Working German Shepherds as Pets and Companions
So, very often, I come across a message or an e-mail asking if I think one of my puppies can "make it" as "just a pet." "But your dogs are all titled in Schutzhund!" they will say, as if Schutzhund titles mean that my dogs are not for regular homes (my home is as regular as it gets)! The Schutzhund titles merely mean that my dogs can use their noses to track successfully, can learn and obey my commands to do an obedience routine as required by the rules of Schutzhund, and can do protection work and will bite when told, release when told, and again, do as they have been trained to do. It simply means that my dogs, in addition to being my companions, can also "work" when required, in various facets.
Valuable Characteristics of German Shepherds
The willingness to learn, obey, and perform are all characeristics that are valuable in a family companion too. In addition to those e-mails, I also come across many posts on the internet insinuating that because they are only looking for a "pet"—they don't think they should get a working line German Shepherd but rather, a showline German Shepherd or an American Shepherd, or what have you.Even worse is when people, and oftentimes breeders, no less, ask potential German Shepherd homes, "Well, what would you like to do with your puppy? If you want to do Schutzhund, get a working line puppy, and if you want a pet, get a ________ line puppy."
That, in my opinion, is simply horrible advice. The only accurate advice is: "If you want to win conformation shows, get a showline dog"—and this applies solely because the showring rewards a certain type of look with almost complete disregard for the temperament and character of the dog, or what is actually functional structure for the dog.
To me, that advice is no different than suggesting to a car buyer, "If you don't plan to race, then you definitely don't need a transmission!" Have you tried driving a car that doesn't have a working transmission? It's like telling someone who is considering a BMW, "Why buy a BMW when a Daewoo will also get you to work?" The truth is that anyone who has driven a BMW, and driven a Daewoo too, can explain to you in very clear terms and guttural sounds exactly why the two cannot be compared, can describe to you the importance of torque in a car, in spite of both being actual automobiles.
Qualities of a Good German Shepherd
A dog is a dog is a dog, sure. But a good German Shepherd is one of a kind. A good German Shepherd has various required components, and with those components securely in place—you can do it all with your dog, and that includes having an outstanding "pet." The German Shepherd is a working dog, this much is true—but you'll note that all of the work that a Shepherd is supposed to do is at the direction of a human being. The bond they develop with their master is what makes this breed so special, and makes them such powerful workers, because they take direction and orders from their masters like a truly good worker should. In turn, this is also what makes them amazing family companions too, as they bond as heavily to their families—and form strong and meaningful canine-human relationships with their families. Work, to the dog, can be as silly as chasing the same ball at the same park for the 10th year in a row, to chasing down criminals to make their 100th arrest as a police K9. "We" see a difference in the two types of "work"—but the dog doesn't. All he knows is that he gets to spend the time with you, doing what you asked, and being praised and played with on account of his good behavior. We think of search dogs as doing something noble and heroic—the search dog himself only knows that if he finds this human being who is "hidden" out there somewhere, he will get his ball, or a treat, or a really great play session with his handler.
Frankly, the dog could care less about whose life he saved, so long as the reward is brought out quickly and he gets to spend time with you on account of whatever he found.
As this breed divides into various lines, and the differences become progressively more drastic—it seems to have become a popular misconception that showlines are better pets, and working lines should go to police departments and such. I disagree vehemently.
Facets a Good German Shepherd Temperament
While most working line breeders do not breed for the pet market—they breed the true German Shepherd the way this breed was meant to be (assuming you have found a breeder who is indeed a good breeder with excellent dogs), based on the original standard and purpose of this breed. In my mind, one of the most important facets of a truly good German Shepherd temperament is the ability to make an outstanding pet. If he cannot bond heavily to his owner and family to be first and foremost a great companion—then his working ability becomes near meaningless to me as half of what he is supposed to have been is missing. A dog who falls apart if not worked 24 hours a day, paces endlessly in his kennel enough to wear out the pads on his feet until he is taken out to work, goes in circles all day chasing his tail, and is missing an "off" switch may happen to be an outstanding worker in certain fields, but is not a good German Shepherd in my mind—and consequently, that is not a dog which I would breed as a German Shepherd Dog.
There is no component of what makes a good German Shepherd that the pet home does not need compared to the working home. Nerves? I will settle for nothing less than exemplary, topnotch nerves to trust any dog in a household with children, people coming and going, and a bustling family lifestyle. I would not leave anything less with my own children—why should anyone else?
What to Look for When Picking a German Shepherd Puppy
When picking a puppy for a family who is wanting a pet, I look for the best nerved puppies in the litter first—and then try to assess their drive levels to see which puppy suits the lifestyle of the family the most. Drives? Sure, the working home might demand higher drives in their puppies, but the most popular misconception seems to be that "high drive" is synonymous to "hyper." That is simply not the case! To me, a high drive dog is not necessarily the most energetic one, but rather a dog who can go from 0-100 the quickest. When you want the dog in drive, whether it be to play or work or just leave the house, he/she is immediately in drive and ready to go, go, go, and right now, at that. When not in use, there should be no way to tell how high drive your dog is, but when needed, it shows instantly and is unmistakable. Hyper dogs are a different story altogether, and a type I cannot tolerate in my own home.
There are lines that will have better showring conformation than the working line German Shepherds, and there are lines that will win more awards in the AKC showring, and so forth. There are lines who will have more reddish coats than the working line Shepherds, and there are dogs who will have more slant to their topline than most slides in children's playgrounds do. But when it comes to temperament, strong nerves, and courage—when you take into consideration a dog's clear head, sound mind, and stable character—it is my belief (and in my mind—downright fact), that very few breeds out there can compare to the working line German Shepherd.
Why I Truly Love German Shepherds
Once a person has experienced a truly good German Shepherd from strong working lineage and good breeding, it is my opinion that you cannot go back to anything less.
I don't choose friends who are weak and show cowardice, crumble under a little pressure or stress, or are completely unstable to keep me company. Most definitely, I do not want my dog to show those attributes either. When you play, you play hard. When you fight, you fight to conquer. When you eat, you eat like it's your last meal. When you run, you run like you can fly. A powerful and loyal friend to the end who you know beyond all doubt is standing by your side is my idea of the ideal companion, or in other words, a true "pet dog." I don't feel a dog becomes a working dog if it cannot be a pet, but on the contrary—a dog must have potential to be an outstanding companion first in order to even begin to qualify as a great working dog.