After being part of our history for sixty-five years, we are regretfully nearing the end of the German Shepherd breed in our program. This foundation breed, first matched with veterans returning from World War II, has served our graduates well for many decades, but times have changed. The number of guide dog users that match well with a German Shepherd have diminished and our world has become faster, more congested, and distracting creating additional challenges for this generally alert, active breed.
Certainly, there are some German Shepherds who fill the bill admirably and are wonderful working guides. The issue we face is the majority of this breed does not fulfill the work they were bred for and the very issues which make them incompatible with the program make them difficult dogs to manage overall.
We are not alone on this issue. The decline of the German Shepherd breed for guide dog work has been recognized by other leading guide dog schools around the world. A poll of 70 international guide dog schools found that although 36 use the breed in their respective training programs, not a single one cited the German Shepherd Dog as the best suited for guide dog use in today’s busy environment.
Our breeding specialists, veterinarians, and instructors have been tracking this emerging trend for several years and have worked to reverse it through breeding exchanges within guide dog programs, outside purchases of breeders and puppies, donated dogs, and rescue organizations. Through all these efforts the success rate continues well below the colony average.
The large percentage that does not qualify for the program gives us strong reason for concern. These are dogs that are active, vocal and often have a hard time adjusting to a kennel environment. Staff resources must be focused on managing a small number of dogs to provide a quality of life that meets our high standards of care. General traits of the breed including high energy, tendencies toward protectiveness, and prey drive contribute to their complexities of success as a Guide Dog or as a pet. Guide Dogs for the Blind devotes tremendous effort into finding suitable adoptive homes for these dogs that will offer quality of life to both the dog and the adopter.
We have reviewed these combined factors from an ethical and humane standpoint and are adhering to our decision to only add breeding stock to our colony that meets our criteria. Thus, the anticipated decline of the German Shepherd breeding colony, as first reported last spring, has now materialized.
Pictured on the left is my new furry companion, Yara. She’s just over 28 months and, as to be expected, very much a two-year-old dog.
Yesterday was a pretty laid back day. We didn’t do too much beyond letting her explore the house and some basic obedience. Not surprisingly, I learned that I’m not so great about “dog-proofing.”1 Yara discovered all kinds of stuffed animals to try and chew, fish food to sniff, and all manner of things to knock off shelves and tables. Her tail is very long so this isn’t much of a surprise, but it’s clearly going to be an adjustment to have such a young dog again. She’s also quite the whiner, which I found out is rather a common German shepherd thing. Thankfully, she gave me a bit of a reprieve towards the end of the day because I never would have gotten to sleep!
Megan gave me a bit of information overload, I think, but we went over everything from basic care to putting the harness together. One thing I learned was how to “target” with Yara, which is something of a game that Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation uses. I need a bit of practice. We also worked a bit with using a gentle leader on Yara. I found it gave me more control over her when she was being especially exuberant or “mouthy.” I’m not sure Yara enjoys having it on all that much, though.
Today, we do harness work for the first time. Currently it is 23°F and it’s not going to get much warmer! There’s a chance it may even snow!
- Dolly has spoiled me. ↩