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?

Ethical GSD Breeding

Edited August, 23, 2022

In recent years, the Working Line German Shepherd has become a trend amongst dog enthusiasts and your average pet owner. Due in no small part to Instagram. Owning one from parents that were “imported”, “police dogs,” “world champions,” has become a status symbol. With the demand for the Working Line GSD, people want to own them and people want to breed them (in the rich sable color of course because it’s lovely), countless breeders have arisen that are now breeding “Working” Line GSDs. Their ethics, breeding practices, and standards are frequently maddeningly (yeah, I am going to say it) maddening.

How Did We Get Here:

Fifteen years ago, the average German Shepherd/dog owner didn’t even know that there was a working line of German Shepherds. Years ago, I’d see one sable colored German Shepherd every once in a while, at some large dog event and it would catch my eye. These dogs generally came from serious working kennels, from high quality parents, and had serious drives. A true working dog. This isn’t the case anymore. I see “working line” Shepherds everywhere now and they come mostly from mediocre breeders. New and old breeders took the opportunity of people wanting “working line” not show line, and wanting the sables, blacks, and bi-colors of the “working lines,” not the show line/pet line/backyard bred black and tans (side note: some of my best dogs are black and tans from long working pedigrees) to water down the true working capability of the shepherd simply to make a profit. I say mediocre breeders and not backyard breeders (although I have seen plenty of those as well) because they are a little bit better than backyard bred nerve bags, but they are still incredibly diluted from what the dog is meant to be. I will go into that in depth farther on.

Leading New Owners Astray

Puppy buyers are interested in a Working Line GSD because they are what Law Enforcement, Military, and top competitors in protection sports have (dog sports have become a status statement too so don’t let me get started on that). New owners are drawn to the beauty of the working lines and to the, many times outrageous, claims these breeders make about their dogs and puppies. For example:

“Puppies from our litters excel at Search and Rescue, Scent Work, Police Work, Military, Service Dogs, Top Sports.”

Read that claim and think on it. So, these puppies will be able to work as Military dogs and another pup from the litter could be a Service Dog? First, Military working dogs are generally bred by the military or imported from Europe. They are not bred by breeders up in Eastern Washington. Second, a litter of dogs bred for Military work will have the exact opposite temperament for Service Dog work. Perhaps two different parents are producing the service dogs and another are producing police dogs, that would be an acceptable claim. But the marketing of “Military Dogs” is so catching to new owners they don’t stop to think the breeder is fibbing to them.

Or, new puppy buyers are drawn to working lines because they truly want to do some form of work with their dog. Maybe, they want to compete in IGP, PSA, Nosework, or want a working dog for real life scenarios such as tracking, detection, personal protection etc., or they want a healthier German Shepherd. The Working Line German Shepherd was healthier than American Show Lines and backyard bred dogs. Was….. Not so much anymore now that so many mediocre breeders are breeding them. Health, workability, drive for work, and solid nerves are all great reasons to purchase a Working Line GSD. When new owners seek out breeders, they look for key words indicating that a breeder is producing puppies that match what they are looking for work: Working Line, Police K9, Schutzhund, PSA, High Drives, etc. When mediocre breeders state that the puppies they produce can do Military Work, Police Work, Sport work, etc., generally new owners look no further and purchase a pup without actually following up on these claims. Later on, they discover the dog they have purchased does not have the traits described.

Now, it would be easy to blame the buyer for not doing their due diligence. They should have asked for videos of parents, titles, if they have produced working dogs in the past, etc. But let’s take a moment to consider this. Breeders can still make claims, show videos, have clients meet dogs, and give them references to happy clients. These videos may not show the true dog. I know I could doctor mine to show nice bitework on Narsil when she is not very strong in that area. Or I could show Ronan as a monster with his biting and never show how environmentally nervy he is.

Additionally, individuals new to the Working Line GSD world, but genuinely wanting to get a good dog and learn, may be led astray without realizing it. Let’s give a specific example. Breeder says both parents have excellent ball drive, tug drive, and will produce dogs with good drives for protection sports (let’s assume the breeder put more explanation into that than my one-line example). Someone looking for a local breeder reads this, calls, talks, and then buys a pup only for it to have no drive because…the parents had no drive either. Or the parents had drive that the breeders thought was fine, and told/showed the new owner but once the owner took the dog to a club that truly knew what was needed in a dog, the new owner realized how wrong they were.

