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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Meet Eden! Our new dog (!!)

Yeah. Best Christmas ever: We totally got a puppy. (!!)

A week before Christmas, I got an e-mail from the rescue VP that made my heart skip a beat. She said she had the perfect puppy for us.

We had a crazy fall and early winter, and so we took a fostering hiatus. But I also wanted us to start thinking seriously about a second dog for our household, and I was really picky about this future dog’s personality. Cassie (the rescue VP) knew that I was looking for a “bombproof” young dog to balance out Pyrrha’s fear issues (see this great post by Nicole Wilde). She said that she’d only met one other puppy who was as solid as this one was, and she kept him for herself. This puppy had been surrendered by her family, who had young children and felt that they could not give her the attention she needed.

So, on a very rainy Sunday, I went to meet Cassie and pick up Eden!

Settling in nicely. #fosterpuppy #gsd
Eden!

We met at Petco, and I was instantly impressed by Eden’s confidence, friendliness, and utter lack of fear. From Pyrrha and our GSD experience so far, I’ve come to expect shyness from every German shepherd I see, and here was a little girl who didn’t have an ounce of it. She greeted everyone who walked in the door with wags and kisses.

Eden (fka Eva) was evaluated for police work when she was brought in, but failed the police test for not having high enough drive and being too friendly. Which is totally fine with me! But the evaluator did say that she thought Eden could be perfect for therapy work, owing to her strong orientation to people. I really thrilled to hear that; I’ve always dreamed of having a dog who could do therapy service, and Pyrrha certainly isn’t suited for it.

Sweet little Edie
Eden in the kitchen.

We still have two weeks to make everything official (the rescue’s policy of having a trial period) but… all signs point to this girl being THE ONE. Guion is always more level-headed than I am with puppies, and so I think it’s good that we have this period of being able to decide about her, but I think he’s also smitten with her.

Interactions with Pyrrha

Wrestling

Eden plays with Pyrrha very nicely, and Pyrrha treats her with a mix of joviality and crankiness (which is always her way with puppies; Pyrrha, despite only being 2, has some aspects of old lady grumpiness with the whippersnappers).

Girls

Rainy walk with the new foster puppy! #probablykeepingher #gsd #puppylove

They love romping together in the yard (and sometimes in the house), and I think Pyrrha will really warm to her. Edie is also good about respecting Pyrrha’s space (and Pyrrha is good about letting her know when she’s crossed the line). As with all of the other fosters we’ve had, I have to be conscientious about helping Pyrrha with her jealousy issues regarding me and other dogs, but she’s been good about keeping them in check. Her main tendency is to be the taskmaster/bullying older sibling with young’uns, which is a behavior I myself exhibited as a child, so I’m familiar with the signs. But Eden is very happy and forgiving of Pyrrha’s occasional grumpiness, and she thinks Pyrrha is a delight.

We took them on a 2-mile walk around town on Wednesday, and they were great together. Eden’s happiness and friendliness to everyone seemed to let Pyrrha loosen up. We’re still working patiently on Pyrrha’s leash reactivity issues toward other dogs, and Eden has already shown strong signs of being a great young role model for Pyr.

Settling in nicely
A respectful puppy.

Eden’s Background

From my research and from the existence of Eden’s pink papers, I’ve been able to determine that she came from a Maryland breeder and schutzhund competitor. Eden’s parents were both imported from Germany, and both are titled in schutzhund (her father holding a Sch3 title). Their hips and elbows both passed as “normal” by the German breeding standards, which was good to know. She does have more angulation than Pyrrha, which I hate, but she moves and runs solidly.

Studying Eden's movement

Getting a purebred rescue is always a gamble, so we’re lucky to know this much about Eden. (And can you believe that a puppy of this caliber was turned into a rescue?? It happens!) German shepherds are famous for their health issues, and this is a risk we knew about when we started looking at GSD rescues. We know nothing about Pyrrha’s parents, except that they were from the (weaker, unhealthier) American show/companion lines and not bred well (an unscrupulous backyard breeder who wanted to euthanize all of his dogs because he was tired of them). Despite this, Pyrrha is healthy, and we are blessed. We know more about Eden, but we also have high hopes for her healthy future as well.

Her Personality

Sweet little Edie

She is an absolute doll.

And she’s a funny, playful, floppy bundle of energy! Whew! She wants to play ALL DAY long. I’m really grateful for Pyrrha, who can wear her out in the backyard with games of tag and wrestling matches, because I can’t keep up!

