What’s the best thing to train my dog for?

I am often asked this when  meeting a new client who has acquired his or her first GSD, and want to know the best sport or hobby to pursue with the new wonder dog. Versatility is a hallmark of our breed. German shepherd dogs are very good at lots of things. From herding to tracking, protection, service work, search and rescue, to nosework,  competitive obedience , therapy work and agility to name a few, GSDs can and often do excel. In most cases the only limitation is the commitment and energy of the handle.

Most often I am asked whether owners shoud do “protection training” with their dogs. The truth is most dogs and certainly good German shepherd dogs are naturally protective of their families. In fact this is the trait that often gets them into trouble.  So the answer is, first have complete control with your dog, assess your family situation, and ask yourself whether you have the time and commitment to follow through with the intensive training  and control work this requires. The main components in schutzhund are obedience and control. Its not a matter of tying the dog to a fence and teasing him until he bites. 

For a family dog, early obedience, socialization and manners are a must. I often tell clients that few things are impressive to a visitor as your answering the door with a calm focused well behaved GSD you call to your side from his resting place. The caller  may wonder “ what else does he do that she tells him?”

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Let me start by saying that I don't know everything there is to know but this is my blog, so I'm going to share what I do know - at least at this point!

I am going to write about training. Believe it or not, this is a highly controversial topic. Moreso than even politcis or religeon. Indeed to some it IS a religeon. Why entire  blogs, Facebook pages and Associations are devoted to the steadfast allegiance to one way or the other of dog training. Cesar Millan is a genius; Cesar  Millan is a horrible brute. Clicker training is the Only Way.The good old Koehler method is the only reliable way to train a dog. The old fashioned Koehler method is outdated and abhorrent. You should never use a prong collar. You should use only a prong collar. Food rewards are bribery and for dummies. Food rewards are the best reinforcers. And on and on.

What IS the answer? Lucky for you, I have a special knowledge of training German shepherds and here is the secret one and only correct method for training them. Its called the von Stephanitz method.

Yes, the founder of our breed also discovered the best way to train them. He summed it up simply with this phrase: “ ‘How shall I say this to my dog?’ Whoever can find the answer to this question has won the game and can develop from his animal whatever he likes.”

What that means to me is that the key to successful dog training is communication. Most dogs are pretty willing to cooperate with humans and work with us. It is how we as a species have helped develop them as a species.  And German Shepherd Dogs especially are known to have a strong desire to work with us, to cooperate and some might say to please us. So its really a matter of figuring out what exactly you want them to do and then how to make them understand that in a way that is comfortable for both of you.  By that I mean, both of you achieve understanding with a minimum of discomfort and preferably with a great degree of satisfaction, however that comes to be between you and your individual dog.

I will address various training issues the way I have found success with different dogs I have trained. I will say  that even though I have trained a fair number of my own dogs and other people’s dogs to advanced levels, I learn something new from each dog, and a way that was magic with one dog may be a flop with another. The constant thread in all is that I tried to understand what the dog needed to know from me in order to succeed and  tried to apply that in a way he or she could understand and that would work for me. In order to communicate to your dog what you want and expect from him, you must first define it for yourself.

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How the Love Affair Began

I have been adoring, keeping, training and working German shepherd dogs most of my life. I served as a police officer/K9 handler  for the better part of two decades and now in “ retirement” I train my own dogs for competition and  teach other people how to work with their dogs. I work with many kinds of dogs, but GSDs are my true love and specialty. Yes, after 40 years, I htink I am an expert.

 I want to write here about those cases, common and uncommon and help people find the path to real enjoyment of this amazing creature.  I see far too many people  get in over their heads, have no support or help, or worse, get just plain bad advice  and ultimately abandon their dogs to shelters or give them away on the Internet or just have them put down. The dogs deserve better. After all, they are hero material.

I often hear the same complaints over and over, and they most often come down to the fact that while the buyers admired the idea of a large strong dog with protective capabilities they weren’t necessarily prepared for the effort required to properly train and maintain one. One of the most common  issues I find when working with clients   especially new owners, is what I call “ worship”

I remember back when I got my first  very own purebred GSD, having been enamored of the breed since I first saw Roy Rogers and his dog“ Bullet” race across the screen of   our  little black and white TV in the 50s. I read stories about the sentry and patrol dogs who had served in WWII.

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