Where did you see your first German Shepherd Dog? Was it Rin Tin Tin at the movies? Or have you seen a working German Shepherd at the airport?
I remember the impression a German Shepherd made on me as he checked for bombs at the shuttle entrance of a big music festival. But you might better remember when the German Shepherd was symbolic of a guide dog.
German Shepherds are one of the most recognizable breeds around the world. Part of their popularity stems from their longstanding presence on the police force. However, the GSD has also proven his value as a service dog.
German Shepherd service dogs remain in high demand despite the rise of the Golden Retriever in leading the blind. The GSD’s history, physical composition, and temperament make her ideal in many situations with emotionally or physically impaired people.
Mobility assistance requires large dogs with sufficient strength to help adults. Medical issues require dogs with acute senses who are not afraid to act on their instincts.
What is a service dog?
Dogs have, of course, been working alongside humans for centuries in various capacities. Service animals help people with special needs and challenges. Service dogs require advanced training to become proficient. Moreover, trainers select certain individuals based on physical ability, rapid learning, obedience, and temperament.
Outside of the United States, service dogs also include animals who work in the military, police force, or search and rescue operations.
What breeds make excellent service dogs
Many breeds can make wonderful service dogs, but a few appear on several lists by sources like K9ofmine.com The following breeds are in no particular order, but Labrador Retrievers are the most popular dog and the most widely used service dog in the US.
- Retrievers – namely, Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers
- German Shepherd
- Pomeranian – psychiatric and emotional support
- Standard Poodle
- Border Collie
- Great Dane – Along with the Mastiff, one of the newer breeds considered for therapy and other service tasks.
- Bernese Mountain Dog
German Shepherds have a deep service resume
The European military used German Shepherds extensively in wars. In World War I the dogs were messengers and worked with ambulances. They received formal training even back then for their duties.
Servicing the blind did not begin with the GSD
According to History.com, dogs may have assisted the blind as early as 100AD in China. Formal training of guide dogs began, however, in the 1750s with Josef Reisinger, who happened to be blind. He used a Spitz-type and a Poodle.
In 1819 another Austrian, Johann Wilhelm Klein, published a manual to help people train guide dogs, and he chose the Poodle and the German Shepherd as the ideal candidates for the job.
Guide dogs became almost universally German Shepherds
Gerhard Stalling propelled the GSD as a guide dog in 1916 after World War I. German Shepherds figured prominently as military dogs and afterward found use as guide dogs for injured soldiers who had become permanently blinded by mustard gas.
The German Shepherd Association overtook Stalling’s work in 1923.
Dorothy Eustis, a police dog trainer, according to the German Shepherd Dog Club, founded the Seeing Eye in Switzerland in 1929. She trained only GSDs.
Eustis’ advocacy of independence and self-sufficiency for the visually impaired inspired a blind Frank Morris. Together, Eustis and Morris brought the German Shepherd seeing-eye dogs and training to the US around 1929.
Versatility never goes unnoticed
Eventually, the German Shepherd started to branch out into other areas of physical and even mental disabilities. It was a natural leap as they still largely serviced war veterans.
Which traits make German Shepherds suitable as service dogs?
Not every service dog needs to be large and strong, but a substantial physical ability is vital for mobility assistance animals. According to animalso.com, a German Shepherd should weigh at least 55 pounds to provide mobility support for a person up to 130 pounds in weight.
Since these dogs must sometimes retrieve objects from out-of-reach surfaces, a German Shepherd’s height is also advantageous.
For the blind and other physically challenged people, a feeling of vulnerability may be a disruptive factor in their lives. Larger dogs provide reassurance. They also can lend balance and stability for any difficulty walking. Moreover, if a dog needs to move you out of the way of danger, her size will be invaluable.
German Shepherds are medium-large, usually weighing between 60 and 100 pounds. They are 22 to 26 inches tall at the shoulders.
