• Keshia Sophia Roelofs

Things Only a German Shepherd Can Teach You

If ever there was a red flag pooch for a first-time dog parent, the German Shepherd is it. There's a reason these majestic beauties are the most beloved and abandoned: with great intelligence comes great anxiety. Turns out there is not much difference between GSDs and us human beings. They, too, anticipate to their detriment, feel sensitive to change, and have a stubborn streak. But what sets us apart is how we overcome. Kobe may have cost me my sanity, freedom, and home studio, but what he gave back is ultimately priceless. Here are some of the greatest lessons I have learned as a newbie German Shepherd mom.


Portrait of a German Shepherd puppy
Kobe at Fall ©Keshia Sophia Roelofs

Energy is Everything


And I'm not just talking about the reserves it takes to meet this working breed's needs. German Shepherds are incredibly sensitive to energy. If my anxiety is up or my mood is low, best believe Kobe is feeling it too. What's worse, he absorbs every inch of it. From the way I move to the tone of my voice, he picks up on it all and acts accordingly. They say the dog lead is a direct line from your emotions to your pooch, but sharing the same vicinity is more than enough. Recent findings show that a dog's hormones naturally synchronise with their owner's, making them extremely susceptible to our cortisol levels. It certainly puts a new twist on the old adage that a person not liked by a dog is not to be trusted.

Kobe has forced me to be mindful of energy levels far more than I ever have before. His responses are reflexive and honest without bias or judgement. Truly, nothing makes you more conscious of your immediate environment than a pacing, whining dog. He encourages me to witness the energy I put out into the world and be aware of how this may alter other states around me. With a lead in my hand, I have become more rooted in myself. It's a working progress but keeping in mind the type of energy I pour into any gesture or endeavour is an absolute game-changer. Negative, hostile energy can only manifest the same. The dog does not lie.



Body Language Speaks Louder Than Words


With a German Shepherd, you would be forgiven for believing all communication is verbal. Kobe has a whine for every inclination, whether its excitement, impateince, or absolute fear. It's been a pleasure deciphering which means what at any given time. The truth is for dogs the majority of communication is non-verbal. Their body language encompasses every fibre of their being, from the tip of their tail all the way to the position of their ears. If you pay close attention you will see every intention, whim, and feeling written into their movements. It's like a code to be deciphered but the cheat sheet is only a Google search away.


The best part is this flows both ways. Dogs may be able to learn up to 150 words, but human speech is not their first language. Throughout all his training, Kobe responds best to the gestures even though the corresponding words are very much part of his vocabulary (say "food" or "toy" at your own peril). And this goes beyond commands. A turn of the back and Kobe knows his behaviour isn't appropriate. A lowering of the hand palm up is our clear gesture of good faith which only ever means comfort and peace. Our subliminal movements are subject to scrutiny too. German Shepherds can detect 1/10 of a millimetre of movement, meaning that subtle tension in the hand can speak volumes. The point is, since Kobe is paying attention to my most off-hand gestures, I've become more conscious of how I choose to express myself especially in the height of emotion. It's an excellent way of helping me stay grounded in the present while keeping my impulsive reactions in check.


For more information on reading doggy body language, this article by Outward Dog is a good place to start.



Three portraits of German Shepherd puppy
Portraits of Kobe ©Keshia Sophia Roelofs

The Present is a Magical Place to Be


Dog's have a sense of time but not in abstract terms. For Kobe, the day most certainly passes but as for spending long hours reflecting on past regrets or stressing about future plans, not so much. He lives always in the present, dictated by his internal clock and directed by what feels good in the moment. Sure he wisens to certain periods of the day, but only because habit has taught him so. There is no guilt for the accident that happened an hour ago, and his anticipation of the future comes only from immediate signs of change. Picking up the keys or shutting down the laptop is what tells Kobe that things are going to get awesome. His responses and triggers are merely habitual reflexes established over repetition.

