German Shepherds as Service Dogs

The Service and Therapy Dog forum is for all service and therapy dogs regardless of whether or not their status is legally defined by federal or state law, how they are trained, or whether or not they are "certified." Posts questioning or disputing a person's need for a service or therapy dog, the validity of a person's service or therapy dog, or the dog's ability to do the work of a service or therapy dog are not permitted in this forum. Please keep discussions fun, friendly, and helpful at all times.

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Shepherd Savior.
Barked: Fri Oct 9, '09 5:50pm PST 
Since this is a very popular topic and is brought up often, I figured I would make a whole thread which energy is based on: German Shepherds as service dogs.

Lots of people believe that German Shepherds do not make good service dogs. This is not true. Any breed can do anything as long as you have the right dog. Saying that German Shepherds do not make good service dogs, in my opinion, is like saying American Pit Bull Terriers bite. It's making a blatant statement about an entire population of dogs that haven't even been evaluated. German Shepherds were in fact the 'original' service dogs, but have been phased out since Labradors and Golden Retrievers were discovered to be less head strong and easier for most people to handle.

German Shepherds are the kind of breed you have to keep on your toes about, if your weak spot is training dogs and you don't really know what you are doing, a German Shepherd is not for you. They need a strong minded handler who is willing to put up with their constant will and energy. They make fabulous dogs for people who are good at working with the breed and are familiar and have been taught how to work with them. As with any service dog in training, it's a good idea to work with a professional trainer who oversees your progress. German Shepherds are so loving and they are extremely intuitive. Ando, for example, is very sensitive to how I'm feeling at every moment. His body language changes with each mood I have. I've been learning to read him to be able to tell my mood even more than I evaluate myself (I know, bad me).

When choosing a German Shepherd, you don't usually want to go for puppies that meet the AKC conformation standards (or XXL bred puppies). Their backs are very sloped, curved, kinked, and ruined in such a way that it's not comfortable for the dog to walk at a handler's normal pace. Not to mention severe orthopedic problems often arise from the poor hips and backs of AKC conformation bred dogs.

I can't help but notice how uncomfortable this dog looks.

What you'd want to look for is what is now called, an "old fashioned" style German Shepherd, or german bred dog- whose back legs are not so long that it cannot fit under the poor creature's body. Ando came from a breeder who does not breed dogs to the AKC standard, but breeds working dogs with more compact, smaller bodies. Ando is a very small Shepherd when you meet him. Most people think he's still a very young puppy because of his size. I attempted to stack him for you guys so you could see that his back legs are not over sized and his back in not long and sloped, he looks like a comfortable dog:


Wide apart ears

Compact, not elongated feet


Straight front legs

This is all I can think of for now... there are a couple more GSD handlers on here that could give some input on German Shepherds. I hope I helped a little!

Karla (Retired Guide Dog)

Gotta luv me!
Barked: Fri Oct 9, '09 10:07pm PST 
German Shepherds make excellent guide dogs that's for sure. The GSD was the first breed used as a guide dog, in fact. Buddy (whose actual name was Kiss) was the first guide dog in the US, trained by The Seeing Eye (TSE) and matched with Morris Frank way back in the late 1920s. TSE still uses GSDs on a regular basis and has a fine line of dogs; many grads won't accept anything but a GSD as a guide dog from that school.

The GSD bred for AKC conformation is a poor example of what the breed once was. There are a scant number of breeders who produce dogs that could actually handle what the breed was originally designed to do... work. The large size of most GSDs today impedes their ability to work efficiently, but thru the years public interest has moved toward oversized large GSDs.

"Old style" GSDs have a straight back to a gentle slope and are usually on the smaller size (55-70 lbs), as the breed was back in the 1930-1940s era.

I think it's a misconception that all GSDs are strong willed and have a constant energy level. As with anything else it's individual. Karla is not at all strong willed, she's easy-going and willing to please. And also contrary to what many believe, not all GSDs "need" to be busy to be happy. Karla (and several of my friends' GSDs) are happy to do their jobs, but are equally happy lounging around the house. Karla is very focused when she's in harness, but is playful and silly at home, and really likes to relax.

She's very "old style" as shepherds go. She is on the smaller size as she was the runt of her litter (43 lbs, where her littermates were all in the 60-70 lb range). She has a very straight topline, nice head, lovely large wide-set ears and overall very nice structure (in terms of how the breed originally was).

Here are a couple pix of my girl. Her topline isn't quite straight in the pic, as she has her rump a bit arched (I didn't position her legs quite right in the back).

I love her to death, and I was never one to really like care for the breed before I met some of TSE's shepherds a few years ago.

Karla stacked

Karla Grace

Shepherd Savior.
Barked: Sat Oct 10, '09 6:08am PST 
Wow! Ando and Karla have almost identical bodies! I love seeing a healthy shaped body on a Shepherd. Makes me very happy! cheer

Donovan'sMajesticJet of Solace

Street sweeper!
Barked: Sat Oct 10, '09 8:10am PST 
Cleary, a GSD would make an excellent SD, but have you guys had any difficulties being accepted by the public BECAUSE they are GSD'S? I have heard many complain about being asked to leave a particular business and they had small dogs.

