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"What makes a German Shepherd Dog Tick?"

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

"What makes a German Shepherd dog tick?" Why does it do the things it does? The whole reason for this can be read in the book, “Who’s the Boss”? And the sequel “Are you still the Boss?” This is a very simplified version. Think about the dog of yesteryear. The wild dog. The Wolf, The Dingo, and all other species of dogs which have been around for a great many thousands of years.

How did they survive?

What are their Natural Instincts?

How do they use them?

How do they compare with the dog of today?

Let’s talk about those Instincts.


How does a dog see?

Does it ever have to wear classes?

What does it see when it’s using its eyes?

Does its vision differ to ours?

Remember the German Shepherd normally has very pricked ears. Do they play a part in its vision? The answer very briefly is Yes. Most dog have centre Vision (Particularly the dog with pricked ears) where when looking straight ahead it can still see out to the side further than we can. Spread your arms sideways, and this is approximately the width of your Shepherd's centre vision.

Now spread your hands upwards and backwards, and this is approximately the height your dog can see at any one time.

Without going into Medical details, German Shepherds particularly see better at night than we do, and anything that moves quicker and better than we. However if an object stands still, the dog doesn’t always see it as well as we do. This heightened vision (eyes) is part of understanding the dog and what makes him tick. Why do we continually stretch our hands above our heads to call a dog to come to us? Particularly if it’s only a few meters away. The further distance, the higher you can put your arms. Think about it next time you recall. It doesn’t really have any perception of height or depth. Always be aware of this. A dog on a roof is quite likely to jump off. It sees the ground, but doesn’t realise just how far away it really is. Having said that, the dog is smart and only occasionally gets hurt because of a miscalculation.


Does the dog hear better than we do. Briefly YES. A Shepherds hearing is more acute and is about 7 times greater than ours. It can pick up sounds that are not available to our ears. High pitched sounds, some specific low sounds and sounds made often kilometres away. This makes and keeps him very alert. I believe much of his hearing is in an echo status, especially words we use. I have no scientific proof of this but after years of working many different breeds of dogs, and the Shepherd in particular, this is my belief. We verbalise with the dog - that is our communication network. Dog’s can understand words if we use them clearly, distinctly and use a hand signal to suit the word. Of course for the dog to learn the word, we must be consistent, and use it constantly until we know the dog really understands what we mean. See “Who’s the Boss”? book.


Dogs scenting capabilities are greatly different to ours. It has been said as many as 100,000 times better than ours. All I know is the ground it walks on is like a smorgasbord, and when you wet its nose, it scents even better. Wetting opens up its capillaries. Little hairs in your Shepherds nose. This is really its communication antennae, and it tells the dog everything it needs to know about humans, friend or foe, other animals, male or female, where it is, and what is happening around it. You never teach a dog how to scent, but you can teach it what you want it to scent.

A good handler does very well using this particular trait. However you need to understand it.

This is the communication area which makes the great Drug Dog, Custom Dog, Tracking Dog, Search & Rescue Dog and others. So many Shepherds are used in these areas in all parts of the world.

When other senses are dulled for some reason, medical or otherwise, its touch senses chip in. You can teach a Blind dog, a Deaf Dog or a dog with other disabilities, by Touch. Touch, speak and guide, and all will be well. Be aware a dogs whiskers are his touch antennae. He can tell so much about his environment by using these whiskers. Note the whiskers around your Shepherds nose. They are super sensitive. His skin is also very sensitive, and particular areas – such as his ears, the base of his tail under the arm pits and in the groin area are also super sensitive for him. Sometimes just a touch from us in one of these areas can give him so much pleasure and direction. Great Praise areas.


A dog has considerably less taste buds than we have. His taste buds allow him to differentiate between things it knows it can eat, and in most cases things it shouldn’t eat. He is psychologically different to us, and many things that are palliative to the human, can either make the dog very ill or even kill it. Again in “Are you still the Boss?” book things that are dangerous to the dog are listed. Of course there are many others. Chocolate, Some nuts, Avocado (and yet I have seen some dogs pull them off trees and eat them with no ill effect.) The simple raisin/sultana. ( It has been known for as few as 7 have killed a dog.)


