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Hunting is both a necessity in many places and a popular pastime for a lot of outdoor enthusiasts. Dogs are often also associated with the hunting lifestyle, with many dog breeds being developed over the centuries to specialize in hunting specific game.
While most hunters would choose one of the traditional hunting breeds, there are some more casual hunters who may be wondering if their non-traditional breed of dog may make a good hunting dog.
One of the most popular breeds of dog in the world, the German Shepherd, is one of the more likely non-traditional dog breeds that might be a candidate for use as a hunting dog. But can German Shepherds be hunting dogs?
German Shepherds share several traits with hunting dogs, including their high intelligence and trainability. They aren’t the best choice as hunting dogs because much of what is involved in tracking and hunting game does not come naturally to them, and it is usually not worth it to try and train a German Shepherd to hunt.
Below we’ll look at what makes a good hunting dog, and the specific characteristics that could allow a German Shepherd to be a good hunting dog. We’ll also discuss what traits German Shepherds have that could negatively impact their use as hunting dogs and possible training plans and alternative activities that might be better suited for German Shepherds.
What Makes A Good Hunting Dog?
Dogs have been used to aid in hunts since the time of our ancestors, and over the years specific breeds of hunting dogs have been developed that are specialized to certain prey animals or environments.
Hunting dogs include breeds from the sighthound group, the hound group, the retriever group, and even the terrier group. These breeds include the Labrador Retriever, the English Pointer, and the Irish Wolfhound.
While their sizes, temperaments, and prey animals may vary, all hunting breeds share two important traits: high prey drive and strong work ethic.
These dogs can stick to their task for hours on end, and there’s very little that can cause them to stray from their job. They tend to have a good amount of endurance, and many have been bred to work in packs rather than as individuals.
Many hunting dogs do make good family pets; however, they also tend to be fairly independent and can be trusted to be away from their owners for a good bit while working or even just relaxing at home.
Are German Shepherds Used As Hunting Dogs?
Because there are so many other dog breeds that exist for hunting specific animals, German Shepherds are not generally considered a good choice for use as a hunting dog.
German Shepherds, which are part of the herding and working groups, do meet certain trait requirements that good hunting dogs have. However, when someone is searching for a hunting dog, it’s unlikely they would choose a German Shepherd over, say, a Springer Spaniel or a Beagle. The exception to this is if someone already has a German Shepherd and is just interested in occasionally hunting for sport or they just want a companion while out on a hunt.
German Shepherds who are used as hunting dogs would likely do best with large game such as deer which are fairly easy for a lot of dogs to track and don’t pose a huge threat to the dog outside of rutting season and when a fawn is present.
They’d also likely do OK with game such as squirrel, raccoon, or opossum as those are also smaller and easier to track, and a German Shepherd is likely still able to keep up with them and corner them until the hunter arrives.
They would probably not do very well with birds and waterfowl, or larger game such as elk, moose, and bear. German Shepherds aren’t quick enough in water to flush birds out and they do not have as soft a mouth as many retrievers do.
For large game, the risk of your German Shepherd becoming injured is too high, and many of those game species require a lot of time and effort to track them down which can become tiresome for a German Shepherd who would rather be with his owner.
The role of a German Shepherd as a hunting dog is far more likely to be one of companionship and protection rather than being actively used to seek out prey, though.
It would also take much longer to train a German Shepherd to hunt something than it would a breed whose sole purpose is to hunt, and the time, effort, money, and energy required is likely too much for most hunters to consider the German Shepherd as their hunting breed of choice.
What Makes A German Shepherd A Good Hunting Dog?
German Shepherds do have the potential to be good hunting dogs, for some of the following reasons:
#1: They Are Intelligent
Hunting dogs require a certain level of intelligence to help them problem solve and navigate their surroundings as they track their objective. They often have to act quickly based on the direction of their prey.
While some breeds of hunting dogs are more focused on their nose rather than their brains (I have heard horror stories from local hunters whose coonhounds followed their prey right off the edge of a cliff), in general, they are considered a smart group of dogs.
