The other day I was thinking about German Shepherds when I wondered what they are really bred for (other than pet purposes). So, I did a little research to find out.
What Are German Shepherds Bred For?
German Shepherds are bred to be a working dog. Historically German shepherds were bred to assist shepherds in herding sheep. During WWI their role changed to include police dog duties, scent-work roles, service-dog positions, and more.
There is a multitude of reasons any dog is bred. Breeding has become more popular in the last couple of centuries to retain certain desireable attributes whether that be looks, or to hone skills that certain dogs already have.
Working German Shepherds contribute to our safe society every day because they have certain skills that contribute to our national
Beginnings of Breeding German Shepherds
German Shepherds were not alone in being bred starting in the 1850s. There was an increasing sentiment that breeds of dogs should be registered and standardized.
In addition to those desires, breeding also became popular in Europe to capitalize and preserve useful attributes or features that dogs had. In the case of the German Shepherd, they were initially bred for their intelligence.
As a sheepdog, they would need to observe their flock, be aware of surroundings, and protect their sheep. This training over time as well as the later breeding increased their observation and protective attributes.
When the numbers of predators fell in Europe, the need for sheepdogs declined and people decided that avenues should be explored for dogs to be put to work in other ways.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was not as common for people to keep pets. People had difficulty enough providing for and caring for their children.
Pet-keeping was mostly confined to upper-classes. Just a century prior (18th century), killing cats was seen as comical in France.
Thus it was an age where animals were defined by their usefulness. It only stands to reason that the reason German Shepherds were bred was to capitalize on this usefulness.
Following WWI, the German shepherd breed increased in popularity due to their use in pop culture such as the German shepherd who played Rin Tin Tin in Hollywood. Other uses of German shepherds during the early 1900s contributed to their renown and recognition.
This worldwide recognition of the breed itself and their intelligence contributed to the rise in their breeding numbers and in turn the work that they now do.
Working Attributes of German Shepherds
As a dog breed, German Shepherds show an innate willingness to learn and have a purpose. Their uncanny ability to follow instructions has led them to be easy to train and create a man to dog relationship and reliance. These attributes especially make them inclined to be a “working-dog” as opposed to other dog breeds like dachshunds or dalmatians.
On the dog intelligence scale, German shepherds are ranked third, but their discipline is what sets them apart and makes them the dog of choice for the military, police, and service-dog positions.
Because of their innate intelligent nature, they are more attentive, and better able to observe then do. This allows for better, and shorter training times, and thus entrance into the work field sooner.
For all their good attributes, German shepherds do have faults. If not trained correctly, they can be overprotective, but this attribute is one that is desired if they are being trained as a guard or attack dog.
Historically, as a sheepdog, this protective nature allowed them to better watch over and look after their flock.
It is only natural that as the breeding of this dog progressed, this attribute was preserved during the breeding process.
Initially, the German Shepherd was primarily used as a service dog. They began to be used post-WWI to aid veterans suffering from the effects of PTSD. Their keen sense of direction also made them the perfect dog choice for those that were visually impaired.
I have never seen a German Shepherd as a service dog, and it is because throughout time studies have shown that German Shepherds have more defensive skills, and other dogs such as labradors and golden retrievers are better at sensing emotions. Thus, only a fraction of German shepherds still fulfill the role as a service dog
Their easy nature and ability to be trained allowed them to be perfect for this role. Though they are no longer primarily used in this role, their initial use helped “break in” this position and allow researchers to discover the benefits a service-dog brings to the table.
German Shepherd Scent-Work
One thing that sets German Shepherds apart from other dogs is their almost exclusive work in scent-work.
Bloodhounds hold the title for dogs with the best sense of smell, but German Shepherds are not far behind. One would think, however, that doggy jobs valuing the sense of smell would pick a bloodhound over the German shepherd.
Again, the other attributes a German shepherd has makes them the best working dog despite their “lesser” skill.
The dog of choice for the police, military, and service-dog positions is the German Shepherd. Why? Because those dogs fulfill a working role that humans cannot do – smell on that level.
Throughout the public education system, American students have almost certainly been exposed to German Shepherds in the scent-role as a drug dog. These dogs have been specially trained to detect various drugs, primarily marijuana.
As they are brought through buildings they are trained to exhibit certain cues and notify their handler when they do smell drugs.
This use has benefitted not only the police and government in cracking down on drug sales and rings, but has also been key to rehabilitating students.
Other scent jobs for the German shepherd include explosion detection, search and rescue, and cadaver discovery. Their keen ability to work despite distraction along with this sense of smell allows them to be successful in their “doggy job.”
You may have seen German Shepherds working in airports, and they are frequently used in these roles to detect potential explosives as well as narcotics in passenger bags.
Television shows such as NCIS or military specials often include German Shepherds when searching for bodies, missing persons, or mines. It is one thing that Hollywood actually gets right. These German shepherds have very important military and government roles.
After a year or more of training to detect certain scents whether it be explosive chemicals, or decomposing chemicals, or an increased ability to detect persons based off an article of clothing these dogs are ready to fulfill their job.
Are German Shepherds dangerous? Like any dog, there is always a story of some kind that makes people shy away. If trained to be docile, German shepherds are as dangerous as any other dog. If trained as a guard or protective dog, they will have more aggressive tendencies.
Are German Shepherds In-bred? For the most part, German Shepherds have emerged from breeding unscathed (compared to bulldogs). However, they do exhibit certain in-bred attributes such as folded ears that never turn up, missing teeth, and sometimes hip dysplasia.
Do German Shepherds retire from their bred-for positions? After a certain number of years (depending on their job) German shepherds do retire from their police, military, or other jobs. Oftentimes their assigned human partner will adopt them, but there are other adoption facilities fro these retired and well-trained dogs.