It has been refreshing to receive all the recent requests for more information about service dogs. I was especially thrilled to hear a recent commentary about EyeDog using only GSDs. I had been under the impression that Fidelco was the only remaining "all-GSD" guide dog school. Evidently not so.
For folks who do not know me, I am a service dog trainer for a small program in the southeast. As for great working GSD stories...I can tell you that some of the finest graduates we have are GSDs. One of my greatest desires is to have more of them to train! Someday I may be able to do just that, but for now, I just celebrate a lot for the good ones that come along.
Dogs that assist people with orthopedic disabilities have a very different kind of a job than a guide dog has. The "job descriptions" are widely varied and a GSD may or may not be the best dog for the task. It depends on the user, personality, disability, home circumstances, work or school situation, and what functions the dog needs to perform -- many, many factors to be considered. Our program does not have a breeding program and relies primarily on rescues and donations.
Overall, I wish I could tell you that we had more good-quality GSDs than we do. But it's a tough situation. The dog's character and temperament (and sometimes size) have to fit a very specific profile. The dog's health has to be without fault. Even with those factors assumed, approximately 30% of the dogs accepted into the program fail out in the first month of training. The majority of the GSDs that are offered to us are dogs that a breeder or owner is frustrated with or overloaded by. The person doesn't know what else to do with the dog, so "Eureka! I'll donate him to a service dog program!" Weeeeelllll....probably not.
But for dogs with the capability and attitude to do the job, these animals have a fabulous life....they are with their owners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They get to go everywhere the owner does...just like a guide dog. I am thinking right now of a young woman who recently graduated from a college with Banner, her GSD service dog, efficiently maneuvering her wheelchair through the procession. Banner wore a little black graduation cap, and Sarah's summa cum laude decoration on his collar. Sarah said she thought it was more appropriate because she could not have finished school without his help.
Now he is making even more difference for Sarah. Because he is there she can live where she chooses, transport herself, and hold a job. Every day he helps her with the logistics of getting out of bed, through the shower, ready to leave, into her van, out of her van, and up the ramps into her office. He finds her the cordless phone, the remote controls, her purse, keys, and shoes. (Geez!!! Don't we ALL need that???) He can not only open a heavy door for her where there is no automatic entrance, but he can be relied on to fish her van keys out of a scumy, oily mud puddle in a dark parking lot when she's all alone and couldn't reach them herself.
Banner and Sarah are the best things that ever happened to each other. For Sarah it means independence. For Banner it meant a second chance for life, because one of our trainers found him one day, abandoned, emaciated, dehydrated and full of sores, tied in the garage of a house near her own. No one had been living there for months, and she kept hearing this frantic barking at odd hours....
Other GSDs come to mind: Jazz, Cheyenne, Roper, Thomas -- wonderful, working dogs, every one of them. I enjoy obedience competition, agility, tracking, etc. Someday I hope to get involved in Schutzhund training. And I take those events pretty seriously! But I cannot imagine that, for me, anything will ever equal the purely emotional rush or deep satisfaction of seeing a dog like Banner stride off into life with a thrilled owner riding proudly beside him. You hug him one last time, remind the owner for the zillionth time to be good to him (smack her over the head once or twice with her practice manual...), and then you swallow the huge lump in your throat, brush away your tears, and wave goodbye to "your" oh-so-special dog that has such a special job.
I think that probably SAR people feel similar things about their dogs, as do police officers, and many others whose dogs perform critical functions of life. But I can address only this one from personal perspective, and I wouldn't trade it for anything! Those of us who are up to our necks in canine trainees (or puppy raising!) may not have time to jump to contribute to cyber discussions as often as we would like, but I want to be sure to thank those of you in the meticulous breeding programs who are working for a strong, sound, discerning, balanced German Shepherd. You are the ones who are keeping the breed capable and ensuring that programs like ours will continue to have dogs we can use and trust. Amidst the (necessary) political debates, I think it's easy to lose sight of the practical objective of all the trials, competitions, surveys, and ratings -- which is to produce dogs that can and will put their body, mind, and soul into a job (where most will probably never earn a ribbon or complete a title). Even in Banner's case, though I cannot know the circumstances that caused him to be abandoned, he is very obviously not too far removed from a program where someone, somewhere knew what they were doing in their selective breeding program. If I had about 50 Banners, my life would be far less complicated!
Julie Wingate trains service dogs for a non-profit organization in the southeast. Her article originally appeared on the TGSD-L email list in response to queries about the variety of careers at which our working dogs excel.