May 01

German Shepherd Temperament, Nature vs Nurture

forest walkGerman Shepherds are often said to be intelligent, loyal and hard working. And that’s all true. But they’re often believed to be that way on the basis of temperament, which some claim is all inbred. That’s where the controversy begins.

It’s undoubtedly true that certain features of a dog’s personality, as with humans, derives from genetics. But, as with humans, where to draw the line between nature and nurture is a difficult task.

When you see a behavior repeated across generations, it’s a sign that something genetic is at work. That behavior is frequently (at least partly) the result of an inborn temperament. But characteristics like intelligence are notoriously difficult to measure objectively. Attributes like ‘loyal’ are difficult to define at all.

Certainly an individual dog and by extension the German Shepherd breed has to have a certain basic potential in order to do the sometimes amazing things it does. The ability to navigate complex environments to sniff out a bomb containing a certain compound is such a task. Opening a door and guiding a blind person through it, or delivering a tray of food to a wheelchair-bound person have to be learned. Without some raw intelligence, those things couldn’t be taught.

But in each of those examples, the dog has been trained. The result is a combination of nature and nurture.

With simpler behaviors it’s more difficult to judge how much is due to temperament and how much to training. If a Shepherd spontaneously grasps your hand in its mouth, then tugs you forward, that’s probably temperament, to a large extent. When you see an untrained German Shepherd pacing back and forth behind a chain link fence, ‘patrolling’ its border, there’s likely a certain amount of basic nature at work.

But even here, the dog had to learn for itself how to grasp a hand without doing harm. It had to observe the fence and make a decision to patrol in a certain area. There is some learning involved even in these situations.

Some things are very clearly not taught. German Shepherds will bark at the approach of strangers, even when there has been no other dog in their lives to ‘show them how’. That behavior is an instance of separating those inside the home from those outside. The home dwellers are ‘part of the pack’. Those outside are a potential threat. That display of ‘loyalty’ can most logically be interpreted as protectiveness and is probably innate.

Some traits are likely inherent. Others are brought out only with training. Still others are probably due to a kind of free will, similar to that possessed by humans. But whichever the case, one thing is certain: German Shepherds are excellent combinations of many fine qualities, whatever their source.

Apr 09

Gear For Your German Shepherd

dinner timeGerman Shepherds are strong, agile and intelligent. Those attributes create special needs when you’ve made the decision to train your dog.

A collar is fine for ordinary walking. But during training, a chest harness will work out better for both dog and trainer. They’re made of leather or very strong nylon with either metal or composite plastic buckles. They fit around the chest, over the shoulders and under the front legs and they’re adjustable.

That makes it possible to fit the harness to be comfortable but also slip proof. A dog in attack mode is going to strain at a leash to the point that even a dog’s strong neck provides inadequate protection against harm, not to mention being tough on your hand. A chest harness is safer for the dog and makes it much easier for the owner to exert control.

Because German Shepherds can be very mouthy, it’s sometimes necessary to strap on a muzzle. It’s not common, but those incidents which have resulted in bites help fuel the German Shepherd’s unwarranted reputation for being aggressive. In public areas, where the not-yet-fully-trained Shepherd may be nervous or prone to bite, a muzzle protects others from bites and you from lawsuits.

Muzzles can be leather or nylon, and there are styles that still allow the dog to open its mouth part way. That provides the ability to drink without removing the muzzle, while preventing the dog’s jaws from opening wide enough to look threatening.

Like other breeds, German Shepherds enjoy chewing. A good rawhide bone is a start. But provide these intelligent animals with lots of variety to allow them to practice while they play. Denta-bones are good for health, but provide balls with peanut butter in the center or other ‘puzzles’ to keep them mentally sharp, too.

Never give your German Shepherd chicken or beef bones that might shatter. Some large beef bones are safe provided they’ve been cooked to soften them. But the easiest and wisest alternative is to stick with commercially supplied bones that are designed to be safely chewed.

Obstacle courses provide a great way to keep your energetic Shepherd active, well exercised and mentally alert. A search and rescue or a police dog, to name only two examples, will find it necessary to leap hurdles and navigate through complex environments.

An obstacle course should be adjustable, provide tunnels and hurdles, and have various levels. A mixture of wood, metal and plastic will simulate the circumstances in which the dog may find itself. Being able to balance on slick metal or walk over wood without losing scent gives them challenges to solve.

Whistles, clickers and other attention devices aren’t for the dog per se, but they definitely make the trainer’s life easier. Check out a variety and choose one in the presence of your dog to see how they react.

