When we first adopted our German Shepherd, we did so with the understanding that she was going to be an active dog and would need a lot of attention, playing, and exercise in order to stay healthy and happy. We’d never had a GSD before, however, and perhaps underestimated just how much she was going to need a regimen of activities in order to stay happy and healthy.
When she was a puppy, we started to notice that she would get antsy, anxious, and even destructive. This was intensely frustrating for my mother, who liked to keep a clean and orderly house and was starting to despise the dog that seemed to take it upon herself to destroy it.
That’s when we took Glorieta (Glory, for short, named after the German shepherd preserve that rescued her from a puppy mill at a young age), to see a trainer. We’d been doing alright with our own training. She could sit, stay, come, lay down, shake, fetch, and do just about anything else she was asked to do. The trainer asked us if we noticed how calm and attentive she was while learning or performing commands.
We told him that we had. He said that was because she, in the moment, was content—doing something active that she knew pleased her masters. He told us that she wasn’t destroying the house because she was a bad dog, she was destroying the house because she was intensely bored. That’s when we knew we needed to better hold up our end of the dog owning deal—we needed to be better owners and make sure that Glory had plenty of fun activities to do.
We started looking. There was a dog park in our area, with an agility course set up. We went and met with other dog owners, some of whom also had German shepherds, to ask them what they did with their dogs. We got a great list of games, jobs, and activities that these owners used to make sure the natural “working” instinct instilled in every German shepherd was satisfied. As a note—these games and activities also seriously helped our Australian shepherd, who had suffered from anxiety from a young age. Here are some of the suggestions that we got that really helped Glory:
We had already done a little bit of obedience training. We were told we needed to kick it up a notch. She was learning, but she wasn’t learning as quickly or as much as she could be. She knew all of her basic commands, but German shepherds are smart—they can do far more than the basic commands. We took her to an obedience class, where she learned not just to sit, shake, and stay, but also a command to stop barking when people came to the door, to not jump on people, “kennel,” which would send her to her kennel, and many more.
Obedience training didn’t just give her something to do. It was a great way for her to bond with us and to cement her place in the pack. She learned exactly what was expected of her and what reward she would get when she did what she was asked to do or what was expected of her.
Perhaps the best thing that we got from obedience training was the ability to walk her on a leash, without pulling or worrying that she’d yank herself free and chase after someone or something. This was a serious concern, since many of my siblings were still quite young when we got Glory, and by the time she was a year old, she was far stronger than most of them. It would be easy for her to get away on a walk, but she never even tried once she’d been leash trained. Walking a dog who is a great on a leash is actually fun! And her calmness helped to mellow out our Aussie, would could be a complete nightmare on the leash.
Agility training isn’t for every dog. We know we didn’t want to compete with her professionally, but we did know that this was a determined, intelligent dog who needed some serious exercise to wipe out all of the energy that she naturally had.
Because there was a free agility course that anyone could use set up right inside the neighborhood dog park, it was easy to teach her to run the course, even though she was wary of stunts like the seesaw at first. On a warm spring morning, there is nothing she loves more than heading out to the park and running the agility course a few times—it’s good for her and it’s good for us, too.
If you don’t have an agility course in your area, you might be able to set up a makeshift one. Dogs, just like humans, might like some repetitive games, like fetch, but eventually, she’s going to get bored of that and want to do something that is a little more interactive or varied. Trying to find a game that fulfills those needs and gets both of you moving is key to a happy and healthy dog.
The first time we put Glory in water, she freaked out. She was only a year old at the time and she had absolutely no concept of floating. She knew how to swim instinctually, and she could get herself going, but if she could not feel the bottom underneath her feet, she would start panicking and climb up the person closest to her. As with most things, getting a dog comfortable in a situation is all about exposure.
The more we took her to the lake, the more she enjoyed the water. Eventually, she would swim and fetch just about anything. We kept her on her long, extendable leash while she was learning and started out in the shallows. Once she was acclimated to the water, we started taking her out farther and giving her more leash (our Aussie immediately loved swimming and almost seemed to tease her by swimming out farther and faster than she could).