Dogs cognitive understanding of the world around them is equal to a two-year-old human's. It's not all raw instinct, but it's not overcomplicated. What happens in the present is what dictates your furry companion's future. This is why positive reinforcement training is an essential tool for shaping your German Shepherd into a calm, confident, non-reactive dog. How we humans see the future is no different; it's our well-developed (perhaps over-developed) minds that make it so overwhelming. Much like dogs, most of our feelings today are a direct result of our past experiences, which many of us are still rooted in. As I am working my way through my own traumas, Kobe reminds me that it is what I do in this very moment that matters most. And his absolute relish in a fresh smell or a new sound is a wonderful testament to the magic to be found if we stay in the now. Every second is an opportunity. You only need an hour in a dog's company to realise how very true this is.



Mistakes Happen But It's How You Fix Them that Counts


Mistakes are inevitable, but not somewhere we should live. Once done, they are committed to the past, and we can either rehash them to our detriment, deny them at our risk, or own them. As a new German Shepherd owner, I have made my fair share of mistakes. And many of them were due to poor judgement, bad advice, and unfounded preconceptions. Once you become a dog parent or a parent in general, you will see that everyone has their fail-safe approach; their absolute recipe for success. My partner and I tried every training technique, but at the end of the day, Kobe is his own entity. Some things worked, some didn't, and some steps took us further back than we could have imagined.


Through it all, Kobe forgave. He stayed present. And while certain things were out of our hands, in many other instances, we dropped the ball. But it was beating ourselves up about it and focusing on the negatives that took us down a hopeless road. We would never abandon Kobe, but we came close to giving up. What changed? Kobe never gave up on us. Sure we are the only family he has in the world, but his ability to trust in us enough to try again is something that will always stay with me. Everyone deserves a chance to do better. We needed to make the mistakes that we did to realise what works for all three of us. Kobe has a long road ahead of him, especially for a German Shepherd, but my partner and I are stronger now because of the mistakes that we made.



You Can and You Will


There are many days I wake up and simply do not want to. I don't want to go play; I don't want to train; I just want the sweet comfort of an already-warmed duvet. It's called being human, and it's an inescapable condition of our existence. The thing is, Kobe doesn't speak my language, and even he did have all 150 words in the bag, he still couldn't understand the motivational lack. He lives in the present, remember. Inevitably I must do the very thing I don't feel pushed to do because Kobe is reliant on me to meet his needs. If he could, I have no doubt he would feed himself, take a leisurely stroll, and nourish his mind in all the ways I would really prefer that he didn't. But I made a decision to bring him into my world, so it falls on me to enrich his.

It turns out, even if my mind is saying absolutely not, I most certainly can. There are, of course, genuine burnout moments, and those must always be honoured. But for the most part, outside of privilege and means, motivation is a decision. No one has it in abundance. Pursuit is a choice regardless of how naturally gifted we are at something. Even top athletes wrestle with their bedsheets and the lure of Netflix. Whether you move or not, the world still turns, and time ticks on. Our time is finite. Every minute is an investment in ourselves. We can't save them for tomorrow. I have learned many times that the easier path is not always the most fulfilling. After 5 minutes of fresh air with Kobe's silly smile plastered on his face, eyes looking at me in pure joy, I promise that duvet is long forgotten.



We All Need a Decompression Walk


If you are doing it right, puppy burnout is very real. Dog owner exhaustion levels are up there with new parents; it's a lot of attentiveness, guidance, worry, and responsibility that can sometimes feel thankless. We may only have a short period of youth to contend with in comparison to a child, but our little bundle of joy is a potential biting liability. With German Shepherds, the pressure is on to conform them into obedient, quiet, approachable pets in a very short period of time. Even as a puppy, the odds are stacked against Kobe by virtue of his sheer size and the stigma of his breed. Kobe isn't afforded the luxury of being able to freely run or bark in public the way a smaller dog is (and does to everyone's annoyance). A German Shepherd nip may not pack the same punch as a Mastiff, but a 238-pound bite force is nothing to snuff at. Even an excited bark from Kobe is enough to have parents fleeing for the hills. We understand.