Size is not vital for emotional support animals, but temperament is always of paramount importance for any service work. In the days of Eustis’ intensive training and selection process, she picked dogs for courage, intelligence, and loyalty, per her article published in the Saturday Evening Post. Compatibility with the new owner was and still is of greatest consideration.
At the same time show, dog breeders were selecting for conformation over temperament and health, service dog breeders were choosing for disposition over physical traits.
Service dogs continue to undergo strict temperament screenings, and many German Shepherds do not make the cut because of their strong guarding tendencies.
- Energetic but calm
- Agreeable with strangers – includes people touching him uninvited or children tugging at him
- Likes people
- Intelligent and trainable
- Loyal to handler
- Laser focus – can exclude distractions while working
- Eager to please
- Bonds with handler
German Shepherds excel at most qualities that would make them fantastic service dogs. However, their protectiveness can prove a hindrance to a handler’s desire to be an active part of society.
It helps that German Shepherds with any potential to be service animals receive extensive socialization from the time they are young puppies. Many of them become friendly enough to pass their evaluations.
Nevertheless, Labrador and Golden Retrievers have overtaken the German Shepherd as the most common service dogs, according to USserviceanimals.org.
German Shepherds can have problems with emotional support
German Shepherds can become capable as emotional support animals, but they shine in duties that require physical assistance. Any type of animal can provide an emotional boost because the bond is often what creates a feeling of comfort and peace. Emotional support animals do not have to undertake any particular tasks.
Shepherds tend to form strong attachments to one person and can become attuned to negative feelings in their owner, like anxiety and fear. Negativity can manifest in some GSDs as aggression towards the person or thing perceived to have caused the angst.
The same issues that arise with emotional distress can also affect German Shepherds in a psychiatric support role.
A Shepherd can perform brilliantly in both roles, but she requires excellent socialization and an unflappable or unreactive personality. Psychiatric support requires proactive intervention by the assistant animal.
What can service German Shepherds do?
German Shepherds perform a variety of jobs as service dogs you may not think of.
What if you function in a world where so many warnings come in the form of sounds, but you cannot hear much? You might rely on a service dog to let you know when important audible signals were occurring.
German Shepherds can alert their handlers, according to the AKC, to common but important sounds like smoke alarms or oven timers, or even the doorbell. Your dog would not bark but would physically get your attention or wake you up and lead you to the source of the alert.
You have heard of dogs saving their owner’s lives reacting off a signal about the person’s health. Trainers have realized they can take advantage of the German Shepherd’s exceptional sense of smell and train her to alert her owner to changes in diabetic status. She can also warn her owner of impending epileptic seizures.
Shepherds can learn to remind you to take your medication.
Specific Disability-Related Assistance
Certain Shepherds and other service dogs have an amazing capacity to learn how to help people accomplish day-to-day tasks they might ordinarily need another human to do.
- Pull wheelchairs
- Help you dress
- Operate buttons and switches such as on lights or remotes
- Operate entrance doors as well as drawers and cabinets
- Call 911
- They can locate help like Lassie
- Apply pressure therapy as for anxiety or panic attacks
- Interrupt nightmares and flashbacks
The list is by no means exhaustive.
How long does it take to train a service dog?
German Shepherds learn faster than many other breeds, especially the more untraditional service dogs coming onto the scene like Mastiffs and Great Danes. Nevertheless, depending on the complexity of their tasks, training a good service dog may take as long as two years.
The average length of training for assistance work is 6 to 12 months, according to anythingpawsable.com.
What about service roles outside the US?
As mentioned above, most countries outside the United States consider dogs working in the police and military to be service animals.
The German Shepherd has a classic role in police work
The GSD perhaps has his greatest calling in police work. Cited as not mindlessly brave enough to outperform a Malinois in the military or bubbly enough to be as popular a personal assistant as the Labrador Retriever, German Shepherds have endured as the face of police dogs.
Many Alsatian traits ideal for police detail are those same qualities that made people think of them as service animals in the first place. Max von Stephanitz, with his grand vision for the breed, marketed the Shepherd to the German police around 1910. He touted the same features he had developed.