Apr 04

German Shepherds – Pure Bred vs Mixed

German Shepherd Puppy

German Shepherd Puppy

Within dog lover circles there is an ongoing controversy about whether it’s better to acquire a pure bred German Shepherd or one of mixed ancestry. The issue may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction. But where you stand may depend heavily on the reason you acquired your dog.

For show dogs, police dogs and other specialized work a pure bred is generally the preferred choice.

Shows are interested in displaying the finest possible examples of the breed and only very specialized categories admit mixed breeds (and then, rarely). Even pure bred German Shepherds with white coats aren’t admitted to many shows. Some highly trained specialty acts that aren’t purebreds may perform, but they don’t take prizes in the regular categories.

Police dogs, whether trained for simple guard duty, drug search or other tasks, are almost always purebreds. True, you read articles or see films from time to time about a special exception. But they’re talked about because they are the exception. Most are acceptable only if they meet a very strict set of guidelines about body characteristics and parental background. Others don’t make the cut.

But for those just looking for a companion, the guidelines are looser.

Some mixed breeds are actually very beautiful. Though rare, a cross between a German Shepherd and an Irish Setter makes for an unusual, long-haired beauty with a sweet disposition. German Shepherds don’t have the tolerance for cold that, say, a Huskie would and getting a mix may be a good idea for those who live in the far north.

Mixed breeds may combine the best of both types, if the sire and dam for several generations back are chosen carefully. Mixing genes from different lines lessens the likelihood of certain diseases. That’s why mating is discouraged between closely related males and females. Genes that increase the odds of a disease and that are ‘recessive’ are more likely to be passed on and get expressed when both parents have them.

But mixed breeds are most often so because their ancestry is simply unknown. Here you get into risky territory. Certainly a mixed breed dog, from a shelter or private individual, can be a stellar companion. But the odds of behavioral problems increase, simply because you don’t know the dog’s history.

Problems can occur in purebreds too, of course. Some unscrupulous breeders will mate anything to anything just to make a buck, when they can get away with it. But most breeders are reputable and take great care to thin out genes that would lead to Hip Dysplasia and other genetically sensitive conditions.

If you choose a dog of unknown or mixed parentage, that’s a perfectly valid choice. But be prepared for a possible increase in problems to deal with. Dogs from shelters have often come from homes where they weren’t cared for and have absorbed bad lessons. Dogs of mixed parentage may well have weaknesses that aren’t obvious as puppies, since their breeding is usually unmonitored and uncontrolled.

Nov 23

German Shepherds – Bloat, And What To Do About It

German shepherd dogOne of the most potentially serious conditions a German Shepherd can suffer from is something called Bloat. In scientific terms, it’s more commonly referred to as GDV, or Gastric Dilatation Volvulus. The stomach becomes bloated with air or fluid, often accompanied by a twist (volvulus), as it rotates around the esophagus and the duodenum.

The condition is painful, unhealthy and potentially life-threatening. Why it occurs isn’t completely understood, but the condition and treatment are well known, provided it can be caught in time.

One sign to look for is any ‘unproductive’ vomiting or inability to belch. If your Shepherd is unable to regurgitate after trying for a few minutes, don’t panic. It may be that they simply don’t have anything to bring up. But if it occurs when they’ve just had a meal, proving they have stomach contents, a call to the vet is in order. Sometimes they will be able to produce some material, but if it appears foamy then make that call.

Though the causes are still murky, there are several factors that may be involved. Genetics is clearly one of them, but diet and eating habits may be more relevant. Peas, onions, beans and other foods can cause an excess of gas to build up. If the stomach twists that gas can get trapped. Feed only high quality dog food always, and reduce the size of meals if you suspect GDV.

Hyperventilation may produce an excessive intake of air which can become trapped. This can lead to breathing difficulties, especially for older dogs. Avoiding stressful situations when possible is called for. Shepherds aren’t particularly fearful dogs, but some react badly in the face of thunderstorms and other loud noises. Try to provide a quiet room and a calming voice.

An extended stomach is a possible sign of Bloat. By the time this stage is reached, the problem is serious and you should seek a vet’s attention. Feel the dog’s stomach when he is in a standing position. It should feel relatively soft and aligned with the body. If it’s hard, extended or sounds hollow when tapped gently, you may be dealing with a case of Bloat.

GDV can cause a disruption of proper blood flow, as the vessels become constricted from pressure and twisting. This can interfere with a number of important body systems. Oxygen levels in the blood may become reduced, stomach cells may begin to die, and toxins and bacteria can be released into the bloodstream. Kidney failure is a possibility. Cardiac Arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat can occur. All of these require professional medical treatment as soon as possible.

If you suspect your German Shepherd has GDV or Bloat, stay calm. Look for the signs and get on the phone with your vet. He or she can best decide whether drug treatment or surgery is warranted.