What to look for when choosing a German Shepherd Dog

Working Dog Temperaments

There seems to be a very vague definition within dog sport as to exactly what constitutes strong working dog temperament. Is it the dog that demonstrates incredible intensity in the holding? Is it the dog that, on the courage test, runs at the helper with great speed and strikes with tremendous power? Perhaps it is the dog that bites the helper with an extremely hard, crushing bite. These are not necessarily skills. These are all examples of powerful instincts which are important and necessary components of working dog temperament.

The following is a list of the important instincts of the strong working dog:

A. Prey Instinct (Booty)

B. Active Aggression

C. Reactive Aggression

D. Social Aggression

E. Pack Instinct

Let us examine each instinct more carefully.

A. Prey Instinct (Booty)

Prey instinct (booty) is the genetically inherited desire in the dog to chase after and seize moving objects. This is the instinct most often understood and easily read. Prey instinct is one of the two most critical instincts necessary for excellent Schutzhund protection work. It motivates a dog to strike the helper with speed and power, and affords us as trainers a form of stress relief in all areas of training (tracking, obedience, protection).

B. Active Aggression (Fighting Drive)

Active aggression is an offensive aggression commonly referred to as “fighting drive.” It is the second critical instinct for excellent Schutzhund protection work. It is characterized by a dog that demonstrates explosive, rhythmic barking in the out and holding phase of the protection work. It enables the dog to be positively stimulated into the work by compulsion.

C. Reactive Aggression (Defense/Self-Preservation)

Reactive aggression is totally different than active aggression. It is not a critical instinct for Schutzhund training. It is characterized by a dog with a generally protective nature and is often linked to territoriality. Reactive aggression is commonly referred to as sharpness. It can act as a catalyst for the other protective drives (active aggression, booty, social aggression), and lends versatility for practical application for such jobs as police dog, personal protection dog, and/or guard duty.

However, reactive aggression must be delicately balanced in the dog’s temperament because it is comprised of both fight and flight instincts. Reactive aggression is only desirable if it is based on the fighting aspect with little or no trace of flight instinct being present.

D. Social Aggression. Social aggression is the dog’s desire to establish pack hierarchy (alpha/leader).

It is another instinct that is not critical for Schutzhund protection training. However, it is an instinct that can give the dog an added strength because it is not reactive aggression (defense/self-preservation) and, therefore, it does not have the potential disadvantage of flight behavior.Since social aggression has no flight counterpart, the dog does not perform under the same level of stress as in reactive aggression.

Social aggression is characterized by a dog that demonstrates a deep grumbling bark. This type of dog also generally expresses itself in a very dominant manner. Social aggression is almost exclusively a male characteristic. It can be the determining factor in a protection dog successfully facing a life of threatening situations (i.e., police dog, personal protection dog, military dog, etc.).

As breeders/trainers, we stress a mild level of social aggression because the potential drawback of an excessive level of social aggression is constant struggle for authority thereby hampering trainablility.

E. Pack Instinct Park. Instinct is the genetically inherited trait in the dog to socially interact and closely bond to its pack members (i.e., handler, family).

Pack instinct, although not critical for Schutzhund performance, is extremely advantageous, lending itself to high trainability. When in combination with social aggression, the advantage of social aggression is utilized while still lending the dog to a high level of trainability.

Although they are highly important components of excellent performance temperament, the instincts described above are not the true determining factors for strong temperament. Parallel to the aesthetically beautiful house with attractive components such as a lovely landscape, excellent interior design, and modern conveniences, it is the inner core of the dog, much like the strong foundation on which the house is built, that give both the dog and the house their true strength and value.

The Inner Core of The Strong Working Dog

The core of the strong working dog consists of these elements:

A. The Nervous System

B. Hardness

C. Irritability Threshold (Defense Threshold)

We must consider each of these in turn in order to understand how they supply and maintain the essential foundation for strength in the working dog.

A. The Nervous System

The nervous system is one of the two most critical components in the core of a truly strong working dog. It is the dog’s ability to generally accept all aspects of its environment without exhibiting signs of nervousness, fear, or flight. The general characteristics of a dog with a poor nervous system includes signs of nervousness when exposed to loud sounds (i.e., gunfire, thunderstorms, etc.), and/or showing nervousness or fear upon entering a strange environment (i.e. after shipping, at a strange training field, in a crowded room, etc.). By contrast the dog with a sound nervous system will accept all such and any other changes in its environment without negative effect.

B. Hardness

Hardness is the dog’s ability to recuperate from a disagreeable experience. Although the least critical of the three core traits, hardness is still a very desirable trait. Hardness allows the trainer to use the advantages of compulsion for precise competitive training without hindering the natural working spirit of the dog.

C. Irritability

Threshold (Defense Threshold). The irritability threshold is the amount of psychological stress (not physical stress) the dog can withstand while in the state of reactive aggression (defense) before exhibiting signs of conflict or flight behavior.

Conflict is the crossover stage between fight and flight behavior. The ordinary signs of conflict include:

  • Raising of hackles
  • Low tail carriage
  • Obvious high pitch tone of bark indicating stress
  • Any signs of withdrawal or retreat on the part of the dog

Irritability threshold is the most critical and least understood aspects of the dog’s temperament. It is very difficult to evaluate a dog’s threshold and normally it requires a skilled eye to make the correct evaluation. For a correct evaluation, the dog’s reactive aggression (defense) must be completely isolated, that is, no other instincts may be allowed to come into action (i.e., active aggression, prey).


Overall, remember that instincts are a very important aspect of the dog’s character, but only when supported by a strong inner core.

If in breeding a compromise must be made (as often it must since there are few perfect dogs), far better that one should compromise on the instincts as opposed to the core of the dog. Like the house with an excellent foundation, it can be easily redecorated and make “like new”, so too, the dog with an excellent core can be genetically enhanced by breeding to more highly instinct animals, provided they also have a good core, thereby producing versatile, all around strong working dogs.