By the 1930s German Shepherd police dogs were widespread in Europe.
Police dogs became part of US law enforcement culture beginning in the 1970s, although Bloodhounds had been used decades earlier for tracking escapees during slavery.
As of the 2020s, working line German Shepherds, along with the Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherd, are the most in-demand dogs for police work.
- Strength and endurance
- Single-minded focus and drive
- Persistence – will not give up on a task
- Form strong bonds with handler
- Keen sense of smell
Does the GSD still have a place in the military?
German Shepherds remain prominent in the military despite recent preference changes of many German And US armed forces to the Belgian Malinois, a closely-related cousin. When the US army narrowed down the list of dogs worthy to serve in the military in 1944 to seven breeds, German Shepherds topped it. In no particular order, they included the following dogs.
- German Shepherd
- Doberman Pinscher
- Short-haired generic collies
- Eskimo dogs
- Siberian Husky
- Alaskan Malamute
- Belgian Sheepdog – Part of a closely related group of four dog breeds that also includes the Belgian Malinois. The Belgian Sheppdog is the black, long-haired variant.
Recognized as having the most ideal mix of characteristics required for a military dog, German Shepherds still make the cut in modern times.
- German Shepherd
- Labrador Retriever – specialist
- Belgian Malinois
- Dutch Shepherd
- Yorkshire Terrier – specialist
- Doberman Pinscher – Marines
- Alaskan Malamute
- Siberian Husky
Dogs like the Labrador Retriever are recognized for their exceptional odor-sniffing capabilities. Yorkshire Terriers find use in search and rescue operations that require fitting into tiny spaces. Toy Poodles and Shiba Inus fulfill similar roles in Japan. Huskies and Malamutes track across snow and ice.
German Shepherds can work in warzones as armed combatants, scouts, trackers, or messengers. In historical times they moved injured soldiers to safety. Otherwise, they often work with the United Secret Service personnel detail or drug or explosive detection.
Search and Rescue is a part of police or military work.
The trainability of German Shepherds is invaluable with search and rescue work. Dogs not only must have a keen nose but also have to be able to distinguish living beings from cadavers and human scent from animals. In some cases, the dog needs to single out one person. Accuracy directly correlates with training.
Search and rescue operations can involve a huge array of different situations. Catastrophes like earthquakes or terrorist attacks often come to mind, but many searches occur in the wilderness. Rescue operations also include avalanches and boating disasters.
Although Saint Bernards are the classic picture of a dog rescuing survivors from avalanches, a German Shepherd can also perform this duty.
According to Animalden.com, the German Shepherd again is the breed that excels at work like search and rescue, in good company with other herding breeds like the Border collie, as well as the Doberman Pinscher, Newfoundland (especially water), Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Schnauzer, and Rottweiler.
According to cuteness.com, dogs can detect someone buried up to 40 feet underground, and a few sources specify rescue canines can find people under 15 feet of snow.
What are the examples of service dogs?
Note this dog’s single-minded focus. She is not aggressive but also does not invite you to make overtures. She is big enough to stop this man and even push him to one side or another if necessary.
This is not a German Shepherd, but it shows you what a dog can potentially do for a hearing-impaired person. The dog learns to become both visually obvious and to use more physical contact than an untrained pet would.
Mobility Assistance Dogs
German Shepherds are particularly adept with mobility assistance as they are strong and have the appropriate size to get in and out of tight situations. This is a GSD mix most likely, slightly smaller than an average German Shepherd.
You can see the focus and intelligence the dog has. Moreover, this dog is attentive and adept at handling himself around the wheelchair.
Skills also useful in the military in pursuit and combat, the German Shepherds exhibit speed, athleticism, obedience, and courage.
Search and Rescue
This dog is illustrating a combination of air scent utilization and ground tracking to locate someone on a training run. He is on a loose leash, but many dogs perform their duties off the lead.