Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.
What Is a Service Dog?
Service dogs are not just pets—they are trained to perform specific services that make life easier for people with disabilities. They help people who have physical disabilities and psychiatric conditions.
These dogs are thoroughly trained to identify dangers and support their owner. They can perform everyday tasks to enable more independent living, and they can intervene in life-threatening situations. Sometimes military and police dogs are also called service dogs, but we will not really be talking about those here.
German Shepherd service dogs do work such as:
- Help people with visual impairments navigate their surroundings
- Alert a diabetic about low blood sugar
- Alert family members about a child having a seizure
- Alert someone with life-threatening allergies about the presence of an allergen
- Alert someone with hearing impairment of key sounds
- Assist the mobility of someone who uses a wheelchair or walker
- Interrupt dangerous repetitive behaviors of someone with OCD
- Pick up and deliver household items for someone with physical disabilities
- Open doors and turn on lights
Because of their importance to their owners, service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States. Their right to enter any public area, including restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and public transportation, is protected by law.
Although many people choose to put their dog in a vest for easy identification, vests are not required. In order to bring yours into a building with you, you simply need to identify it as a service dog. Owners or employees may ask you what tasks the dog is trained to perform, but they cannot legally ask about your disability. Many other countries have similar protections.
Who Qualifies for a Service Dog?
In order to qualify for a service dog, a person must have a diagnosed disability. This can be a physical disability such as blindness, deafness, severe allergies, epilepsy, type 1 diabetes, or mobility impairment. It can also be a psychiatric disability, such as OCD, autism, PTSD, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder.
The dog must be trained to perform tasks that specifically address its owner’s disability. Dogs that provide general emotional support are called emotional support dogs, but they do not have the same level of training or legal privilege as service animals.
Do German Shepherds Make Good Service Dogs?
German Shepherds are some of the most popular service dogs around the world. They are particularly well-suited to work as guide dogs and physical assistance dogs, and most people have probably seen one working in public.
Why are German Shepherds such good service dogs? It comes down to their intelligence, their obedience, and their strength. German Shepherds have been bred for centuries as working dogs, including for work as police dogs and military dogs. As a result, these dogs are muscular, focused, and extremely trainable.
They have the ability to understand complex tasks. And because they’re task motivated, they’ll enjoy having a job to perform. A German Shepherd guide dog can stay focused on its work for a long period of time, and with the right training, they are very obedient. They also have herd dog genes, which makes them great guide dogs. They naturally like to lead and guide their pack.
They are also very well-suited to help people with physical disabilities. Because of their large size and muscular build, they can help to move a wheelchair or provide physical support for someone to balance or stand up after a fall. They can also carry large objects when necessary. All of these strengths make German Shepherds excellent service dogs for a wide range of people.
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Limitations on This Breed For The Job
German Shepherds can make excellent service dogs, but they may not be the right choice for everyone. These dogs are extremely athletic and intelligent, which means that they need to exercise and be challenged.
Anyone who plans to have a German Shepherd as a service dog must also be prepared to spend time giving them this exercise and stimulation. And while German Shepherds make ideal guide dogs and physical assistance dogs, they are not always well-suited to life as psychiatric service dogs.
This breed is highly loyal and defensive. When they sense anxiety, they will be on alert for potential dangers and looking to protect their human. This can lead, on rare occasions, to a German Shepherd who is anxious or even aggressive.
Finding a Trained German Shepherd Service Dog
Most German Shepherd service dogs are trained by professionals. If you want to get a professionally trained service animal, you should anticipate a long process with a lot of work.
- First, you need an official medical diagnosis identifying your (or your family member’s) disability and how a service dog could help.
- The next step is to identify an organization that trains them—there are a number that specialize in German Shepherds. With most organizations, you will sign a contract for a puppy they have specially screened as a good candidate for work as a service dog.
- They will then fully train the puppy until it is ready to join your family. This training process typically takes about two full years. It’s also expensive; the cost of training and caring for a service dog is typically between $20,000 and $30,000.
Financial Support For Adoption
For many people, the cost of a service dog is out of reach, but one could make an immense difference in their lives. Luckily, there are a number of organizations that help people with disabilities to afford a service dog. Many of the agencies that train assistance dogs offer financial assistance; contact these organizations directly to find out what support might be available.
The following organizations may be able to help you get a German Shepherd service dog for free or at a reduced cost:
- Paws with a Cause: for people with physical disabilities affecting their limbs
- Freedom Service Dogs: for active-duty military and veterans
- Guide Dogs for the Blind: for the blind and visually impaired
- 4 Paws for Ability: for children and veterans
Can You Train One Yourself?
More and more people are looking to train a service dog themselves. With long waiting times and high costs, purchasing a dog from a professional training organization can be too difficult for some families.
Training a dog yourself can present a viable alternative to getting a service dog, but if you are considering this option, you should know that it will take a lot of work. You can choose any dog to train as a service dog—whether you adopt a puppy, find a rescue dog, or train an existing family pet.
When choosing a dog, you should look for a dog with a calm temperament who shows focus and intelligence. Not every dog—even German Shepherds—is cut out to be a service dog. Some people who choose to train their own assistance dog may hire a professional to help with the training. This can end up being more affordable than adopting a fully trained dog from an agency. However you train your dog, a German Shepherd service dog can make an immense impact in your life.
- Matthews Max, Service Dog: Training Your Own Service Dog & Psychiatric Service Dog, CPI, 2018, 222p.
- Nordensson S., Teamwork I & II: A Dog Training Manual for People with Disabilities, Top Dog Publications, 2007 and 2010, 306p.
- Paws With a Cause, https://www.pawswithacause.org/what-we-do/assistance-dogs/service-dogs/
- Freedom Service Dogs, https://freedomservicedogs.org/
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Sam Shepards