Swimming, especially in the cool lakes around where we live, was a perfect summertime activity, and when combined with fetch or a searching game, she would always be extremely happy for the rest of the day. We can’t go as often in the fall, winter, and spring, so we have to find other activities to occupy her during those months.
We have a basket in the living room where all of the dog toys go. It is on the ground, so if one of the dogs wants a toy, he or she has access to it. This keeps them from chewing on shoes and other things that they know they aren’t supposed to chew on and keeps the house more organized. It’s also possibly one of the cutest things in the world when one of the dogs grabs a toy from the basket, chews on it for a little while, and then falls asleep hugging that toy or using it as a pillow.
As part of her obedience training, we taught Glory a command to clean up her toys. This is actually a great activity and sometimes doubles and a searching or hunting game, especially if she wasn’t the one to remove the toys from the basket.
Toys of Her Own
I cannot overemphasize the importance of dogs having their own toys and, especially for German shepherds, getting the right kinds of toys. When she was a puppy, we got her a few toys that were basically stuffed animals. She had destroyed them in hours, strewing fluff all over the yard and house. We started looking for more and more durable toys, hoping to find her something that would last longer than a few hours. She powered through everything.
Eventually we started investing in toys that were made specifically for German shepherds and other large dogs. We’ve had a stuffed rabbit, made out of firehose material, for a little over two years. She has just managed to rip one of the ears off—that’s how good these toys are.
It is vitally important that a dog has toys that they know are their own. These are toys that they can play with when they are bored and can field the chewing habit that most dogs, especially during their teething phases, have. This is essential for all German shepherds. Plus, giving a dog the sense of ownership over something can make her happier.
Finding the right toys may be a process—and an expensive one if your dog is a prodigious chewer, but once you’ve found a brand that makes toys that actually last, stick with that brand. When you buy a new toy, present it to your dog so they know that it is theirs. Play with them with it so they understand that they are allowed to chew on it. This will keep them away from stuffed animals or other stuffed things in your house that might accidentally be seen as play things.
Get a Job
Not all German shepherds have to have jobs. Not all German shepherds want a real job. If your dog doesn’t seem to be doing well and needs something to do with her days, a job might be exactly what they need. This doesn’t mean you have to get your German shepherd a job outside of the house. Many GSDs are great nannies. They can protect your children while they play with them. In a world where children are sometimes kidnapped right out from their own yards, a big dog who knows it’s her job to protect those children can be a definite asset.
Not all German shepherd owners want to train their dogs to be guard dogs, believing this will make their dogs aggressive towards all people. The truth is, however, that training your dog to be a guard dog is training your dog to be more attentive and receptive to your instincts and to social cues. A dog can easily sense when you are tense or afraid. They also seem to have an innate ability to sense when someone has bad intentions. Police and military dogs are taught not to be aggressive, but to be disciplined, and to offer their owners protection when necessary. This could be a great option for families with young children or that live in a neighborhood with frequent crime.
Just Get Out
Your dog doesn’t necessarily need a large planned or structured activity in order to have fun. Many German shepherd owners believe that if their dogs aren’t competing or aren’t actively working, they won’t be happy. The truth is, however, that most dogs just want attention and approval and plenty of exercise. If you can provide your dog with those three things, she will be happy and healthy.
Taking your dog for a long walk, for a job, for a bike ride, to play in the park, etc., are all great activities. Don’t underestimate the power of just getting out and doing something active together. German shepherds do the best in active homes, so if you have one, make this a priority. Excess energy will lead to misbehavior—dogs are like children in that regard. Give them something to do, something that helps them burn off that energy, and they will be happy
Glory doesn’t always need to go down to the agility course or for a romp in the lake, often, she’s more than happy with a run in the morning and a walk at night, especially as she’s getting older.
(Written by a friend who adopted a GSD)