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The German Shepherd – Bred to Work and Protect
The dog we know today as the German Shepherd has been developed by former cavalry officer and renowned dog breeder Maximilian von Stephanitz. He started his project of creating the most reliable and enduring sheep herding dog possible in 1889. First, he created a standard for the new breed.
Then, whilst attending a dog show in the Southern German city of Karlsruhe, his attention was caught by a medium-sized dog of wolf-like appearance. This dog embodied to perfection the primal canine type that von Stephanitz had been looking for: supple, yet powerful and built for endurance. As he inquired further, von Stephanitz was intrigued to learn that the dog was a working sheepherder - and had requiring next to no training in order to excel at his task. Delighted about his find, von Stephanitz bought the dog, and named him “Horand von Grafrath”. This legendary canine is the ancestor of all our German Shepherds of today.
The rest is history, and the breed has long since surpassed its original role. Today, Germany’s most popular dog is used in many different fields, including police service, search and rescue, canine sports, and last but not least, sheepherding. German Shepherds are superb natural guardians as well as loyal, active companions.
Before we conclude our discussion of the German Shepherd’s history, it is worth taking note of a little-known detail that, however, can provide valuable insight in the breed’s natural guarding behaviour: Contrary to many other sheep herding breeds like the Border Collie, Rough Collie or Australian Sheepdog, German Shepherds not only were tasked with herding, but also with guarding their flocks: From early on in breed history, it was their job to protect the sheep from predators roaming the countryside, such as wolves, other dogs – and humans.
The German Shepherd – a Natural Guardian of the Finest
Now, let’s take a deeper look into the breed’s natural behaviour as protectors of their owners and their owners’ property. Centuries of selective breeding have shaped and refined the innate guarding behaviour of these dogs. Their original role as sheepherders and flock guardians makes them predisposed to stay close to their herd and to attack anything or anyone coming near them with unfriendly intentions.
Which can also explain why these dogs tend to stay around their owners and on their properties, even in the absence of fences surrounding the land: Contrary to many other breeds, German Shepherds are not prone to roaming.
What also sets them apart from other breeds is their active guarding behaviour. Now, what exactly do I mean by that?
If we look at the giant flock guardian or Mastiff breeds who are derived from the ancient Greek Molossus Hounds, we see a distinct type of guarding behaviour – which can be classed as “defensive”. This means that the dog will rarely outright attack an intruder, be that intruder human or an animal. Rather than charge forth, the dog will assume a defensive position by putting its body between the threat and the people, animals, or the building in its charge. This posturing is usually accompanied by loud growling and barking - in an effort to discourage the intruder from approaching further.
The German Shepherd, on the other hand, tends to take a more active approach when faced with a threat to their flock, owners, or property. Which basically means that they will run towards the threat and engage it in battle. This natural predisposition makes the breed a natural high-achiever in Law Enforcement and Military roles which include effectively stopping a threat by means of charging and biting.
This tendency maybe helps to explain why this dog is more likely to attacking people than any other breed, and why it is them who cause the highest number of bites which require medical attention. Also, whilst we discuss their high readiness to bite in their role as guardians, it is worth noting that German Shepherds have a bite pressure of 238 to stunning 750 pounds, which translates to 108 to 340 kilos.
However, with all that said, this does not mean that your German Shepherd is going to become a menace to society by trying to bite everyone who might ever approach you or your house. The reason why the vast majority of German Shepherds are very safe dogs lies in yet another outstanding feature of this breed – their outstanding intelligence and trainability.
The German Shepherd – Intelligence and Trainability are off the Charts
German Shepherds are incredibly intelligent, versatile, and trainable. These characteristics make them not only ideal police and military service dogs: They also excel as search and rescue dogs, sports dogs, and assistance dogs.
German Shepherds are more intelligent, and at the same time far easier to train and handle than other popular guardian breeds like the Rottweiler, the Doberman, or the Boxer. In fact, “they have been ranked third for intelligence, behind Border Collies and Poodles and have been able to learn simple tasks after only five repetitions”. Also, German Shepherds are generally much more forgiving than breeds like the Rottweiler or any of the giant livestock guardian breeds like the Great Pyrenees or the Caucasian Shepherd. Which is due to their immense eagerness to please their owners: Should you make a mistake in your training, the Shepherd Dog’s nature will allow you to correct this mistake with relative ease – whereas other breeds can respond with aggression to corrective measures.
In terms of their exercise requirements, German Shepherds are right up there with the other well-known working- and guardian breeds like the Boxer, the Dobie or the Belgian Malinois. Which means, they need a lot of physical and mental stimulation on a daily basis: Obedience drills, long walks, runs off leash, vigorous play sessions – and, of course, lots of socialisation throughout the dog’s life to prevent undue aggression.
And, as we are speaking of long walks and runs off leash – it is important to consider that German Shepherds have an extremely high prey drive, which makes them prone to chasing not only the odd cat or rabbit, but also deer and wild boar. Two German Shepherds working together can easily take down a deer. Depending on where you live, such behaviour can get your dog shot by hunters or landowners. Here is, again, where obedience training comes in: Provided you have trained it well, you can pin your German Shepherd to the ground with a “Down!” command – even after it started its pursuit. Of course, this works best when trained into the dog from an early age onwards.
Also, we should always remember that the creator of this superb working breed built his line on a designated active working dog. Over the centuries, this so-called Western German Shepherd working line has continued, and reliably produced highly effective working-, sports- and service dogs. Even today, working line German Shepherds markedly exceed the capabilities of their show line counterparts when it comes to their natural alertness, eagerness to work and sky-high energy levels. Working line German Shepherds do not make good house pets – they are far too intense and driven to calmly settle down in one spot for hours on end. Of course, exceptions from the rule exist and decent apartment dogs can come from working line litters: In such cases, temperament selecting the calmest, most introvert puppy is advisable.
In summary we can say: German Shepherds are excellent working, guard- and personal protection dogs: keen, alert and naturally protective of their owners and their owners’ property. And whilst they should be provided with direction and guidance by an experienced handler, they are extremely easy and fun to train.