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The Working Dog

The Working Dog

  • Sophia Sanchez

A friend recently asked for my advice on how to best handle a particular situation she is facing with her German Shepherd-mix, rescue puppy.  Less than a year old, her puppy has taken to some very destructive behavior where she is chewing holes in the exterior siding of their home in addition to one inside the home.  She has three other, large-breed dogs to keep her puppy busy and has no idea what to do next to curb this behavior. Her husband is to the point where he wants the puppy gone and has resorted to chaining her in the backyard when they aren’t home.  They’re all desperate to find a solution.

Let me start off by saying I am not a professional dog-trainer nor behavioralist.  I do however, have years of experience with rescue dogs, many of which had issues with reactivity and/or aggression.  That being said, the information below is strictly my own opinion and it is always best to consult a professional.

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First, a small history lesson!

The German Shepherd is a high-energy, working dog.  With ties to Germany, they are considered a medium to large-breed originally bred for herding sheep, and first dating back to the late 1800’s.  Since then, because of their strength, intelligence, trainability, and obedience… German Shepherds around the world are often the preferred breed for many types of work including disability assistance, search-and-rescue, police and military work and even acting.

So what exactly is a working dog?  Working dogs are bred specifically to learn and perform tasks.  These tasks may include guarding property, herding livestock, assisting people in their daily lives, etc.  Because working dogs are hardwired to “work,” they’re often referred to as high-energy. And as high-energy dogs, they require a lot of exercise.  They need to be worked both physically and mentally or that energy can begin to present itself in less than desirable behaviors which may include anxiety, destruction and even aggression.

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The friend in question has a German Shepherd puppy.  Not only is she a working breed, she is also a puppy.  That is double the energy and it is important to understand that at less than a year old she is trying to understand the world around her and has no concept of right and wrong.  It is our duty and responsibility to guide our new puppies and not only provide them with direction and supervision, but structure, stability and education.

One important thing to note in this particular situation is the assumption that having other dogs in the home is “enough” to keep a puppy occupied.  That is not always the case. Dogs, no matter their size, are all different and possess different levels of energy… just like people. Take my own dog for example.  Wyatt is a 100 pound bully breed. He is also the laziest dog in the world. Quite literally. He’d be no use to a young puppy who needs a lot of stimulation and attention.

Resorting to chaining your dog - to be frank - is a terrible idea.  It can be a fair assessment that this German Shepherd puppy is destroying the exterior and interior of their home because she has a high amount of pent up energy and doesn’t know how to dispel it.  This destructive behavior is her way of relieving herself of it and working through it. Chaining her gives her even less freedom and mobility. Think of a six lane highway that suddenly narrows into one.  All those vehicles trying to make their way down into just one lane creates a massive build up, a massive traffic jam. All of her energy will bottleneck and as she tries to relieve the pressure building within her, that energy can manifest itself into far worse behavior including aggression; at which point becomes an entirely new, potentially very difficult and expensive issue to address.

The moral of the story here is not to scare you away from rescuing a working breed.  They can in fact, make wonderful companions and family pets. It’s important however to do your research.  To understand the breed you’ll be bringing into your home and to decide if they’re a good fit for you and your lifestyle.  And if you decide that a working breed is right up your alley, here are a few tips to make sure they’re kept happy, healthy and well-mannered.

  •  Start training your working dog early.  Dogs need to learn about the world in a positive way as early as possible.  It means exposing them to many different people, places, and things in a manner that adds a positive experience to them.  Never force a puppy to investigate something if they’re fearful. Work slowly and help them when they come across new stimuli that frightens them. A well-socialized dog is crucial.  
  • Enrichment is a must!  The more we can give puppies brain-expanding experiences, the better their decision-making skills become.  Mind puzzles, nose work, lots of playtime, agility - being careful not to stress growing bones - and meeting other dogs and puppies in a safe and controlled environment is so important.  The brain is like a muscle, and whatever portion of it is used most often will expand and shrink other portions. It is crucial to put a young dog in many situations that help build confidence and decision-making skills.
  • Proper physical conditioning.  Don’t over-exercise a puppy or a dog. Young puppies are still maturing physically and can sustain injuries if pushed too hard too soon. Working dogs have lots of stamina and energy that they need for their work. It’s our job to harness that energy into a healthy level of exercise and mental stimulation. Work with your veterinarian and a qualified trainer to come up with a plan of action for your dog. Dogs needs mental stimulation in addition to exercise. Equally important is teaching a high-energy dog to “settle” on a mat and to enjoy downtime.
  • Clicker training!  Clicker training works! It’s an amazing method of communication between two species. Done correctly, it tells the dog, “Yes! What you just did was right!” It improves the dog-handler relationship as well as installing a lifelong love of learning in the dog.
  • Obedience training is key!  Sometimes, the level of a dog’s understanding of a cue, is literally a life or death matter.  Take for example a police dog. They very clearly need to understand who it is they are sent to take down and need a release cue they can answer to, even in high-stress situations.  Obedience training helps to build the handler-canine bond and makes learning a joy for both the teacher and the student.

    If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to the story above or if you’re considering adopting a working breed, please have a plan of action to guide them into their working life!  A working dog in action is a glorious thing to see! And we should work equally as hard to provide them the very best life they deserve!

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