Working Titles and Certifications Are a MUST-NO EXCEPTIONS

This happens all over, and the Spokane area or Eastern Washington is no different, as many breeders claim their breeding dogs and puppies can do certain types of work but don’t have any titles, certifications, or other proof to support this. If you advertise that your dogs have great protection skills, with great grips, and produce pups that can do the same, then a working title or certification in a protection sport or real working title are needed, at the minimum, to prove these claims (let me list a SMALL number of certs or titles that could work just for protection-IGP, PSA, WDA, AWDA, ASCT, K9 Street League, French Ring…..). This is something I will not back down on. Just because a dog is great at a training session every other month, or had one where the decoy/trainer praised the dog, does not mean he/she is worthy to breed or can actually do the work. This needs to be proven. If you say the dog can do it then provide me with a title or working certification from a third party that will prove that.

-I will bend this rule only on two exceptions. One, a one-time breeding before the dog gets all his/her titles to see if the dog can indeed pass on his/her genetics. If he can’t then there is no point titling to higher levels with the dog or breeding it. Two, that the dog is in training for titles (regularly not just randomly), and is clearly working towards those titles. Example: a breeder that takes her dog to club every Sunday, or meets three times a week to train, is working very hard, but can’t get into a trial just yet for whatever reason. For both I would prefer the dog be titled because frequently breeders will do the above options, never title, and then keep breeding. –

Some sport titles are Schutzhund/IPO/IGP titles, Protection Sports Association/PSA, French Ring, Mondio Ring, other Ring Sports, K9 Street League, Working Dogs of America/WDA, Nosework, Agility, Herding, etc. There are also numerous certifications from police canine and working canine organizations like ASCT, NAWDA, APCA, NPCA, USPCA, NTPDA, NNDDA, the list goes on and on and on. Titles show what the dog is capable of. Certifications show the dog meets standards for real world work. Yes, sport work is different than real world deployments of police dogs. Yes, a good sport dog can still be nervy and a terrible dog to breed. The same is true for many certified working dogs.

There are breeders, mediocre usually, that will claim they don’t title because sports are not real, too fake, etc. There are plenty of other options then to title or certify your dog. For example, I title/certify dogs with an agency that certifies working police canines. The standards are in place to show that the dog can meet the basic levels of work. Tracking dogs must be able to locate the suspect, narcotics detection dogs must locate the odor. It is straight forward and if a dog is truly a working dog like a breeder claims, then they could easily pass these certifications. If a breeder does not think they are “hard enough” or true tests, there are other tests out there by other organizations. I personally prefer to certify dogs with real working titles that state the dog could actually deploy live to track, to bite, to find explosives, etc., rather than sport titles. However, there are some great sport titles and some really excellent dogs with sport titles that are producing super working dogs for sport and real-world work. It depends on what you are looking for. I want dogs that will work for real and pass that onto their offspring. Others want a dog that will be good at a sport. Neither is wrong. The point here is that titles or certifications on the parents is a must.

If the parents of the pups have no titles, there is no way to prove the dogs can actually do what the breeder says. No argument that the dog shows the skill and I do not need to title to prove it will ever be valid to me ever. I am tired of breeders claiming their pups will work when they have no evidence that the parents even work. The GSD is first and foremost a working dog. Even if a breeder is producing dogs to just be pets, the parents should have working titles. Otherwise, we keep watering down the breed. I have met COUNTLESS watered down, skittish, no drive GSDs that were only recognizable as a GSD by looks. The working line from 20 years ago no longer exists due to the constant watering down of the line. Instead of breeding for better and better dogs with higher and higher caliber, I keep seeing these breeders breeding non-titled dogs to each other over generations creating a more and more useless Working Line GSD. At that point they cannot even be called a Working Line GSD. Just because they came from Working Lines does not mean they will work. And that is a tragedy.

A lack of titling comes from breeders just breeding to sell and make money. It is pure lazy and beyond irritating when breeders do not work and title their dogs. Its hard work to title and prove dogs are worthy of breeding. It’s so much easier to do a training session here and there and say they dog is working quality, then just breed the parents again and again to produce “working pups.” Or worse yet, claiming genetics make the dog and training has no part. I can tell you I’ve met many dogs with “great genetics” that turned out to be crappy and then I have met dogs with unknown genetics that with good solid training turned into some of the best dogs I’ve ever worked.

Overbreeding and Poor Breeding

Along with never titling their dogs, mediocre breeders breed before the age of 2yrs and frequently breed back to back for multiple years. I will soften my thoughts on this as some research is showing it is healthier for the bitch to breed younger, around 1.5yrs. Back to back breeding for litters can also be healthy for the bitch when done within reason and not nonstop I personally, would say one back to back litters, a break, and no more than four litters for the bitch. (

In general, though, breeding before two years of age is a huge mark against a breeder for me. Why? First, titles and health tests usually are not done by 2yrs unless that breeder is training hard. There are many hip/elbow checks that can be done before two but OFA, the most common in America, is done no earlier than two years. Second, to me it’s a sign that the breeder only cares about money and will breed their dog on the first possible heat. Before 2yrs of age, most dogs are not yet mentally mature.

