Service dogs are back in the spotlight. This is because people are beginning to understand just how important these dogs can be for individuals with medical conditions or disabilities.
These days, service pups help out more than just people with visual impairments or physical ailments.
They are also increasingly being used to aid people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, and more.
Now, how does this tie in with German Shepherds as service dogs?
While GSDs are best known for their roles as police and military dogs, they are actually one of the top picks for service breeds.
They can perform a wide variety of tasks for individuals who have been diagnosed with visual and hearing impairments, seizures, and a whole lot more.
Needless to say, service dogs have to be pretty special to help individuals in all areas of their lives.
In case you are wondering about what makes German Shepherds such good service dogs, this isn’t a straightforward answer.
First, not all German Shepherds make good service dogs; there is a myriad of factors that will determine whether or not a particular dog is cut out for this line of work.
Fortunately for you, you can delve deeper into this subject, below…
What Do Service Dogs Do?
Before taking a look at German Shepherds as service dogs, you first need to understand what service dogs do.
In reality, service dogs are trained to respond to different disabilities, medical conditions, and physical or mental impairments.
Thus, service dogs will have some fundamental training in common. This could be how to behave in public areas and how to respond to certain stimuli.
Apart from these basic components, however, the dogs may be trained in different ways.
For instance, a service dog that is paired up with an individual who has mobility issues will know how to act as a physical guide.
On the other hand, if someone has been diagnosed with epilepsy, their service dog will be trained to alert their owners to oncoming seizures.
In case a person is suffering from depression, their service dog could act as a reminder to take their medication as needed.
Are All German Shepherds Well-Suited as Service Dogs?
As you may be aware, there are several German Shepherd bloodlines. These bloodlines are either bred for domestic, working, or show purposes.
Many German Shepherds have had a long history of service in the military, police, and Search and Rescue.
Therefore, each of them has particular temperaments and capabilities. Due to this, not all of the bloodlines will be equally good in the position of a service dog.
Cindy Kelly is an AKC licensed breeder and has been training dogs for over three decades at Regis Regal German Shepherds in Illinois. As she explains it,
The East German working line dogs, which are also used for the canine and police force, are very trainable if they come from healthy bloodlines.
But unfortunately, they are also bred to have a tremendous drive, which makes it difficult for a person requiring a service dog because they generally have no off switch.
This is why you are better off picking a German Shepherd with an ideal temperament and drive to work as a service dog.
Such a dog will respond well to training and have a calmer nature. This will ensure that they are better suited to being around people in various environments.
How Well Do German Shepherds Respond to Service Dog Training?
There is one thing that most experts can agree on, all dogs – regardless of breed – can be trained.
However, as established, service dogs need to learn specific and complex skills. And this isn’t something that every pooch can do.
Thus, this begs the question, are German Shepherds a little better at learning these skills than many other breeds? Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pup Life Today has some insight into this.
German Shepherds who come for working lines of dogs may have an advantage over dogs who have simply been bred for their looks. Working dogs of all sorts need to combine obedience with independent thought, a concept known as “intelligent disobedience” in the guide dog community.
For example, a service dog who is told to perform an action should refuse if that action would be too dangerous. Service dogs have to be clever to balance these competing demands.
Essentially, there is no guarantee that all German Shepherds are equally well-equipped to learn tasks specific to service dogs.
Simultaneously, as long as your pup is from the right bloodline, they may just be able to master complex tasks a little better than other breeds.
How Important is a German Shepherd’s Temperament?
When it comes to service dogs, the right temperament is vital. For one thing, temperament often determines just how trainable a particular dog is.
A pooch who is willing to learn, obey, and please his or her human will fare well in this department.
There is another reason that temperament is so crucial with service dogs. Daily, service dogs interact with many more people than regular pets. What's more, service dogs have to do this in noisy and unfamiliar environments.
All this while, they have to remain calm and collected while still helping their human out in a myriad of ways. As you can see, this is a pretty tall order.
