Many people know that I have always had a great love for working dogs. My father was a rancher until the day he passed away, so there were always working dogs on the ranch. I adored each and every dog that entered my life, regardless of breed. For more than two decades, I have rescued certain breeds of cattle dogs and German Shepherds. One of my rescue German Shepherds took every step I took for 12 years. When he passed away not long ago, I thought I was going to die myself. Even though I lost the doggie love of my life, I recently rescued two more German Shepherds that bring so much joy to my life every single day. All of my rescues had a very tragic start to life. Without exception, even the ones with behavior issues, turned out to be the most loving and loyal companions I could have ever wished for.
I receive many calls from new pet parents that recently adopted a working breed – such as a German Shepherd, Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, a breed of cattle dog, Belgium Malinois, etc. In most cases, pet parents are frustrated with behavioral problems or perceived behavioral problems. I say “perceived” behavioral problems because in some cases, the behavioral problems are not behavior problems at all. The behavior observed can be perfectly normal for a particular breed. Working breeds have certain characteristics that are part of their DNA. Usually, once a pet parent understands a few of the most commonly misunderstood characteristics, their relationship with their new dog flourishes and obedience training becomes very successful!
Not long ago, I attended a virtual conference on aggression. Of course, a few of the breeds I mentioned above were constantly shown on my computer monitor. 😊 One of the speakers was a very well known trainer, Denise Fenzi . Denise shares my love of working breeds. She started the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy but has technically semi-retired (https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/people/9-people/3-denise-fenzi). I wish everyone could have listened to her discussion about working dogs. Even though she is known for training sporting dogs, she was able to give an excellent perspective on what working breeds are all about. Because of her discussion, I am currently working on a class that will be specifically designed for working dog pet parents experiencing certain “perceived” behavior problems. I also want to start a Facebook discussion group for working dog breed pet parents. (Stay tuned!)
In this blog, I’m going to give a few examples of some common issues that may drive a pet parent wild and explain a bit about why the behavior can actually be considered normal!
Normal or Not?
“My Border Collie will chase a ball all day long if I let him. He never wants to stop!”
Personally, I completely understand when a pet parent expresses this frustration! German Shepherds can have the same issue, and my house is full of them! Pet parents often hear the term “drive” used. As a trainer, I may ask if a dog is food motivated. Another way of asking that question would be does the dog have a high food drive. There are other types of drives such as prey drive or defense drive. In some circles, people may use the term “high ball drive”. Dogs with a high prey drive – such as working breeds – love to chase things and even bite things. Loving to chase a ball is completely normal! It is a manifestation of a high prey drive! I will talk about high energy a bit more below. Granted there are a few things to know about dogs with high prey drive, but I tell my pet parents that loving the ball is totally awesome! We can use that love of the ball in positive ways such as using it as a high value reward in training, especially if food drive is low to medium.
“My German Shepherd will not play with other dogs at the dog park or at doggie daycare.”
I receive many calls related to this. Many humans love the thought of taking their working dog to a dog park. The dog can play and get exercise off leash. The human can enjoy sitting on a bench in the sunshine and/or interacting with other dog lovers! It is very important to understand that working breeds were born to work. They need a job. With that said, it is normal for some working breeds such as a German Shepherd to be more interested in spending time with their human and/or working than socializing with fellow canines. In these cases, again, I help my pet parents understand this behavior and focus on activities that are positive and fun for the dog and the human. I have a German Shepherd now that loves the frisbee more than me – I’m convinced. 😊 When she is playing frisbee, she is 100% focused on catching the frisbee and returning it to me. I do not have to worry about her running after a squirrel or a rabbit. This can be a good activity at a dog park. Notice I said “can be” instead of “is”. Dog parks have pros and cons. One con is that you cannot predict the behavior of other dogs in the park. Other dogs, with a variety of temperaments, may run up and try to take the frisbee, understanding that the German Shepherd is totally focused and working. That may not be a good cocktail for fun.
“My Australian Shepherd will not settle down!”
Working dogs need A LOT of exercise and are very high energy. They are born to work. That is their focus. They are born to say – herd sheep 12 hours a day, and happily I may add. Some can run into a brick wall, shake it off, and go on to complete their 12 hour work shift. So, for working dogs, being able to go and go and go for 12 hours a day is very normal. In the real world, without things to herd at home, activities like obedience training is job and can be your best friend. “Thinking” is exhausting for dogs. But with that said – lots of exercise would be needed with or without obedience training. If a working dog does not get enough exercise, problems can arise such as destructive behavior. 😊 A few walks around the block each day may not be enough, unfortunately.
“My Belgium Malinois is so mouthy and wants to bite everything!”
Denise Fenzi uses the term “biting breed”. That term does not necessarily refer to aggression. Some working breeds such as Belgium Malinois or German Shepherds may like to mouth and bite everything. Sometimes, the dogs can be very energetic and pushy about it! In some cases, they can be seen chomping on a ball that is used for fetch vs. just holding it in their mouth. This is very normal. This is one of the many reasons both breeds make good police and military dogs. When my pet parents express this frustration, I teach them why this is normal as well as ways to use this to their advantage. For example, instead of jumping and mouthing on guests, they can be taught to sit and bite a ball. Unusual technique not used often but can be very effective!
“My German Shepherd acts aggressively toward guests.”
This is a big one. Every aggression conference I attend has pictures and videos of German Shepherds being scary aggressive. When a pet parent calls me with this issue, I always ask for a detailed description of the encounters, because it may not be aggression at all. This issue gets a bit complicated. Aggression is a very complex behavior and great care must be taken to determine whether the behavior is normal or not. I will not get into the complexities related to aggression in this blog, but I have included this topic to demonstrate how important it is for humans to understand there may be more to it than meets the eye, and how breed may impact the complexities.
First, German Shepherds are extremely loyal to their family human unit or handler (such as a police or military handler). They can be extremely sensitive and intuitive. They may easily sense when something is out of the norm or just does not feel right. (This is one reason why it is important to teach dogs what the norm is when guests visit.) There are a number of working dog breeds that are used as guard dogs and for good reason. With that said, I will say that I work with pet parents to determine and understand exactly what their dog is trying to communicate before assuming it is aggression. Second, breeds like German Shepherds and Belgium Malinois may not show fear the same way other breeds may show fear. Instead of cowering or retreating in fear, a fearful German Shepherd or Belgium Malinois is more likely to stand its ground. This is another reason the breeds make excellent police and military dogs. Again, standing its ground must be accurately interpreted. In some cases, that is a hard-wired response and can be, believe it or not, normal. The human’s level of understanding and response, whether the dog’s behavior is normal or not normal, is critical.
I love talking to clients about working dogs! Again, I have a deep love and admiration for working dogs of all kinds. I am looking forward to getting my Facebook group and new class started so I can talk even more about these wonderful dogs!
If you have any questions about this blog, I would love to hear from you! Call, text, or email me!