughtful breeder. But also acknowledge that purebreds are just a gamble. Don’t give money to the horrible human beings who churn out puppies in miserable conditions, but also don’t think that a well-bred purebred is going to be perfectly healthy. The odds are somewhat against them.

Wednesday afternoon

We love our ladies, regardless of their issues. But my big conclusion is: Get a mixed-breed dog. This would definitely be my next move, as much as I love our purebred ladies.

What do you think? Am I totally insane? Anyone else have a similar experience with purebreds from disparate backgrounds?

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.

October dog expenses

Stance #prettypyrrha #germanshepherd #autumnnights

A breakdown of what we spent on the dogs in October:

  • 1 October 2014 / Eden’s fish oil pills, Dentastix / Amazon / $28.48
  • 6 October 2014/ Eden’s annual vet visit / Vet / $191.00
  • 8 October 2014 / Kibble / Tractor Supply / $46.00
  • 27 October 2014 / Kibble / Tractor Supply / $51.00
  • 29 October 2014 / Flea & tick prevention / 1800 Pet Meds / $66.54

Total dog expenses for October: $383.02

And then… sometimes… you have months like this. None of it could be helped. At least the kibble was on sale that one week??

(Previous month’s expenses: $124.00)