Many times mediocre breeders will pair the same dogs again instead of stopping the breeding. For example, cryptorchidism is common in GSDs and is generally thought to be genetic. If pairing dog A and B together creates cryptorchidism then that pairing should not occur again. I’ve even seen several breeders breeding dogs that have a known history of seizures in their lines, and they continue to breed these dogs. In this case the sire to a bitch died from seizures. The bitch has been bred six times. This is six litters of pups that are at a higher risk of seizures. This is extremely irresponsible.

Mediocre breeders are also breeding their dogs CONSTANTLY and back to back to back to back. They breed the bitch nonstop (4+ litters) and stud out the male to anyone. In my area there are numerous breeders that started breeding before the age of two and then have bred the dog on every heat cycle since. These dogs are now around 4-5 years and have had around 6 litters. The only reason to breed so frequently is for money. A huge red flag if you are ever getting a pup.

There are many working line breeders that are breeding extremely oversize GSDs as well. The working line GSD needs to be smaller, with 55lbs (female low end) to 90lbs (male high end) in order to do the work they were bred to due. Too big and it’s difficult to maneuver tight places to search, to track, and the wear and tear of that much weight gives a working lifespan that is much shorter. Those that claim larger GSDs hit harder in protection are simply ignorant. Some of the hardest hitting dogs I have met have been smaller or within standard. The bite strength and power is not driven by dog size. My hardest biting dog is 73lbs. My 85lb dog is a slug.

Overpriced Puppies

Lastly, mediocre breeders charge ridiculous prices for their puppies. On top of not titling a dog, making claims to what the dog is without titles, the next most infuriating aspect for me is then charging $2500 for a pup from nothing titled parents. These breeders know that top breeders get X amount for their puppies so they go ahead and charge the same. The demand is there, people will stupidly pay $2500 for a pup from untitled parents with no proof it will work. Top puppies are expensive because of the cost of training, titling, maintaining, importing dogs, etc. Mediocre puppies are expensive because the breeder wants to make a nice profit. If the parents aren’t titled and the pups are crazy expensive do not purchase a puppy from the breeder.

Let me give you the cost range that I believe is appropriate for a Working Line German Shepherd. For puppies that have parents with no titles at all (again this should never be a thing) but have health checks anywhere from $100 to $1300 would be acceptable. The $100 pup you will want to stay away from as it is likely backyard bred, nervy, unhealthy, etc. $1000 and up should be better but buyer beware and do the research. Puppies coming from titled parents can range from $1500 to $5500. I would never pay $5500 for a puppy, ever. I don’t care the lines, there is still a chance that dog may not be what I want and I’m out a huge chunk of change. $5500 is what I pay for a green police dog, not a pup. A good range is $1500 to $2800 from breeders with titled dogs and consistent breedings.

I personally will never pay more than $2500 for a puppy, no matter the parents or pedigree. Why? Even if the pup came from the two top producing dogs in the world there is still no guarantee that the pup will turn out to be a working dog. My best working dog was $1800, my second best $1600 and I got a refund on her certifying her so she was $1100. My worst working dog was $4000 (7month pup).

So, what makes a GOOD German Shepherd breeder?

  1. First and foremost, they are breeding to better the breed. To create stronger dogs in specific areas and to keep the German Shepherd a WORKING breed not a pet. This doesn’t mean crazy drivey dogs with energy for days. I have seen plenty working dogs that settle nicely at home but fire up when work is provided.
  2. Second, health checks of all varieties and guarantees on puppy health, that they have stood behind. It does not matter the drive of the dog if his health is poor. Hips and elbows are big here. Check for DM as well.
  3. Third, working titles applicable to what the breeder is trying to improve. For example, one working line breeder may focus on herding, another search and rescue, and another police work. I am even okay with breeders that breed GSDs for service work as long as they are titling in some way (perhaps obedience titles or therapy certs) and creating better and better dogs. Included in this is continued training with the sires and dams. Not just titling them never working them again, or purchasing already titled and never training with the dog.
  4. Fourth, ideally breeding after two years of age and not overbreeding.
  5. Fifth, correctly advertising what kind of dogs they are producing and providing proof that the progeny have gone on to do this type of work. Admit the flaws in your dogs and explain how you are breeding to work that out of your lines.
  6. Sixth, prices that reflect the titles of the parents, the health of the pups, guarantees, and that are within reason.

