Ever since high school I’ve dreamt of owning a German shepherd dog. I love their look, their loyalty, their drive to work with their person, their athleticism and intelligence. Any task you put them to, they’ll do. They may not be as proficient as other breeds at it but there is no breed that is good in as many areas as the GSD. I’ve met several over the years from various lines and breeders. Some rescues, some German showlines, some AKC showlines, some mixed heritage, some working lines (DDR mix, West German, and Czech). They’re remarkable dogs.
These days, however, I’m not sure I can find what I want in a dog in the German shepherd breed. This is not a slight against the noble GSD who I still love and admire. Just some new insight on my part that perhaps what I’m looking for can’t be easily found in a purebred shepherd.
I recently reread Patricia McConnell’s outstanding book The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs. In the second to last chapter, she discusses how one should go about finding the right dog. She addresses some of the questions to ask and suggests if you currently have a dog, you ask these questions about your dog. I decided to do just that to try and narrow down what it is I like and don’t like in a dog. To try and determine where I should focus my energies when the time comes to add another canine to my family.
The questions I’m asking myself about Risa (and any future dog) are in bold type. My responses about Risa are in standard type and my feelings about those answers are in italics.
1. How does she behave with people she knows?
She is wiggly and accepts petting but is still anxious. Even people she’s quite familiar with get licked a lot. As she gets better acquainted, the licking decreases in intensity but it still exists.
I am happy she has people that she enjoys the company of. I just wish she were a bit more comfortable.
2. How does she behave with strangers?
She is very afraid of strangers. Most people she has just met cannot pet her; she will back away and run if she can. If they try and pet her over the head, she will bolt. Some people can pet her on first meeting if they pet her chest or chin. This is still better than she used to be.
I wish she were a bit more social. I don’t want a dog who thinks everyone is their friend but would prefer a dog who was more willing to accept human contact.
3. How does she behave when she’s somewhere new?
She is hypervigilant and constantly looking around. She is very uncomfortable and would like nothing more than to leave. She will do some exploring and checking things out but she is not calm.
I would love a dog that is more confident. It would certainly make trialing/competing easier.
4. How does she handle being touched/held/manipulated?
She does not like it but she does tolerate it. She is a bit stiff and does some lip licking during nail trims. She also tries to walk away during brushing sessions. She is comfortable with me holding her with her front paws off the ground. She does not like to be restrained but doesn’t fight it much.
I wish she weren’t quite so touch sensitive. (And I realize some of this can be addressed with training.)
5. Is she sensitive to loud noises and/or yelling?
Yes. She is afraid of gunshots and thunder. If I start to get frustrated or if I yell, she will leave the room even if it’s not directed at her in any way.
I like a dog with a bit of handler sensitivity as they’re more in tune with you, but she’s a bit too much. Fear of noises is also detrimental to competing.
6. Does she keep an eye on you when you’re not doing anything or does she do her own thing?
She does like to know where I am and will get up and follow me if I leave the room but she is not clingy. If I took her out to an open area and let her off leash, she would take off to explore before even considering checking in with me. After a while, she might come back over to check in or see why I’m no longer with her.
A definite negative, I wish she were more handler-focused. Sometimes she likes to just go off and do her own thing without any regard to me. She’ll come back later when she’s done or when she realizes I didn’t go with her.
7. How long, on average, does it take for her to learn something new?
She’s a quick study. She learns many simple behaviors in very little time at all. She’s very eager to learn and really enjoys training sessions.
Definitely love her intelligence. She is a problem-solver to an extent but rarely does she use it to do things I disapprove of. I love how quickly she picks up things and how much she enjoys being shaped. Her smarts make it easy to train new behaviors and interesting tricks.
8. Is she prone to physical injuries? What is her body structure like?
Her hips are good (not OFA’d but she’s a mix). She is prone to back problems though no disease has been diagnosed.
I really like the way she’s put together though I wish her back weren’t such an issue. It doesn’t seem to take much to tweak it.
9. Is she generally healthy or does she have chronic issues?
She is generally in good health but she has a history of gastrointestinal issues. Mainly SIBO but possibly other problems as of yet undiagnosed. Almost every year she gets loose stool, often accompanied by weight loss and/or bad breath. This lasts for 6 months or more and often doesn’t respond to drug or supplement treatments. She also has several food sensitivities.
I would trade her GI problems for another behavior problem in a heartbeat. This has caused endless frustration for me.
10. How large is she?
She is of medium size but of a lighter build. At the withers she is 20.5 inches and she weighs about 42 lbs.
I like her size.
11. What type of coat does she have?
She has a short, single-layer coat that requires only weekly brushing. She sheds constantly year round with a slight increase before winter and summer. She’s fairly wash and wear and requires very little effort regarding grooming. I rarely find the need to bathe her.