Eden is both food AND toy motivated, which is fun to see, and she’s a very quick learner. This little brown-noser has learned to sit sweetly whenever she wants anything, because it’s clearly a strategy that’s been working well for her. She LOVES toys, and especially toys that she can fetch. She has a retrieving drive like a labrador! But she makes fetching fun for us humans too, because she’s already learned to drop the ball at your feet and wait in a sit or down position for you to throw it. I’m impressed.

We were tempted to keep Trina, our last foster, as you may recall, but I can already tell that Eden has confidence and soundness in ways that exceed little Trina. Trina was awesome, and she’s so happy in her new home, but seeing Eden is also a reminder that Trina wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.

SO. Still anxious to make it official, but I think she’s IT! I can’t believe we found her. We’re SO grateful to Cassie and to Southeast German Shepherd Rescue; what awesome, thoughtful, hard-working people. We’re so thrilled!

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

SIDE NOTE: DOGS PICKING UP UNWANTED BEHAVIORS?

With regard to Pyrrha’s progress, now is a good time to add another dog to the house. If we had tried to bring in a permanent new dog even six or eight months ago, I’m not sure that Pyrrha would have been ready for it. Pyrrha has gained enough confidence and made enough progress in her other fear areas (Guion, strangers, other dogs) that I think we’re at a point at which Eden can be a good influence on Pyrrha, instead of Pyrrha being a bad influence on Eden.

The main thing I don’t want Eden to pick up is Pyrrha’s leash reactivity toward other dogs. For those of you with multi-dog households that include a reactive dog, has this ever been a problem for you? (The reactive dog making the non-reactive dogs reactive.) If so, what have you done to mitigate such copying behavior?

First home visit scheduled

Not much to report today, except that we have scheduled our first home visit with a volunteer and foster parent from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue! I am SO excited.

Lyndi, whom we'll meet on our home visit.

She will be bringing her two current fosters with her, too: Lyndi and Onyx.

Lyndi (above) is a 1.5-year-old female who was rescued from a backyard breeder in North Carolina. She is a very beautiful and ladylike black-and-tan, but she does have some shyness issues and needs work with confidence-building. Lyndi was on trial with a family, but the family’s busyness and young children didn’t make her very comfortable. Her foster mom says she’s already made great strides in her confidence, but will continue to need gentle and reassuring guidance and training.

Onyx, whom we'll meet on our home visit.

Her foster sister Onyx perhaps has the opposite problem: She’s a very bold, extremely intense Belgian malinois/shepherd cross and she is just stunning; she is sable with orange-rust-colored eyes and looks like a wolf. Onyx sounds amazing, but probably way too much to handle for us, being first-timers. Her foster mom says she is twice as intelligent and twice as energetic and driven as any shepherd she’s ever fostered! Schutzhund–and daily 5-mile runs–would probably be best for Onyx. She doesn’t sound like a fit for us, but I am excited to meet her just the same.

Right now, I have my heart set on Lyndi… I am now petrified that someone is going to snatch her up before we can meet her. (I hesitated even posting her picture here, for fear that someone would see her beautiful face and try to adopt her… You won’t do that, will you?) I am positively obsessive right now. Can’t wait. Can’t.

The visit is scheduled for just two days after we move in, so it will be a little crazy, but I am more than ready for it to happen! One week and six days…

Choices! Help me make one.

OK, so I really don’t need to make a choice right now. Because I still have 10 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days until I can get a dog. But who’s counting?!

But today I’m caught in a tri-lemma between three beautiful breeds: the Australian shepherd, the German shepherd, and the rough collie. I want all of these dogs, of course, but I can’t determine which one is best for our lifestyle and our household. Should we try to get a purebred puppy? Should we go through a breed rescue agency? Should we just get a mutt and be done with it? I’m trying to keep feelings out of this, but that’s a silly thing to try to do when faced with puppies.

These are the unproductive thoughts that are running through my head:

A handsome Aussie in black and white. Source: Flickr user lee

PUREBRED AUSSIE PROS:

  • Raising a beautiful puppy from the ground up.
  • There are many reputable Aussie breeders in Virginia that I’ve already been in touch with and am still planning on visiting this summer and fall.
  • More solid health guarantees, if we go with one of these reputable breeders.
  • Even some temperament guarantees, if we can meet the parents.

PUREBRED AUSSIE CONS:

  • The world does not need more purebreds.
  • Expensive. We can afford one, but still: It’s a lot to pay for a companion/pet-quality dog.

RESCUE AUSSIE PROS:

  • You’re rescuing a dog who really needs a home!