This is the bare minimum!

I am tired of seeing mediocre breeders producing mediocre dogs, charging crazy prices, making incorrect claims, watering down the working dog, etc. Stop making these claims on your dogs. Be better. Make the breed better. Preserve the GSD for what it was bred to do. WORK.

Fixing a Failed Track

Anyone that has ever trained or handled a tracking canine has run a failed track. Those that have tracked behind a dog know what a failed track is, there are many variations. Maybe the dog goes in the complete opposite direction of the suspect, maybe the dog just can’t start, or maybe the dog is distracted the entire track. Whether this track was a live track (suspect or lost person) or an unknown training track, they can be frustrating, enlightening, or just speed bumps along the road. I’ve had my share of failed tracks as I’ve trained dogs over the years. Regardless of the plan, my knowledge of the dog’s level, and how to set everything up for success, I’m dealing with an animal and sometimes things don’t go as they should.

The What:

After each of these failed tracks I’ve followed this simple step to ensure success in future tracks: I rerun the failed track again. Now, its been said that the definition of insanity has is repeating behaviors over and over again, but I’m not running the same track again and again. I am running it twice. Even then, the second track, though set up to be the same as the first, will never be completely the same track.

The Why:

What do you get out of running a failed track again? Insight. I’ve done this with every failed track I’ve ever had and it has always given me insight. Whether the insight was where I went wrong on the track, maybe a poorly processed intersection, or where the dog is struggling, understanding transition areas perhaps. I just reran a track with Ronan after having a very difficult track with him. After running the track again, I saw exactly where I went wrong. First, I thought the decoy’s start point was farther up. Second, I ran into the same barbed wire fence on the failed track and the rerun track. This was the exact point I issued an accidental correction and pulled my dog off a transition point. I though the fence was a twig the first time, the second time it was clear what occurred.

The Process:

As soon as possible, rerun the failed track, ideally within the same day. Set up track conditions as close as you possibly can, same distance, number articles, age time etc. This time, and this is KEY, you must know exactly where the decoy has gone, down to every step. If the track was live, rerun the route your dog took (not the route the suspect took if you now know it).  You can run the suspect route with your dog at a later date. Now look for the following: Did you miss a negative that led you on a wild goose chase? Is your dog missing negatives? How far is your dog fringing on odor, was the issue? How was the start now that you know exactly where it is? Turns? Distractions on the tracks? Transition areas? Corrections you may be giving? Look at it all and make mental notes of weak spots.

Once we see our problem areas, we compare to the first track. Does your dog repeat the same behavior twice? Maybe he blows past the same turn again. Now we know we need to work on turns. Is he displaying a general struggle to follow odor? Time to dial back the age and add articles. At the ¾ mark does he begin to struggle for no apparent reason? Shorten the next track and build a plan for distance.

Generally, when running a live or unknown track, a handler is unable to determine the exact problem while running the track, just that the track overall was a problem. If the failed track was live or unknown, there was a small likelihood that the handler recognized what was going on, missing turns for example. Running the track known, the handler can now see that the dog was blowing past turns. Now a plan can be made to solve any issues seen. Or maybe there wasn’t an issue from the dog, maybe it was just a lack of processing by the handler, or a lack of trust in the dog. Been there, done that. Either way, knowledge on what went wrong will be gained.

I use this method even for known training tracks that my dogs have difficulty on. However, when I do this, I make sure to scale back the difficulty for the dog. I will have already cataloged the areas on the first track my dog struggled with, turns for example. So, although I am laying and running the same track for the dog, I may add more articles on the turns and kick in the dirt/grass. If the dog struggled with road crossings, I’ll add some articles or balls. It was too long? Shorten the track but take the same route, just cut out the end or beginning. If the issues I saw the first track, and shored up the first track are good then I have an idea of my plan. If others pop up, I still know what needs to be worked on.

Next time you have a failed track, take it as an opportunity to learn. Rerun, see what went wrong and make a plan.

Counter Conditioning

Rough Draft 1/29/2020

What is counter conditioning and how does it play a part in dog training? Simply put counter conditioning is changing your dog’s perception to a certain stimulus. It is also classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning. We all remember the dog and the bell correct? Every time a bell was rung, Pavlov’s dogs were given a steak. The dogs always salivated when they saw the steak. Over time just the ringing of the bell caused the dogs to salivate as they anticipated the steak. The bell was a cue for steak.