So, how well do German Shepherds measure up as service dogs?
Well, as with most aspects, it is a bit difficult to generalize. After all, one GSD can differ from another rather drastically. Therefore, you can’t really say that all German Shepherds have the right temperament to become a service dog.
Susan Briggs, MA, CPACO makes this point…
You need a dog that is bred to have a stable temperament, that isn’t particularly defensive around strangers, and that will not be spooked around novel situations.
German Shepherds that are properly bred, raised and train can behave well, but there are many that wouldn’t be suitable for these tasks. The same is true for any breed.
How a German Shepherd is bred can have a significant impact on what their temperament is like.
For instance, dogs that have been bred for police work may have a tendency to be aloof or an ability to focus on the task at hand.
Interestingly enough, this is a handy trait for a service dog to have. Particularly in crowded places, a service dog will need to ignore the beckoning of others and focus entirely on their human's needs.
Of course, if this same dog has been trained for aggressiveness or continuous action, they won’t function entirely as well as a service dog.
On the other hand, if a German Shepherd has a long history of show bloodlines in his or her DNA, you will get the opposite behavior. These dogs may end up skittish and spook easily. Once again, they would not be a good fit as a service dog.
For the right temperament, you should look for a German Shepherd that wasn’t strictly bred for either show or work.
Instead, look for something in the middle. This will allow you to get the best of both worlds.
How the Physical Size of German Shepherds are Useful
You don’t need to be told that German Shepherds are athletic-looking dogs. And, it isn’t all just for show, either…
A GSD male can measure between 24 – 26 inches and weigh around 65 to 90lbs. Females may grow anywhere between 22 to 24 inches and weigh from 50 to 70lbs.
There are certain individuals who do use service animals to move around. Individuals with specific physical disabilities may need to place some of their weight on their service dogs. Thus, they need strong and sturdy dogs for this purpose.
Well, German Shepherds are more than qualified for this role. Their natural strength and athleticism allow them to shoulder weight while still being able to move around themselves.
Furthermore, they are at the right height for maneuvering taller adults around.
Some individuals have difficulty being out in the open or in crowded areas. In addition to feeling anxiety about such situations, they often feel fear and may even be afraid of being hard.
The sheer size of a German Shepherd can help these individuals to feel at ease.
Not to mention, many strangers do feel intimated by German Shepherds and will not approach them without warning.
This, too, can offer peace of mind to individuals who are alarmed by such circumstances.
Are German Shepherds Suitable for Psychiatric Assistance?
As mentioned, doctors and psychiatrists are focusing on how service dogs can help individuals suffering from mental health issues.
It is still a relatively new field, and the dogs have been found to help with specific disorders.
Since research is still being conducted in this area, such service dogs aren't all that common.
In some circumstances, people may have to face a few more barriers before they can be approved for a service dog for their mental health.
Despite this hesitance, the dogs have been found to help. They can reduce symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and panic attacks.
As with physical disabilities, psychiatric assistance pups are trained to perform tasks according to their owner's diagnosis.
So, what exactly is it that these service dogs are supposed to do? And are German Shepherds suitable for such tasks?
Well, one of their main tasks is to provide their owners with tactile stimulation and reduce anxiety.
The dogs can also be trained to nudge or paw their human when they have disassociated. Or when they need to be brought back to the present. They can also help to reduce undesirable or harmful behaviors.
And for individuals suffering from PTSD or anxiety, their service dogs can act as a barrier – they will prevent other individuals from making unwanted contact.
As this is still a somewhat new area for service dogs, there are some mixed opinions about how German Shepherds will fare with psychiatric assistance.
For instance, Nicole Ellis, a professional dog trainer and pet expert has this to say about the breed…
Lots of German Shepherds do psychiatric assistance and service dog tasks, but it’s going to be dependent on the dog. Some GSD’s prefer to be guarding and doing work that involves that which is something you can’t use as a [psych] assist dog. There are a lot of factors for training psych [assist] dogs beyond the breed to find the right fit to be a working dog.
