What started as an ordinary interest in and liking for German Shepherd Dogs has become an obsession to understand the marvelous character of the working German Shepherd Dog because its versatility and greatness seems to surpass all the rest. My search for understanding has been greatly illuminated by Schutzhund training. Through it and the people I have met in Schutzhund, I have gained access to an ever-widening literature and videos about working dogs, especially German Shepherd Dogs.
As I talk with trainers and competitors in working dog sports, I am exhilarated by the human-dog relationship they describe, by the rapport and respect these dog owner/handlers express for their dogs. I have been awed by the incredible degree of cohesive teamwork I have seen on the Schutzhund field, in the Ring Sport arena, and on the Police Training field. These sights have driven me to learn more about the inner components of working dog temperament, without being shackled as once I was to conformation and color factors alone.
Several years ago, in search of a black and red “stallion” puppy, I came upon and fell in love with a black sable male German Shepherd Dog, then twelve weeks old but already exhibiting splendid signs of confidence and training ability. His East German look will never win an American judge’s second glance, but after more than twenty years love affair with German Shepherd Dogs, I have realized that the temperament of this black sable Shepherd surpasses anything I ever encountered before. This experience, too, has urged me to further my knowledge of working dogs.
When I bought my first German Shepherd Dog, I was prompted primarily by my general love for the breed and my desire for a good companion dog. Breeders who influence the dog world and the dog market would do this noble breed a genuine service by taking the time to instruct prospective dog owners, novices – such as I was then and still am – about the inner components of this beautiful animal which, after all, was developed to work. Breeders control the future of this breed we all love. Those who strive for quality (more than money) are the strength of the present and the hope of the future. Intelligent dedicated breeders must somehow be able to bridge the argument between conformation enthusiasts and working dog enthusiasts to produce animals that are structurally and aesthetically correct and possess the instincts and heart to accomplish the varied wonderful works, which have made German Shepherds Dogs famous. German Shepherd Dogs, after all, are the only breed to become internationally respected as superior specimens in every canine work activity, i.e. sport, military, police service, guiding eye, search and rescue, sheep tending.
In this article I would like to salute the character of the working dog and to examine the core of such a dog, those features that form the essential working temperament and outweigh every other aspect of the animal. Structure should provide a strong, correct vehicle by which the working temperament can be best operative, but aesthetic elegance and other visual considerations should never supplant the deeper realities of the working temperament. German Shepherd Dogs are beings of superior strength and nobility. They are first and foremost working dogs whose physical structure and form is intrinsically tied to their working ability. To speak of the German Shepherd Dog separate from its working character is to slice away at the core of this noble being’s essential reality. My greatest hope, which I know I share with many German Shepherd Dog lovers, is that all of us who love this wonderful creature, be they work or conformation enthusiasts, will come together to search out and build upon the totality that is the true German Shepherd Dog and will lay aside all petty concerns of ego, economic gain and kennel blindness.
The heart of a working dog
The heart of a strong working dog is the foundation upon which all the rest of its temperament depends. It is the essence of the animal, the ground of its being as far as work is concerned. All of the dog’s real power and strength depend on the depth and quality of two elements: Nerve and Resilience. The psychological balance from which physical prowess can be directed in dog work is totally dependent upon nerve and resilience. There’s nothing more necessary to a real working dog than its nervous system and its resilience.
The dog who can, without upsetment, without fear, without signs of nervous tension, flight reaction, worry, whining, etc., accept its entire universe all of its environment with every characteristic of heat, cold, noise, population, surprise, etc. is a dog of strong nerve. Nerve is a sine qua non for the working dog. The canine nervous system provides the deep inner core of calmness and confidence upon which all the working dog’s strength depends. Without it, there can be no reliability in work and no matter how much training is put into the dog; it will not be a great working dog if it lacks steadiness and soundness of nerve.
The nervous system of a young pup may be evaluated early in life, long before it is required to face a changing environment which might be frightening and is often full of surprises. However, the final judgment on a dog’s character cannot be made before all of its components have matured into a solid functioning system. The solidity of a strong nervous system is the puppy’s first defense against the challenges life will place in its path. Nerve is the ability to roll with the punches. Unexpected changes in the pup’s environment will not shake its calm and youthful curiosity if these are housed in a strong nervous system to begin with. Loud noises (thunder, fire engines, gun shot, etc.) do not make it cringe, whine, or run for shelter. As it grows, the puppy with sound nerve will emerge as a confident dog, willing to please its owner. Panic it unknown to this dog and fear does not bring a bite reaction. Nerve is the critical factor in working dog temperament.
