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The German Shepherd’s Secret Mission

As its name suggests, the German Shepherd has been bred for the purpose of herding flocks of sheep. Towards the end of the 19th century, the breed was developed out of the sheepherding dogs of Southern Germany. The aim was to create a dog who could trot for long stretches of time without tiring: driving the herd, reigning in stragglers, and generally keeping the animals in check. To excel at this task, the dog not only had to be agile and athletic, but also very obedient. The project quite obviously was successful and breed founder Max von Stephanitz has indeed created the ideal Shepherd dog.

Most friends of the breed are familiar with this part of the German Shepherd’s history. But there is another side to this dog’s story: Unlike other sheepherding breeds – such as the Border Collie or the Rough Collie – the German Shepherd was also tasked with protecting their flocks. Its powerful, wolf-like physique and considerable strength made this dog more than capable for fending off humans, stray dogs and even wolves. In the words of breed founder von Stephanitz, “correctly bred German Shepherds are firmness of nerves, attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability and incorruptibility together with courage, fighting tenacity and hardness.”

The German Shepherd – Predator or Protector?

Precisely these character traits described by Max von Stephanitz make his breed the perfect guard dog and personal protection dog – not only for flocks of sheep, but also for any animal living on a German Shepherd’s territory. After all, these dogs were bred to protect their owners’ flocks – and not to decimate their numbers by ripping into the helpless sheep.

Therefore, to this day, the German Shepherd is the avid guardian of all humans and animals living on its property. Children and house pets included. Of course, this does require the dog to be diligently socialised with anyone in the household. Familiarising it with all the humans and pets - and, if present, farm animals -, is absolutely vital. If this is not done, serious accidents can happen, such as the dog misinterpreting livestock as prey animals. Or, in the worst case, the dog hurting a small child whom it has rarely ever seen. Keeping a German Shepherd chained up outside without close contact to its family, or the other animals living on the farm, quite often seems to cause such tragic accidents.

Professional modern-day Sheepherders know this and stress the importance of allowing any new German Shepherd Dog plenty of time to bond with the flock. Once this bond is established, they say, the dog will never harm the flock, but fiercely protect it from all danger.

The proof lies in the pudding, so to speak: If the German Shepherd did not have the capacity to differentiate between “its own” animals and prey animals, the breed would not still be so popular among professional sheepherders.

The Wolf inside the German Shepherd

With that said, the fact remains that German Shepherds are extremely alert, keen, and highly energetic dogs. Among the common guardian breeds, the intensity of their energy levels and prey drive is second to only the Belgian Malinois. Especially designated working line German Shepherds are very keen and effective hunters, if given the chance. And two German Shepherds working together can bring down a deer without much trouble. Knowing this, it is wise to be cautious when introducing an adult of the breed into your household: Until the dog is familiar with every human and animal living there, it can be a threat to smaller pets such as rodents. Also, these energetic dogs are notorious for their boisterous play, and can easily injure a smaller dog – or a small child – by accident.

Because of this, it is safer to start your journey with a German Shepherd puppy. Also, if you want your dog to be a calm house dog, you want to select a puppy from a show line. These dogs are far more settled indoors, and more patient in their interaction with children and other pets. Working line German Shepherds were bred to be active for hours on end – and not to lie around indoors for hours on end.

Of course, even show line German Shepherds come with a considerable prey drive, but they are far easier to manage and to integrate into a busy household with children and other pets around. As the breed usually is quite good with children, the German Shepherd does make a decent family companion. Especially for active families whose children are slightly older.

No matter whether working line or show line – a German Shepherd will always be up for any kind of activity, be it hikes, walks, playtimes, trips to the beach or training sessions. As they are highly trainable and intelligent, these dogs are fun companions whom you can easily teach to play fetch with you, to walk to heel on a nice loose leash, or even to perform tricks for you, if this is your thing. And the same applies for your children. Seeing an 8-year-old dog handler working their German Shepherd is not a rare sight in designated breed clubs, like the SV of Germany. Which proves that these dogs are extremely cooperative and will gladly follow the lead of their favourite humans of any age – if these humans have been educated to be calm consistent canine leaders.

And this brings us to the end of our discussion of the German Shepherd’s behaviour towards children and other animals. As we saw, these natural guard dogs are veritable endurance athletes. They are predominantly working dogs who should be given a task and not just expected to stay in one spot for most of the day. However, with good leadership and socialization, German Shepherd Dogs can be loyal and reliable family guardians who will protect every child and pet in their care.

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