RESCUE AUSSIE CONS:

  • There are rarely any purebred Aussies who need rescuing in this area. (Unless you count that handsome, small blue merle who came into CASPCA a week or so ago.)
  • You have less knowledge about the dog’s background and previous behavioral issues when adopting an adult.
  • This might be incorrect, but I feel like abandoned Aussies require a lot more rehab than other abandoned breeds. They’re usually surrendered for hyperactivity, sensitivity, or other behavioral problems, more so than other breeds (who are surrendered when owners die, move away, etc.).

General thoughts and concerns about getting an Aussie: Am I crazy to think that I could handle an Aussie? I know I grew up with one, but she didn’t have a very happy ending. My biggest fear right now is that our Aussie will be excessively barky and get us evicted from our new house. But I’ve always wanted an Aussie. This is my breed. These are my dogs. I would feel some betrayal to my life’s purpose if I didn’t get one. I know that’s totally ridiculous. Am I being too idealistic and not really thinking practically about whether I could handle this kind of dog? I need someone to tell me what to do.

A wise German shepherd. Source: Flickr, user idog~

PUREBRED GSD PROS:

  • Raising a beautiful puppy from the ground up.
  • If you can find a reputable GSD breeder, you may be able to carefully avoid a lot of the genetic health issues that plague the breed.
  • Perhaps some additional temperament guarantees.

PUREBRED GSD CONS:

  • The world does not need more purebreds.
  • A lot of the Virginian GSD breeders strike me as kind of scary and really serious.
  • Most of the reputable Virginia GSD breeders I’ve seen are breeding dogs from European lines for schutzhund competitions.
  • For the reasons above, GSDs I’ve seen in Virginia are extremely expensive (much more than reputably-bred companion-type Aussies).

RESCUE GSD PROS:

  • You’re rescuing a dog who really needs a home!
  • There are two active GSD rescue groups in Virginia that seem to have a steady supply of beautiful, healthy-looking dogs (and if they’re not healthy, they tell you so).

RESCUE GSD CONS:

  • You don’t know about the hidden health problems this dog may have. This is an especially big risk with a purebred GSD who came from who-knows-where.
  • Latent temperament or behavior problems are also more uncertain.
  • I’m inexperienced with this breed and I’m anxious about the task of rehabilitating an adult GSD.

General thoughts and concerns about getting a GSD: These dogs intimidate me, but I really want one. It’s probably not smart to go into a relationship with a dog when you’re predisposed to be intimidated by it. My life plan is to get a purebred Aussie puppy first, learn how to raise a dog in general, and then rescue an adult GSD. But is that a bad life plan? I don’t know. Should I just jump headfirst into it and adopt an adult GSD? I feel like a purebred GSD is out of our range right now. These dogs are the consummate canine athletes and brainiacs. They can do anything and I feel like they need to be taken very seriously to ensure a happy, well-adjusted life.

A tricolor rough collie. Source: Flickr, user helen246

PUREBRED COLLIE PROS:

  • Raising a beautiful puppy from the ground up.
  • Similar advantages of having a reputable breeder who has avoided passing on Collie Eye Anomaly and other serious genetic defects.
  • Better guarantees of a pup’s temperament if the parents are available.

PUREBRED COLLIE CONS:

  • The world does not need more purebreds.
  • There is only one collie breeder that I can find in Virginia and one in Maryland. They do not breed often and puppies are often very hard to come by.
  • Due to the increasing rarity of the breed, puppies will be quite expensive.

RESCUE COLLIE PROS:

  • You’re rescuing a dog who really needs a home!
  • I was thrilled to find a great collie rescue agency in Virginia. They have a lovely selection of young and adult dogs who need homes.
  • Less expensive and more readily available than a purebred puppy.

RESCUE COLLIE CONS:

  • Fear of hereditary disorders or serious health defects showing up later in life.
  • As with the other rescues, less certainty about the dog’s background and temperament.

General thoughts and concerns about getting a collie: Is it cruel to own a rough collie in the southeast? Will the dog die of heat stroke with all that hair? I think this is why I’d be inclined to get a female, if only for the lesser mane. (I did see a rough collie in Charlottesville once, though, and he looked happy.) I know even less about rough collies than I do about GSDs, having never interacted with one in person, but I’m taken with them in general appearance and temperament. They’re like the bubbly, more low-key herding dogs. The retrievers of the shepherds, if you will (and I will). I’m so generally naive about this breed that I’m not sure if it would be wise to have my first dog be a collie. But they sound very user-friendly and adaptable, much more than even an Aussie, perhaps.

OK! Help me make a decision. Go! I only have 10 months to make up my mind!