Proud to serve
Barked: Sat Oct 10, '09 8:52am PST 
I seriously don't see anyone having access issues because of a GSD SD. Many people think of GSDs as "thee" SD. Besides, if someone has a problem with it...too bad. They don't get to pick and choose.

Super Silver- Service Spoodle
Barked: Sat Oct 10, '09 8:58am PST 
GSDs are wonderful dogs, however generally speaking these dogs do better with handlers who don't have mental illness. GSDs are bred for protection, and when you are in a panic attack or flashback or dissociating or hallucinating, their instinct is to protect you. This can be dangerous for you, your dog, and others. If your dog when you are in these states starts barking and trying to actively protect you, you will not be able to get the disability related assistance from your dog that you need. Passing people and/or their dogs may become the target of your dogs protective instinct, causing harm to them. If you are in a situation when an EMT approaches to assist you and if your dog is barking or otherwise appearing threatening, they can ask the police to shoot your dog in order to get to and assist you.

I think that GSDs are really smart dogs and can be good guide dogs etc, but I think that their protective instinct is extremely difficult to control, especially for someone with MI. There may be the one in a few hundred GSDs who doesn't have this issue, but I would encourage you to stack the odds in your favor by picking a breed of dog that generally does not tend to have these issues.

You want a dog that when you are in a panic attack or flashback or having hallucinations, who will take in the environment around them and realize that you are the one having problems-- that they don't need to actively protect you from anything, but rather comfort you. This is extremely important. A dog like this will be much easier to train to situations where you ahve EMTs giving you CPR etc (which can look very violent to a dog). You want a dog that will not interpret your fears as a reason for them to be afraid or protective, but who will instead see your fears and give you comfort because tey realize there is nothing to be afraid of.

I have met several GSD PSD or PSDITs in person. Only one that I've met has not had these tendancies displayed. One of them has been successfully retrained of these protective instincts with a LOT of work from her handler. Two of them have gone after Ollie with zero provocation whatsoever, and have gone after many other dogs as well. I also know several other GSD PSDs on line- most of them admit to having aggression issues either in general with other people and/or dogs, or only when the person is having a mental illness episode. Online I know of only two GSD PSDs or PSDITs (yourself included) who say their dogs have never had any issues like this. Of course I cannot personally verify peoples' claims on the internet.

Again, the best behaved service dog in my area is a GSD guide. So I know they can make really nice SDs. But in general I feel that a dog bred for protection work is not a good choice for a psychiatric service dog.

We speak out- against- discrimination
Barked: Sat Oct 10, '09 10:26am PST 
I second what Ollie is saying about GSDs not always being a good candidate for PSDs. When I got Sati I thought I just had an anxiety and panic disorder that was untreatable by meds. Turns out it was a neurological sensory processing problem that was triggering the "shut down" episodes and subsequent panic. I'm progressively becoming more mobility impaired as well.

What I found was with her reactivity issues, which looking back would related to her/my levels of stress to certain things, I needed to retrain myself and do a lot of personal grounding work. She's like a furry biofeedback machine, so I really have to remember that. We got attacked by other dogs early in our training and I developed a gut reaction to other dogs that would signal her to be protective (+ a Shepherd's prey drive, not a good combo) Our first trainer didn't help much either.

But that's just an example of what you may have to deal with in terms of this breed's instincts. We've had to restructure our relationship a lot to make it work, and for what I need I will be picking a different breed/mix next time.
Gracie - In Loving- Memory

Service with a- Smile! : )
Barked: Sun Oct 11, '09 11:52am PST 
I love GSD at least the old fashioned type. I'm a bit partial to the white shepherd as they don't look scary. I have been tempted to get one -but I really don't need a huge pack of dogs.

I did train a GSD/Lab mix for a wheelchair assist service dog for my brother in law(who then passed away). Bree was a very happy and dependable worker and a sweet dog, she was not what i would have wanted as a PSD. I had to train her to ignore my anxiety so that she could do her job. She just didn't do well with her handler having an anxiety attack. I perhaps could of continued to train her to be a PSD, but her talents were more useful elsewhere.

I sent her to another program and "Bree" has since become someones partner. It was love at first sight I am told!

Shepherd Savior.
Barked: Sun Oct 11, '09 3:41pm PST 
however generally speaking these dogs do better with handlers who don't have mental illness. GSDs are bred for protection, and when you are in a panic attack or flashback or dissociating or hallucinating, their instinct is to protect you

This is where I disagree. I believe this is like saying that APBT's have the "instinct" to attack other dogs because they were bred for fighting.

And like I said, if you are a weak-minded person with dog training, you probably shouldn't train a Shepherd for service work, they can be a challenging breed sometimes. But I do have a severe mental disability and I am training Ando to be my PSD and we make a wonderful team together no questions asked. So I think it's wrong to say that German Shepherds make a poor dog for psychiatric work.

German Shepherds are a very adaptable, versatile breed and can adjust and be trained for a variety of purposes- it just so happens protection is one of them.

I have never had aggression or protection problems with Ando. He is very calm and easy going around new people and dogs. He gets along with everybody. I think it has to do with the training, socialization, and the line you get them from.

Shepherd Savior.
Barked: Sun Oct 11, '09 4:33pm PST 
Just thought I should add though, V, I completely respect you and you are totally entitled to your opinion. big grin
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