“Utility and intelligence.” These two characteristics were at the forefront of Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz’s mind when he began his search for the prime German herding dog (gsdca.org). Years later, his German Shepherds are still prized for both. Their value extends far beyond herding, however- German Shepherds are coveted for their invaluable presence as personal service and protection, police and military, and search and rescue dogs. My goal is to provide German Shepherds with the tools to succeed in all of these areas without sacrificing quality and adaptability. The foundational elements of a service dog program are breeding and training.
Many people err in assuming that breeding is simply two dogs mating and producing a litter of puppies to be sold after eight weeks. In reality, years of investing go into a successful breeding program before the profits show (according to Kraftwerk K9, Rochester, WA). Breeding begins with research. It is important to consider the breed standard when selecting a dog for a breeding program. In 1899, the SV [a highly reputed German Shepherd club in Germany] developed the breed standard, which the American Kennel Club still follows closely today. Compliance with the standard indicates a quality bred GSD. Visible compliance with the breed standard alone, however, does not ensure a German Shepherd’s health, temperament, and versatility. Extensive research of a dog’s pedigree will better indicate its likelihood for success. Its lineage will play a tremendous role in what it becomes, as well as effect the consumer’s willingness to invest in its progeny. After all, as Patricia Craige Trotter (AKC judge, owner, handler, and writer) said- “When you look at an animal’s pedigree, it tells you what it ought to be. When you look at an animal performing in the ring, it tells you what he seems to be. When you look at his offspring, it tells you what he is.” Research is vital to a breeder’s success.
However, to be knowledgeable is futile without proper preparation. Even the best dogs will not thrive without proper care; it is important to remember that the investment period reaches far beyond the selection of a breeding dog. Cortni Seier (Canisphere Kennels, Garson, MB) describes the expenses of a breeding program, including “quality food… and supplements; health testing” (OFA testing, DM, heart, eyes, and temperament); “other health care [including] check ups, vaccines, heart worm prevention; and breeding costs (progesterone testing, artificial insemination, ultrasound/X-rays, c-sections if needed, puppy check-ups… vaccines [and] deworming).” In addition to these costs, one must also consider shelter, exercise areas, whelping accommodations, and transportation. All together, the amount of physical preparation (not to mention mental) is a sizeable undertaking that entirely precedes any profit.
Research and preparation are an integral part of breeding, but the two without integrity cannot guarantee quality in a business. Both must be put into action by the responsible breeder. When research is disregarded and “desired traits are selected for appearance rather than function” (Prof. Brian Ogle, Beacon College, FL0, the result is a compromised breeding. Dr. Dan O’neill (Royal Veterinary College) recommends the use of “primary-care veterinary clinical records to help understand breed health in dogs and to support evidence-based approaches towards improved health and welfare in dogs.” Some even support the requirement of health checks “before registration or mating can be approved” (breedingbusiness.com). However, integrity cannot be forced. Breeding to highlight desired characteristics is not unethical; but breeding GSDs to highlight certain cosmetic traits is a risky practice that may threaten the dog’s long-term health and well-being. German Shepherds should be bred primarily for health and temperament; beauty should be secondary. Integrity binds research and preparation to produce a successful, quality breeding program.
Breeding is only the first step to beginning a service dog program. The best breeding is useless if it is not reinforced with tedious training and commitment to the dog’s mental development. The dog will not succeed in advanced training if the groundwork is not laid properly. Basic obedience training is a must! No dog will succeed on higher levels of training without basic obedience- being “obedient to the slightest nod at his master’s side” (Max von Stephanitz). Another major consideration preceding advanced training is registration. Although it is not a priority for some people seeking working dogs (according to Dave Taylor, Cedar Valley Canine), “it is critical” for others. “Many people won’t invest in training for service without paperwork…” (Kraftwerk K9). Service dogs are commonly registered with the AKC/CKC, although some are registered through the high standards of the SV.
A German Shepherd having basic training and proper registration may be able to proceed to higher levels of training; but not all trained, registered GSDs have what it takes to excel at a higher level. “A quality bloodline is foundational for training” (animalso.com). Through detailed research, a trainer can identify potential, whether it be potential problems or potential for success. Research may reveal sound temperament in the dog’s lineage; or it may reveal poor temperament that disqualifies a dog from service. Likewise, a dog’s lines may have a history of versatility that is likely to show in a generation and heighten the dog’s chances for success; it may also reveal mediocrity and unlikelihood for success in a particular field. For example, although many German and Czech lines are desirable for their successful working qualities, not every dog will display those qualities. Similar to practice in breeding, research in training can help prevent loss of time, money, and quality.
If, when research registration and basic training are complete, the German Shepherd has the drive to succeed, the time for advanced service training begins. (According to Dave Taylor [Cedar Valley Canine] and Kraftwerk K9,the best resources for aspiring trainers is experience. Both recommend working with other breeders, trainers, and local dog clubs to become familiar with techniques and necessary skill sets, as well as gain valuable experience.) For dogs training for police and military service, Kraftwerk K9 recommends an IPO1 title at least. A GSD training for the Shutzhund sport must first pass a temperament test. This is where training and good breeding will show. Once a Shepherd obtains its temperament title, it can compete for its IPO titles. Although IPO1 is the easiest of the three titles, it is an extremely challenging test that many dogs cannot complete successfully. Only top-tier GSDs move on to obtain IPO2 and IPO3 titles. Many dogs that have obtained one or more of these titles will excel in specialized training for further service. Aside from placing the dog, training is the final step in providing high-quality service German Shepherds.
The demand for German Shepherds, whether for family pets or careers, is higher than ever. Although it is a large and, to some, a daunting task, I believe that quality service GSDs can be available to the public through proper breeding and training. Through research, preparation, training, and integrity, great dogs can do great things.