German shepherds are so easy to love, as evidenced by the fact that they’re the second most popular pet dog breed in America. They’re also incredibly sharp, observant, courageous, trainable, and loyal, which makes them the leading choice for working dogs used by the military, police, TSA, border patrol, and other law enforcement agencies.
Additionally, after Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, German shepherds are one of the dog breeds most commonly trained for use as service dogs. They have a long history as guide dogs for the blind, a use that really took of in the US starting in the 1930s. But as we’ve better grasped the many and varied ways the right dogs can assist people with disabilities, German shepherds have been trained for all sorts of other assistance work.
Numerous personal factors go into choosing the right dog breed to partner with. These include—but aren’t limited to—what sort of help you need, how much space you have at home, the level of daily care and exercise you can provide, what type of dog personality best suits you, and even budgetary concerns.
Here’s a general overview of the German shepherd to offer some insights into whether this might be an appropriate breed match for you.
Why German Shepherds Make Good Assistance Dogs
As mentioned, German shepherds possess a keen intellect and reliable obedience, as well as an enthusiasm for meeting challenges, all of which makes them highly trainable for a variety of jobs. This is combined with a strong work ethic and enough energy and stamina to accomplish tasks. They are herders by nature, with a tendency to lead the way and make sure everyone else is following along. This trait in particular makes them so ideal for use as guide dogs. The breed’s large size also means strength and the ability to provide physical support.
There is, however, one key obstacle in using German shepherds as assistance dogs. They have a strong protective instinct. This can easily lead to distraction and aggression in public. Individual dogs of this breed need to be successfully trained to overcome this aspect of their temperament, and it is best that they partner with people who are able to maintain strong authority and restrain them if necessary.
German Shepherd Physical Characteristics
This is a large breed that can reach up to 85 pounds and 25 inches in height. They are a little longer than they are tall, and healthy dogs have a lean but athletic, muscular, solid physique with a confident, commanding presence. Most often, their coats are black and tan or sable. German shepherds have thick double coats; the outer coat is coarse, straight, dense, and flat, while the undercoat is softer and thicker. The coat provides decent cold and heat tolerance.
German Shepherd Temperament
German shepherds were bred to work and are fairly energetic, requiring a good deal of daily exercise. When it comes to burning off energy, they are more task-oriented than playful, another reason they can be so perfect for assistance work. Their minds need lots of stimulation too. These are intelligent, loyal, obedient, hardworking dogs with a notable tendency toward guarding their loved ones and property. They are generally wary of strangers, rather than friendly and outgoing, which is an important consideration with use as a service dog that must remain well behaved in public.
German Shepherd Care and Health
The breed is best suited to people who can provide their assistance dog with plenty of physical and mental stimulation, as bored German shepherds quickly develop behavioral problems. It is important to maintain authority over these dogs, repeatedly earning their respect (without punishment, anger, or other negative approaches, of course). Their coats are relatively low maintenance, typically requiring one or two weekly brushings, but these dogs are heavy shedders.
Like other large dogs, arthritis, hip dysplasia, and elbow dysplasia are common health concerns with aging. Allergic skin conditions and problems with the pancreas are also seen more often in this breed than in many others. They have an average life expectancy around 11 years.
Again, there’s a lot to consider when choosing a dog breed. Start with this article about some of the major considerations when thinking about breeds. Also, you can learn about other breeds that are frequently used as assistance dogs here.