The German Shepherd, as one of the most intelligent dog breeds, would probably outwit his fellow hunting breeds…not to mention the game he is tracking! This high intelligence makes the German Shepherd suitable as a hunting dog, though it might not be enough to make them a successful hunting dog.
#2: They Are Easy To Train
German Shepherds also have a reputation for being easy to train. This means that even though it might take longer to train them to be hunting dogs, they are likely to understand the process and adapt to the training as they go.
While many hunting breeds are intelligent, they can also be quite stubborn and it can be difficult to train them (especially if they have a higher prey drive or energy level, which many hunting breeds do).
So a German Shepherd might be a good choice if you want to have a hunting dog who is intelligent AND easy to train (even if that training might take a little longer than it would if they instinctively wanted to hunt your game of choice).
#3: They Are Confident
Depending on the game they are tracking, hunting dogs must also be brave and confident. Certain terrains, such as very mountainous regions or areas in which there is water present, also require a high degree of confidence in order to navigate safely and quickly.
If a hunting dog hesitates at any point, they may lose their objective. German Shepherds are known to be very confident dogs (which is one of the many reasons police use them), so there is a high likelihood that they could act without hesitation in the pursuit of their prey.
Coupled with their intelligence, German Shepherds would be able to problem solve quickly, even while on the move. Their larger size and scary bark also make them more intimidating to potential predators they may encounter out in the field, and their bite can be just as scary as their bark!
#4: They Are Athletic
One of the key characteristics of a good hunting dog is their athleticism and endurance. The German Shepherd, despite their larger size, is a prime athlete. There’s a reason why they are often utilized by military forces, police, search & rescue operations, and appear in almost every dog sport there is!
With proper conditioning, a German Shepherd can handle extreme terrain, and weather conditions, and can keep up with the best of them when it comes to endurance.
#5: They Are Good At Tracking
In order for a hunting dog to actually be a GOOD hunting dog, they have to have good tracking skills and be willing to stick to the trail in order to find their objective.
German Shepherds have excellent tracking abilities, and their work ethic and willingness to please their owners is top notch. They are likely to stick to a scent trail for as long as is necessary under the guidance of their owner.
What Are German Shepherds Lacking When It Comes To Hunting?
While the German Shepherd has some great characteristics that make them more likely to succeed as a hunting dog, they also have some traits that could contribute to problems in the training and hunting process.
#1: They Don’t Like Being Away From Their Owners
One of the not-so-great reputations the German Shepherds have is how prone they can be to separation anxiety. Shepherds, while they get along with most people when well-socialized, tend to bond more closely with one person.
For a hunter, they require a loyal dog but an independent one that can be trusted to do their job without much input or guidance from their owner. As a German Shepherd is not traditionally bred for hunting, they’ll require a significant amount of instruction from their owner in order to do the job properly.
They may also have issues being away from their owner while on the hunt if they track further ahead than where their owner is currently located. While some German Shepherds can check in with their owner and then immediately find the scent trail again (such as what is commonly done in search and rescue operations), for many the constant movement of the game means there is a higher risk of losing the trail if the dog must return and check in with their owner.
#2: Their Prey Drive Is Not As High As Most Hunting Breeds
While German Shepherds can have a high prey drive, it’s generally nowhere near as high as that of a dog bred exclusively for hunting game.
Hunting breeds (especially those bred for specific types of game or fowl) will instinctively show an interest when encountering the scent or visual location of their prey. So much so that it can cause issues when out in the general public!
For German Shepherds, while they can be taught to track certain scents, it’s unlikely they’ll have the same interest in those smells, even with consistent training and rewards for locating the object at the end of the scent trail.
#3: Their Coat Can Cause Issues In Certain Environments
German Shepherds have three different coat types: stock (smooth) coat, plush coat, and long coat. While those with a stock coat are generally bred for work of all kinds, Shepherds with plush coats or long coats may have a tough time hunting in certain terrain and weather conditions.
Their coats are not the best for areas where there is a lot of humidity and water environments, and in high-heat environments, the dogs could become overheated very quickly.
Many traditional hunting breeds have short coats or wirehair, with many breeds having specialized coats and physical traits that are suited for hunting specific game in specific environments.
German Shepherds are also known for shedding heavily and require more thorough grooming than a traditional hunting dog breed.