Also, as stated, each individual has different needs. Let’s consider a PTSD diagnosis and how a German Shepherd may or may not be suitable to explain this a little better.
Under some circumstances, a GSD may be the right fit. For example, a veteran returning from a warzone may want the kind of protection that a big dog may bring. Unfortunately, an intimidating German Shepherd might interfere with his recovery.
On the other hand, for a sexual assault survivor, a German Shepherd is just what he or she needs. They will offer the kind of safety and protection that they need to begin to heal. Therefore, it really is a matter of circumstances.
Are German Shepherds Easy to Care For?
As you can imagine, individuals with physical and mental disabilities may not have the same capacity to care for a dog like everyone else.
In some instances, people with service dogs will hire other individuals to take care of their dogs when it comes to bathing, clipping nails, etc.
Nevertheless, it is a good idea for these individuals to be paired up with a pup that is relatively easy to care for. This is important not just for the person but for the dog as well.
Such a situation ensures that the pup will be well cared for, healthy, and happy to boot.
Thus, it is a good idea to investigate just how easy it is to care for a German Shepherd.
German Shepherds, as a breed, tend to be very active and require quite a bit of exercise. They need a couple of hours of exercise every day. This can include walks and playtime.
So, on the surface, it may not seem like this breed is right for someone who leads a sedentary life.
However, Sara Ochoa, a veterinary consultant, does propose a solution,
If you live a very sedentary lifestyle but had a large outdoor area that you could let your dog out to run around in, they would still be a good breed for you.
Still, it is a good idea to have someone around to give your German Shepherd plenty of exercise if you can’t do it yourself. This will ensure that the service dog will have a much higher standard of living. They will also be less likely to misbehave.
Such precautions are particularly necessary if you have a dog that is specifically from a working bloodline. Since they have been bred to be out and about for most of the day, they will feel somewhat restless being cooped up at home.
If you are unable to find a way to give a German Shepherd the physical outlet and mental stimulation they require, you may need to look to another breed as a service dog.
Then there is the question of upkeep – are German Shepherds easy enough to care for? Even for someone who may struggle with specific physical disabilities?
For the most part, German Shepherds are pretty low maintenance, even when it comes to grooming. They don’t really need to be taken to a groomer, and you can handle most of their care and upkeep by yourself.
Nevertheless, there is one thing you do need to watch out for – and that's shedding. The German Shepherd will blow their undercoat twice a year, and they also shed all year round.
They require thorough brushing at a minimum once a week. But preferably, a quick brush daily will make things more comfortable in the long run.
If your German Shepherd has a longer coat, you will most certainly need to brush them once a day.
There is one issue that you should be aware of as well. As Nathan, a dog trainer from Washington reminds owners…
German Shepherds can often have health problems like hip dysplasia, which is hereditary to them.
So, if you are relying on your service dog for mobility, such a health condition could prevent them from helping you. However, for psych assistance, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Nevertheless, it is a condition that will require frequent treatment. Thus, you may need to visit the vet more often, and your dog may require water therapy, pain medication, and joint support supplements.
In Conclusion on German Shepherds as Service Dogs
So, what can you take away from this?
Well, German Shepherds, as service dogs, are an excellent option. And they can be trained to be outstanding service dogs for people with all kinds of medical conditions and illnesses.
Nonetheless, it isn’t as simple as all that.
Several factors play into whether or not a German Shepherd will be a good service dog. This includes, but isn’t limited to, breeding and temperament.
There is also the fact that German Shepherds aren't always the right breed for the job. But, if they are specifically chosen, you can be confident that they will do a fantastic job.
Thus, if you – or someone that you know – needs a service dog, there is a good chance that a German Shepherd may be the right pick.
About the Author
Tasha Williams has been working as a dog trainer for over a decade. Her focus is on training service dogs. She is involved in everything from socialization to helping dogs get licensed. Tasha also makes sure that the right dog and owner are paired up together.