Friday, August 15, 2008

German Shepherd Dogs

People often say that the best dog is a mutt or mixed breed dog. That may be true, but I've always owned pure bred dogs and I've owned a fair number of them. In the next couple of days, I am going to take some time out and write about my experiences with different breeds, including the pros and cons, so that people thinking of getting a new dog can have some practical experience at their finger tips. Of the dogs I've owned, five of them have been German Shepherds. So I think I'll start there.

My first German Shepherd Dog was Sam. In some ways, Sam was difficult. He taught me a lot about the breed because some of the negative traits you find in German Shepherds were a bit exaggerated in Sam. And being a new Shepherd owner, I wasn't quite sure how to handle it.

Let me first say that individual dogs are just that-individuals-so I don't want to get too caught up in some kind of breed bias. Among any breed you're going to find a wide variety of personalities and problems, although there will be some tendencies. Golden Retrievers, say, are going to tend to be friendly. I haven't heard of a pack of Golden Retrievers attacking any old ladies lately, but you've probably heard of that happening with Pit Bulls. But that being said, I've met some Pit Bulls who are the gentlest, laziest dogs on the planet. That does to show this discussion can only be taken so far (never met an aggressive Golden Retriever though).

Alright so what qualities did Sam have, if I just had to write a bulleted list? On the positive side he was:

  • Easy Going
  • Very obedient and easy to train
  • Not too high energy
  • Not destructive
  • Enjoyed the outdoors and vigorous physical activity despite not being high energy
  • Loyal
  • Strong
  • Calm when comfortable-he was real easy to crate train
  • Never begged, wouldn't do stuff like jump up on the counter trying to get food
  • Got along great with new dogs. Never met a stranger...of the canine variety
I would say these characteristics describe most German Shepherds. Since Shepherds are big and intimidating, you can see why they are used as police and military dogs. Sam was so easy going whenever I brought a new dog in, or one to visit, or one I rescued off the street (this happened all too often) Sam would be really laid back about it. Hey, he knew he could beat up the other dog easily, but typically he would just kick back and let them take over as alpha.

But these general traits don't apply to all German Shepherds. Take my dog Tony who has heartworm, for example. Tony can't stand being in a crate. He is very high energy, and is completely destructive. Tony actually looks quite similar to Sam. He isn't as built but their coats have similar markings. But the similarities end there! Tony is a complete high energy nutcase. I would say his energy level resembles more a Dalmatian than a typical Shepherd.

Now like people, most dogs are not perfect. And Sam had a few issues. These were:

  • Not trusting new people
  • Lack of confidence
These traits probably came from years of "overbreeding" of shepherds. You start selecting dogs that don't quite trust new people-these are good guard dogs for example-and in a few generations you've got dogs that are downright skittish about it. This was a problem that plagued Sam, I was reluctant to introduce him to new people because he would bark at the top of his lungs and act all scary. He never did bite anybody, and through the years with the help of attending several dog obedience classes, his behavior improved quite a bit. But he was never the 100% comfortable dog in new social situations like a Golden Retriever would be expected to behave.

Recently I acquired a German Shepherd named Jake, who is pictured in this article. Jake is a really nice, gentle dog, a real people friendly and dog friendly guy. He resembles Sam in a lot of ways, being totally laid back, obedient, and not too high energy but playful. Jake does lack confidence a little but isn't as neurotic about it as Sam was. But Jake totally lacks the guard dog aspect of the German Shepherd personality. I think if someone broke in my house Jake would just sit there on the couch, maybe hoping to play ball with the criminal. Luckily I have other dogs to protect Jake...

So what kind of person should get a German Shepherd? If you are looking for a guard dog you really can't go wrong, even if you get one like Jake. Just the appearance of a German Shepherd is enough to intimidate most people.

Being large dogs, German Shepherds do require a lot of exercise. But I would rank them as medium energy level dogs. They can do lots of exercise if you give them the opportunity, but I would say they only need regular walks 4-5 days per week. I live by the mountains so mine are kind of spoiled and get a lot more vigorous walking than average dogs. But in my years of owning them, I've never had one that became a problem when exercise was not immediately available for one reason or another. That hasn't been my experience with other breeds (more on that later).

I think there are two major concerns with German Shepherds. The first is avoiding fear issues. Do your best to acquire a calm, socially friendly dog. Otherwise you might have a real problem on your hands. That being said, if you get a fear aggressive shepherd, you might be able to save the situation based on their tendency for obedient loyalty. If you get in that situation start socializing the dog in controlled situations, the best thing is to start with enrolling the dog in lots of obedience classes. Also hire a personal trainer and get your dog around your friends and other dogs as often as possible. Use a muzzle at first if he is showing signs of aggression.

The second major concern is hip dysplasia. I am not entirely sure about this, but I think its more common in American lines than in German lines. You can recognize American lines by a back that slopes downward from the shoulder to the butt. Jake is from an East German line and has a completely straight back. Sam was the same way. But I have a German Shepherd female named Brandy that has the sloped back. She is 9 however, and still hasn't shown any signs of hip problems.

Finally, German Shepherds are prone to an eye condition called pannus. In lay terms, a dark film grows over the eye, and its triggered by sun exposure. If you leave it alone I am sure the dog can go blind, but its easy to manage. I've had two shepherds with it, and what you do is give them eye drops that control it. Jake happens to have pannus and his is under pretty good control with daily drops.

In conclusion, I have to say that a German Shepherd Dog is one of the very best dogs you can get despite any drawbacks they may have. If you get one you're in for a long period with a good loyal friend.

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