Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What the Breed Books Don't Tell You

Before we committed to adopting Kyra, I wanted to do some research and make sure the breed was right for us.  I thought I did the right thing by reading all the GSD breed books and magazines I could get my hands on, and by talking to people who had owned GSDs.  Unfortunately, I was not looking in the right places or asking the right questions (although I wouldn't trade Kyra for the world, she was NOT what I was expecting!).  I will list the different ways to get information about a breed, and my opinion on their usefulness.  Hopefully what I've learned can help someone else out!

Breed books and magazines:  Good for a general overview of the breed, its history, form and function, common health problems, and the ideal temperament.  Not so good at telling you the down and dirty about average temperament and behavior problems.  They will often show the breed through rose-colored glasses.

Past owners of the breed:  Take with a grain of salt.  When I talked to people before getting Kyra, I heard a lot of "I had one when I was a kid, it was the best dog I've ever had!!".  You ever notice how the dog someone had as a kid was always the best?  It's nice to hear the fond memories, but doesn't give much useful information.

Breed specific yahoo groups:  These can be a great resource for finding people who actually live with the breed.  Since it is the internet, some groups are nicer and better moderated than others, so if you find a group to be unhelpful just move on to another one.

Dog trainers and training yahoo groups:  Trainers often know the down and dirty about a huge assortment of breeds, but especially the most popular ones.  A good trainer who has been around for a while should be able to give great advice on what breeds fit your lifestyle the best, and which would be a struggle for you.

Current breed owners:  These can be a good resource IF you ask the right questions!  This was my downfall.  I asked people how they liked their GSD, and the answers were all a version of "Oh he's wonderful!  Best dog ever!"  However, once we got Kyra and started having problems, I went back to these people and asked if they'd had the same problems.  The answers I got the second time were very different!  "Oh yeah, he doesn't like strangers so we have to lock him in the basement when company comes over," and "We don't take her for walks anymore because she lunges at every person and dog she sees.  She's very mean."  So make sure you ask specific questions!  "How is your dog with strangers?  Other dogs?  Kids?  How much exercise does she need?  At what age did she calm down?" and so forth.  People mean well, but often they tell you what they think you want to hear, so make sure you dig deep and get the real story.

Here's a quick example of breed book description and reality.  AKC defines the GSD temperament as: " and fearless, but not hostile, expression, self-confidence and a certain aloofness that does not lend itself to immediate and indiscriminate friendships. The dog must be approachable, quietly standing its ground and showing confidence and willingness to meet overtures without itself making them. [...] The dog must not be timid, shrinking behind its master or handler; it should not be nervous, looking about or upward with anxious expression or showing nervous reactions, such as tucking of tail, to strange sounds or sights." (  However, talking to people who own and work with the breed, a dog of this temperament seems to be the exception!  GSDs have been irresponsibly bred for so long that most of the things the description says are in reality the exact opposite.  Many GSDs are plagued with anxiety, fearfulness, over-arousal, and sound sensitivity.  Are there GSDs with sound temperaments?  Of course!  But they are harder to find than the breed books would have you believe.

A final note:  Remember, no matter how much research you do, every dog is different.  I've known Labradors who hate the water, and mellow Jack Russell Terriers.  Doing your research correctly will put the odds in your favor, but to paraphrase good ol' Forest Gump, a litter of puppies is like a box of chocolates: you never quite know what you're going to get!


  1. I wish more soon to be dog owners would read your post. Making sure the right breed is for you is very important. You have to ask the right questions, you have to understand that they need to be socialized (often and early) and you need to understand dog (no matter what the breed they all do things because that is what a dog does - understanding is key to training). Looking forward to more posts!

  2. Absolutely! One thing I'm amazed that people don't understand is dogs aren't born knowing english (or spanish or german etc!). And like you said, dogs will just be dogs and do doggy stuff unless taught otherwise. Thanks for the comment!