I love the ease of grooming and maintaining this dog. Though I wish she had a double coat rather than just a single. With her low body fat and single coat, she gets cold easily. I could deal with the extra shedding associated with a double coated breed.
12. How does she react when people come on the property?
If she’s outside, she may bark and run towards them but she never gets close. If they approach her, she is likely to back off. Indoors she reacts in much the same way. She barks and will not allow people to approach her. If the person stays still, she will slink over to investigate and sniff them. When people ignore her approach, she is quite curious about checking them out though she is still ready to bolt if needed.
I don’t mind some barking. But her over-the-top fearful barking is a bit too much. It can also scare some of our visitors who don’t know her very well (or are afraid of dogs).
13. How active is she/How much exercise does she need?
She thrives on a lot of exercise. We do a 4 mile walk practically every day. Sometimes the weather cuts it short but that is the average. I also try and work in some fetch and/or training sessions daily. She also enjoys indoor find it/scent games, shaping exercises, and training classes. If she is unable to get outside and get a lot of physical exercise, she tends to get a bit wound up. In general, she is fairly relaxed in the house and is often sleeping while waiting for me to do something with her instead of dropping a ball in my lap non-stop. However, she will also present me with toys on occasion to try and initiate play.
I wanted an active dog to get me out and about. I also wanted a dog I could do things with. A sedentary dog just isn’t for me. But they need to have an off-switch. I couldn’t handle a dog that wouldn’t settle in the house.
14. What would happen if you tried to take something away from her?
In general, she would not be pleased. She has never snapped at me (or anyone else) when I have removed an object from her possession. Usually she just turns her head away and tries to keep the object away from my hand. Only once has she growled at me when she thought I was trying to take a high value item away from her. I generally trade if I need to take something to avoid conflict.
While I understand resource guarding behavior is normal, I wish she were a bit less concerned that I was going to steal her stuff. I know training can address this.
15. What is her behavior like around familiar dogs?
Once she is comfortable around another dog, she is pretty good. She actually does have decent doggy manners and understands how to be socially appropriate. Occasionally, she will react in an over-the-top manner to something trivial but she has yet to ruin a friendship over it. She has had several arguments with canine friends but there were never any hard feelings afterward nor was anyone hurt. These spats are also rare.
I’m thankful that she does seem to have normal social skills once she is comfortable. Though I am not a frequent dog park visitor nor do I ever plan on being one, it takes her far too long to become comfortable.
16. What is her behavior like around unfamiliar dogs?
She is dog reactive and does not like other dogs in her space. She is getting more curious about meeting strange dogs and likes to sniff their rear ends when they turn away. In general, however, she much prefers other dogs stay away from her.
She’s not dog park material and that’s okay. But I like/want to compete with her and this makes things more difficult. It takes a lot of extra effort to navigate a show site with a dog who doesn’t want other dogs in her face.
17. Has she ever growled at/snapped at/or bitten anyone?
She does growl at people/kids if they get too close to her. I have never seen her even close to thinking about snapping at (or biting) someone.
She’s fearful and she’s telling people to back away when she growls. I listen and increase the distance between her and the scary person. I wish she were more gregarious and confident.
18. Does she bark a lot?
Only when frightened. She barks at other dogs and people who knock at the door. She will occasionally bark at sounds outside and does some demand barking if I get her riled up. Overall, she’s a fairly quiet dog.
I am thankful she’s generally quiet. I do not like the idea of a dog who barks incessantly.
19. How would you describe her personality?
She is a goofy, fun-loving dog. I love her silly antics and her big smile.
I love humorous, silly dogs. Sometimes you just need to laugh!
20. What activities does she like to do?
She loves to run full speed and/or chase things so lure coursing is right up her alley. She also enjoys sniffing and following scents. Her favorite team activity is musical freestyle though she also does well in rally. I still would like to get her into agility.
I love taking her lure coursing and really enjoy musical freestyle. I’m willing to try and participate in any activity I feel my dog has an affinity for. But I’ll admit I like a flashy dog for freestyle and am considering keeping that as my main activity with subsequent dogs. Hopefully we can get into agility too.
It is interesting to read my own responses. It almost seems like there is more about Risa I don’t like than do like. And maybe that is true. Many of her fear-based behaviors seriously inhibit some of the things I would like to do with her. It doesn’t make me love her any less. These are just things I need to keep in mind when choosing the next dog.
I don’t feel I’m any closer to narrowing down a breed (or mix) that I should get. I know I’m fond of almost all of the herding breeds and feel they are generally the best match for me and what I look for in a dog. Will be interesting to see how things work out. If anyone who managed to read this whole thing (kudos to you!) has any breed or mix suggestions, I would be glad to hear them!