Now in this example, the bell had no value or meaning until it was paired with the steak. We can use this same principle to change our dog’s reaction to other stimulus, even ones that already cause a certain behavior. Lets break this down further. A stimulus, say a fire hydrant, causes our dog to spook, maybe bark, run away. This particular dog enjoys hot dogs and has a pleasant reaction to them. So what we are going to do is pair the hot dogs with the fire hydrant, slowly over time. We are conditioning the dog to respond to the hydrant the same way that he responds to the hot dogs. We are conditioning a behavior counter to the old behavior.

Not my image.

How to go about this: First, the key is to go slow. Do not force your dog to interact with the object of his fear until he is ready. Force and flooding can work in some cases but in extreme fear you are only releasing more fear neurotransmitters and hormones, making the memory of FEAR even greater. So go slow.

Start by having a good amount of high value food ready for your dog. Start at a far enough distance away from the object that the dog does not react. Once the dog notices the object mark and reward with food. Repeat again and again and again making sure to never progress into barking or shying away. Should your dog bark, correct that state of mind. We won’t allow the dog to continue to practice those neural pathways of barking, we stop them. Create more space and continue to reward for looking at the object then looking back at you.

Our dog is now looking at the object, the fire hydrant, and back at our handler. Keep it SHORT to start. Lots of these sessions are key. Make sure the dog recognizes the object before you mark with yes and then reward. We are rewarding for looking at the object without barking. Get closer as your dog gets more comfortable. Keep up the energy level and encourage your dog if they try to investigate on their own.

Finally, I’m going to include one of my real life examples of counter conditioning. I purchased a German Shepherd for work that ended up being terrified of trash cans. He would spook and run away every time he saw them. Now no amount of correcting him for running away would help him. He was afraid and needed to change his view of the stimulus from terrifying to something positive. This dog loved food and tug so I used both to counter condition him. I started with tug around the trash cans. Once he was good with that. I moved them a little while playing tug. Then I switched to food and started teaching him to investigate the trash can. Which resulted in food and even tug sometimes. Over time, he learned that if he touched the trash can on his own volition he would get a reward. He started seeking them out.

I used this on another dog that was afraid of escalators. Now this dog never did learn to go on them, but by constantly rewarding him for investigating them and going up to them he began to drag his handler to them. They became a source of reward instead of fear.

Now, counter conditioning is not the end all solve all. Some behaviors are deeply rooted and cannot be solved by counter conditioning alone. Teaching the dog to ignore stimulus is just as important as teaching them to investigate stimulus. Determining what stimulus needs to be ignored (dogs on walks for dogs that are leash reactive) and what needs to be counter conditioned and explored (maybe the shady tree stump your dog barks at on your walks) is critical. Dogs with extreme aggression towards a stimulus need professional help. I do not use this method for reactivity on walks. Contact a trainer that specializes in this for more help.

Ethical Training

It’s time for a trainer rant. As many of you know I work at a vet clinic a couple days a week. In the past couple of weeks I have had multiple owners tell me about their dog’s behavior (mostly leash reactivity towards other dogs), that they had worked extensively with other trainers (I shall not mention), and after a lot of time, money, and no improvement these trainers told them “This is how your dog will always be.” For lack of a better way to say it, that is crap. Each of these owners had given up hope until I told them “Umm, no I can actually help with that and if I can’t I know another trainer that can.”
Why does this irritate me so much? Whenever a dog owner calls me asking for help I have a responsibility as an ethical trainer to say one of two statements.
One: Yes, I can help with that. Two: No, I cannot help with that but let me refer you to someone that can.
I know where my current knowledge and abilities are and will take on cases that I can help the client. I won’t turn away a client because the dog cannot be fixed but because I know of some trainers that have more skill in that area. I know when a behavior is out of my realm of work and will refer owners to another trusted trainer. Why? Because I am not here to take the business or make the money and then say “actually the dog can’t be fixed, because I don’t know how not because the dog is genuinely unfix-able.” That is what these trainers are saying, and instead of referring to another trainer, like they should, they let the owners continue suffer with their dog’s behavior.
Now, I am not saying that with training these dogs can magically become the perfect dog that loves everyone and every other dog. Giving owners proper expectations of their dog’s behavior and management is half the battle the other half being fixing the issue as best possible. What I am saying, is that if you are an owner that has been told your dog will always be like this, please continue to reach out to other trainers. If you need help on where to start or who to contact, contact myself. If its something I can help with I will, if not I will steer you toward some ethical and honest trainers.
To current and future clients: I will do everything in my training knowledge and power to help you, even if that means referring you to another more qualified trainer before we even start training. I want you and your dog to find the best possible match even if that is not me. Please don’t ever give up on your dog. Keep searching for the right trainer, for new methods, for new knowledge.

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