Living in the city, Kobe is under strict rules - far stricter than a Labrador or Pug will ever have to deal with - which is unfortunate because most of Kobe's reactivity stems from 'friendly' dogs having zero training but ample freedom. So what do we do to let off steam and recharge? A decompression walk. We pop on our wellies in the middle of nowhere, put Kobe on the long leash, and let him sniff and bound with no restrictions. It's the best way of keeping his mental health in check because every dog deserves to be a dog, if even for a small window. Just like every once in a while, a person needs the freedom to exist without expectations, worries, or demands. Getting out into nature, and giving yourself permission to play, run, twirl, frolic is necessary. And even better, it works.



German Shepherd in the woods
Walking with Kobe ©Keshia Sophia Roelofs

Boundaries are Healthy


Establishing boundaries is the number-one way to lead a happy, harmonious relationship with your dog. And it's the only way to manage poor behaviours, which is why dominance theory is quickly being debunked and thrown out. Turns out, your pooch is very aware that you are not of the same species and in no way feels the need to battle you for the alpha role. However, it doesn't mean your dog won't take advantage if no boundaries are put in place. German Shepherds respond best to a clear leader: it's in the very makeup of their breed. They're built to take direction and herd accordingly hence their cute head-tilts, intense eye contact, and ongoing vocalisations. They believe in strong communication and respond best when you give it.

The most effective form of communication? Boundaries. Without them, you get a spoiled dog with selective hearing and an attitude problem. Kobe has a wonderfully playful personality, but he needs strong leadership. Give him a little slack, and he will barrel through you because, well, he is clumsy, but also he is assertive. The mistake that people make is thinking that leadership involves a heavy hand. It doesn't. Even in packs, dogs respond best to the calmer presence that communicates consistently and clearly no matter the circumstances. But even on the human side, we respond best to it too. There's nothing more calming than being given clear direction and openness from another person. Because that's all boundaries are: terms for harmonious living that doesn't compromise either side's emotional or physical needs. You may not be able to use a crate for that toxic figure in your life, but a consistent no can be just as effective. It just takes your permission and practice.



Above All: Celebrate the Little Victories


Life is unpredictable, ever-changing, and subjective. Society has written plenty of handbooks for success, but they don't work for everyone. There is no first place which is why you must celebrate even the smallest victories. We have been training Kobe since he is two months old, and every command and trick has started off with one small step and one overenthusiastic marking. The only way to keep him motivated to proceed to the next step with no concept of the end product is to e every tiny triumph. And honestly, it feels good doing it.

I used to look at dogs playing 'dead' or barking on command the way a child must look at a magician until I got Kobe doing the very same things. There is no hack, just dedication every day and working together. The same goes for my partner and I. On the days when we feel unable or defeated or just tired, that shared celebration is all the reminder we need that we have got this. And yes, we looked crazy when Kobe finally pooped in public for the first time or when he looked at a dog and didn't bark. But that cheering and showering of treats in the present are what shapes Kobe tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that.


Life is not complicated, but it can be tough. Owning a German Shepherd isn't half as cool as it looks online. It's exhausting, hard, and comes with so much sacrifice. My studio is now Kobe's designated room. His reactivity means no walking or sitting in any public areas where dogs may roam, and separation anxiety keeps date nights and gym sessions roughly to a zero. We have given a lot, and in some ways, sure, we have lost a lot. But the lessons we have learned are second to none.


We have learned to embrace the present moment, forgive our imperfections, and accept that mistakes happen. That even when we feel we don't have the motivation in us, we do. That life and love are so much easier when you communicate clearly. We have learned that there is co-existence in boundaries and comfort in the smallest of gestures. Our energy has power, and there is no experience that doesn't have value in it. Kobe may be growing at a rapid speed, but you can be sure we are growing alongside him, becoming better people in the process.