Dogs are born understanding this in its litter mates, mother, father and other animals. It reads the human body language very well, but still we don’t understand the importance that this very elemental part of us and the dog means. There are so many calming signals the dog gives to other dogs to defray a potential danger. These are the same calming signals we can give to the dog, but we don’t. Because we don’t know them. They are all listed in the “Are you still the Boss”? Book, so I am not going into them here.

This body language for the dog plays a great part in showing what it is feeling. Your Shepherd needs to display all the body language to show for instance Aggression. The Hair stands up on its back, ears either go on full alert, bend backwards (if fearful) tail will stand high or in between its legs (fear), Legs will brace, lips draw back teeth shown, all these are there to display just what the dog is feeling. You as the human have to learn to read these signs, sometimes just altering one of the indications being given, will alter the dogs intentions. Usually, it needs his full display to be on display before it will attack.

There are about 15 different types of aggression. Again, they are all described in the book “Are you still the Boss”? and as a Shepherd owner you should be aware of the difference of each type of aggression on display, and how to treat them on an individual basis.

The end of your dogs tail (the very tip of bone there) is full of endorphins, and should your dog be hurt, you can rub this tip and the endorphins release a form of morphine, and this assists the dog when it needs it most. Another reason why docking is not great for the dog. He still feels he has a tail, and it is this tail that acts like a rudder. It gives the dog the direction it requires. Fortunately Shepherd tails have never been docked unless for Medical/health reasons.

The things I have listed here in this shortened version of Understanding the dog and what makes it tick, are just that. Very shortened.

PACK STRUCTURE: (Pecking order).

Shepherds need and want a Leader. There is always the hierarchy in every pack, and the dogs react to this. It gives them purpose and order They know where they stand, and are happy in this environment. Living in a family of humans, they still require this hierarchy, They need and want a Leader. Be consistent, Constant, Calm, Confident and you will have the Control you require to have a great family pet. Be a good Leader, NOT an overbearing Boss. (read Who’s the Boss”?)


As an owner/handler of the dog you need to become fully aware of these instincts. Unfortunately over many years of breeding which people have done to alter the look of the dog, they have altered the dogs features, shorter noses, floppy ears, docked tails, broader or narrower faces, we have altered the outline enough to minimise some of the senses the dog has. However, we have not obliterated them. They still have the 5 most important senses they originally came with.


A dog learns by repetition, by making sure it understands what you are trying to teach BEFORE you move onto something else. Break down the thing/exercises you want to teach into smaller parts. Teach each part separately and thoroughly, and then once you feel the dogs knows them, put them together. Don’t overate the dog’s intelligence, but try not to underrate it either. A Shepherd has the Intelligence of about the average 2 to 3 year old child. It is a creature of habit and routine. The more consistent the routine/boundary given the better the dog will respond. Again another huge subject.

Every Breed is different, and every dog within the breed is different. You can own 4 dogs of the same breed, and you have to try and understand each one on an individual basis. You may have to train them differently. Their temperaments may be different Temperament comes initially from the parents of the dog (its breeding). The dog’s disposition comes from how it is treated . Even the best temperament can be destroyed, by bad upbringing (disposition).

The disposition of the Shepherd can be changed. For good or Bad. The temperament is much more difficult as it is usually genetic. A genetically unsound dog, (bad temperament,) is most time s an unsolvable problem, and may need to be put quietly to sleep.

We have to read and understand, what is temperament and what is disposition. A whole book on its own.

A Shepherd is the best companion you can ever have, but you must learn to understand it to be able to bring all it has to give you to the front. I guess it’s like being married. If you don’t take the time to understand your partner, then you will eventually finish up severing your relationship.

This happens so often with dog and family. Family can’t handle what they have, so they get rid of the dog. So sad.

There is so much to be discussed here, but this is a brief outline and so I will leave it here.

If you require to know more then please get a copy of the two books “Are you still the Boss?” and “Who’s the Boss”? These books are two of the best Educational Tools available to the average dog owner.


Val Bonney (Canine behavioural specialist/International Trainer/Author/Judge)

Peter Bonney & Val Bonney
Val Bonney and Peter Bonney

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