What Is The German Shepard’s Real Temperament?

German Shepard Dogs are intelligent, loyal and hard working, say their Fans. And their fans are a very large body of people indeed, ranging from the American Kennel Club – who recently gave the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Dog Team a uniquely created award, so impressed were they by the courage and willingness to serve of that team of German Shepards and their trainers/handlers – to disabled children who have a German Shepard Assistance Dog.

I’ve seen some very moving videos showing kids who are totally physically helpless, revitalised by the loving presence of their Assistance Dogs, and having all kinds of wonderful things done for them by their dogs.

But then I’ve also seen scare stories on the News, about German Shepard police dogs biting suspects and toddler bystanders, and you wonder what the truth really is…

Some say that this breed has an inbuilt gentle and obedient temperament, but others say that they’re naturally savage.

What’s really happening out there?

Nature v Nurture

The Nature/Nurture debate has been raging for generations, and I believe that it’s a bit of both – for dogs and their owners alike! But it can be difficult to know where to draw the line.

It’s really hard to say how intelligent any dog genuinely is. For example, I am completely convinced that my chow Ebony is the smartest pup on the planet, and that Chow-Chows are the smartest dogs around, so smart that they act like cats, luxury loving and fond of their own way!

Chows are not an obedient breed by nature. Any chow owner will agree. “My chow is too clever to do what s/he is told” they proudly cry. But most non-chow-owners would regard a mutt who refuses to respond to commands as pretty dumb!

And if we’re talking about loyalty, loyalty to whom? And when is Loyalty a desirable characteristic, when is it a failing?

So it can get pretty hard to measure objectively just what traits are “natural” or “inbred” in the German Shepard, or any other dog.

Training Is The Thing!

On the other hand, it is not at all difficult to gauge an individual dog’s proclivity to obey commands, or speed in learning tasks and becoming tractable. And any dog trainer will tell you that when they are training a class consisting of a lot of pets of different breeds (and their owners) they always notice that a certain basic learning potential is more evident in some breeds than in others.

Hence, certain dog breeds get trained as “sniffers” who can detect a bomb or a parcel of drugs after suitable training, certain breeds get trained as “seeing eye” dogs for the blind, certain breeds of dogs get trained to help on a farm. The range of tasks required of the Assistance Dog is the most complex, ranging from opening a door and nosing a wheelchair through it, to delivering a tray of food to a bedfast invalid, or even “telling” a deaf owner about sounds such as the telephone or doorbell ringing.

And yet, surprisingly, almost any dog which is strongly emotionally attached to a disabled owner can be trained in assistance tasks… that’s a pretty powerful argument for the “training” school of thought – although no doubt the “inbred” camp would respond that it’s the dog’s inherent love of its owner which makes such training possible.

What About Instinctive Behaviors?

It can sometime be more difficult to judge how much of your pet’s behavior is due to temperament and how much is down to training. When your German Shepard grabs your hand with his mouth, careful not to nip you with his teeth, and tugs you forward, it’s not terribly likely that you actually trained him to do that. But it’s not instinctive behavior either.

All dog lovers have been “nipped” by puppies who don’t know that they’re hurting, and most of us have seen the deep distress in a young dog which has unintentionally inflicted pain by batting a child a little bit too hard with its paw. Dogs soon learn to move carefully around their fragile owners, even although no-one teaches them that.

On the other hand, an untrained German Shepard pacing back and forth behind a chain link fence, ‘patrolling’ its border, is probably operating on instinct. But even then, the dog ‘defending its pack territory’ had to ‘decide’ that the fence constituted a border and choose where to patrol.

And some behaviors are obviously instinctive, such as when your pooch barks at strangers, even although you haven’t trained that guard-dog response in and no other dog has ‘demonstrated’ it to your pet. Barking is an instinctive response to warn ‘the pack’ – your family are ‘part of my pack’ to your Shepard – of a potential threat from outside.

Your German Shepard’s Temperament Is What You Make of It

At the end of the day, no matter which characteristics are “instinctive” in the breed, which are “learned” by the dog without external training, and which can only be brought out by skillful training and handling, YOUR German Shepard’s temperament is what you decide to make of it.

The German Shepard is a responsive breed, eager to please as all dogs are, quick to learn. If you train your pup with firm kindness, I think that you will find that YOUR German Shepard is an enviable mix of gentleness and protectiveness, the best safeguard you could ever give your kids.

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