#4: They Can Bite Too Hard
Many hunting dog breeds, such as the Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever, have what are called “soft mouths”. While some of this is developed throughout their critical socialization period as puppies, many of these dogs have an inherently softer mouth than other breeds.
This allows them to carry waterfowl, rabbits, or other game without damaging the animal. Sometimes their mouth is so soft they can even carry chicken eggs around without cracking them!
But German Shepherds are not known for having a soft mouth, and in fact, many German Shepherd puppies are notorious for being very mouthy (and not in a good way!).
While bite inhibition and softness can come with socialization and training, it can be difficult (if not impossible) for German Shepherds to have the same level of softness that traditional hunting breeds may have, and it’s likely that they will always have a harder mouth and grip that could potentially damage the hunter’s prey.
#5: They Might Be Too Large
While some larger hunting breeds exist (such as the Irish Wolfhound, Karelian Bear Dog, or the Bloodhound), most hunting breeds are small to medium-sized dogs that tend to be lanky, quick, and full of muscle. Much of their size is relative to what type of game they are hunting.
Terriers tend to be smaller as they were often used as ratters, whereas breeds like the Greyhound or English Foxhound tend to be longer and lankier which adds to their speed and their ability to quickly navigate through brush and tree cover.
German Shepherds, while they are muscular and athletic, tend to be of a size that is not conducive to a lot of typical hunting environments. They may not be able to squeeze into the places a smaller hunting breed could, or they could get hung up on tree branches that a lither hunting breed could easily get through.
On the other side of things, their large size might not be enough to tackle larger sized game like bears, cougars, or moose. That type of game is generally for hunting breeds like wolfhounds or a pack of coonhounds rather than a single hunting dog.
Can I Train My German Shepherd To Be A Hunting Dog?
It is possible to train your German Shepherd to be a hunting dog, however, they must also show some natural propensity towards tracking and hunting if you want them to be a successful hunting dog.
It’s best to start them from the age of a puppy, and you would follow training programs similar to other hunting dogs. While many sportdog and gundog programs are punishment-based, there is a growing movement for more reward-based sportdog training, and that type of training is best for German Shepherds.
You would want to focus on teaching them to track a certain scent for whatever game you are interested in finding. As the German Shepherd is not traditionally used for hunting and it will take them a long time to complete the training process in comparison to a hunting breed, it’s best if you only choose one species of game rather than multiple ones.
There are many sporting good stores that sell artificial and real scents for various game animals. You can use these scents to help associate the animal to your pup and reward them heavily whenever they show interest in an object that is coated in this scent. From there, you’d work on hiding objects with that scent and encourage your dog to find them.
Transitioning to tracking a real animal can take quite a while, and unless you are already an experienced hunter it’s best if you locate a mentor who can help you in this area (again, look for those who utilize reward-based methods rather than forceful methods).
If you are using a gun in your hunting, you must also put your German Shepherd through gun training to desensitize them to the sound of the gun. Dogs in general don’t understand guns or other weapons, so you must also take care to teach your dog how to act appropriately when out in the field where weapons are present.
German Shepherds do best with ground tracking and air scent, and you’ll want to practice frequently in various environments to help your dog understand how scent flows around the terrain and during different weather conditions.
While it is possible to train your German Shepherd to be a hunting dog, it will likely take more energy, effort, time, and money that might not make it worth it when compared to getting a dog breed that is specifically bred for hunting.
There are other activities you can do with your German Shepherd, though, such as antler shed hunting or even just hiking through the wilderness. Getting involved in search and rescue might be another good option as those activities are usually more manageable for the German Shepherd and align more with their breed traits than hunting game does.
While they share some characteristics such as athleticism, intelligence, and trainability with traditional hunting breeds, the German Shepherd is not really a good choice for use as a hunting dog.
While they can be taught to hunt certain animals, they don’t generally have the same high prey drive as a typical hunting breed, and their large size and dependence on their owners can impact their tracking skills.
There are many other outdoor activities you can do with your German Shepherd, though! Hiking, shed hunting, search and rescue, and other similar dog sports are all good options for fun things to do with your pup.