Because of its significance in the whole working temperament, no excuse should be tolerated when it is lacking. A dog without nerve or with weak nerve should just not be bred. Neither should such a dog be forced to work when its basic constitution has not fitted it with this necessary requirement. A dog with poor nerve should be allowed to live its life as a pet in a non-threatening environment.
Breeders who deliberately breed weak-nerved animals (because they are pretty, because they have a nice top line or super angulation, because they have a proper tail set, etc.) are selling short the future of the breed. Even a superb physical specimen of excellent conformation, coat and color should be rejected for breeding if it exhibits the signs of a weak nervous system.
All dog activities, whether in show or sport, should include an evaluation of the nervous system with disqualification from further participation when nerve is not sufficient. In Schutzhund for example, there are several tests for the dog’s nervous system early in the trial – the pretrial temperament test and the gun shot test. The Schutzhund prospect must be gun sure. Walking in obedience, the dog is let on through its routine while a gun is fired about fifteen feet away. If the dog fails to be gun sure, if it reacts with weak nerve, the judge will either test it again or simply disqualify it from further participation. Similarly, all screening of good dogs should take the nervous system into serious consideration for without it, the animal will never develop its work, show, or breed potential properly.
At the heart of canine as well as human character greatness, there is a trait, which enables the bearer to proceed with courage and determination in the face of difficulties. This quality of the heart is oh, so very, very special, so splendid and noble. It is the stuff of greatness both in people and in dogs. I prefer the word “resilience” over the word “hardness” because hardness (to me) connotes a kind of tough unwillingness to bend, un-budge-ability, and as such, may be a hindrance to the human-canine working relationship. The hard dog, the super dog that can take anything you can dish out, that can face any kind of compulsion, is also a dog that is not eminently trainable. It wants to be Top Dog and will often resist human authority. The super hard dog is difficult to work properly and usually requires what many serious dog lovers would consider excessive compulsion, inhumane and even cruel. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear the macho type dog owner brag about how “hard” his dog is and then proceed to fry it alive with an electric collar because the dog cannot be worked in any other way. The “resilient” dog, on the contrary, exhibits all the same strength of purpose in the face of adversity, all the same tough grit to face difficulty and hardship, but does not require the kind of compulsion that would force a true dog lover to wince or cry out. The resilient dog is sound and balanced, if it possesses a true working temperament, it does not need to be so hard as to be unmanageable but it does need to be resilient. The dog that has resilience in its heart is a powerful, motivated upbeat, spirited worker. He is a dog who loves to work. His happy attitude is both exuberant and intend. He is serious about his work, be it tracking, obedience, protection, search and rescue, sheep tending, whatever. He faces his canine reality. He can take the knocks of life, but he does not constantly challenge his handler for supremacy, and thus, he does not need to be continually subjected to harsh compulsion.
Resilience is the quality we seek in a strong working dog. Resilience is potency at its best. The resilient dog has true grit and an indomitable spirit. Such a dog will fly with joy through all the required exercises of sport and will work with perseverance in his duties as a police service dog, search and rescue dog, military dog or sheep tending dog. We marvel at the annals of canine work that comes down to us from so many sources, sport, military, and police. There are many types of videotape available today, which portray dogs whose working ability leaves us choked with awe. If you are still reading this article, then you, too, have your experience of choked awe in the face of canine heroism. We must salute these noble canine heroes. At the heart of their success is resilience, the ability to get through the danger, get through the difficulty, the ability to work in spite of the odds. The dog that is resilient captures our hearts.
Wisdom, that master of jewels, should be the light that directs us in all our endeavors, most certainly in our canine partnerships. In these relationships, the dog and its person work together in a single powerful team. It is an intoxicating joy to see harmony and love between the species. Wisdom gives us pause to reflect before a superb working dog – a beautiful German Shepherd Dog. This encounter with canine reality never leaves us the same as we started. The world of the working dog touches us with its nobility. So great and yet so ordinary. >From it may we glean the wisdom to grow stronger ourselves in whatever work we pursue. True working dog temperament is at harmony with the universe because it is exactly what it was meant to be by its Creator. Every element is united for the purpose of the working whole. Wisdom leads us to stand with respect and in reverence before the wonderful reality of the working German Shepherd Dog, truly one of nature’s greatest gifts.