German Shepherds and Service Work

This is an unpopular opinion. I’m not looking for arguments or to offend, this is just my professional experience and opinion. As a general rule, German Shepherds do not make good psychiatric service dogs. Out of all breeds, this is the breed I wash the most often. Great service dogs for other tasks, as long as the handler understands the nature of the breed.

Why they make good service dogs:

They are very in tune with their people. This makes for good natural psych alerts. Generally, shepherds are a little on the anxious side (sometimes it’s neither bad nor good anxiety-just Shepherd anxiety), which means they tend to pick up on handler anxiety/mental health as well. They bond very tightly with their handlers. They have a desire to work, good energy level, and quick learners.

Why they don’t make good psych service dogs:

Because shepherds are generally a bit anxious, they pick up on handler anxiety. Which they in turn internalize. Shepherds are also naturally more suspicious, aloof, or a little watchful of strangers. Nothing wrong with this trait. Until you ask a dog to be on the watch for people as a task. Then they start hyper watching and become hyper aware. On top of it, because they feed on handler behavior and emotion, if handlers are uncomfortable around people they generally start to become uncomfortable as well. Uncomfortable around loud noises? They will start to pick up on that and feed off it as well.
Shepherds are also a vocal breed when anxious. Let me give you an example. A handler has anxiety around crowds. Over time the dog starts to develop anxiety as well, and with it he begins to bark at people in the crowd that trigger his anxiety. I’ve seen it. Or he begins to act very skittish and whine in crowds. I’ve seen that as well.

When shepherds are working as any other type of service dog they do much better because they aren’t constantly absorbing the emotion related to psych work. Mobility, forward momentum pull, counter balance, diabetic alert, etc. It takes a handler that is able to manage the shepherds tendencies, correct them, and work through them. Most often, not always, handlers that need a psych dog don’t have or are not in place to do that. They are focusing on their own mental health, not their dog’s mental health.
Let me be VERY CLEAR. It’s not that all GSDs cannot do psych work or that all will fail, it’s just that the vast majority of them will not make it. I’m also not “gate keeping” the breed for service work. I just want those that need a service dog to truly understand the issues presented with the GSD. There are some very clear headed GSDs out there doing psych work but they are the absolute exception. Finding another generally requires one to wash many along the way. Why chance it when there are other excellent breeds out there that can do the job without the side affects?

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