When I wrote the piece that Cat Warren posted on her blog, What the Dog Knows/Cat Warren I described how the function of the German Shepherd Dog formed the breed’s character. The breed’s function has broadened from tending and all-purpose farm dog (yes, farm dog as uncomfortable as that makes some people!) to police, military and assistance dog beginning with leading the blind to now, assistance and service dogs for a wide range of purposes. A breed’s function always forms its temperament in an ever ongoing evolution. Herding breeds that work closely with humans generally have acute awareness and social skills. Herding is a sort of ballet with dogs, humans, stock and the environment.
Over the almost half century that I’ve lived with German shepherds, (that’s a frightening thought!) I’ve tried at various times to create a list of adjectives for the breed’s character. The list is always long – and always lacking.
The qualities of general awareness and, in particular, social acuity hold much fascination for me. These qualities can also make the breed a bit challenging to raise and live with! I wonder if the shepherd owners who have trouble with their dog compound their difficulty because they don’t appreciate just how perceptive their dog is of the environment, other dogs’ body language and not the least, humans’ unfortunate habit of miscommunication. Alas – that is another blog post for the future. Let’s get back to our shepherd character.
Living with dogs so attentive to their surroundings has helped me notice more. Recently when Zen was trotting down the hall where a tiny bit of leaf had dropped from my husband’s shoe, he turned his attention – mid-trot – to look and sweep his nose close to get a sniff. Now, our home is not pristine, believe me, so this is not the only bit of stuff on the floor! But – it was a new bit of stuff.
I’ve had fun placing new items in my shepherds’ environment to see how much they notice. A small rock on our walkway that I place the night before is noticed by my dogs as they race each other outside to chase the deer and squirrels away from their fence the next morning. A rock! Only a couple inches in diameter that is placed among all the sticks, toys – other rocks – is noted and smelled while they are competing with each other at a full run! Hilariously, this can cause a temporary log-jam as they briefly inspect this new imposter and, with typical German shepherd attitude, give permission for it to remain!
How many of us notice new or altered details as we go about our daily routine to this extent or even close to it?
Herding was a hobby that I participated in for more than 10 years. I was not a great trainer and I did not have dogs achieving high levels of titling in herding. I did work with many dogs, though; titling to test levels and testing numerous adolescents with sheep. The one thing I did learn was to read sheep and dogs; the subtle signals they recognize in each other.
German shepherds are loose-eyed dogs – meaning they don’t stare intensely at the stock to control them. It’s a good thing, too because most German shepherds embody a high power level not only with their personality but their overall appearance. Sheep notice German shepherds!
One of my more astute dogs, Sascha (Serena vom Framheim HT, PT, TD, OFA G/normal (h/e)) educated me tremendously. She did use eye and while she was still inexperienced, the effect was more powerful than she or I could often handle. We worked it out though. The end result was a dog that understood her power and used it effectively. One of the exercises was to allow the sheep to graze while she maintained them in a group. To be honest, even though it was a worthy exercise, it allowed me to catch my breath!
Sascha learned to position herself in just the right spot so she could control the sheep. She also learned to use her eye to advantage – being careful to look ‘past’ the sheep while they were stable and content. She taught me to recognize the very, very tiny change in a sheep’s expression (yes, sheep have expressions!) and body posture when a sheep was thinking of departing. A small shift in her eye towards the recalcitrant sheep and that was the end of that notion. The sheep decided the grass was just fine where it was!
Dogs fine-tuned to such an extent that they seem to read minds! German shepherds, in general, show remarkable finesse in reading their surroundings as demonstrated by Sascha (and any number of herding dogs) in anticipating a sheep’s intention – not an actual movement – but an intention to move! To balance this acuity, a German Shepherd Dog requires a sound and stable genetic temperament as well as an upbringing rich with variety to enhance this keenness. We can assume that this discernment does not end with sheep. Our dogs study us and they have plenty of time to do so. What must they see in us especially since we have largely dulled our abilities with body language. What an incredible breed – keenly aware yet robust and resilient.
And I promised to talk about a particular little pup in the earlier blog post, didn’t I? Patience – we will get there! Next time I’d like to chat about shepherd puppies in general. (And who doesn’t want to talk puppies!)